Pont Neuf (1872, Pierre-Auguste Renoir)
One of the “aha! moments” of my academic life was coming to realize architecture has the power to add to the physical, cultural, and social identity of places. I learned how important it is for architects to thoroughly understand how an authentic place is not anywhere but rather somewhere people have purposely invested meaning in over time. I came to understand why caring for a sense of place should be an imperative in my work.
The best places possess a strong identity and character. They help us know where we are in the world and why they are unique. They are far from placeless (that feeling “there is no there, there") because they impart a physical, emotional, and sometimes spiritual connectedness to a specific geographic area. Architects who keenly understand this will do everything they can to ensure what makes a well-loved place so is enhanced, rather than diminished, by what they add to it.
Architects are adept at analyzing and responding to the problems of a site, which include its physical attributes, context, and opportunities. Additionally though, the most thoughtful among us do consider much more in an effort to distinguish a site’s most important characteristics. These architects reveal and strengthen the spirit of the place, rather than allowing it to remain weak and undifferentiated.
The locations we all consider memorable, unique, and enjoyable are often redolent of placeness. Their protective genius loci is strong, yet contingent upon how people have used and built upon it over time. Think of the banks of the Seine in Paris, the views from which have inspired countless artists, among them Renoir and Van Gogh. Or the Piazza Navona in Rome, once an ancient stadium, later transformed as a public space and market, its history vividly layered for all to see. Closer to home, it’s hard to imagine Timberline Lodge anywhere but nestled high up the snowy south flank of Mt. Hood.
Piazza Navona, Rome
Sometimes, a singular piece of architecture not only contributes to the sense of place but is necessary to bring it to light. The Sydney Opera House is inseparable from its harbor setting but now even more so from Sydney’s consciousness. Jorn Utzon’s optimistic masterpiece transcended its infamous travails to become an unforgettable landmark and symbol for an entire nation.
We do have to be careful: Attempting to create a sense of place from whole cloth is folly; instead, we must discern and tease out the already present, most beneficial emergent properties of each site we work with. No two projects should ever be exactly alike because the countless factors influencing every one of our projects are as complex and varied as life itself. Therefore, our goal should be to build upon the distinguishing structure of each place, taking care to preserve its unique essence—its soul—when we design.
The irony of our hyper-connected digital existence today is that many of us are starved of deep engagement with others and the real world we inhabit. The automobile-centric development patterns that predate the electronic age and persist today exacerbate our isolation and the ubiquity of placelessness. Preserving and augmenting a sense of place is an antidote: the particularity of real places, the memories they help make or elicit, and the way they bring us together provide us with the kinds of genuine experiences we naturally crave as human beings.
Bringing a critical approach to designing every project means designing with place and what it means always in mind. I think it’s totally AWESOME we architects are entrusted to contribute positively to a sense of place with every project we undertake, and in the process help people truly connect with the world they live in.
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