A square meter of soul | Kristel Vereecken | TEDxGhent
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Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven A couple of months ago, I tour-guided a very respectable
Indian couple living in the United States. He was a CEO; she was a doctor. They told me they wanted to see
as much as humanly possible in a two-hour tour’s time. And that’s what I did. I remember them very well. It was a sunny afternoon. I took them up the Saint Michael’s bridge, down to the harbor, to the castle. We crossed the Friday market. We tasted chocolate. We even talked to locals, and, yes, he asked a million questions, and she took a million pictures. All went well, actually,
until we reached the cathedral. “Do we really need
to visit this, Kristel?” he said, “We are not so much
into churches, you know.” “Well,” I said,” you don’t have to, but, you know, this is the place where you can see
the world-famous Ghent altarpiece. This is a must-see in Ghent.” They looked at each other. I could tell they hadn’t the faintest idea
what the altarpiece was about, but most of all, they worried that the visit
would eat up too much time of the tour. But, hey, I convinced them anyway. And there we were, in the dim chapel, facing the massive Ghent altarpiece. It had been painted by van Eyck – or “van Ike” in English – about 500 years ago. I could tell they were impressed, and so I briefly introduced them
to the symbolism, the technique, and the wonderful detailing
van Eyck is famous for. “Kristel, can we take a picture?” “I’m afraid not,” I said, “but you know what? You can take your time – all you need – and I will wait for you
outside the chapel.” Now, when they finally came out, everything about them had changed: He was in thoughts, with his arms around her shoulders, and she was is in tears. “Thank you so much for bringing us here,”
she said through her tears, “It all came back, you know. We thought we coped, but now, here …” And then they shared with me
how they lost their child the year before. You can imagine the rest
of the tour was different. They were more open, more relaxed, more connected; they were a couple. Now, the point I want to make here is that the transformation
of the couple was visible, it was substantial, and it was real. And I wondered whether this
would have happened if the Ghent altarpiece
would have been put up in a museum. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go to medieval rooms
in museums all over the world, it always strikes me how they
tend to attract very few visitors. I took a picture –
the picture you see here is the medieval art room
of the museum in Princeton, but it could have been any other museum, because it always comes down to a collection
of exquisite, single pieces that clearly belong
to a very specific place, as most medieval art is, by the way. It is as if by disconnecting the art
from the place it is made for, it loses its attraction, its inspiring value, its soul. Believe it or not, the same terrible fate
awaited the Ghent altarpiece, especially since it undergoes
a very expensive restoration. There were some policy makers in Ghent who were coming up with the idea
that we should have a museum just for it. You can imagine,
in what a state of shock I was. But also, how happy I was the day
I found out that the tide has turned, and that the decision was made that the Ghent altarpiece
will stay in the Cathedral, no matter what, and that money, time and effort will be invested
to accommodate it even better. So, that’s good news for you
because now you will be able, as the Indian couple, to fully enjoy its power, its inspiring value and its soul. Now the key question, of course,
in all of this is the following: Can places have a soul? Take the cathedral: Over a thousand years, a place where people come
to mourn, to pray, to celebrate. Is this cathedral nothing more than some mere, albeit beautiful
and impressive, square meters? Or is the consolation,
the inspiration and the reflection that people clearly experience in it just as a real as the ancient
stones it is built with? And if so, what is the value of that? What is the value
of a square meter of soul? You know, when I walk
from my apartment to my office, I often take a shortcut
through the cathedral. I always enter by the green
wooden door at the side and then exit through the main entrance. I used to rush through it with my laptop in one hand
and my smartphone in the other. But one day, I slowed down my step
and sat down for a minute. I looked up and let my mind run free. When I arrived in my office later, I experienced that those couple of minutes really empowered me,
grounded me, relaxed me; and it turned out to be
a perfect morning workout. Now, I’m sure you all
know places like that, and it doesn’t have to be
a religious place. It can be any place
you are intuitively drawn to. You know, those places with a vibe. It can be the bench in the park
you love to read on or these typical, old cafes where people, for generations sometimes, come to meet. Or those small, iconic shops in the city, you know, where you enter,
and you really smell the history in it. You know, these kind of places – the places that sit
and feel right, you know. These places are valuable; these places are the heart
and the soul of a city, and still, too often,
we take them for granted. As it goes with most things of value, we realize its value the most
when we are the verge of losing it: the day you find out
your favorite place has been destroyed or converted into something
that it is not at all. Let me take you for that
to a favorite hangout place in Ghent, the Graslei-Korenlei. This used to be a medieval port,
since the 12th century, so to speak, and it has everything
that comes along with a port: restaurants, shops, bars. Imagine boats were loaded
and unloaded there, and everything went well until the 60s because then we dug
a huge canal around Ghent which made this port obsolete. So our policymakers, they were thinking
and thinking and thinking, and the most creative thing
they could come up with was this: a parking lot with not a living soul out there. Luckily for us, we came back
to our senses in the 90s, and we restored it back
to its original function, albeit a port for pleasure boats. I remember very well that as soon as
that conversion was made, everybody suddenly seemed to notice
the potential of the Graslei-Korenlei; everybody wanted to be there, you know, and it stayed like this as today. The moment we plugged
right into the soul of the place, it became the hot spot
that it still is in Ghent. Now the Graslei-Korenlei
is a great conversion as we not only invested time,
money and effort in the restoration
of the medieval backdrop of it, but also in the restoration
of the original function of it. However, it is not always like that. And yet, conversions of places, they are very tricky, but they are more trendy than ever. In that context, I want to show you
a picture I took last week in a wonderful 16th century chapel here in Ghent. As you can see, it is converted
into a trendy bar. Now, you also can tell, if you look at it, that a lot of time and money was invested
in the original features of it: the Gothic windows,
the tiling, the pillars. However, nothing was invested
in restoring back the original function. The original function could not be
further away from the current function: a place of contemplation
versus a place of drinking. Now, how much I do love bars – I’m a Belgian after all – when a conversion only focuses
on the restoration of the building and does not fully align
with its original function, then there will be – it will not realize its full potential. You will always feel
there is something off about it, and finally, and worse,
when time passes by, bit by bit the current function
will eat the soul of the place until it becomes – after the trend
is over – empty again, and new investors have to be found. Now I hear you thinking: “But Kristel, what do we need
to do with places like that? We cannot leave them empty, can [we]?” Well, the most relevant question for me is “Is this place really empty?” For that, let me take you to an empty,
very inspiring place here in Ghent that is Sint-Baaf’s Abbey – over 1,000 years old, and apart from a beautiful refectory and a well and an enclosed garden, there’s nothing. No heating, no facilities, no electricity. Only stones and a lot – a lot of soul. Now, I love to take people
out there, really, because that place never lets me down. It always has its effect,
no matter whether we are up for it or not. One day I took a very young, enthusiastic,
loud group of marketeers out there. They had expected to do a team-building, so you can imagine their faces
when we arrived at this empty abbey. But they tried to stay positive, you know,
and I challenged them, and I said, “Well, can you walk three minutes
by yourself around the premises?” “Hey, of course we can do that,” and off they went, and slowly but gradually, the peace and quiet
descended back on the abbey. Three minutes became five minutes. Five minutes became ten and more, and when they finally came out, totally everything about them had changed. They were more quiet, more relaxed. They were also more, like,
attentive towards each other, and I noticed that the topic
of their conversation had changed. It was not about work anymore; it was about themselves, their hopes and wishes, their dreams, and the most important thing was,
to me, that they all assured me that they would come back
to this place one day. Now, that’s the value
of a square meter of soul. Now, places can be very inspiring, very powerful, valuable, but it cannot speak up. But you can, and I can, and therefore, to all
the policy makers all over the world, I want to say this: “Be sensitive to the inspiring
and valuable places you have in your neighborhood,
your town and your city because they are the heart and soul of it. See beyond the square meter; see the soul. And once you see it, make sure you do everything in your power
to keep it like that and protect it. And if a place runs out of use
and becomes empty, ask yourself whether it’s really empty, and if it’s not –
if it has a lot of soul – have some guts
there to invest in the soul, and the future generations
will thank you for that. And if no option is left but conversion
of the place into something new, don’t compromise and make sure that the conversion
fully aligns with the original function because that’s
the only way it will pay off.” Of course, I also have a little message for my fellow tour guides
all over the world. I want to say this
from the bottom of my heart: Keep on taking your clients to those places you value so much
where ever you live. Take them there, but once you’re there – and I know this
is a very hard one for guides because we always want to talk – build in some silence
and space in your tour for your clients to truly enjoy
and experience a place. And finally, I want
to say this to you all: Keep on going to those places
you are intuitively drawn to. Pop in there. And when you’re there, be present, fully present, listen to the place,
what it has to give to you, let it feed your soul, be aware of the value, and above all, I wish that you would all be inspired by each square meter of soul. (Applause)

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