When I was a teenager, my family took a trip across Mexico.

One day in the city of Morelia (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), my father left us with my mother so we could spend the day by the hotel pool. He told us he was going to “get lost.” This took place in the 1980s — long before your smartphone could, at any moment, precisely locate you in relation to the geography of our world. His idea was to wander through the old streets of this Mexican city with no map, no defined destination, and no major sites to see.

He wanted to get a glimpse of the real city and its people, a reality that that he rightfully imagined existed outside the frequented tourist sites.

This idea of getting lost in a new place has always stuck with me, and on many of my own travels I have done exactly this, set off to explore an unknown city with no concrete knowledge of how to get home. But recently I recognized that one could get “lost” even in the most familiar of places, and in so doing, come to a new understanding of that which has perhaps become overly familiar.

Earlier this summer, Professor Amy Hinckley and I led a group of 13 University of Maine at Augusta architecture students on a 10-day trip across Detroit and Chicago.

UMA Architecture Students sketching in Detroit.

UMA Architecture Students sketching in Detroit.

This travel course traced the seeds of architectural Modernism, starting in Detroit with the factories of Albert Kahn and leading up to the modern masterpieces of Ludvig Mies van der Rohe found in Chicago. Personally, I had never been to Detroit, and hadn’t been to Chicago in more than two decades.

As a group, we saw some amazing buildings and places. But what remains bright in my imagination are the people we met, and their day-to-day reality we came in contact with. The humanity of these cities, each with a vibrant past, offered us a view into other ways of living and of the making of a place.

These insights, beyond the historical significance of our tour, gave our students (and this professor) an expanded view of themselves as architects and members of a community. Their explorations will affect whom they are as designers and as individuals for years to come.

As I write this, I am traveling in northern California visiting family (I grew up about 20 miles south of San Francisco). Last Thursday we spent the day in San Francisco, a city I lived in for much of my 20s. Returning now with my two young children, we discovered a variety of places that I never knew existed: Buena Vista Park, China Beach, as well as a variety of restaurants and stores.

One of the most wonderful places we explored was Corona Heights Park. After a short but strenuous hike up a small mountain (San Francisco lives up to its hilly reputation), we were astonished by panoramic views of San Francisco; it was truly breathtaking.

The view of downtown San Francisco from the top of Corona Heights Park.

The view of downtown San Francisco from the top of Corona Heights Park.

As exciting as the views were, equally as interesting for me was the deeper understanding of physical relationships across the city that this park presented me. This hilltop park linked a former workplace with a neighborhood where I used to live, and in so doing remade those places again, all within a larger context. But maybe most surprising was that this rocky park is only a five-minute walk from an apartment where I lived for almost two years and I never knew it was there. As we continued to explore the city, places that I had known singularly were connected. The addition of these unknown places to my history offered me a new perspective, both physically and abstractly, of a place that I thought I knew so well.

Whether milling among thousands of Chicagoans at Millennium Park or breathing in the solitude of Corona Heights, these new experiences were invigorating. They were also a reminder that whether I am traveling to a foreign place, or simply walking a new street in my adopted hometown, I must keep in mind that continued exploration helps to create and re-create relationships of the people and places that exist around me.

I’m reminded that getting lost while traveling is in some way as beautiful as whatever our final destinations themselves may hold.

 

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