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Much to the east on the island of Crete, in the Gulf (Bay) of Mirabelo, this little seaside community sits between a lake and the Aegean Sea. A canal was cut to connect the two waterways in 1867, and this added even more waterfront to the town. The delights of waterways is taken advantage of in typical European fashion: that of setting up hundreds of tables and chairs immediately adjacent, for outdoor refreshments (eating and drinking), and just plain people-watching and meeting. A lot of communities throughout history congregated in communal fashion, both in and out of doors, depending upon climate and time of year. Such gathering sometimes involved utilitarian functions (communal cooking, for instance), but as we will see here and throughout Europe, so much of life is lived out of doors.

What is sometimes quite disturbing today is that local politicians in the United States, in charge of governmental entities, react negatively to simple requests by restaurants to place tables and chairs on sidewalks. These controllers of our daily lives and sometimes self-proclaimed "protectors” of our lifestyles, all spout the same nonsensical reason for their guardianship of the chaste sidewalks: "well, it might be popular in Europe, but we're not Europeans!" to quote an elected official in Coral Gables, Florida. Interesting, but since so many of us are descended from Europeans, and even if we're not, we eat, drink, breathe the same, our senses are the same, and so, too, are our pleasures.

Here in Agios Nikolaos, you can see the umbrella and awning-shaded tables. The waterfront is for people to enjoy and to take pleasure and delight in. It is not for hoteliers to build directly into the water, barring normal people from the water's edge. Miami Beach, for example, until taxpayer money paid to create a beach in front of hotels and condominiums, was built just about in the Atlantic Ocean. Rumor had it that bulldozers had been placed in the ocean, pushing sand onto an artificially created high-tide line, so hotels could take as much area as possible.

A little-known fact is that in the State of Florida, we, the people, "own" the land between high and low tides. That is very gracious of the State, but think about setting up a picnic in that space; further consider what happens to your blanket and food when the tide comes in. Nobody does. But our European ancestors did consider public access to water. Water used to be the life-blood of communities, both literally as well as figuratively. And so we can learn from places such as Agios Nikolaos.

In fact, we have to learn as much from history as we can. The question of relevancy can enter here, because we don't just study abstractions removed from reality; we can and should relate to what we see here in this course. One such way follows.

One spot in Miami Beach, the now internationally popular SoBe (South Beach), owes its entire popularity to the fact that a city planner widened the existing sidewalk opposite the beach from 2.7 tp 4 meters (9 to 13 feet), allowing a row of tables and chairs to be placed adjacent to the street (Ocean Drive) between the hotels and the beach. This is the only spot on the beach where hotels are not on the ocean, but were placed across the street. Instantly, restaurants sprung up in formerly shuttered or dilapidated Art Deco hotels, and spilled over onto their sidewalks. There are so many people entertaining themselves in this delightful ambiance that the biggest urban problem resulting is a lack of adequate parking.

The popularity got ahead of the infrastructure, which led to another problem. In what had to be downright orneriness, a local citizen sued the City of Miami Beach in 1998 for not having enough toilet facilities. The restaurants had been designed to accommodate indoor customers, and the sudden popularity of outdoor dining - not only on existing porches, around pools, in every nook and cranny - but also on the newly widened sidewalk, exceeded the theoretical design capacity of existing restroom facilities. Had the suit been successful, every restaurant would have had to shut down. However, in Europe, people manage. There does not seem to be a stampede on toilet facilities, or on lawsuits. Too much government can be a hindrance economically, architecturally, and aesthetically.

But back to Agios Nikolaos. There is what can be called a variegated skyline. The up and down of elements and of heights make this place interesting and exciting. There is no deadly monotony of a one-height façade. This height differentiation, and the ins and outs of building components, is accompanied by a constant change in color. Major principles to learn. Nothing like typical suburban shopping centers done in one, perhaps two, if we are lucky, washed-out 'colors of the decade,’ sometimes looking as though all the local developers partook in a paint can give-away.

Agios Nikolaos is alive. It is vital; it has an air of exuberance. Tables and chairs absolutely everywhere. Every conceivable inch of space is utilized for the joy of urban participation. Especially noticeable is that the most interesting spots - the connections of lake, canal, and sea, are accessible to people, and are packed with seating facilities. These views are major lessons in design. There is charm, a sense of delight, and as the expression goes, a ”feast for the eyes.” There is no monotony, no artificial imposition of symmetry. There is casualness, and above all, a sense of scale to human beings. It is a very popular travel destination. Is your local community?

It is sad that too often history texts deal solely with monuments of the past. While there are, of course, reasons to study these monuments - they are often all that remains of their time and place, and do teach us about structural development. Monumental structures are the lifeblood of this course. But ordinary buildings catering to ordinary people are usually neglected. And there is so much to learn from them. Again a quick comparison to South Beach: the original Art Deco buildings are also scaled to people, rarely more than 3 or 4 stories in height. They are being visually crushed by new gigantic high-rises, completely out of scale to people or the neighborhood. People are more comfortable when not overpowered by buildings while pursuing their daily routine. Agios Nikolaos, rarely reported upon, is an urban delight, much to be emulated.

The constant eating and drinking might make you think that all Europeans must be obese, but the opposite seems to be true. Proximity to food all day probably adds to metabolic burning of fat. What also helps is the absence of automobiles in so many pedestrian-friendly areas. People get out of their cars and walk. And the greater the number of people out on the street, the safer the neighborhood. Planners know this. We, architects and planners, are all taught about these things. It just becomes difficult selling freedom to some politicians. Back to the aforementioned Coral Gables, located in Miami-Dade County, Florida, which reluctantly granted a restaurateur the 'right' to place ten (10), count 'em, ten chairs with accompanying tables, on his sidewalk. One city commissioner vehemently opposed the exception in what locals like to call 'The City Beautiful,' asking: "We don't want another South Beach here, do we?" You can bet that the Coral Gables police count the number of chairs daily. Heaven forbid there should be eleven.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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