My encounter with the ideas of Japanese architect Kiko Mozuna in 1987 (described in my previous blog) elevated my attention to the personality of place, and occurred at the time when I got my first city planning job, in Saint Paul, MN - 250 miles northwest of my graduate school home of Madison, WI.
Mozuna's concept for educational plazas in Kawasaki included the idea that both the city and the plaza neighborhoods had personalities. From a city perspective, his proposed plazas would be seven chakras, energizing complementary characteristics of the city's body. But he also imagined each plaza as embodying one of the seven "gods of good fortune" that are prominent in Japanese popular spirituality. As such, each plaza would have its own distinctive personality while simultaneously contributing to the personality of the city.
An intriguing concept, I thought, but how to translate such a perspective into an American context? Surely it was much easier to personify places in Shinto Japan than in a secular US city. While learning the ropes of my new job, I simultaneously brooded on this question and sought resources that could help me answer it. I was especially motivated by comments from Saint Paul old-timers who would typically tell me that I couldn't possibly understand their city unless I had lived there my entire life. And yet, I'd had an experience of gaining some level of understanding of a city in far-off Japan by approaching the place with meditatively-inspired intuition. Couldn't I do the same in Saint Paul if I had the right tools to help me?
Four years after moving to Saint Paul I made a discovery that provided me with valuable insight into how to think of even secular American places as having genuine personality. That's when I learned about an organization in Texas called the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, co-founded in 1978 by James Hillman and several other depth psychologists. Hillman, I learned, had spent his career working to restore the idea that the world and all of its features are ensouled - and that our life in the world should consist of recognizing and honoring soul and personality in all things. At the Dallas Institute this meant reflection on the soul of the city of Dallas and its neighborhoods, and translating that reflection into creative engagement with the past, present and future of the city.
I first encountered people from the Dallas Institute at a 1991 conference on "Art and the Sacred" that they conducted in Santa Fe. By that time Hillman was not actively invoked with the institute, but I met its two co-directors, Gail Thomas and Robert Sardello. After a brief conversation with Sardello, he proclaimed that he wanted to come to the Twin Cities to study with me. And that's when things began to get really interesting, as I'll describe in my next blog.