It’s a shame that the concept of sense of a place was introduced to me quite late during my architectural education. When learning about architecture, students often focus on the building design in an isolated manner and rarely on how the building would affect its surrounding context. Of course this varies from school to school and student to student, but I believe this to be the general case, as each student tries hard to show off the uniqueness of his/her building in terms of concept and design. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, the issue here is that by focusing much on how the building would affect its context, some thought must be given to how the context will affect the building as well. In other words, how the building plays a role in creating a sense of place in an existing context.
First of all, what is a sense of place? The sense of place is a subjective sentiment created in the minds of people by a space. A building, with a certain type of design, with certain spaces, at a certain location, all merging together to create this unique experience to the occupant is creating a sense of place. Modernism was bashed because it lacked the formation of such senses, as most of the design elements were based on the idea of mass production – there was nothing unique about it. So in terms of human sentiment, for a child who would grow up in a mass-produced building that would resemble other buildings around it, it would be relatively easy to lose memory and attachment to that place. I believe that is in the nature of people to create a sense of place wherever they abode. One example is that we do this by furnishing it with personalized items. We put up our favorite posters or paintings on the walls, give each room a color scheme and try to make everything feel homey. Similarly, we would personalize our office cubicles in order to make them feel different than the rest of the identical ones. We are basically subconsciously attempting to create a sense of place and memory in these spaces. But do we, as designers of such spaces, pay sufficient heed to the creation of such memory?
From year one, architecture students are lectured over and over about the importance of the surrounding context, but it’s more towards the physical context than anything else (or at least that’s how most students interpret it). So at the end of the semester, final projects are presented, all pointy, curvy, edgy and ‘starchitect’ influenced, that give a little sh** about the context around them in terms of social, culture and history. The context is only taken as a parameter to design the ingress, egress, views, wind and sun orientations and other physical aspects. But how does the building impact what existed before its birth? Does it complement the existing or is it a slap in the face of the historic? How respectful is it to the local people, who have been visiting this area since before the designer was even born?
The term ‘iconic’ is often used to justify crazy forms and building designs by many students. While it’s good to experiment with ideas and explore design ideas at university, I believe that social sensitivity is something that is often ignored by the teachers and should be emphasized upon during the early years of the architectural education rather than later. People will argue that this is more towards Urban Design, but I strongly oppose this thinking. Architects are generalists, not specialists. So, we need to have general knowledge about the social context as well as the physical context. Micro and Macro site analysis and synthesis must include not only the physical factors but also the social factors. And this does not mean the ethnicity or the daily habits of the local people, but an understanding of how and why the area is used by those people and how the new design can and should aid in achieving their objectives in a better way and without them having to compromise on the emotional sentiments (like memories, created by the sense of place).