Passion Points: Learning
Robert Kahn, the New York-based architect and founder of the wonderful travel book series City Secrets, first traveled to Europe at the age of thirty-two. The American Academy in Rome had awarded him one of their prestigious one-year fellowships; he ended up staying overseas for four years. “I would not recommend anyone wait that long to visit Europe,” says Kahn whose fifth travel book in the series (City Secrets Paris) will be published this May. “But the fact that I was older and had studied the city and its architecture for years made me incredibly focused on getting to the heart of it.”
Getting to the heart—passionate, beating, shifting, unique—of a place was also the impetus behind the City Secret guides, which Kahn founded almost on a whim. He was designing an apartment for a big-name actress, who was scheduled to shoot in Rome, when she asked him for some of his favorite places. Ever the passionate planner, Kahn reached out to the people he met at the American Academy in Rome (which he dubs the “Noah’s Arc of overachievers”), compiling a list of highly personal picks and recommendations.
Today the City Secrets Travel Series London, New York, Rome and Florence & Venice. Each of the books is made up of short essays by an impressive roster of contributors, from art historians and professors to novelists and architects. Readers can learn which three works the painter Brice Marden considers “destinations of sustenance” in New York City, what Venice restaurants are favorites of cookbook author Marcella Hazan; or what quirky hotel travel writer Pico Iyer likes in London. The fabulous Rome edition, in particular, is a trove of city secrets, from neighborhood walks and cultural hot spots to Roman rituals and streets not to miss.
Indagare spoke with Kahn about his favorite city secrets, the new Paris edition and tips for exploring a new destination.
What was the idea behind City Secrets?
There are many good guidebooks but by the very nature of needing to be comprehensive, they tend to be objective. Many try to cover a whole city and appeal to wide range of people. The City Secrets guides attempt to highlight information that you would not necessarily know about, even in a city you have visited many times. The books, with their extraordinary list of contributors, lead you to overlooked or under-appreciated places or tell you something new and unusual about well-known places.
Do you have an example?
In the Rome guide, art dealer and author James Barron decided to write about the Pantheon. It’s one of the best-known buildings in the world and a favorite of mine, and I thought I knew most everything about it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I did not know—and assume most people don’t—that on the Pentecost, at the end of the service, Roman firemen climb up the roof and drop thousands of red rose petals through the oculus. It’s an amazing Roman ritual and very beautiful. Another favorite, if slightly more frivolous, is Ditta Annibale Gammarelli, (34 Via di Santa Chiara; 39 6688 01314) a clerical shop (and the Pope’s tailor) where you can buy cardinal socks (fuchsia) and bishop socks (purple). And for those who worry that it’s sacrilegious: the owner of the shop, when asked whether his address could be included in the guide, said: “Yes please! Do you know how small my clientele is?”
You lived in Rome for a number of years. How has the city changed?
I personally thought that Rome would change forever when a law was passed requiring drivers of motorcycles and scooters to wear helmets. Seriously, in spite of the fact that Rome is now as full of global brands and tourists as any other major metropolis, the real depth and richness has never gone away. It’s one of the reasons we do these books. You can find amazing city secrets all around you, ones that exist as a part of everyday life. Even the most celebrated monuments are integrated into daily routines—kids play soccer beside the Pantheon—so nothing feels overly precious. There are some cities that are overwhelmed by their history and monuments; Rome just absorbs them. That has not changed.
How do you research a new destination?
I do exactly what we try to do with our books: call on the people who know a place best and ask their advice. I cannot think of a better way to see a city.
What do you do when you first arrive in a new place
I go wander. I try to find a place where I can have coffee or a glass of wine and sit and take in the people. It sounds easier than it is. Oftentimes we arrive in a new place with itineraries and to-do lists, but if you spend just a couple of hours wandering with no intent or purpose you may find it’s a lovely way to get a feel for a place.
What are some of your favorite finds that you “discovered” through contributors to City Secrets?
One of the most exciting things about the books is discovering not only the hidden secrets in a city but the ones I passed by everyday without knowing they existed. I lived in London about 50 feet from a doorway that, had I known, would have led me to the Roof Gardens 100 feet above Kensington High Street. They were designed in 1938 and contain, in one and half acres, a Spanish Garden, a Tudor Garden and an English Woodland with full grown fruit and oak trees, a stream stocked with fish and four resident flamingos. There is a restaurant and bar as well.
In New York, we walk by wonderful quirky things all the time. For instance on West 46th Street, right off Seventh Avenue, the old I. Miller shop façade features four sculptures that were designed by Alexander Stirling Calder (the father of Alexander Calder). They are of four well-know actresses at the time the building was built (1929) dressed as historic characters. The inscription on the building, just above the niches in which the actresses stand, says: “The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear.” The city is full of surprises like this.
I have probably been to the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo (Piazza di San Lorenzo; 39 289 61009) in Florence a dozen times. Thanks to one of our contributors, I learned that below it is a secret passageway where Michelangelo hid from the Medici’s for three days during the 1530 siege of Florence. Using pitch from a wall torch, he covered the walls and ceiling with drawings, sketches and doodles.
In Rome, my eyes were opened to Borromini, especially Sant’Ivo (40 Corso del Rinascimento; 39 686 800 125) and San Carlino (23 Via del Quirinale; 39 64 88 3261). I was lead to restaurants like Al Moro (13 Vicolo delle Bollette; 39 667 83495) by Danny Meyer or, the very local, Ar Galletto (102 Piazza Farnese; 39 66 86 1714) by the great classicist, Ingrid Roland. Poet Laureate, Mark Strand introduced me to Formaggiomania (47 Via Marmorata; 39 657 42 352), the best cheese store in Rome. I learned that the coffee at Sant’Eustachio is unbelievable, but go to Tazza d’Oro (84 Via degli Orfani; 39 6678 9792) for the granita di caffeè. Through our contributors I hunted down all the Caravaggios and Berninis. I discovered the odd and amazing Centrale Montemartini, (106 Via Ostiense; 39 6574 8042) where ancient art is displayed in the city’s first municipal electric power plant, inaugurated in 1912 and abandoned by the 1970s.
Who have been some of your favorite contributors?
That is, of course, an impossible question to answer. After all, our contributors include eleven Pulitzer Prize recipients, ten Oscar winners, six MacArthur “Geniuses,” two U.S. Poet Laureates and a Nobel Prize awardee. We have painters like Frank Stella and Brice Marden, restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Mario Batalli, the heads of major publishing houses, museum directors and more novelists, editors, and journalists they I can name. And then there are people like Judith Martin (Miss Manners), Mayor Koch, Oliver Sacks, Pete Seeger and on and on. I am partial to our contributors whose names you might not recognize but have spent a lifetime pursuing a subject and who write beautifully about it.
How long has City Secrets Paris been in the works?
For a long time, at least in my thoughts. It was one of the first cities we wanted to do but found it an overwhelming place to cover. I am thrilled how it’s come together. As Paris is a city in which I have not lived, I am, in many ways, also a reader of this book. I have already discovered so many things I didn’t know.
You are a renowned New York-based architect. What are some buildings that inspire you in your hometown?
New York City is my favorite place in the world. In terms of architecture, it does not have as many great individual buildings as one might imagine, but collectively they form an incredible city. The Chrysler Building and the Fuller Building stand out. They speak so well to a time and place. I love the ‘Little Singer Building’ and the Scribner Building (later the best book store in New York, Brentano’s, and now just another ubiquitous cosmetics store). Earnest Flagg designed both. Also, the great urban intruders like the Guggenheim or Rockefeller Center so enrich a city. And Grand Central Station inspires me, in particular the great hall. It is a building that has so many secrets. Almost anything done by McKim, Mead and White. And, of course, the parks, large and small. They are our piazzas.
Where do you dream of traveling and where are you going next?
I will surely return to our City Secrets cities: Rome, London, Paris, Venice, and Florence. Where I am dreaming of going is India. Two of my favorite architects, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, did some of their best buildings in India and I would love to see them. And rumor has it that there is a wonderful secret there – it’s called the Taj Mahal.
Read a selection of city secrets in Florence.
Read a selection of city secrets in Venice.
Read a selection of city secrets in Rome.
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