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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



Also by Gisolfi:


INSIGHT: The Case for Permanent Infrastructure
Water mains burst, gas mains explode, drinking water is poisoned by lead, bridges collapse, roads break down, vehicles collide, and trains derail. Are these the systems we want? What would be required, and when will we respond to this compelling need for change? 


West Street: A Little-Noticed Success
If a 19th-century method of moving traffic can succeed in a city as congested as Manhattan, it can work in many other cities as well.


INSIGHT: Anonymous Cities: The Erosion of Urban Identity
If we embrace the special characteristics of our American cities, we could begin to construct new projects that enhance the sense of place within the distinctly different urban settings that still exist.


INSIGHT: The Place of Architecture as an Art Form in the Changing Cultural Landscape 
The fine arts today do not have the shared social purpose they once did. But the built environment is different. Architecture is a collective art form and a collective endeavor.


INSIGHT: Let's Quiet Down: The Case for Places, Regionalism, and Sustainability 
Architecture should be concerned primarily with place-making, not object-making.


INSIGHT: Small-Scale Solution to Alternative Energy Resistance 
Why the assumption that an industrial-scale response is required to produce green energy in the vast quantities required to power this country is wrong.


INSIGHT: Collaboration and Compromise: A Misunderstood Aspect of the Design Process 
True collaboration is a symbiosis between the architect's design ideas, a project's setting, and the intentions of its users.


INSIGHT: Save What's Left: Architects as Stewards of Our Planet 
We need to develop a new design culture of responsibility, one that seeks in every instance to do as little damage as possible to natural systems.


(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


Riverside Park