Four ways to craft a beautiful city

There are some travels from which you come back filled with incredible architectural sights. This was not one of them. But in one month I discovered many new ways cities can be beautiful.

Cities can be oases in the desert, or they can have oases mixed with their desert. A river runs across San Antonio, and its banks are covered with flowers. The heat is more bearable near the water, basking in the scent of jasmine. Swallows nest under the bridges and build colonies of mud nests, as other birds squabble higher in the trees. Or when you leave the river, there are gardens stranded among the tall buildings, in the few parts where it is sensible to walk if you don’t have a car. An old Spanish house, a park near the market, surrounded by low houses. There you can rest outside the metal husk of a car, and the desert looks so beautiful, seen from inside an oasis.

Then, cities can hail from an unexpected future. Sometimes they tell you, Hey, did you really thinnk that the future would be faster and that people would never use their own legs anymore? Did you think that the only thing that could happen was to turn streets into roads and roads into motorways? Come on, you can do better than that. Here, let me show you. And then you land in Berlin. It’s dark already, and you realise what surprises you: it’s really dark. Not a glow of street lamps as bright as the sun with a reddish black lid overhead. It’s night and there’s just enough light to see, and it feels so peaceful, all of a sudden. Then it’s day again, and you walk among bikes and quiet streets, not in suburbs but gliding from a centre to another. There are still dauntingly huge streets from another time, museum halls large enough to reconstruct a whole temple in them, underground shelters large as mazes and scary as what hell should look like, but you’re never lost. You just go out and walk in a smiling city that’s no bigger than you.

Other cities can be chaos. It’s a less comforting kind of beauty, because of all the suffering it’s built on. But then it’s built, not in ruins anymore, and there’s comfort in that. Warsaw is made of bits and pieces. One part is as colourful as the Middle Ages of a fantasy novel, and as deceitful: it is less than sixty years old, and was modelled on Renaissance paintings of what the city was like before it was destroyed. Other parts are tall and severe, and stone proletarian glare at you from their seats in the grey facades. Further South, there are gardens, restaurants in orangeries, preening peacocks and cavorting squirrels. Further East, there are malls under wavy domes of glass, hotels and theatres from the last decade. It feels like walking through time, only past centuries are humbled by their own failure to last, and they don’t stand taller and prouder than the present history.

Then some cities are beautiful because everywhere you look, you wonder at the prettiness, the blue sky, the skill of the architects and the harmony of the streets. But you already knew about that kind.

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