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What Wandering Can Teach Us About Designing New Spaces

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Jun 24 2021

As a city, Rome is measurably inefficient; the concept of finding the quickest route between points A and B is almost non-existent. The winding streets in the medieval city fabric, the long lunches with wine followed by a nap, and all the built-in transitional time and spaces choreograph a unique quality and pace of life that defy our usual sense of urgency. The city forces its inhabitants to slow down, creating opportunities for the unplanned to unfold.

It’s this intangible quality that has drawn and inspired generations of artists and scholars, and what motivated my partner and I to apply for fellowships to study the act of wandering in Rome early in 2020. Curious about the truth behind the city’s lore, and believing it’s only possible to study wandering by wandering ourselves, we spent three months thinking not too hard about the things that make a place great for wandering and conducive to moments of serendipity.

Our days of wandering concluded when Rome locked down for the pandemic, and our lives shifted from the physical city to virtual space. Most of us have discovered benefits to this new way of working and living, and many elements are likely to remain. But in the rush to replicate the functional aspect of daily life online, we’ve also lost a bit of the spontaneity and chances of encountering the unexpected. Through this project, we want to champion the irreplaceability of physical spaces, and articulate a few design principles that take us beyond the typical pursuit of productivity and efficiency, and toward making environments that encourage and reward wandering.

1. Meta orientation

Rome is built on seven hills. Each day, we would wander from our apartment at the British School on the eastern edge of the city, up and down a hill, across a river, and up another hill to our studio at the American Academy on the west side. Setting out in the morning, we would often arrive just in time for lunch, and take the whole afternoon getting back just in time for dinner.

Curiously, after only a cursory glance at the map upon arrival, we were able to make the trip every day via constantly evolving routes. In the medieval city, the slight inclination of streets offered a meta sense of direction, allowing us to know roughly which way to go even when venturing into previously unexplored areas. In fact, many streets follow old streams; a local rule-of-thumb for when you’re lost is to pour water on the street and follow it down to the banks of the River Tiber.

A street in Trastevere slopes down toward the River Tiber.

The joy of wandering comes from its unpredictability, which is always delicately balanced against the fear of being completely lost. Subtle spatial cues such as the street sloping up or down, or glimpses of a monument when you’re crossing an axial boulevard, can offer a meta sense of orientation while preserving the excitement of choosing different paths to explore.

2. Built-in intermissions

At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes (both about Rome and about designers), our days were often strung together by coffee breaks, whether a quick pick-me-up before an appointment or to while away an afternoon. To our surprise, the same cup of coffee in a Roman cafe has two different prices depending on whether you are drinking it standing at the bar (about one Euro), or sitting down at a table (about six Euros). It’s perhaps the clearest evidence that coffee is not only a drink, but also a duration of time—the cheaper option gets you a short respite standing at the counter, while the more expensive option gets you an afternoon watching passers-by sitting at a street-side table.

The caffeinated intermissions provide in-between time to remember what we have just seen, and anticipate what we are about to see. It shifts our experience from distinctive blocks of activity to a gradated spectrum that fades in and out, creating opportunities for different ideas to overlap. The bitterness and heat of the coffee, pleasurable to sip but difficult to gulp, establishes a minimum amount of time between things, allowing our thoughts to wander without the need to be somewhere.

Image by Ryan Neeven

The same cup of coffee is sold at two different prices depending on whether you are drinking it standing or sitting.

Perhaps what the physical environment can better offer and should be designed for is the gentle spacing between things: a short walk to lunch, a stroll from home to work, or some distance between the desk and fridge. That’s often when inspiration strikes.

3. Anchoring ambiance

Visitors to Rome often note the distinctive quality of the city’s light. With its dry and arid Mediterranean climate, the bright and sharp light plays off the solid architecture of stone and concrete to create deep contrasts and shadows. It dictates and changes what we can and cannot see at different times, often revealing only a small fragment of the overall picture.

A quirk of the human mind is its tendency to sprawl. We are overwhelmed when exposed to too much information and bored with too little. What holds our attention best is a partially-revealed picture that anchors parts of our imagination while allowing the rest to hover freely to fill in the voids. The ambiance of a place is often defined by what is concealed—a noisy cafe shifts our focus to the sight and smell, while a dimly lit street might foreground the sound and chill.

The physical space can offer an anchoring ambiance. Instead of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls favored by luxury developments, perhaps a few well-placed windows may allow us to see the outside more closely. By editing what our mind can see and perceive, we leave space for our imagination to roam and wander.

Image by James Greenoff

The distinctively high contrast and deep shadows in the Mediterranean climate reveal and conceal what can be seen.

4. Loosely-defined uses

For a city famous for its walkability and public spaces, Rome has an unusual lack of public benches. But there’s always a place to rest, whether you’re sharing a podium with a Roman God, or leaning against the inclination of a once-impenetrable fortress. People intuitively adapt, exploit, and react to the spaces around them as they navigate and occupy the city.

Most modern buildings and spaces are designed for specific functions—a meeting room for meetings and a classroom for classes. Some are even designed to discourage unintended uses, such as segmented benches that prevent people from lying down. In a historical city like Rome, with its accumulated layers of architecture, landscapes, and urban form, few things are used for their original functions, and nothing fits precisely.

While the dictum of form follows function has an alluring logical clarity, it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the function constrained by the tight-fitting form. When we design our spaces to loosely fit their intended uses, we naturally invite exploration and appropriation. As any parent knows, a snowy slope entertains a child for longer and in more ways than a purpose-designed playground slide.

People using Tiber Island’s embankment as a place to lounge.

5. Intentional collage

A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says “Five beers please!” The joke works by connecting two previously separate frames of reference: two fingers for two, and V for the Roman numeral five. Inspiration works in a similar way, by revealing a previously unnoticed relationship. We never quite know which two things will resonate, so one of the best ways to generate inspiration is to be constantly exposed to new collages of things and ideas.

Rome is in many ways the perfect collage-generating machine, where the ancient coexists nonchalantly inside, around, above, under, and next to the cutting-edge. Walk past a classical facade marked by graffiti, and you might notice the original Latin inscriptions under the latest tag, both created by the same human impulses. Experiences like these recalibrate our sense of perspective in the vastness of history, while at the same time affirms the universality of our human instincts.

Despite the urge to categorize and organize, we could allow some messiness of life to spill through. In our spaces, instead of insisting on a uniformed look where all the furniture must conform to a color or style, a diverse collection accumulated over time often inspires more stories.

My partner and I have always been drawn to certain spaces with a special spark—places where we feel relaxed, inspired, and curious, and can wander freely. While an anecdote from Rome or other exotic locations often serves as a shorthand for this spark, this project is our attempt to pin down this elusive and intangible quality, so that we may discuss and design for it more intentionally and precisely.

Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, we are presented with the rare opportunity to re-examine the value of our physical spaces. Perhaps we can draw on some of these principles to design future environments, not only as something to be optimized for productivity and efficiency, but as pleasant and inspiring spaces to be in, wander around, and maybe encounter the unexpected.

  • Wenting Guo

    Senior Design Lead, IDEO Cambridge
    Wenting is a Senior Design Lead at IDEO Cambridge. With backgrounds in interaction and industrial design, Wenting leads projects exploring the intersection of physical and digital spaces.
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