Biosolids on the conveyor at Brightwater

Biosolids on the conveyor at Brightwater

When was the last time you flushed a toilet and wondered where the contents went? We don’t give much thought to the massive network of pipes beneath our cities unless something goes wrong: a sink gets clogged, water seeps from a crack in the asphalt or a fire hydrant sprays out of control to the delight of children in the summer.

For that matter, when was the last time you considered your human plumbing? How many times have you played Russian roulette with wine or spicy food at dinner wondering if it would come bubbling up around midnight? How often do you eat or drink without pausing to respect the complex digestion process happening inside? Even when expelling waste –the one time that we’re faced with irrefutable evidence of this process– we distract ourselves with newspapers and magazines, or more frequently these days, a cell phone. (Ew.)

Even more difficult to fund than mass transit, it’s hard to prioritize infrastructure like sewer systems or wastewater treatment plants (or our digestive tracts) until they send us to a professional for help. Unless there’s a problem, the corroded pipes look like the brand new ones from the street level: invisible. Who wants to spend money on things we can’t see? Mayors cross their fingers that city infrastructure will hold until they’re out of office. All it takes is delayed repair or untimely disfunction –we don’t have clean tap water to drink or shower with, or to flush a toilet– for these systems to become extremely important and obvious. Like the time I ate bad salmon crudo in Venice, it isn’t until disaster strikes that we appreciate everything that our plumbing does for us when it’s working right.

After spending our Leadership Tomorrow Environment Challenge Day at Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant, where we were reminded many times of how massive our hidden infrastructure is, I stepped back to consider things from a systems perspective. We talk a lot in LT about bridging silos and boundaries in order to understand the challenges that our region faces, but ultimately it comes back to understanding infrastructure of all kinds — what frameworks exist, how parts are connected, how each of us contributes to the overall system and how we as a community are responsible for maintaining, upgrading and replacing our networks over time.

As my recent posts suggest, I’ve also been thinking about infrastructure in the sense of friendships and what it takes to support one’s network so that it can be relied upon for support when needed. It so happens that my friend, Sean, had a big hand in bringing Brightwater to life, truly a major effort of his architectural career. Throughout the campus, I felt a sense of pride in his work and, if it’s possible, a fuzzy, warm feeling about the place, which I marketed for years while Sean and I were co-workers. While the function and the mission of Brightwater came about in no small part from King County’s vision and key staff like project manager Michael Popiwny, it also exemplifies principles that Sean models in his own life: sustainable leadership, resource conservation and an appreciation for beauty, art and science.

With that last note on science and technology, it is impossible to ignore the purpose of Brightwater. No pulling out a newspaper or a magazine to distract ourselves here, folks — this is a place to filter, process, package and release SHIT as well as treated water. It doesn’t get more elemental than this. Naturally, the most popular sight (and smell) on the tour was the biosolids room. Inside, machines add a thickener to the reclaimed poop as it scoots down the belt in an oversized version of Lucille Ball’s candy conveyor, which made all of us think twice about how those solids got there in the first place. We tittered like school children when our guide said that they actually were hoping for more volume, encouraging us to do our part.

After the solids are thickened, they undergo a process that ultimately yields a dried fertilizer called Loop that is sold to farmers to enrich the fields of Eastern Washington. We learned that most treatment plants actually pay to bury their waste in landfills rather than reusing what is a nourishing medium for agriculture; Brightwater is one of few plants nationwide that puts its end products to use. Similarly, the treated water, which passes through a micro membrane filtration system at the final state of treatment, comes out colorless and clean, ready for use. Brightwater is hoping to secure a contract with Willows Run Golf Course to use the treated water, which will lessen the golf course’s demand on a nearby watershed, thus increasing the health of salmon and related habitat. Still, more can be done with the treated water they produce, as proven by the thriving demonstration garden powered by nutrient-enriched liquor. All they need is more subscribers.

When someone asked if I showered immediately upon arriving home, having stood in a room filled with other people’s waste, my first thought was (ironically), Aw, crap… Still, it wasn’t the first time I’ve been surrounded in that manner. After all, what about the ever-present emotional shit that we wade through, if in less obvious ways — feelings that emanate from ourselves and others, which we can’t see but know run deep — the by-products of daily life? These, too, can be transformed into a fertile growing medium for new thoughts and actions, if we choose to process rather than bury them. Like Loop, this takes investment and work.

Emotional shit and real shit, these are difficult things to daylight. As animals, we keep our constitutional activities and our deep emotions private, particularly when things aren’t going well. How many times are you asked the same empty question in a day (“How are you?”) that you respond to in an equally empty way (“Fine, and you?”) This is why friendships are so important, perhaps even more important than familial relationships in some ways. For most of us, there is a very short list of people with whom we disclose our emotional shit, and they don’t necessary share a gene pool with us. That said, if our personal infrastructure isn’t ready to handle the load, the processing of emotional by-products can bring these delicate systems down.

A few months ago, not aware that I was testing the limits of a new friendship, I let fly some unfiltered angst at dinner one evening that overloaded the capacity. (Red wine makes us all emotionally slutty, doesn’t it?) At that point, I was knee-deep, having spent most of the fall sifting through the solids of mid-life transition, much to the patience of those closest to me. Still, it was only upon bidding farewell to Kim and Angela that I realized how much processing my close friends and I have done over the last decade. That’s the benefit of maintaining systems once they’re established: the lines of deep friendships bring a grander capacity than most.

In my enthusiasm for new people, I forget that not all friendships are built this way, nor do they mature at the pace they did when we were young. Balancing pragmatism and caution, it feels like we’re dating when we make new adult friendships; we try not to scare off the other party, restraining the flow of personal information or emotion at first, lest we infringe upon others with our vulnerability or desire for commitment. No one likes a deluge at the start of a journey.

This is my way of thanking those who have become part of my infrastructure, and allowed me to become part of theirs. Though the stream lessens at times, it’s not like the shit we go through as humans will ever stop completely. That said, I’m glad that it has a place to go, that we can mine the interesting parts together and transform them into something useful. Neatly repackaged, these end-products infuse life with richness that it didn’t possess before. Sometimes, the shit actually ends up making life worth living, especially when it brings us closer together.

In life, the results of all this processing are resilience, wisdom and fodder for inside jokes. At Brightwater, they are nitrogen and phosphorus-rich water and soil amendments. As they leave the site, the ventilated air, filtered water and fresh fertilizer are blessed by a series of artworks. As the water leaves the site, it passes over a set of steps that read, No beginning, no end, circle the earth, blessed water, blood of life.


Water is blessed before it leaves the site

Water is blessed before it leaves the site

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PS If you haven’t been to Brightwater, please make a point of going. Not only should you as a contributor and consumer know what happens to your own waste, it’s downright fascinating. If you feel the need to explain your visit in non-excremental terms, you can say that you’re interested in the public art located throughout campus, however, I promise that you will come for the poop and stay for the poop.

The Lost Years

Stranded on the side of the road in the Palouse

Over the past eight months, I’ve heard Tom Kundig reference a period of his life called “The Lost Years” quite often. He spent much of that decade exploring the outdoors, deepening his skills as a climber and skier, unsure of how far he’d go as an architect or if that was even the direction he would ultimately pursue as a career.

Though his father, Moritz, was an architect whose friends included a circle of accomplished artists and craftspeople that Tom grew up with, he felt compelled to define his own path. Rather than accepting this heritage as a birthright, as some might have, Tom questioned it. He felt so drawn to science and tectonics that he needed to test himself — to arrive at architecture on his own in order to know that this was really where he was meant to be.

When Tom discusses his work today, he talks about built structures as frames for nature. At his UW lecture last Monday, he moved his pointer around the screen, which depicted an idyllic wintery scene from Mazama, Washington, noting that, “This is why you come out here,” before circling the award-winning cabin that he designed, “not this.”

After hearing his personal story, I realized that Tom and I have much in common, in addition to the strong influence that Astra Zarina and Omer Mithun had on our lives. He mentioned that, though he became a registered architect at 24, he didn’t feel like that he was “practicing architecture” until he was 36. 

Having finished my first book at 36 after moving towards and away from writing several times, I feel the same. 

Tom’s “Lost Years” remind me of my own early wanderings, wavering this way and that between science and writing, real estate development and design, travel and language — the whole time questioning where I wanted to –or thought I could– take it.

Looking back, these meanderings were essential to becoming the practitioners we are today — as was our self-doubt and even the resistance we placed in our own paths. In rare moments, I wonder if those winding roads were necessary — they make me feel somehow behind

When those thoughts arise, I remind myself that all anyone can do is shape the future, not lament the past, which –for better or worse– has brought us successfully to the present. Even those choices that we might not make again or the extra twists and turns have contributed some richness to the tapestry.

This morning, as I reflected on the phrase “The Lost Years,” I diagrammed the eras of my own life, surprised that they did indeed form measurable periods held in common by distinct themes. After my own “Lost Years,” which spanned over a decade, there have been two distinct four-year cycles, the second of which I call “Demolition and Adaptive Reuse” is now coming to a close.

The new year will herald the beginning of the next great era, whose name will be revealed only near to its completion. It has become clear that “Hidden City Diaries” is the vehicle for and physical expression of that shift — the jumping off point for whatever happens next. 

On that eve of that transition, I feel exhilarated to have finally recognized my path, just as Tom found his. One could say that, while it seems to have come later for people like us, it has, in fact, arrived right on time.

It came when we were ready for it.

Rumbling at the bottom of my gut is a Christmas Eve-like impatience at the impending good: encountering new people who will influence me, diving deeper with cherished supporters of old, meeting unforeseen challenges with previously hidden resources, and discovering surprising beauty and richness in places I would never have thought to look. I even look forward to the skinned knees that I know I’ll have from time to time because they, too, are part of the process.

These weeks ahead are a gift — a slice of time in which I can watch the last four very formative years fossilize into the past. What had seemed like a far-off or impossible future –my life as a writer– will crystallize before my eyes from the adjacent possible into the present. 

The impatient part of me, the one who daydreams dangerously far ahead, wonders how I’ll remember this time when I look back years from now, when these periods of intense questioning will seem vague and gauzy, perhaps even slightly misguided. 

That’s just how time bends: eventually, all of our years become lost — along with the potency of our stories, struggles, and experience as human beings. We lose our old selves, our memories, until something historic like a song, a journal or a letter reminds us of what our lives –what we– were like.

That is why I write — not to spin yarns or sell a million books, but to capture, preserve and connect with the precious natural resources of the human experience.

While I do write for self-discovery –a reason to explore the world, to reflect, to inquire– underneath all of that, writing is a means of locating this trail of breadcrumbs from the past to the present.

Writing lets me return to extinct moments abandoned in all stages of forgetting, from memories that have been merely smoothed out to others completely misfiled or inaccessible, trapped in amber.

Within that, there is another type of “lost years:” the times when significant things occur that go unrecorded. They’re lost forever under an ocean of ever-focused waves of the present, caught in the undertow of the growing past that tugs on our heels from the dark below.

Like Tom sees his work as frame for nature, so I see my words as a tuning fork for experience. One by one, I seek out notes that attract and sing universally, aiming to capture tones of importance in a symphony so big that it takes a thousand notes from as many stanzas to even begin to tap into it.

Without each other, these human lives we share are intrinsically lost, which is why as a species we’re so intent on finding and being found — whether through science or nature, architecture or words.

Grafting the Future

Bon's graft, affectionately known as "Leggy," posing at Studio 410

At the Hotel Vitale, they leave ideas rather than chocolates on your pillow at night.

I first stayed there in 2007 while in town for a conference that I’ll never forget, since I was accompanied by two notoriously cynical bad-boy co-workers. After a frightfully large sushi dinner at Ozumo the first evening, we decided that we needed cigarettes before bed.

Since none of us smoked, we wandered the streets near the hotel looking for a convenience store, pleasantly buzzed from the abundant wine that had begun flowing just after we landed.

It was one of those idyllic May nights in San Francisco: a block away from the Embarcadero, the breeze felt pleasantly cool and tickled our noses with the scent of brine; the air was wet and alive—humid with metrosexuality. After wandering several blocks of deserted streets, we found the lone Korean grocery store whose yellowed raceway sign was still illuminated.

It had been years since I smoked; I sputtered as I took my first drag, lit with those cheap Top matches in the yellow book that real smokers only use when they’ve lost their favorite lighter.

Steve, on the other hand, inhaled deeply, allowing the carbon monoxide to saunter deeply through his lungs like an old girlfriend. Tiny wrinkles drew at the corners of his eyes as he sighed and exhaled a cloud of smoke. He took another drag, grinning rakishly from behind his salt-and-pepper goatee, and exclaimed, “Mmmmm…. Cancer!”

I began to regret my tobacco-laced indiscretion as soon as I exited the elevator, knowing that I’d wake up with a bad taste in my mouth, no matter how long I brushed my teeth. After closing the hotel room door behind me, I sprawled on the bed for a moment, noticing a small robin egg blue square of paper on my pillow, something akin to a Crackerjack prize.

I carefully removed its perforated face to reveal a quote from Jim Ruhn:

“There are two choices. You can make a living or you can design a life.”

With a stale burnt flavor adhered to my tongue and the stink of smoke in my hair, I decided to tuck those poignant words away in my bag for future reference…and resolved never to smoke again.

That quote quickly became my anthem cry, since I was in the early stages of re-envisioning my life. It stood as a reminder that having a second chance was precious, that creating a new existence should be done with intention. I don’t think I fully knew what that meant then, but the words rang true.

Upon returning to Seattle, I taped the square to my bathroom mirror where it has lived for four years, moving with me from Belltown to Queen Anne. Each day as I get ready, that note is a touchstone; I re-read the words to affirm that even the hard choices are worth it. Instead of merely clocking in and out, I’ve dedicated myself to making something rich, complex, and satisfying—not just for myself, but in partnership with loved ones.

It sounds easy when I write it, however this approach of intention, once found, has utterly changed everything. It means that even small decisions are meaningful. Most of the time, those choices—while enriching and empowering—are far from easy. In fact, examining life more closely has made it undeniably more complex; the world is now made from millions of shades of gray where it was once black and white.

I think this is why successful architects are deliberate with details. Once committed, their lines become walls that support buildings—moving one beam a few feet affects the entire structure. There are no insignificant choices.

Conceptual drawings are where most of us, including architects, live comfortably: broad-brush notions of flavor and personality, the suggestion of where things might go rather than one particular decision that is, quite literally, set in stone.

A fatal design flaw or hastiness during construction can doom a building to an early demise, such as the McGuire high-rise on Second Avenue and Wall Street, slated for demolition after less than a decade. Thoughtlessness, distractions, shortcuts—these are things of potential disaster.

Design and construction equally depend on experts working with intention to create buildings that not only look beautiful, but can withstand time, weather, and catastrophe. So, too, are we the architects and contractors of our own lives, crafting our own foundations and walls from willpower and life experience, hoping for something lasting and real.

Yet, in spite of our drive toward perfection in creating something new, it is compelling and ironic that we are simultaneously attracted to old, time-worn places laden with flaws and obsolescence—dilapidated structures needing repair. Perhaps it’s because old buildings are like people, whose character derives from their patina—those that are too “squeaky” or sleek, too perfect to be interesting, leave us cold.

Like wine growers grafting new branches onto old grapevines, we are drawn to preserve our old building stock—an extension ourselves?—by grafting modern materials and finishes onto historic foundations, melding brick and wood, travertine and tile, education and experience, technology and touch.

An exquisite depth results from merging old with new; I believe it derives from our own sense of hope and self-preservation. The resulting urban grain is something that we sense emotionally; we’re drawn to the power of knowing that we can be repurposed, even if we fall victim to old wiring or rotted floors. There’s a sense that, even when our future seems unlikely, it’s never too late for a transformation to take place.

There’s something to be said for the grit and character that history and imperfections can lend—to buildings, to stones, and certainly to human beings. It’s a fine balance, though: surface flaws make us unique while structural flaws left untreated can become our doom.

That’s really the question, isn’t it—which is which? It’s impossible to determine merely by sight what is worth saving—not just buildings, but each other.

The most dilapidated-looking structure may contain better bones than the newest high-rise, which is actually falling to dust inside. The only way to tell is by looking behind the walls and testing the foundation; these elements are often the product of a million small choices made by a single individual wielding her best combination of expertise and intuition. Of course, it’s all a gamble, and sometimes, even the investigation itself can be more trouble than it’s worth.

I realized the other day that I no longer need a reminder to design my own life with intention, so I moved the quote from my mirror onto a page in my notebook. After four years, my craft has become second nature.

Like many before me, the next challenge is to build upon my strong foundation of experience, trusting that I know which of my own structures are worth preserving, which can be repurposed or restored by grafting something new, and which are ready to be gutted so that something wholly unprecedented can take their place.

Value and Worth / Valore e del Patrimonio

When writing to Brad, who just moved to Bogotá, I used the salutation, ‘Caro,’ which is the masculine form of ‘Dear’ in Italian. He quipped, “Caro in Spanish = expensive. Me likey!” to which I added that caro also means expensive in Italian, but either way –relationships or money– the word describes things that people value.

The latter has been a prime subject, as I discovered yesterday that my debit card was canceled due to fraudulent activity; unfortunately, this also cut off my access to cash. Thankfully, Tony has come to my rescue, as I’ve been unable to get help from Bank of America or Visa; we’ve had many conversations about banking systems, exchange rates, hidden fees, and bureaucracy along the way.

With this in mind, mi chiedo, what creates value in the first place? Ultimately, it’s opinion. Something is deemed valuable if people desire it –and agree– that the thing merits worth. Dollar bills or gold aren’t inherently worth anything –paper scraps and so-called precious metal– it is our prize of those items and what they represent that transforms them into valuables.

Naturally, since opinion governs the concept of worth, the value of things tends to change over time — something I note whenever I withdraw cash to find that it takes increasingly more American dollars to create a single Euro.

Value can change on a whim –relationships wither, stocks fluctuate, and even our self-worth changes over a lifetime– and each individual’s value of what a particular lifestyle is worth ranges wildly. Some are willing to pay extra to live in cosmopolitan cities like New York or Paris while others take on the physical challenges like lugging groceries uphill on foot in order to live in Civita.

When it comes to the design of such places, what is it about them that allows them to endure in a state of desirability? Perhaps after desire comes time. By this, I mean the influences of architecture and urban design at the time a place was created but also the patina they’ve accumulated over time since they were made.

As a species, we like old things; they comfort us with a sense of weight and gravitas, as if proximity to something time-honored somehow increases our own longevity. Buildings become legacy –places that we can hand down to the next generation, proof that we were here, and an extension of our own lives. With endurance as a goal, it makes sense that we value time-tested buildings and cities with proven staying power.

Caché, too, establishes value. We value things that are unique, rare, and impossible to duplicate. We like things with character because we believe they indicate –or enhance– our own. But we also value authenticity, which we often hold synonymous with age.

These elements come together in Civita: the ancient stone gate, the church, the decumanus maximus lined with flowers in terracotta pots, small winding alleys, tufa stone buildings, the legion of resident felines, simple post-and-lintel doorways, secret caves with centuries-old olive presses, lush gardens, wooden doors, and wood-framed windows, Tony’s gate (which was selected for its appropriateness but is not nearly as ancient as it appears), and of course, the people.

There is thoughtful and consistent design from materiality to planning to architectural form throughout Civita –traditions are still followed in restorations done today– and people are willing to pay to restore and retain homes in this most unlikely of locations because of the perceived value of living in a unique and well-designed place that increases enjoyment and tranquility.

Desire + uniqueness + design + time = value.

In a nod to how my relationships would change while I was away, my friend Jay quoted François de la Rochefoucauld just before I left: “Absence diminishes commonplace passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and kindles fire.”

When I consider what Civita meant to me before I arrived, what it means to me today, and what it will mean after I leave, I must also suggest absence as another element of worth.

Now on the verge of assessing the true value of the relationships I left behind –and the ones I’ve made here– I’m also measuring the worth that Civita holds for me and what I’ve gained during the past seven weeks. Somehow, I already know that the value of every day spent here will increase a hundredfold for each one that I’m away.

Of course, the kindled passion that will build between this visit and the next will make that arduous climb well worth it.

Architecture of an Italian Meal / L’architettura di un Pasto Italiano

They say that two things are inevitable in life: death and taxes. Upon being rudely awakened by banging hammers and a concrete mixer, I’d like to submit a third: construction.

Padding to the window to find my favorite field guy –Blue Long-Sleeved Shirt, Khaki Pants– pounding away at the facade of la chiesa, mi chiedo, “Isn’t this supposed to be a dying city? What’s with all the racket?!”

Pointless to attempt falling asleep again, I was glad the crew ousted me from bed, otherwise I would have missed seeing the peach-colored clouds tinted by the rising sun. They were so striking, in fact, that I walked in my pajamas toward Mary of the Incarcerated to watch the clouds and fog pass each other in the valley.

Later, I realized that an early start didn’t translate to a more productive day as I made lunch, leisurely heating up anchovy pasta sauce with orrechiette, baptizing sliced cucumber with white wine vinegar and salt, and wrapping quartered figs with prosciutto — the quintessential summer Italian meal. Flavorful and, above all, simple.

Something about that concept knocked around my head all afternoon, as I continued to ask myself in different ways why life is so different here in Civita. Everything around me –the architecture, the pace, the food– spoke the same words: penetrating simplicity.

From the outside of Il Nuovo, one sees tufa stone, tile, wood and metal; from the inside, the palette is nearly identical, with the only difference being the stucco-covered walls. From entry and kitchen to bed and bath, the exposed stone and wood bring the house together in rustic but thoughtful forms while the stucco skin reveals untold character through a tapestry of natural imperfections bathed in white.

Above all, the design and the materials are simple. Honest. Real. The effect of this style of architecture is comparable to sensing each unique ingredient –and its ability to evoke the flavors of its counterparts– in an Italian dish.

Consider the food that Tony and I prepared last night in his well-apportioned yet simple kitchen: we chopped and sauteed onion in butter, added risotto and broth, then baked it for 20 minutes. While the pilaf cooked, we dredged little octopi in flour and fried them until their tiny suckered tendrils curled up into dark, crunchy spirals. The octopi were finished as the rice emerged from the oven; we layered rice at the bottom of a dish, placed the fried octopi on top and garnished with lemon wedges. Onion, butter, rice, broth, olive oil, octopi, flour, lemon. Simple.

Just as dark wood and tiled ceilings make stucco appear more clean and white, the lemon enhanced the rice and the oil brought out the salty sea flavor in the octopi.

The more intently I gazed through this lens of simplicity, the more I found its existence throughout Civita – from clothes that dry on the line to fresh eggs that require no refrigeration and the kindess that led to a complimentary espresso and anise biscotti delivered to me at Manuela’s insistence this afternoon. She spotted me sitting next to the Osteria d’Agnese writing notes and prendendo il sole for the few minutes it shined.

She offered coffee yesterday, which I didn’t take, but I get the sense that it’s wise to say yes when someone Italian –especially Manuela– insists twice. On such a blustery day, the osteria’s patio was empty at 2:30; she and her crew were in the process of cleaning up before the major thrust of the storm hit.

Bustling from table to table, her apron flying about her trim frame, Manuela had time to show me a photo of her son, ask how my work was going, direct the staff, tease me for not understanding the difference between her saying Tuscania and Toscana yesterday, and lavish this treat on me. The wind rushed about us, blowing the shamrock green napkins about as I tried to pick up her words, which she speaks troppo velocemente.

It occurred to me that food is the one place in Italian culture where the in-born concept of ‘every person for herself’ doesn’t ring true. In a small country divided by dialects, culture, traditions, north and south, politics, the mafia, and [seemingly] burdensome legal, governmental, and educational systems, food never fails to unify.

From Antonio’s gratis limoncello after lunch yesterday to the dinners Gaia and Bernardo cooked for me, food is the one thing that I’ve seen offered plainly, freely, and in abundance…all the time…sometimes when you’re not even hungry.

Paired with the delicious nature of the food itself is also the simple, tender enjoyment of being cared for without having to request it — especially in a time where we are conditioned not to expect anyone to look out for us, let alone attempt to guess what we might need.

I’m realizing that, when so many things can easily divide passionate people, it’s even more important to be generous with that which connects us, like the simple architecture of a delicious meal.

Setting the Table

As I traveled over the past 20 hours, from car to plane to train to car to feet, I considered the layered stages and vehicles necessary to move from one place to another across the world.

I marveled at how relatively easy it was to go from the beginning of my journey at 10 am Monday in Seattle to eating a peach as I type on my iPad in the kitchen of Il Nuovo on Tuesday at six pm. (Thanks in no small part to Tony Costa Heywood, who not only picked me up, but had my 47-pound suitcase brought up the hill on the motorized cart.)

The interstitial tissue of our transportation systems ultimately unites us across the world at the same time that it divides us: the more car-centric our urban centers become, the less obvious we become to each other. The less obvious our world becomes to us.

So, what does it mean that in 2010 I’m studying architecture, urban design, Italian food and a slower lifestyle in a secluded Italian hill town? Why is this work relevant to anything?

When I arrived, NIAUSI intern Jonathan showed me around my new home and within seconds we were in Tony’s garden, where 5 cats and several turtles reside – in addition to rows of tomato and pepper plants and herbs of all kinds. As we talked, I met two neighbors who are interested in cooking meals together.

I’ve lived in Seattle for nearly 10 years, and nothing like that has happened to me – even when I owned a single-family home. Living for about two seconds in Civita, many things become more obvious, people being the primary element.

There are also bells that chime out hours, echoes of tourists discovering the alley behind my house, birds chirping, tomatoes ripening in the sun, bees buzzing in the garden, a breeze that floats in through the open window behind me.

These are simple, enjoyable things – the elements of life. These are things that we overlook in our everyday lives for many reasons: jobs, cars, deadlines. Yet, we are continually drawn to spend time in places like Civita – and to preserve these places – because they feel special and real to us. They are a reminder that, when we pause to allow things to become more obvious, life is really rich indeed. In fact, I see us as a society moving closer to more people- and experience-focused lifestyles as the economy and urban growth patterns continue to shift, and things like mobile chow-downs are evermore in demand.

I’d dare say that, actually, the lessons I’ll learn in Civita may be more relevant than ever, as we begin to rediscover ourselves as a human society.

Here’s to pulling back the first layer and seeing what lies underneath. With that, I think it’s time for dinner…

First Steps / Primi Passi

What makes a place memorable?

A place may be architecturally beautiful, its urban design may promote connectivity and a sense of gathering, it may include natural elements that trigger the primal senses, and its uses may involve activities that we consider integral to the human experience: food, shelter, drink or worship.

The formal elements may shift, but they alone are not what makes places great. The two key ingredients in my mind are time and people—more in quality than in quantity. You may live in an apartment for years and never find that it feels like home. Or, you can spend a few hours—or minutes—in one place, and you’ll remember it for a lifetime.

Eleven years ago, I had such an experience during my first journey to Europe. In fact, yesterday would have been my wedding anniversary, and I can still remember vividly the Mackintosh-inspired registry office in Gretna Green, Scotland. Coming from Arizona, it seemed that the entire town, perhaps the whole country, was picturesque. Imagine a tiny, green burg with quaint shop-lined streets in the town center, equally quaint guesthouses, a small train platform, and endless pastures of green dotted only with sheep and their lambs, and an occasional stone wall or brilliant field of yellow rapeseed.

That entire trip provided a key turning point in my life—not only as my entry into marriage, but as a broadening of my world view—it sparked my desire to see other countries, experience how other people lived, and understand my European roots. The experience proved to be a catalyst for my desire to later return to Europe, twice to Italy and once to France.

Countless moments of reckoning occurred throughout the journey. Traveling via train over two weeks from London to Edinburgh and back, I heard more accents than I had in my whole life from people talking about things for which I had no concept: the European Union, random terrorist bombs on the Tube, Parliament, AbFab. I saw priceless works of art, examined historic relics from all over the world, and explored buildings and neighborhoods that had only existed for me in textbooks or my favorite stories from British Literature.

In spite of this rich texture, I can distill all of these experiences to one pivotal moment and one memorable place: the threshold at Westminster Abbey. True, the materials and design of the cathedral are awe-inspiring on their own, and the history of the place is immense. It’s impossible to ignore the sense of reverence that descends immediately upon entry.

For me, it was the magnitude of how many people had walked over that threshold before me.

I only considered it for an instant as my foot brushed over the stone, but I remember taking note that hundreds of years of feet scuffing over that stone had worn it down. The feet of penitent people, people looking for guidance, people who had no hope, people who came to get married, people who committed horrible acts and sought forgiveness, people who wanted their children to be blessed, people who came to mourn the dead, people who were interested in touching history.

This place—over time—brought them all together, and for a few moments, it drew me there, as well.

That step made me feel small and insignificant, yet also part of something greater. I, too, arrived in search of something, and—whether I knew it or not—I left a seemingly harmless scuff of my shoe on that stone. Later, I reflected on the fact that I was part of the human erosion and imprint upon Westminster Abbey. You may not be able to see my presence, but a piece of my spirit is there. Hundreds of years from now, another young woman will walk over that stone, and the impression will be a bit deeper because my invisible footprint will have helped to make it so.

Such an act is indicative of how we effect our environments and each other every day. We shape other people and places in ways we cannot imagine, and often cannot see; at least, not immediately. I could never have believed that my foot on an old stone could ever mean anything—but, it turns out, it was my first step into a larger world.