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Valle dei Calanchi, Italy

We are so excited and proud to announce the Partners in Design Climate Action Fellowship!

For years, we have been inspired by the work of the Civita Institute—a nonprofit organization that promotes and inspires design excellence through cultural exchange between the United States and Italy—that awarded a fellowship to one of our partners in 2012 at a critical time in her career.

To pay it forward, and following the recent announcement that Italy is set to become the first country to require mandatory 33 hours of climate-related lessons into public school curricula, we decided to sponsor a new fellowship through the Civita institute, to increase awareness of our changing climate and encourage actions that can be taken by architects, planners, designers, artists, writers and other arts professionals to contribute to a more sustainable societal response.

Since the founding of our office, we have made it a point to take on certain projects on a pro bono basis that have the potential to really make a difference in our community. It’s one of the most important reasons why we design—to care for the earth, to foster diversity, humanity, equal rights and access to education—and we relish the opportunity to empower these projects with the best communication powers possible. From our work on anti-bullying, environmental advocacy, global aid, and civil rights projects, we know that powerful design can broadcast a stronger message to help superheroes do their jobs.

If you are interested in exploring a project in climate action, we encourage you to apply! The 2020 application period is now open open. Visit the Civita Institute to learn all the details.

Timelines are a staple of exhibit design, providing a way for viewers to grasp a condensed glimpse of what usually is a huge body of information. Mounting an exhibition without a timeline is akin to leaving out the donor wall. To provide context for the series of maps of Civita di Bagnoregio,  I offer this visual time-map. Click on this link (or the image below) to view an interactive Prezi of Civita’s 3000 year history.

civita_time map

Here in Civita, time stretches far into the distant past. Pre-history begins 2 million years ago when the tufo that is this region’s primary building material was formed during the Pleistocene age.  The site itself has been continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years, first by the Etruscans, then the Romans.

“Civita” simply means “town” and in central Italy, you will often see it appended to the name of various places, such as Civita Castellana and Civitavecchia outside Rome. But in early usage, the word, derived from the Latin civitas, designated the oldest and most built up area in order to distinguish it from neighboring villages. If a location was called “civita,” the designation meant that it was a place of some importance.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Civita looked much the same as it does today. A saddle of land connected present-day Civita to Bagnoregio (known then as Rota) with the Convento di S Francisco occupying the middle ground before it was lost to an earthquake. Together, the population numbered close to 1,800 citizens. Starting in 1695 and continuing for over 100 years, the city endured a series of devastating earthquakes, landslides, locust infestations, and malaria. By 1800, more than 40% of Civita’s land mass had been lost. Although the rate at which the city continues to crumble is glacial, the process continues through to today. “The clay soil here falls away like fresh ricotta,” says Erino Pompei, the mayor of Bagnoregio until 2009, whose name bears an eerie resemblance to another lost Italian town.

In 2012, I received the Astra Zarina Fellowship from NIAUSI, The Northwest Institute of Architecture and Urban Design in Italy which allowed me to spend two months living and working in Civita di Bagnoregio, a World Heritage hill-town in Lazio, Italy whose roots date back nearly 3,000 years to the Etruscans.

civita_getting here

On Friday, March 14th, I’ll be presenting my project, Civita immaginata: Mapping a Historic Landscape at NIAUSI’s Fellows Festival along with Liza Mickle, Don Fels, Isabel Sitcov and Alan Maskin at an afternoon seminar at SRG Partnership in Seattle, followed by an evening reception and auction at NBBJ Seattle.

As a designer, first and foremost, I organize information and try to make sense of sometimes very dissimilar things. But I’m also a storyteller, and this dual persona was a primary component of what I wanted to bring to Civita when I set out to create a series of maps that would attempt to make my own personal sense of a very special place. And this is probably as good a time as any to put out a disclaimer that I am not an architect or an historian so there are likely errors in some of these maps for which I take full responsibility.

So, why maps? Why not a series of posters or brochures? For designers as well as the general public, maps provide one of the primary ways of making sense of a place. But maps can also help us grasp deeper concepts, detect patterns, prognosticate. Civita immaginata invites viewers to go beyond what is depicted on the surface, to examine the many layers of meaning, culture and history that exist in one place.

Traditional maps are essentially arbitrary selections of information yet as users, we assign great ambitions to them. Implicitly, we trust them to help us navigate and make sense of the world. Quite often they succeed but sometimes in a controlled, coded language, and for many people who don’t how to analyze the data, they’re often complex and hard to understand. I wanted to see if a broader view of mapping, one that included an emotional component, might increase their accessibility for viewers, not just to their content but to their understanding of place.

In traditional societies, there was no need for maps. Words and memories built history, and what was “known” was transmitted from memory to memory. Yet this need we have to define the areas we explore and inhabit, to mark our territory, to organize it and often, change it seems fundamental. Map designers always need to make choices: what to leave in and take out. Everything goes through a kind of cartographic surgery, through layering of texture, color, image, text, symbol. Fortunately, we’re generally so familiar with the language of maps that we trust them, and mapmakers can take some liberties. But to map is to lie, since there is always a bias, always a point of view both literally and figuratively. Oscar Wilde said, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not his sitter.” Maps are like portraits—mysterious, sometimes abstract and sometimes deliberate exaggerations. Not only is this to be expected but in my opinion, it adds to the character of maps, creating an open-ended invitation for viewers to enter.

I’ll be sharing my project results in a series of posts over the next week, as well as some thinking on my map-making process and would love to hear your thoughts.


Seattle has blown it. A Pacific Northwestern cityscape that in the past was of uncluttered venues, a fringe of evergreens and recycled debris bins on many street corners.

In the brief span of the past couple of years we have lapsed into a parking-pay-system mania. Complicating itself every step of the way… how could it be when the idea was to streamline, make it green, user friendly, and efficient?

The result has been 6-foot hulking towers, 1 to 3 of them per downtown block, enough instructional signage to bewilder, and enough add-ons to create an eyesore. We now have an obstacle course of signposts and equipment. Each site has hundreds of instructional words incorporated into it… it’s informationally numbing.

We may just fall into apathy about our streets, or it may inspire us to ask for better… design for a solution that will make our streets a desirable intersection of urban culture.


Have you ever heard of the CTBUH?

Do you know what Vanity Height is?

To answer the first question, it is the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. A fascinating group which tracks the skyscrapers of the world. I can get lost in this subject, and be awed by these big towers made by little people, piece by piece. I imagine standing next to each slender edifice, staring up and then turning to see the world that bustles in the tower’s shadow.

If you have any curiosity about such things you may what to visit the CTBUH website which chronicles the top 100 skyscrapers. Wonderfully illustrated and organized, this makes for great armchair traveling. Travel the world, these days you will send much of your time in the United Arab Emirates to see the tallest.

This is a great database and fun, choose by many categories: country, status (complete, in-construction, visionary or demolished), function, steel, glass, precast, just to name a few.

Have you guessed what Vanity Height is… it’s that use-less space in today’s tallest. With the increasing trend towards extreme spires and other extensions of tall buildings that do not enclose usable space, the term Vanity Height describes it (the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top).

What are Supertall and Megatall Buildings? The CTBUH defines “supertall” as a building over 984 feet in height, and a “megatall” as a building over 1,968 feet in height. Although great heights are now being achieved—in excess of 2,600 feet—as of July 2013 there are only 73 supertall and 2 megatall building completed and occupied globally. Thus the completion of a supertall building is still a significant milestone.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Civita looked much the same as it does today. A saddle of land connected present-day Civita to Bagnoregio (known then as Rota) with the Convento di S Francisco occupying the middle ground before it was lost to an earthquake. The monastery can be seen in the drawing (below) sent back to Rome by a visiting monk. Together, the population numbered close to 1,800 citizens.

The Medieval city was divided into four contrade, or neighborhoods: Mercatello (the Merchant quarter); Ponte (the Bridge); Civita (the Town); and Carcere (the Prison). The area boundaries, interestingly, roughly correspond to the ancient Etruscan ideal city plan with most of the upper class Renaissance families building in the most favorable southeast sector and the communal prison located in the northeast. Still today, Civita displays its contrade banners during festas and other important ceremonies.

Most of the beautiful golden warren of buildings you see in Civita were built during this time, including the Palazzo Alemanni, the largest, most imposing house in Civita facing the main piazza. A walk around the town today can give you a real sense of what the city might have looked like in the 16th century—that is, at least from the buildings that are still standing.

Starting in 1695 and continuing for over 100 years, the city endured a series of devastating earthquakes, not to mention landslides, locust infestations, and malaria. By 1800, more than 40% of Civita’s land mass had been lost. Although the rate at which the city continues to crumble is glacial, the process continues through to today. “The clay soil here falls away like fresh ricotta,” says Erino Pompei, the mayor of Bagnoregio until 2009, whose name bears an eerie resemblance to another lost Italian town.

The twentieth century brought WWII bombings and isolation for well over a year in the mid-60s when the old bridge was demolished and a new one being built. In 2004, engineers began a cliff stabilization project, funded by the Province of Viterbo and the EU, that will cost more than $15 million when it is scheduled to be completed in 2014. The project involves planting concrete shafts in the dirt below the rocks on which Civita sits and reinforcing them with thousands of iron rods. The blocks are meant to act as dams to keep the claylike soil from getting too wet and unstable. Last year, a fascinating and extensive exhibit detailing Civita’s geological past and the stabilization project opened at the Museo geologico e delle frane located in the Palazzo Alemanni.

The hope is that for the next few centuries at least, Civita will be safe. After that? “Niente può fermare la natura,” says Signore Pompei. “Nothing can stop nature.”

Ciao from Civita!

It has been said that you can “read” a person’s temperament, speculate how easy or difficult their life has been, by looking closely at their face. This is often where signs of stress appear, presenting itself with tired eyes, deep lines between the eyebrows, lips and jaw tight.

What if this were true for a place? What if the essence of a city resided not in its statistics and facts but in the development of its character expressed, perhaps, in the configuration of its hills and valleys, tunnels and caves, changes in public and private space? We could then “read” a city by examining its own particular psycho-geography—not the outer surface layer that it presents to the world but its true depth.

The concept is fanciful but intriguing and pursuing it further inevitably leads to an examination of the 19th-century pseudo-science of phrenology. Phrenology is the study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities. The system came from the theories of the Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall but it was quite popular in Britain and American as well. Lorenzo Fowler was America’s leading phrenologist. It was he who created the famous white ceramic head.

Phrenologists worked by touch; they would “read” a person’s character by running the palms of their hands over the surface of the skull, the theory being that the skull takes its shape from the brain beneath. They considered the brain the organ of the mind and believed it was composed of distinct “faculties” and “sub-faculties” each of which controlled a certain character trait or intellectual attribute such as Cautiousness or Benevolence. The size of each area corresponded to its power.

Getting to know Civita phrenologically requires a slightly different approach. It requires eyes and feet, time spent walking its streets and hills repeatedly. This is the polar opposite of reading about a place in a guidebook, visiting for a few hours on a summer day, or checking it out on Google maps. I’ve been fortunate that through NIAUSI’s fellowship I’ve been allowed the time to do this type of exploration.

When complete, my phrenological “map” of Civita will most certainly be a subjective exercise in “bump-reading” applied to a particular place during a limited time period. But my hope is that it will provide yet one more way to “see” this special place. Already, a cursory look at Fowler’s list of faculties applied to Civita leads to some general conclusions.

Civita’s rich yet destructive past has most certainly left its mark but it remains an industrious city that loves children, families, and animals and delights in showing its wonders to the world. The city reconstructs more than it builds anew, and it is an optimistic place that venerates its past. Interestingly, in phrenology, the faculties one lacks are just as significant as those that are prominent, and in Civita the lack of Blandness and Approbativeness immediately come to mind.

This is, of course, an idiosyncratic exercise. Perhaps the best approach is to visit and draw your own conclusions. Civita will most certainly welcome you.

Do a Google search for Civita di Bagnoregio and one of the first things you will find is a reference to it as “la città che muore” (the dying town). This immediately sets a particular tone, but in fact, this appellation is taken out of context from a text by Bonaventura Tecchi an Italian essayist born in Bagnoregio. In 1947, Tecchi formed the “Pro Civita Committee” whose mission was to save Civita from what seemed at the time to be inevitable death. Tecchi was referring to the erosion of the cliffs around Civita, not voicing a prediction for the future of Civita. Here is the full quote:

“I would never have become a writer unless I had lived for a few months every year, from July to November, starting in my earliest youth, in the valley of Civita, with the vision of the white crests, the golden volcanic clay, the eloquent ruins, in the land of Saint Bonaventure…with the memory of ancient earthquakes, the slip constant…in the city that is dying.”

One of my NIAUSI colleagues here is exploring Civita through the lens of adaptive reuse of its buildings over the years, particularly since the 1960s and 70s when many restoration projects began to take place. It has been sobering to see graphic visual examples which she has found in the archives here of just how deteriorated Civita had been before those restorations projects began to gain a foothold. For those of you who know Civita, the picture below (taken from Piero Bormioli’s book) shows the view of the city in the late 1960s, looking west. Osteria Il Forno d’Agnese currently occupies the building on the left.

Today, tourists walk into the main piazza and we hear them comment on how “old” and “worn” the buildings and some of the public infrastructure seems. If only they knew….in actuality, Civita is in pretty top form today. Certainly, there are areas that need attention and repair, but in most cases, they are receiving it. Civita has become a destination and those in authority know it. A major stabilization project targeting one of the most vulnerable cliff areas on the northwest side of the city was recently completed, funded with money from the Province of Viterbo and the EU. as I write this, dust drifts in my open window and I can hear the whirring of additional anchor rods being drilled into the cliff by seismic workers nearby.

Keeping Civita alive takes a lot of work and much resources. But over the decades, it has attracted scores of people who have worked to save it. The reasons are varied and numerous. Some people, like the Rocchi family who own both a bruschetteria and ristorante here, have lived in Civita for over 500 years. The family is very dedicated to the idea of helping Civita survive in the 21st century while simultaneously respecting the geography and geology that surrounds it. Other one-time residents like the Bastoni and Medori families continue a close connection to Civita through the successful businesses that they have established here over many years. It is in their interest to see Civita thrive.

Then there are the contributions made to Civita by the late Astra Zarina and her husband Tony Costa Heywood, who today counts himself as one of the town’s handful of full-time residents.

Zarina was a respected Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle, who in the 1980s was instrumental in establishing the UW’s Rome Center, housed at the Palazzo Pio near Campo d’Fiori.

In the early 60s when the couple first visited Civita, much of the town was in a state of extensive disrepair, as noted above. Zarina and Heywood had the foresight to envision the value and potential to restoring buildings in Civita, and their training as architects gave them the skill and vision to make it a reality. But it took hard work and many years. Zarina handled restoration projects for some of the first buildings in Civita in the late 60s for architect friends, leading the wave of reclaiming these beautiful structures. Tony recalls how difficult it was to get workers to even agree to work on a project in an area as remote and difficult to reach as Civita. There was unreliable electricity to run power tools and pozzolana, the volcanic ash cement used here as mortar for the tufo buildings, needed to be mixed by hand. But they persevered.

Civita was enlivened further still when Zarina established the University of Washington’s Italian Hilltowns program in this ancient borgo. Starting in the late 70s and continuing for 30 years, architecture and design students had the opportunity to spent two months in Civita every summer, living with local families and learning the lessons of continuity and change in Italian architecture. In 2007, the pair donated a portion of their own personal restored property to NIAUSI, the organization that is funding my Fellowship, to establish the Civita Institute as a permanent study center in Civita.

These, then, are the real saints and saviors of Civita…the people who loved the city, saw its potential and worked to ensure that it would not become “la città che muore.

It is impossible, and possibly inauspicious, to evade ecclesiastical interactions while in Italy. Despite the presence of the Vatican city-state in Rome, Italy has one of the least religious Catholic populations in the world. Yet even the smallest Italian city displays a rich layering of religious iconography, placemaking, and storytelling. Civita and its neighboring hamlet Bagnoregio are no exceptions.

One of the most fascinating religious discoveries I have made here concerns saints known as i incorruttibili misteriose or “the mysterious incorruptibles”—devout individuals whose remains do not decompose after death. The phenomenon of incorruptibility is taken as a powerful sign of saintliness in the Catholic Church and most of these individuals have already been canonized. Visitors to certain Italian churches, myself included, are shocked by the display of a corpse, dressed in religious vestments and encased in a glass coffin at the high altar or in the crypt.

Officially Civita has two Patron saints, Santa Vittoria (St. Victoria) and Sant’ Ildebrando (St. Hildebrand), both of whom have separate altars dedicated to them in the city’s main church Chiesa S. Donato.

Santa Vittoria, martyred in 251 AD is remembered for persevering through abuse and her remains are kept in an urn under the left altar. Sant’ Ildebrando was born in Bagnoregio and was its Bishop from 856 to 873. His body rests under the right altar. An interesting miracle attributed to him is that when he was old and bedridden, his servants brought him a cooked partridge, but as it was a fast day, he was unable to eat the bird. So instead, he prayed over it and it came to life and flew away. Here in Bagnoregio, the people are very zealous in honoring Sant’ Ildebrando and regularly make the trip up the hill to Civita since it is said that he has a reputation for dealing severely with those who do not give him due respect.

But Civita’s most famous son is S. Bonaventura (St. Bonaventure). Chapels and statues to him seem to be present on every corner in these two towns. Bonaventura was born Giovanni Fidanza around 1221 AD in a house no more than 50 meters from where I am writing this now.

As a young child, he fell seriously ill and his mother took him to the nearby Convento de San Francisco, which used to occupy the ground between Civita and Bagnoregio before it was lost in a 17th century to an earthquake.

In the grotto that now marks the spot of the old monastery, it is said that St. Francis prayed and healed Giovanni, then blessed him with the name “O Buona Ventura,” seeing much good fortune in his future. Bonaventura went on to join the Franciscan order and became a scholar and teacher and a primary biographer of St. Francis. He traveled widely but often came back to Italy and his home in Bagnoregio. After his death, his right arm was placed in a reliquery made from silver and gold donated by the people of Bagnoregio, an event that is celebrated every year on March 14.

A church, the Chiesa di S. Bonaventura, was built on the site of his childhood home but after the structure was damaged in another earthquake, a chapel built with some of the salvaged tufo bricks was dedicated in a new church in Bagnoregio.

The most endearing story I have heard about S. Bonaventura came from the sacristan in the church here, also named, interestingly, Bonaventura. Apparently, when Pope Gregory X made Bonaventura a cardinal, he sent several messengers to him with the symbolic red cardinal’s hat. When they arrived, they found Bonaventura washing dishes and he asked them to hang the red hat on a nearby tree since his hands were wet and dirty.

Civita iconography can roughly be divided into three categories—religious, historical, and vernacular—the latter spanning many time periods. What is most interesting to me about this visual language is how each of these three very distinct layers mix. Not surprisingly, this is a recurring theme here in Civita given its amalgam of past incarnations, beginning from its Etruscan beginnings and extending up to today. Having the luxury to spend an extended period of time here looking and learning allows one to begin to perceive the extent of this intermingling in a much more subtle way.

There is also a welcome tendency here to leave well enough alone. Whether this is due to the relatively easy-going lifestyle of the Italians, their innate sense of design, or their tendency to reuse materials (more about that later), the result is that even the simplest of vernacular signs has a natural balance and pleasing composition. Hand-printed signs lettered decades ago hang happily and comfortably beside cantinas and tabacchi. Typography, especially handwritten, is satisfying as well.

Tabacchi are in fact, good examples of vernacular design. In Italy, a tabacchi is where you go for local bus tickets, phone cards and postage stamps. Tabacchi display this sign: a big white “T” on a blue or black background. The text “sali e tabacchi” refers to the two products—salt and tobacco— that these shops sold that were initially controlled by the government. Nice sign, right?

Historical signs carry with them the weight of imagination and memory, making them particularly interesting in cultures like Italy where time reaches back so far into the past. The Etruscans, Civita’s first inhabitants, and the Romans who followed, were both cultures that understood well the power of symbols and used iconography extensively for protection, fertility, wealth, crop germination, death, and birth rituals. In fact, one of the first things the Romans did on their relentless march to conquer the ancient Etruscan cities was to smash their black clay wear which was heavily decorated with symbols. Symbols common here in Civita include the horse—an archetype that both the Etruscans and Romans associated with honor and spiritual journeys to other worlds—the lion, and the eagle.

Religious iconographic art is sometimes referred to as “windows into heaven” and the Greek work anagogic—literally meaning “leading one upward”—was often used to describing their purpose. Iconography was an integral part of Christian life, despite a great controversy in the seventh and eighth centuries when the Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”), suspicious of any sacred art that represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons. In addition to the Bishops’ hat and keys, associated with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the pervasive religious icon here in Civita, as in much of the rest of Italy, is the Madonna. Not only is she visually represented everywhere, but her presence is alive in many of the built-in altars and icons on buildings and in Civita’s caves and grottos.

For a palpable look into this iconography “mix” we need look no further than Civita’s main piazza and its beautiful Medieval church, the Chiesa S. Donato. Here, in tangible ways, we can see not only the layering of symbols, but also symbol “borrowing” as well as active incorporation of artifacts from one culture to another.

Rosettes—which some scholars believe derived from the Etruscan paterna or mundus—the symbol of the ever-present life-force—abound as decorative elements. The Etruscan lions and Roman eagle now grace the outer entry of the Porta S. Maria, placed there in the 1500s to commemorate Civita’s triumph over a nearby city-state. Roman sarcophagi, frieze fragments, and corbels are set into the lower outer walls of the church and the nearby bell tower.

Enter the church and you will see a holy water font made from two ancient Romans Corinthian capitals turned upside down. When Civita celebrates its festas in the piazza,the Medieval symbols depicting the town’s four contrade, or neighborhoods (the Market, the Bridge, the Caisson, and the Prison) are unfurled and live on. Going back even further, the physical divisions of these four contrade correspond closely to the Etruscan layout of the ideal city, a circle divided into four areas, favorable and unfavorable.

Coming from a young country, this concept of flow and continuity in history is striking. We try hard to understand it, but we may never fully absorb its effect. Michael Adams in his book Umbria, writes: “To the Italian…acceptance of the past is natural and effortless. For him, the centuries merge more easily than for the rest of us, partly because he lives (in Umbria and especially in Civita) surrounded by so many of the physical symbols of the past, but even more because here the essential thread has never been broken…with no Reformation, no French Revolution, lies like a caesura across the line of his history. The Romans (and Etruscans) are his ancestors, as they are not ours, and all that lies between, all the troubled history of two thousand years, has been assimilated, unified, and transmuted into a culture singularly free of contradiction.”

For visitors in any context, doors hold special significance. Here in Civita, since I am most certainly a visitor, I’ve found myself taking a particular interest in them, although I am hardly alone in this respect.

Here in the Civita Institute’s Sala Grande there are years of archived materials from the University of Washington’s Italian Hilltowns Program, which was based here in Civita di Bagnoregio and conducted for many years by Astra Zarina, one of the co-founders of the University’s Rome Center. After spending several hours browsing through the materials, it became obvious that doors and gates (and windows) occupy a good portion of the students’ study, but with a noticeable difference in focus.

Student projects tended to document architectural styles, details, age, and construction materials. My interests lie more along the lines of discovering and describing the enormous variety of doors here in Civita, every one of which seems to have its own particular beauty that it carries along with its long, imagined history. Many in fact are wonderful examples of palimpsests, something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. And then, there is their meaning.

The English word “portal” is, in fact, derived from the Latin portalis or Italian porta which means “door” or “gate.” Doors and doorways have been symbolic across cultures for as long as history has been recorded. A door is, of course, both an entrance and an exit, so it has been associated with portals and passageways on many levels throughout history. Doors are closely related to gates and thresholds because the three share some very similar symbolic features and sometimes work together to create passage.

Doors were first seen in recorded history on paintings inside Egyptian tombs. The ancient Romans had advanced architectural elements and were known to have used single, double, sliding, and folding doors. Fun fact: the Roman god Janus is the god of doors and doorways (which makes him, naturally, the god of beginnings, endings, and transitions.) Doors still continue to symbolize all of these elements today.

First and foremost, a door is an entrance. On a literal level, this will usually lead to the inside of something (a house, building, or other structure). But on a metaphorical level, a door can become an entrance to nearly anything, although in ancient art it is most commonly used to symbolize the entrance to another world. On a personal level, a door might symbolize whether you are an intimate or an outsider.

The other common symbolism for doors, and one that particularly interests me, is transitions. At the simplest level, a door or doorway symbolizes the transition and passageway from one place to another, or can symbolize the passage from one world to another in religion, mythology, and literature. But a deeper meaning arises when doors, gates, and passageways serve as symbolic transitions for individuals experiencing change. Most of us have a memory of taking a deep breath before crossing some kind of threshold, be it to an interview, a meeting with a teacher or mentor, or a dining room filled with happy, laughing people, none of whom we know.

Doors are associated with privacy, control, and protection much more than a welcoming, open-view gate. Often a doorway provides little view to the other side when closed. And when open, we generally take far less notice of them.

Taking that step across a doorway also means you’ve crossed a threshold and thresholds are typically boundaries or points at which two places (or cultures or experiences) meet. It is where two worlds come together and provide the traveler a point of passage. Crossing the threshold means taking chances and leaving the past behind. All appropriate musings for a visitor in Civita, and rich mapping material.

In a few short weeks, I’ll be beginning my Italian Adventure, traveling to Civita di Bagnoregio and living there for two months as a Fellow of the Northwest Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in Italy (NIAUSI). If you don’t know about this organization, and you are a designer of any persuasion, you might want to check them out. The organization is a non-profit corporation established in 1981 by academics, students, and professional members of the Pacific Northwest design community and grew out of the University of Washington’s Rome Program, founded by the esteemed educator and scholar Astra Zarina to promote intercultural communication and awareness of design in the built environment through exchange between the Pacific Northwest and Italy.

Today, in addition to the three yearly fellowships they award (including one to an current student or alumnus of the UW Rome program) they serve as a resource and an opportunity for professional growth and individual enrichment for any designer interested in studying cross communication and improving the quality of the built environment. And I’m honored to be the first recipient of the recently renamed Astra Zarina Fellowship.

More about my evolving project to come. For now, suffice it to say that its objective is an unconventional series of graphic maps. With no shortage of  landmarks and treasures in Civita and the surrounding region, I hope to share thoughts and sometimes idiosyncratic observations in words and images on history, traditions, culture, people, geology, and food. What better place to undertake this project than in la bella Italia.

Ci vediamo! 

Seattle_Public_LibraryI’ve been itching to say it since we started writing this blog… Seattle has the best library system in the US! Well just look at it, need we say more. The head librarian got everything single thing she and her committee asked for and more… and it came in under budget. The Central Branch is just the tip of the iceberg… which by the way it looks a little bit like when you approach it some city avenues… it’s only one of many newly constructed or refurbished neighborhood libraries in Seattle. Each environment is comfortable, user friendly and architectural inspiring. They all do an incredible business; each is a true community hub. Just look around it’s where the action is. They shuttle books around from one location to another at your whim with such efficiency… I think they put Amazon to shame.


This is the first of our “word of the day” series. We won’t post a new one every day, but you get the idea. Give us ideas for new words. Foreign and made-up words count.

flâ-neur (flä-nûr’) n. 1. From the French verb flâner which means to stroll; a term popularized by Charles Baudelaire and other less well-remembered French writers of the 19th century; “A gentleman stroller of city streets.” 2. An aimless wanderer. 3. Someone whose mind and senses are only stimulated by improvised rambles around the world.


Walking on an Olympic mountain trail heading towards the Elwah Valley is a piece of big geological magnitude… not allowing for much notice of the smaller details. The sky finally clearing of clouds, with dramatic views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca emerging… turning vibrant and ultramarine. Just off the trailside, almost not noticing, stood an alpine anthill. Covered in dried heather needles, all gathered from nearby plants and placed meticulously. Read the rest of this entry »

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