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If you could bring three books of choice to a desert island, what would they be? Yes. Yes. I have a kiddie activity in mind today, but I also have a desert island kind of selection to share in connection with the activity I’m imagining.

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Jeanette Winterson once said of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that if trapped on a desert island with only this one book she would still choose it as “pillow and plate”. I think that is perfect for Calvino’s book. Many introductory Architecture classes begin with this piece of Italian Literature, because it stirs the imagination for both built environments and city planning.

The book is an imaginative story-telling between the Venetian Marco Polo and the ruler Kublai Khan. It opens like so:

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at the evening, with the door of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after another, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat… Only in Marco Polo’s accounts  was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.”

zenobiaI started reading Invisible Cities, three years ago when I was auditing the Introduction to Phenomenal Architecture at the University of Toronto. Since that time I have developed an extraordinary relationship with this book that continues to inspire countless ideas, projects, conversations and thoughts. To say I love this book is an understatement – and yet I have only read the first 33 pages. I find that when I really love a book I begin to sip very slowly from its pages in an effort to physically express the desire for something (a book in this case) to never end. I blatantly refuse to read this book through and instead leaf back and forth over pages like a lover might slowly explore anything beloved. The book itself seems to relish such care as it has inspired countless imaginations, but especially those of architects. As Marco Polo describes each city to Kublai Khan – your own imagination must fill in its image – and each detail provides an extraordinary trove to dive into. To tantalize you a little, here is the first city detail:

Cities and Memory 1

Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theatre, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multi-coloured lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries “halloo!”, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.

This is the first description (and by no means the best), but you can see from its poetic flavour that nothing less than imaginative experience will provide these words life. And it has for many:
It is Calvino’s invisible cities that inspires me to do something architecturally interesting for Hunter. Thus, I began my hunt and also followed his own progress in his kindergarten class with relevant concepts. These are kindergarten children, so the concepts are at their most basic: shapes and environment. Through the school year I noticed that the students began with one-dimensional shape identification (circles, squares, semi-circles, rectangles and the like) and moved through to identifying in the world around them three-dimensional shapes including cylinders, cubes and domes. Hunter most definitely took to this activity as he still identifies cylinders and domes on drives around the city. I wanted to draw upon this interest by focusing on shapes, but more specifically, domes in architecture. To begin I will use a few of the art projects where we either draw or create collages of a cityscape to engage ideas of how shapes come together in both creating a building and planning a city street. Then, I want to introduce some ideas from this book that I purchased in a library book sale a number of years ago with my nephew in mind on Great Buildings:



I realize that the content in this book is too advanced for Hunter, but I’m thinking that simply identifying the domes in the pictures is a good start for exposure. I bought a laminated wall map from Coscto as well that Hunter loves – I’m thinking I might place where the building is on the map as well and just do a little talking about what each is, while keeping the main focus on the dome. Here are the domed buildings I’ve chosen:


11248251_10155812993585372_4236390244281109443_oI’ve tried to choose buildings that are representative of various period, style and location so as to be able to use the map a lot. This activity may take different days depending on the interest of Hunter, especially when sitting to look at a book, but something about Calvino stirs me to press this particular activity and end in an art project that allows us to put domes on our own built constructions in this particular painting activity:IMG_5268

IMG_5269three_little_pigs_1Further into this architecture theme, I would also like to incorporate an urban walkabout in the city, including the Art Gallery of Ontario as a place where we can read The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale together in a building designed (in part) by Frank Gehry:

The book is a funny little take on three architects (Gehry, Lloyd Wright, and Johnson) who act as the pig architects in the classic fairy tale.  Here’s the AGO front gallery designed by Gehry:


Even though we don’t have any buildings created by Frank Lloyd Wright or Phillip Johnson in Toronto, I am still thinking of ways to engage with them regardless. 5-3Pigs_singed tail-small

I love Falling Waters and can’t wait for the moment when I see it myself. While I think we might be able to think about its shapes through different wooden blocks, Hunter has never been one to sit and play very long with stacking blocks. So, I’ll probably refer to a fellow blogger: Create Art With Me to do the Frank Lloyd Wright “windows”.


Hunter and I have already engaged with another “shapes guy” – Piet Mondriaan and tried our hand at his art, so Wright will just tag onto that previous experience.

There you have it – all my thoughts, resources  and activities on architecture. Italo Calvino – so worth looking at and into if you are at all interested in this topic.

In fact, all this writing about beautiful buildings has stirred me to head off to the AGO this afternoon.