Rome, Mumbai and Marrakesh each have much to tell us about how cities work, how they fail and the possibilities they offer to those who live in them.

I know this is not a travel magazine, but it’s just that when you travel – well, you think about things from a slightly different perspective … Anyway, last month I was in Rome and Bombay (and I call it Bombay rather than Mumbai because the Indians I met still do). Rome for a lecture and exhibition, Bombay for a friend’s birthday. The contrast between the two cities could hardly be more marked. One is identified by its past achievements, the other by its future potential.

Although so different, both are cities defined by their planning and infrastructure. Bombay, perhaps, by its lack thereof. Like other metropolises in the developing world it suffers from major urbanisation problems: widespread poverty, unemployment, poor public health and low civic and educational standards for a large section of the population. And yet through this chaos, the filth, the seemingly random and iterative development and the incredulous way things are held together (my taxi overshot its destination but was unable to reverse, because, as the driver informed me, “reverse doesn’t work”), it is one of the world’s top centres of commerce. There is little of architectural note, but amid the frenzy there is an excitement, an energy and buzz that suggests Bombay is on the cusp of having its moment. The sense of creativity is palpable.

The effect of the new middle class, made more powerful through its sheer numbers, is beginning to trickle down and will in time improve the lives of those who live in poverty. And everyone is desperate for a piece of the action because with a population of 19 million, your margins can be pretty low.

By contrast, Rome feels almost provincial, but it was founded on some of the most ambitious, long-term planning and building endeavours the world has ever witnessed. An exquisite and perfectly formed city that has a wondrous past, exemplified by the classical and renaissance legacies. But where is its future? There is a different kind of dysfunction in Rome and many other Italian cities. The often corrupt and frustrating bureaucracy makes working there tortuous and it is hard to see how this is sustainable, given global competition.

More troubling, though, is that this state of affairs is accepted as the status quo and nobody seems inclined to initiate radical change. By contrast, in Bombay there is a sense that the city will overcome its own frustrating bureaucracy and triumph in the face of adversity. It is sad that Rome, for all its elegance and beauty, seems trapped by its magnificent architectural past.

Over Christmas I was in Marrakesh, another wonderfully chaotic, noisy, dirty city but more mysterious than Bombay in that it is only really revealed behind closed doors. Revealed, that is, when you enter the traditional Moroccan residence, the riad. But first you have to navigate your way to the riad through a tangle of alleys in which it is almost impossible not to get lost.

The riad occurs in traditional Arab cities – specifically Marrakesh and Fes – a city residence organised around a garden with fountain and trees. In other words, a courtyard house where all the rooms open out onto the central space, where all the doors are external and the spaces are linked only by the outside space.

Increasingly in European cities, we are creating hermetically sealed buildings where a disproportionate
amount of money is spent on the skin

This is a fantastic model for family living as it affords spaces that are private and communal spaces for socialising – a diagram for living that is much clearer than we have here. Of course, it was designed for the North African climate but it got me thinking about the wider inside-out issue – where do we start designing, how is it changing and are our priorities right?

I know it is not a fair comparison to set a delightful, domestic Arab typology against a larger scale commercial model but it does make a point. Increasingly in European cities, despite the imperative of environmentally responsible structures, we are creating hermetically sealed buildings where a disproportionate amount of money is spent on the skin because it is there that the architects and clients communicate their intentions and ambitions.

But once inside, the experience is often underwhelming. The riad is the polar opposite: unidentifiable and unimaginable from the outside but surprising, unexpected and stunningly beautiful from within.

I am not suggesting that we create streets with blank facades, but there has to be another model. The idea that commercial buildings could be more about the user and not just about corporate image and that urban planning could take a more sideways look at street patterns. Perhaps there is something positive to be learned from the modesty of the public face of the riad in opposition to the excessive ornamentation of the lesser baroque buildings in Rome and from the pulsing energy that drives Bombay.

I do not want this to be read as the hackneyed argument about the iconic versus the ordinary – it’s more structural than that.

It’s more about the tension between complacency and ambition, and between public and private. There is a place for public and a place for private, as two passengers on my flight back from Bangkok last week discovered when they were arrested on arrival at Heathrow!