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Italy January 8, 2011

Filed under: Travel — Greg @ 12:40 am

First, let’s briefly acknowledge the slacktitude of this blog and state that I promise to be better.

Now then.

(BTW, some pictures will be below, but all of them can be found on my website, linked to the right, or here; )

We arrived in Italy on 12/26 after a red-eye from Philadelphia. We were Envoy Class on US Airways, so don’t feel bad for us. I’m still undecided whether we should have done it going or leaving, but Rick assures me we would not have slept were we in coach and he’s probably right.

We went to our hotel and found our room ready and amenable.

12/26: Pantheon/Forum/Palatine Hill

  • The Pantheon is impressive and not to be missed; there is something solemn about it, despite the swarms of humanity.
  • The Forum is probably our #1 Rome experience, I think we decided. At a certain point, you have to have a moment where you go, “I’m walking where Julius freaking Caesar walked,” which is amazing and overwhelming. The scale of the Basilica of Maxentius is frankly ridiculous. Again, to think that about its size when it was whole is overwhelming.

  • For both the Pantheon and the Forum (and other sites later) we used Rick Steves’s audio tours (e.g.). Steves is almost intolerably cheesy when he gets on a roll. However, the guy knows how to do a tour that’s just the right amount and covers the important stuff. Largely, I was very pleased with our use of his tours and the Rome and Tuscany guidebooks.
  • The Palatine Hill thing was a great walkthrough of the remains of a palace. It’s really beautiful with great views.
  • We returned to the hotel at that point and met Dad and Erin for dinner nearby (all food discussions will be over at Chicken-Fried Caviar, another to-be-resuscitated blog) and then a relatively early night.

12/27: Vatican

As a soundly lapsed Catholic, I obviously have a complex relationship with the Vatican as a symbol and seat of power. As a place? Holy moley. If they wanted to build it to convince people to be Catholic, they succeeded, because I almost re-upped.

  • The Vatican Museum can become tedious after a while, but the Raphaels and other random rooms (animal statues!) are overall really impressive. Mitigating one’s experience is indeed the hordes of humanity going through it. It’s a hot mess.
  • The Sistine Chapel is really truly all it’s cracked up to be. Rick Steves really helped out here: being able to listen to the descriptions was great and a way to tuning out, again, the masses of humanity surrounding you. It is truly moving and fascinating.
  • We then used a Rick Steves trick to cut past lines into St. Peter’s and headed straight upstairs — literally up 550 stairs to the tippy-top where you can see all of Rome. It was sort of a backwards way of seeing the basilica, but it was sort of cool embracing the external enormity before going inside, which, well, cripes. Again, we were speechless at how impressive it was. Also, this is one of the first places I just started to really consider the amazing marble artistry from the Renaissance — how such a hard surface is made to appear light as a feather:

Just miraculous, which, I suppose is the point.

12/28: Colosseum/Capitoline Museum

  • Relatively early in the morning, we hit the Colosseum. It was interesting, but perhaps my least interesting place, frankly. I mean, I got the enormity of it all, and it was interesting imagining what happened there, but I do wish we could have gone into the lower level to those areas where the “performers” prepared:

  • However, somewhat unexpectedly, the Capitoline Museum was very impressive. In addition to having the She-Wolf and The Dying Gaul, it has the remaining wall of an ancient temple dedicated to Jupiter; for some reason it was really affecting, if only because of how enormous the temple actually was and how little of it remained. I really enjoyed this museum and think it’s probably #3 after the Forum and the Vatican.

12/29: Up to Tuscany

  • This was largely a travel day as we drove up to Vinci, outside of which we stayed at Streda. We popped into the very odd Leonardo museum in Vinci (seriously weird: there was nothing about the man himself, just a bunch of technical stuff about ideas he may or may not have had. Cool building though) before a stupendous dinner with host Claudio and his daughters. A brief tour of the view from Streda:

12/30: Florence

  • We got a ride from Vinci to Empoli, and from there trained to Florence. It might have been the dismal weather or travel fatigue, but I wasn’t overly in love with Florence. Certainly it was a welcome size change from Rome, being smaller and cozier, but I wasn’t all that impressed.
  • Part of that may have been with the Uffizi. Yes, it was something to see Botticelli’s Venus and other amazing works, but there were things lacking. First, the lighting was odd in rooms, with glare on the Venus and other works. Second, the “Tribune” was under construction, one of the more interesting rooms. Third, there were a relatively large amount of annoying people, which is never really good.
  • However, mitigating all of this was seeing the David at the Accademia. Again, I really wasn’t prepared for how affecting seeing this in person was. I really did linger for a long time with the statue, surrounding it, seeing it from various angles. I don’t know what it was, but it was really amazing. I took a picture against the rules with my phone.

  • Almost as interesting as Dave were the “prisoners” — the unfinished works still “trapped” in their blocks of marble. They were fascinating.

12/31: Volterra

  • We weren’t just copying Rick Steves’s suggestion; this hill town is also a favorite of Dad and Erin’s. We happened to go on a market day, so while parking was a pain, the town was excitingly filled with people.
  • I think this is the kind of Italy I’m more interested ultimately — the small town with crazy streets and new things around every corner. It was fun just walking around and coming across a paper store here or an alabaster factory there.
  • It’s also another Italian place that lives so easily with its history. Here’s the 5th Century BC arch that forms part of the wall around the city:

5th Century BC. And right before I took this a car was driving through. Their Roman theater ruins were largely unknown for centuries because it was where people had thrown their trash (not a great Italian trait, btw; the smoky haze from people burning trash around Vinci was a lowlight). It’s just crazy.

  • After Volterra, we returned for a quiet NYE watching a dubbed Independence Day and crazy Italian TV. And drinking. And flipvideo-taking:

1/1: Siena

  • Siena is great. Il Compo is an amazing piazza…where we had pizza. No, but it’s just a really interesting and enormous space:

  • And the town itself is like a hyper-Volterra — not as big as Florence, which I liked. Speaking of interesting, I found Siena’s Duomo to be perhaps my favorite church yet (OK, St. Peter’s probably still wins, but really, it’s not a fair fight). It was just very beautiful inside and out, and had a library with amazing murals and illuminated musical manuscripts. Just very cool. I was even inspired by the place to make an offering, my Catholicism finally erupting after all of the pressure during the trip.
  • Oh and we bought some sick table linens. Seriously.

1/2: Back to Rome

  • Dad and Erin dropped us back in Rome before they headed to Sicily. We tried for another trip to the Borghese Gallery (earlier we thought we had a reservation, but it was for the wrong day). I knew that it was pretty amazing, but I wasn’t really prepared for how much I just loved Bernini. The Apollo and Daphne is just sick.
  • We then went on a Rick Steves night stroll of Rome to conclude our trip. I don’t know if it was normal, but the streets were just jam-packed, and it was very cool to see a city so alive with people and stuff to see and do. The Trevi fountain didn’t disappoint, strangely enough.

Indeed, very little was disappointing on this trip. The sights that I had heard so much about were truly awe-inspiring for the most part. The people were gracious and warm. The travel was largely easy (customs in Philadelphia being the exception). All of that being said, I don’t know if I need to immediately return to the larger cities, having seen much of what I feel like I needed to see. I would go back in a heartbeat though to the smaller towns and to Tuscany to experience that “normal” life of Italy. If you haven’t been to Rome, I think you really must, and I’m so grateful to Erin and Dad for allowing us to do so!

 

Las Vegas January 5, 2010

Filed under: Travel — Greg @ 10:37 pm

Our latest trip to Vegas began on December 19th, which you may remember was the start of the latest blizzard of the century. Our drive to the airport saw the roads get progressively worse. When we finally arrived at the airport, all flights after 10am were cancelled; our flight at 8:25 was still going. The check-in rep was none too optimistic, though I was. We got on the plane and got in line to be de-iced. Two hours later we found ourselves on the de-icing pad when the pilot told us that the runways were closed . . . to be plowed; the plane that just got de-iced was now screwed since they’d have to get back in line to be de-iced. The runways opened, we got de-iced, and somehow we got off the ground, though three hours later than we were supposed to. Still though, we felt lucky, and really whatever winnings we would or would not get in Vegas would be gravy frankly.

After another hour’s delay in Pittsburgh, we arrived in Vegas four hours late and slightly stir crazy after being on a plane for over 10 hours. We grabbed our rental car and headed to Palazzo to meet Sara and Chris and check in to our two comped rooms (we were originally going to be at Mirage, but after getting a last-minute offer from Palazzo, we switched. We were both shocked to get the offer because our gambling doesn’t really warrant the offer, but we weren’t going to point that out to them). After a successful $20 trick to get us both Strip views, we dropped our stuff, saw Sara, Chris and friends Andy and Irene for a quick drink at Carnevino before heading down the Strip for our traditional amble. We dropped in at  O’Shea’s for craps, Bill’s for some Blackjack, and Planet Hollywood for slots, we finally made it to the just-opened Aria at the still-opening CityCenter. The place is nice and has some great spaces and design, but I found the casino area too dark for my tastes. We met up with Sara and Chris, who had gone to a preview of the new Elvis-themed Cirque show (which they thought was very rough), and attempted to get dinner at Julian Serrano; I say “attempted” because after a few minutes of being ignored by the six harried hosts at the desk, I decided that was a bad omen and so we cabbed back to Palazzo where we had a tasty dinner of tacos at Dos Caminos. After some brief gambling, we headed to bed since we were ti-red.

The next morning, we walked over to what would be my home forever were I to have as much money as possible: Wynn. We played there for a bit before heading down to Mandalay Bay where we had lunch with everyone at RM Seafood (my review). After an afternoon at Caesars shopping and partaking of the Diamond Lounge, Rick and I headed downtown where we were spending the night at the Golden Gate. Yes, we were staying at Palazzo, but right before we left, I got a deal for a room at the Golden Gate for $9.99. Comped is one thing, but a room for $9.99? Come on! The room was small, but clean and recently renovated. It was also on the top floor right next to the Fremont Street Experience canopy, but more on that later. We then commenced our tour of downtown with stops at Golden Gate for funbook coupon fun (matchplays! margaritas!) and Goldfish 2 slots, Golden Nugget for Jokers Wild slots (joker! joker! joker!), Four Queens for video poker, Fitzgeralds for blackjack with some seriously drunk middle-aged Midwestern cigar smokers, and El Cortez for more video poker. We were finally hungry, so we went back to Bay City Diner at the Golden Gate for a coupon-reduced grubbing meal of meatloaf and chicken-fried steak which completely hit the spot. We were still awake so we went to Main Street Station and found a new-to-me We Will Rock You! Queen slot machine and then played some great craps (great meaning that the crew was cool and not bored and great meaning that I won). After a slightly depressing turn at blackjack at the Plaza (the place was depressing, not the blackjack) we headed to bed. They were testing the New Year’s Eve show as we turned in, so it ended pretty quickly, but had we wanted to go to bed earlier, there’s no way we would have been able to, the noise and lights were so present in our tiny canopied room. So, here’s a takeaway: if you want to go to bed before midnight at Golden Gate, request a room away from the canopy.

The next morning we took advantage of another coupon and got a 2fer breakfast at the passable Golden Nugget buffet. Feeling up for more gambling, we hit Main Street Station for more video poker and then Golden Nugget for some entertaining play on some Ann-Margret Viva Las Vegas slots. We then headed back to Palazzo to shower, where we met up with the gang. They were in search of lunch, so we walked with them to Encore, where they ate and we gambled on some slots, and I miraculously hit a good amount on Wizard of Oz slots, which I never do. Chris is a fan of the show Pawn Stars so we drove there and gawked along with everyone else and then headed to Whole Foods for supplies after determining M was likely too far to get to with the time we had. Back at Palazzo we got ready and then met for champagne before cabbing down to dinner at the extravagant, insane, and wonderful Joel Robuchon (my review). After our 330-minute meal, Rick and I walked back to Palazzo. Along the way, we were propositioned by one lady of the evening and several strip club promoters, likely due to us being dressed well. Ahh, Vegas.

The next morning we headed to Bellagio to take our Xmas card pictures and gambled a bit before taking a more extensive tour of City Center, which I think is pretty impressive, though not very pedestrian friendly. The public artwork though on the whole is pretty cool, and I found even more interesting design elements. We finally headed over to Mandalay Bay to meet the gang for lunch at Burger Bar (my review), after which we bade adieu to Andy and Irene. We then trucked up to to Mirage where we went to the Siegfried and Roy “Secret Garden” where there were dolphins (fine), lions (loud), and, most importantly, tigers, including two baby ones. They were insanely cute and wonderful and I want four of them (pics at Stonesthrow). After that, Rick and I headed back to Wynn to gamble, because, to review, we’re addicts. I managed to win for a change, thanks to getting four deuces on Deuces Wild, which was a nice $250. We met up with Sara and Chris for drinks at Double Helix at Palazzo and then dinner at Enoteca San Marco (my review), which was followed by a fancy champagne drink at Laguna Bar, oddly placed in the middle of the Palazzo, which itself is oddly designed. After all of that drinking, some slightly inebriated gambling ensued to round out our trip. Natch.

It was another great trip to Vegas with some good times with friends and some insane food. The gambling wasn’t all that great, but not nearly as bad as it has been in the past. We got to do some things we hadn’t yet done, so that was good, but there are of course things left to do for a future trip….Hmmm, maybe I should start planning.

 

Welcome Mat December 1, 2009

Filed under: Architecture/Planning,Travel — Greg @ 1:07 am

Yeah, so hi.

Anyway. We bought a new welcome mat this weekend; the old one had gotten worn to the nubbins.

Not the point of this post actually. Metaphors ahead.

We had the good fortune to spend Thanksgiving in Arizona at the manse of my Uncle Jack. His lovely home (casita! pool! fountains!) is located in Sun Lakes, a relatively old Phoenix suburb that caters to the 55+ crowd; indeed, one must be of a certain age to live there. Aunt Judy has lived there for quite a while, so I was relatively familiar with it, but Uncle Jack lives in a newer section called Oakwood.

As we drove around the area over the next few days, I realized just how messed up the design of this community is. At least to me. First, it is a maze of streets that circle around each other as they devour (ok, surround) the golf courses they contain. Here’s the map, with Oakwood on top and Judy’s section below it across Riggs. Certainly there aren’t as many of the cul-de-sacs that dominate suburbs, but the streets are almost comically anti-grid. Someone joked that this was so the old people wouldn’t get lost — eventually they would find their way home since it was just one big circle. Mean, but perhaps true. However, these developments are also profoundly residential: to get to any service or business, one must leave the gated community and travel on a busy road, but I’ll get to that below.

More shocking to me though was the resolute refusal to interact with the street. As New Urbanists will argue, the life of a neighborhood depends on relatively close quarters, with homes interacting not so much with each other, but with the public space — the street. Thus, let’s not have broad thoroughfares running through neighborhoods; let’s have small streets where cars cannot go fast and homes that face each other aren’t separated by a concrete chasm. And, let’s have sidewalks. Not in Oakwood: there aren’t sidewalks. Oh, actually, there are places to walk, but the paths run between homes, far away from the street. I can see the safety concern here, but on a practical level, it means that people don’t walk in front of their neighbors’ homes; they are hidden away, preventing them from interacting with anyone.

Even if there were sidewalks, they probably wouldn’t be able to interact anyway because the houses are almost angrily inward facing. Garages are the closest parts of homes to the street; any human parts of the homes are hidden behind fences or gates. Any human interactions must be planned. Not that I’m a big neighbor person, but there is almost no way a person living here could say hello to their neighbor in a random interaction.

I will acknowledge that much of this may make sense: it is not like seniors will be cavorting outside in 125-degree weather; people like privacy; desert landscaping is not exactly inviting in the first place. However, I do think that the ideals of New Urbanism could ideally fit senior living. I know that my gregarious grandmother added years to her life by escaping from a similar community where she was isolated from everyone else; seniors who may have mobility issues would surely benefit from a community which allowed for even encouraged interaction between humans, not just cars. Further, what sense does it make to force these same people to get into their cars to do anything? Why not make the community slightly more dense and integrate businesses, services, and homes? Indeed, this would even serve our planet, with everyone zooming a half-mile in their golf cart to the quickie mart instead of getting into their car to go to the grocery store.

I liked Jack’s house a lot, but I do think that the kind of design that is available for people who have retired is counter-intuitive, potentially dangerous, and certainly unfriendly: if no one can see your welcome mat from the street, does it even exist?

 

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SWha? September 3, 2009

Filed under: Travel — Greg @ 5:28 pm

I read on one of my Vegas messageboards (don’t judge) that Southwest is instituting a new “EarlyBird” policy: basically, you can pay $10 to check in and get your boarding number 36 hours before your flight leaves, and hus before the huddled masses check in 24 hours before the flight leaves.

I have mixed feelings. First, Southwest has made public statements indicating that they are likely not going to go down the path to hell that other airlines have and charge people for checking bags (Aside: I cannot tell you what hell traveling on US Airways was with everyone trying to cram 18 carry-ons in the overheads). So, they need another revenue stream, and this seems like a fairly benign way of doing it.

$10 is a tempting price for many people. It’s really not that much, but is it too much that you wouldn’t be willing to “risk it” to just check in with everyone else? For me, it’s likely a yes: unless everyone and their brother pays for it, I’m still going to get an A-level boarding number, which means I will still be able to get an aisle seat, though it might be a little further back than I am used to. Another option when not traveling solo is to have one person buy the EarlyBird, and have them save seats. It’s a little evil, but it’d work.

We’ll see what happens with this: if there are reports that when people check in at the 24-hour mark and start getting B boarding passes, then there might be a flurry of people ponying up the $10. I don’t think that will happen though: too many people who fly Southwest are incredibly cheap and, to put it kindly, not very travel-savvy, so I don’t think they’ll even know what the EarlyBird option is.

 

Chicago August 31, 2009

Filed under: Travel — Greg @ 10:40 pm

So, we had a Southwest credit to blow through, so we needed a SW destination that we wanted to actually go to and spend a long weekend. We’ve been to Chicago before, but either for not very long or during the winter. So, it was decided.

We found a good rate at the Intercontinental right on Michigan Ave, and it was a good hotel with nice rooms and a good staff. And, you couldn’t beat the location. We arrived in the morning and took the orange line from Midway to the hotel. We ended up buying a $14 3-day pass that was so convenient, in part because the CTA system is incredibly easy to use and largely convenient.

We got a room and just sort of puttered about, visiting Navy Pier and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which had a really cool exhibit from Olafur Eliasson, the guy who did those waterfalls under the NYC bridges. One piece, Beauty, was really captivating. Soon it was time for our tour of Wrigley, which was awesome: so much history, and just so cool to be right there in the dugout, press box, and locker room (see pictures of this and our visit to US Cellular at Stonesthrow). We then walked through Boystown and then on to a dinner of deep dish pizza at Giordano’s (I’ll be spooling out reviews of our eats at my review site, Chicken-Fried Caviar, starting with…).

Frontera Grill started us off right on Saturday, and then it was off on our architecture river cruise, which was a great way to see the city and relax (pics from this and our visit to Oak Park are also at Stonesthrow). We toddled a bit more and then it was time to train to US Cellular to see the O’s vanquish the White Sox and their fascism for not letting us upper-deckers see the lower deck AT ALL. Evil. And you have a meh stadium to begin with, so there.

Sunday morn, we headed out to Oak Park to soak up all of the wonderful Frank Lloyd Wright-ness of it all. Truly great, and a lovely little neighborhood. We then went back downtown to take in more of Millenium Park and its wackiness. We also partook of some urban putt-putt at the devilish greens at Grant Park, and also partook of some nice sangria while doing so. It was then time to prepare for our fabulous dinner at mk (review forthcoming) and then a stroll along Michigan Ave. one last time.

The next morning we rented a car and headed north to Six Flags, where we road some decent enough coasters, but were more impressed by the cleanliness and nice theming in the park. We then headed to the airport for our trip home (well, Rick went on to Denver for work).

Chicago really impressed me. I’d love to go back and hit the myriad things we didn’t do (Art Institute, Field Museum, an actual Cubs game, Robie House, among others), and get another taste of some fine Chicago vittles. Definitely on the return to list.

 

Yank August 18, 2009

Filed under: Architecture/Planning,Baseball,Travel — Greg @ 7:31 am

The Yankee Stadium I visited a few times was, frankly, underwhelming. It may have been storied at one point, but it certainly had none of the amenities of the newer parks, nor did it have the feel of the next oldest parks I have been to — Fenway and Dodger Stadium. I didn’t see all the fuss.

With the new Yankee Stadium, I was looking forward to something more: adding all of the great amenities and perhaps adding in some charm. Frankly, they did neither. It’s a waste of an opportunity.

The exterior is mammoth, as befits the egos of the Yankees and many of their fans:

DSCN1211

I’m actually fine with the gargantuan proportions. I find the enormous signs for the gates (look through the trees) out of scale and unnecessary, and the gilt lettering of the stadium is both tacky and oddly formal. I know they want it to be temple, but really.

You enter into the “Great Hall”:

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Like some Venturi-esque atrium (see the Seattle Art Museum or Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery), the Great Hall has potential, but there almost nothing there: it is just an elevator lobby and nothing more. Citizens Bank Park doesn’t have all that great an entrance, really, but at least you walk in and see home plate. Safeco of course has art a-plenty (including the whimsical “Tempest” at its entrance), which Yankee Stadium eschews.

We wanted to take advantage of the ability to walk around and still see the ballfield, an ability which they thankfully incorporated in the new design. So, we hiked up to the proper level and walked around. Concessions were more diverse and plentiful, so that was a definite improvement. However, once we were done with our walkabout, it was next to impossible to get to our seats in the upper level. We had to walk down a ramp (no stairs or elevator were available) to the Great Hall, and then take an elevator back up. Seriously. It was the most convoluted set-up I have ever seen. It was as if they wanted people to get to that main level, but then forgot that people had to actually sit somewhere. Incredibly stupid.

Our seats were high up, but the views of the field weren’t all that bad. However, the views of the stadium were as good as they can be when you have every available square foot devoted to advertising. I’m not some purist here, but there is a way that you can do it, and this isn’t it.

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I also understand that there isn’t all that much to look at, unlike Citizens Bank Park or Safeco. However, there is a uniquely New York feature that they could have incorporated: the subway. They could have raised the scoreboard ten feet, and the fans could have seen the subway go back and forth. OK, it’s not that exciting, but it is something.

Overall, it’s just incredibly disappointing, and the new Yankee Stadium might rank as one of the worst major league parks I’ve been to, if only because they had such an opportunity (even with the site and “historical” constraints) to do something truly special and interesting.

Soon, I’ll be seeing a game at my sixteenth major league park (US Cellular Field) and taking a tour of another (Wrigley). Just in case you’re curious, here’s my complete list:

AL East: Fenway, both Yankee Stadiums, Oriole Park at Camden Yards

AL Central: Comerica Park, Metrodome

AL West: Safeco, Kingdome, Angels Stadium, Oakland/Alameda Coliseum

NL East: Citizens Bank Park, the Vet (I really do need to see the Nats’ stadium at least)

NL Central: PNC Park, Great American

NL West: Dodger Stadium

Top 5: Safeco, Citizens Bank Park, PNC, Fenway, Camden Yards

Top ones yet to visit: AT&T, Petco, and Kauffman, because I love me some waterfalls

 

Above it All August 16, 2009

Filed under: Architecture/Planning,Travel — Greg @ 10:41 pm

I’m clearing out the drafts folder, so here goes.

When we were in NYC for Donna’s glorious nuptials, we did a good deal of walking and decided to explore the High Line. For those of you not aware, they’ve taken over elevated train tracks and converted into a public park, and it is simply genius. The perspective offered was amazing, and I really could not get enough of it. It meanders and includes quirks enough to offer interest as well as public and slightly more private spaces.

For example, there are chaises longues on which to relax:

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Thus, you create a space where there is some privacy as well as a clear thoroughfare.

The vegetation right now is sparse, but included in planters right now that are ingenious:

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Symbolically like the “park” itself — a green space infiltrating a decidedly non-green space, the vegetation seems to be breaking out of the concrete, creating an almost literal concrete jungle.

Rather than seeing these elevated tracks as objects to be destroyed, and nothing left but streetscape below them, someone got the bright idea to re-purpose them, creating a pedestrian thoroughfare that is already popular and a destination — apartments are already being built to feature the space. Such creativity and intelligence — I only wish other cities would think this way about objects and spaces before immediately calling in the wrecking ball.