Architecture and the Sense of Place

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).

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Today’s Modernist Mentality

After the World War, in order to utilize efficiently the available resources and limited finances, the world realized that it could no longer function as before, and thus, adopted a new approach. The idea was to move away from anything unnecessary or excessive and embrace a more essentially functional approach. This ideology formed an architectural movement called Modernism. The fathers of modern architecture devised strategies where buildings would use least amount of construction costs, materials, time and energy – in other words, mass production. Now, the only problem with mass production is that the end result is a product with impersonal features.

This is exactly what happened to buildings. Architecture became so impersonal and rigid that there was no sense of place and no room for human sentiment or memory. Strictly speaking, the movement dehumanized spaces in pursuit of extreme efficiency. Due to this reason, many philosophers and architects argue on why the movement was a failure. However, my intention is not to bash on the movement. Personally, I believe that it was the only way at the time as both resources and skilled labor was limited. What I want to talk about is today, and how even though the modern movement had been allegedly abolished by 1980s, we are still living in the mindset of the modernist era.

Some of the main features of modern architecture were repetition, symmetry and order. Everything was micromanaged and nothing went outside the order. Strict rules dictated design. As you can imagine, in such circumstances, any form of rebellious or an out of place design element would stand out so clearly that it would seem alien to the surrounding context. It would seem strange and therefore, be shunned by the surrounding majority.

Today, we proudly claim that we’re living in an age of freedom, where individualism is celebrated. However, if we pause for a minute and think, we would then know that we are in fact still living in an age of modernist mindset. We are so enslaved to the designated system that we don’t even realize it. For example, fifty years ago, a gay person was shunned by society just because the concept was alien and the majority didn’t approve. Today, a homophobic is shunned by the society because he or she does not agree with the majority. When seemingly free choices become a trend, up to a point where disagreeing or having a different opinion becomes a liability to the person on the other side, we are basically stating that you’re either with us or against us. There is no more the concept of ‘agree to disagree’.

This is exactly what had happened during the age of modernism and it’s exactly what is happening today. The definition of ‘freedom of thought’ has been contaminated and transformed to ‘follow the trend’. We end up thinking we’re original but actually we’re following the trend without fully understanding why, but only because it’s so much easier to be accepted when doing so. This social issue has been affecting architecture since a long time and it still is. One such example is ‘Green Architecture’. I’m not talking about simple passive strategies that aim to use natural energy sources, but going above and beyond to force artificial ‘sustainable’ strategies that do not even affect the overall construction feasibility or energy usage positively, but simply give an ‘image’ of sustainability – again, a trend.

If you ask me, I’m not experienced enough to know how to fix this situation, but I can see a problem in today’s architecture and I am hoping that others do not remain ignorant of what is happening either.

What the hell is Architecture?

No, it’s not engineering!

Ever since I began my architecture educational journey, I’ve never been able to give the same exact answer to when people have asked me ‘what is architecture?’. My answer has been different every time and will probably keep changing. From this, you may get an idea of the complexity of the architectural profession.

‘The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.’ This is one of the most common definitions, but it is vastly shallow. Construction of buildings is only the ultimate end result, but what about the rest?

So what is architecture?

Before you continue reading, note that the definition of architecture itself is quite subjective and may vary from yours or others. My personal current definition of the term is that ‘architecture is relative’. What this means is that architecture is relative to the context it is intended for. Now what exactly constitutes of this ‘context’?

Cultural Context

This would include the culture of the local people, their needs and requirements and their priorities in terms of building needs. Are the people in need of low-cost housing or iconic shopping malls to attract tourists? What is the city’s ultimate objective at the moment? Also, how will the architecture impact the local culture? Will it simply blend in with the rest of the buildings to continue the long standing trend or will it display a subtle change of times by merging local materials with new construction methods?

Environmental Context

What type of climate is the building being designed for? How can it be built to combat and withstand the outside weather? What readily available materials can be used for the design and construction in order to save costs and energy spent in bringing in foreign materials and specialist builders?

Architecture can tell time

Architecture holds the power to display an era. Many cities often preserve a handful of heritage buildings that you can see in the midst of a modern age metropolis. These heritage buildings create a sense of historic importance of the area. It tends to show the visitor how old the roots of the place actually are.  History has shown us, time and time again, that destroying heritage and historic buildings is a successful method of destroying a people’s identity, which is why I personally consider that a sinful and an unethical act.

Architecture is for People

Often, we forget that we are designing for the people and not for ourselves. An example of this is when architects become fond of a specific style and then force that style in every single project, whether it respects and works with the surrounding context or not.  Students of architecture are definitely guilty of this. Most of my classmates and I came up with a specific style – a design identity, if you will, and used to try to implement it in every project we ever worked on. This was a very immature decision on my part, as it led me to focus on one style without trying or researching on the vast design styles and methods out there. It was like I was being stubborn without even understanding why.

In the end…

Architecture is not just about designing buildings. It is about shaping and creating identity of cities. It is creating a sense of place, full of memories and human sentiment. It is humanizing a space that the people for whom that space is intended for can relate to. It can be used to guide people in such a subtle way that they won’t even realize that they are in fact being guided, so that they can get to their daily lives without their surroundings interfering.

My advice for you is to study architecture deeply. And by that I mean deeper than just the design and construction methods. Watching TED talks and interviews of architects who emphasize on solving the social issues is a great way of understanding how to conceptualize design. Bjarke Ingels, Steven Holl, Ole Scheeren and Alejandro Aravena are definitely worth looking into in this regard.

Design by Sketching

‘Who the heck sketches manually these days? How is that going to help me in my resume? I could be learning a new software instead of spending time on that!’ I’ll admit that I’m guilty of having these thoughts during my first few years at university. Little did I know how incredible wrong I had been.

Believe it or not, hand sketching ideas on a paper actually helps you become a better designer. No, I don’t have a scientific research paper to prove this hypothesis, but sufficient experience to declare this as nothing less than a fact. Former classmates that excelled way beyond my level of creativity, professors and architects I’ve worked with – all have confirmed this theory without batting an eye.

No, don’t throw out your computers and go back to the stone age. It’s still 2018 and you need as much software skill as you can possibly learn. But my point of this discussion is to tell you all that which I wish I’d known way earlier – thinking with sketching is far better than thinking with computer software.

When you sketch manually, it’s like brainstorming ideas on a paper without any filters or obstacles in between. It’s completely raw and pure! The connection between your brain and your hand is uninterrupted by external mediums like mice, keyboards or linear CAD lines. Suppose that you’ve done your conceptual sketches using CAD or Sketchup from the start. You have no clue about parametric plugins and thus, you avoid curvatures in your design and stick to linearity. What’s happening here is that you are letting the software limit your creativity and thinking process. You are letting the software dictate the parameters of your design ability. Now, if you were Libeskind, who sticks to mostly linearity, that wouldn’t be a problem. But as an architecture student, why would you want to limit yourself to only a handful of design elements when you have an abundant time to explore and experiment with countless possibilities. This is the time to make mistakes, to try and fail and try again till you succeed. You can actually literally afford to do that.

A successful architect is able to deliver the client’s requirements in the most optimum way possible. And the only way to be an all-rounded architect who can design both linear and dynamic curves is that if he or she starts the design process manually by sketching at the initial stage. And for the record, even in the professional field, architects will often give instructions to other consultants and colleagues via quick n dirty sketches. For they are far less open to interpretation than words and therefore, leave less room for unnecessary errors.

At the end of the day, architecture schools do not require you to be a perfect architect by the time you’ve graduated, but rather that you have become a much better designer than when you first started. After all, that is the main objective of most architecture programs, to not only teach you how to design buildings, but to allow you to find your own methodology that suits your way of thinking.

In the same way owning a fancy mechanical pencil won’t make you any better at sketching, learning five different software to design won’t make you a great designer. These things are just mediums. The fundamentals are still what matter the most. So stop worrying if you can’t draw straight lines yet, or your 3d perspective looks as if it’s from a sixth dimension. What matters is that you understand the signifcance of each line and what they represent. Remember, these ugly sketches (‘ugly’ only if you’re a noob like myself) of yours are for you, they’re just ideas translated from your brain to the paper. They don’t have to look pretty. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Frank Gehry’s hand sketches and you’ll see my point.

So now, get yourself a nice little sketchbook and get into the habit of rapid sketching. It could be either something you see right in front of you, or just abstract conceptual ideas. Also, when it comes to conceptual designs, architects don’t usually get the whole conceptual design of a building in one shot. You could break the components of a building into pieces and sketch out each piece individually (as you think of it) and try to see if they work together or not (could be the facade, balustrade, special features etc.). Stop being afraid and just go crazy!