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Consider the Place
The idea of place is a much freer, more far reaching, and potentially more inspiring understanding of setting than one that simply extols the virtues of contextual design.
By Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP
December 17, 2020
Editor’s note: See Gisolfi’s other ArchNewsNow features below.
When we consider architectural design or landscape architectural design – or both of them together – where does the word “place” fit? In the simplest sense, a place is a setting. Does this mean that every setting is a place? Perhaps, in the literal sense, the answer is yes. But I think the idea of place is a much freer, more far reaching, and potentially more inspiring understanding of setting than one that simply extols the virtues of contextual design.
A place has identifiable characteristics that we can describe. Often, when we name or define a place, an image comes to mind. It might be a manmade setting (Beacon Hill in Boston), a natural setting (the lower Hudson River Valley), or even what might be referred to as a vernacular setting – a setting that has been changed by man but not through conscious design (the green hills of Vermont).
I think the place is the first thing that we, as designers, should identify. The place is already there, and we will add or subtract something. But when we are finished, the place will still be there. Do our efforts improve the place? Detract from the place? Do we even acknowledge that the place exists or has changed?
Consider “places” like Riverside Drive, Rockefeller Center, Lower 5th Avenue, or the “long meadow” at Prospect Park, all in New York City. Think of the sand dunes in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the cliffs along Route 1 in northern California, or the repetitive patterns of curvilinear roads in post-war American suburbs. These are places we can describe.
Should place influence design? I think so. I believe that our first task as architects or landscape architects is to identify the place, to systematically understand the setting. Then – and only then – should we proceed to the second task, which is to produce diagrams and sketches that take this information into account. If we go to the effort to understand the place, it is unlikely we will ignore it.
In many respects, the history of architecture in the last 70 years has been a history of “look at me.” We are obsessed with “new and original” objects in space, when we might rather be respecting the place. Too often, the object is conceived without even considering where it will be situated. The place exists before we start, and it will continue to exist when we are finished. Our charge is to acknowledge the place.
Place-based architecture might be a philosophy that seeks to enhance the place, and one that may be a new way to look at our design dilemma. Should we be original? Should we be respectful? Is this an eternal dichotomy? Is there perhaps a way to resolve this issue? The resolution resides in a disciplined and careful understanding of place.
Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP, is the senior partner of Peter Gisolfi Associates, Architects, Landscape Architects in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Contact him at email@example.com
Also by Gisolfi:
INSIGHT: The Case for
West Street: A
Cities: The Erosion of Urban Identity
The Place of Architecture as an Art Form in the Changing Cultural Landscape
INSIGHT: Let's Quiet Down: The Case for Places,
Regionalism, and Sustainability
INSIGHT: Small-Scale Solution to Alternative Energy
INSIGHT: Collaboration and Compromise: A Misunderstood
Aspect of the Design Process
INSIGHT: Save What's Left: Architects as Stewards of Our
(click on pictures to enlarge)
Prospect Park Alliance
The Long Meadow at Prospect Park in Brooklyn
Hudson River and the Palisades on the Upper West Side of Manhattan
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