The Travelling Armchair

A Place in Mind: The Search for Authenticity
Published on June 1, 2010

A Place In Mind: The Search For Authenticity
Avi Friedman

Véhicule Press

In his most recent book, A Place in Mind: The Search for Authenticity, Montreal architect and McGill University professor Avi Friedman sets out across the globe to find and define the characteristics that create “positive” or “good” places – that is, places that engage us physically, emotionally, or spiritually. By “place,” Friedman refers to spaces or built environments in which we live, including homes, offices, restaurants, markets, and other public spaces. He is not the first in this quest. The search for the perfectly built environment (utopia, anyone?) has occupied thinkers, dreamers, and architects for centuries. These discussions are as vital as ever in the age of globalization and cyberspace, as the boundaries blur between nations and between the real and the virtual places we inhabit. What have we lost or gained by this blurring of boundaries? What defines a meaningful place in our contemporary world?

A Place in Mind is divided into 16 chapters, each beginning with a description of a different location. Whether he is in Tuscany, Tijuana or Iqaluit, Friedman uses his reaction to his surroundings as a springboard to reflect on different aspects of each place. In theory, this is a winning formula. With a few sentences, Friedman conjures up a teahouse in Istanbul or a market in China and these backdrops provide natural starting points, especially for a traveler, to ask questions about what works and what doesn’t in these different locales. Looking at high-density public housing in Hong Kong, for example, Friedman asks: “How did their occupants cope with noise, ventilation, garbage collection, and parking … ?” Rather than seek specific answers from the residents of Hong Kong, however, Friedman embarks on a general discussion about density: what it is, how the automobile contributed to the growth of the North American suburb, and so on, until readers have lost sight of the place in which Friedman started. In the end, readers learn nothing about what it is like to live in such a high-density area.

This choice to keep theory and practice separate limits the exploration of the very places that inspire Friedman. His observations remain superficial, slipping at times into cliché: the slums in Tijuana are poor but they have soul; the Osteria in Tuscany is warm and lively; the streets of downtown Fargo are cold and deserted on a February morning.

Friedman spends the rest of the time citing facts, and the bulk of the book reads like a historical survey of place. Readers learn how restaurants developed, when public markets gave way to supermarkets, the nature of public art, and the history of the modern office. Much of this material is fascinating and Friedman has carefully chosen his facts to provoke readers into thinking about how Western society got to where it is today. We spend more time indoors, watching television or sitting in front of the computer; we don’t walk as much as we used to; obesity is on the rise; and personal interaction is down. Things are bleak indeed.
Unfortunately, after cataloguing our modern woes, Friedman does not offer much in the way of solutions. We can, he tells us, “look to the past to discover what we ought to build in the future.” And looking to the past is essentially what Friedman does in A Place in Mind. While he does present examples of “good” contemporary places to emulate, the book is more an exercise in nostalgia than a guide to building the future; less a search for authenticity than an elegy to it. mRb

Maria Schamis Turner is the Editor of the online literary journal carte blanche.



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