Five places that inspired the Conscious Cities movement

Words by Itai Palti

Photo of a street in Tel Aviv at night

Conscious Cities founder Itai Palti on his influences — good and bad

1

The streets of Tel Aviv

“Tel Aviv is the real 24/7 city, and not necessarily in the commercial, greedy sense. When I started visiting as a teenager, I was in awe of the amount of life on the streets, day and night. People weren’t just rushing around from place to place, they were living out their lives in the boulevards, spending time with their friends or holding meetings in outdoor cafes. You can see people behave in a casual, homely manner all around the city. When you notice a couple sitting on a bench with their teapot and mugs brought down from home, you know the boundary between home and street has been blurred. To me, that is a characteristic of a city whose people feel a sense of belonging.”

photo of a UK suburbia with white houses
Photo: Adobe Stock

2

UK suburbia

“Growing up in British suburbia taught me that sometimes inspiration comes from what’s missing. Most of my childhood was spent in a typical suburb, the type that forces dependence on cars and, as a child, on anyone with a car. It meant living far from your social network and from the stimulation you seek out, especially as a curious child or teenager. The lack of serendipity — something that suburbs purposefully engineer out — imposes boredom on a vast chunk of the population, and this is repeated throughout the world. I understand the decision of parents to move their families to seemingly safer environments, but it also got me asking: why couldn’t lively cities also be a place for families to grow in safety and prosperity?”

Aerial picture of an European city
Photo: Louis Charron/Unsplash

3

City hopping in Europe

“We often forget that the old cities we treasure grew organically and informally. Before university, I wanted to travel but had little money to do so, so I bought a rail ticket that allowed me to jump from city to city around Europe. I was consistently drawn to the parts of cities with what we call a human scale, areas that developed before rigid planning laws and guidelines. The layering of history, the looseness of urban grids, and sometimes even the humble cooperation with a local aesthetic were qualities that drew me, often away from reconstructed or modern parts of cities. I looked for these similarities between cities and found patterns in the relationship between people and place that profoundly shaped the way I later observed architecture.”

Future Systems’ unbuilt National Library in Prague
Visualization: Jan Kaplický – FUTURE SYSTEMS, courtesy of the Kaplický Centre Foundation

4

Future Systems’ unbuilt National Library in Prague

“During my master’s degree I worked at Future Systems, with Jan Kaplický. Jan was a big influence on my professional development: he taught me to keep on questioning norms in architecture, and in culture at large. When he passed away in Prague in 2009, he was embroiled in a political battle around his design for the new National Library for the Czech Republic. I saw very closely the difficult position he was placed in, and it made me acutely aware of the fact that you can’t divorce architecture from politics. We have to accept that architecture is there to reflect values, and see it not just as a responsibility, but also an opportunity. I think it’s better to engage rather than disengage.”

Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Italy
Photo: Kamon/Flickr

5

Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Italy

“Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, attributed his discovery to a 13th-century Franciscan monastery in Umbria. He had reached a dead end in his research in California and decided to spend some time in the monastery. He later explained that the qualities of that environment supported his creativity and led him to new insights. Away from his lab, he developed a hypothesis for creating a vaccine, which he tested on return to find it was correct. Later, he asked the architect Louis Kahn to design a space that supported creativity in the same way as the monastery, and that’s what inspired the Salk Institute in California. I think Salk’s story is a really good example of attributing something very specific, a very influential turning point in life, to a space.”

Main photo: Itai Palti

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