Architecture As Identification Of Place

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Children under a tree have, in the most primitive way, made an architectural decision by choosing it as a place to sit.

Before we can get on to looking at some of the conceptual strategies of architecture in detail, it is necessary to lay out some ground work with regard to the nature of architecture, and its purpose. Before we can get onto the 'how?', we need to look briefly at the 'what?' and 'why?'; i.e. 'what is architecture?', and 'why do we do it?'.

It is probably fair to say that the matters of the definition and the purpose of architecture have never been settled. These are issues about which there is a great deal of confusion and debate, which is strange considering that architecture as a human activity is literally older than the pyramids. The question 'What is one doing when one is doing architecture?' appears simple, but it is not an easy one to answer.

Various ways of framing an answer to this question seem to have contributed to the confusion; some of these relate to comparison of architecture with other forms of art. Is architecture merely sculpture—the three-dimensional composition of forms in space? Is it the application of aesthetic considerations onto the form of buildings—the art of making buildings beautiful? Is it the decoration of buildings? Is it the introduction of poetic meaning into buildings? Is it the ordering of buildings according to some intellectual system—classicism, functionalism, post-modernism...?

One might answer 'yes' to all these questions, but none seems to constitute the rudimentary explanation of architecture that we need. All of them seem to allude to a special characteristic, or a 'superstructural' concern, but they all seem to miss a central point which one suspects should be more obvious. What is needed for the purposes of this book is a much more basic, and accessible, understanding of the nature of architecture, one that allows those who engage in it to know what they are doing.

Perhaps the broadest definition of architecture is that which one often finds in dictionaries: 'architecture is the design of buildings'. One cannot contradict this definition, but it doesn't help very much either; in a way it actually diminishes one's conception of architecture, by limiting it to 'the design of buildings'. Although it is not necessary to do so, one tends to think of 'a building' as an object (like a vase, or a cigarette lighter), and architecture involves rather more than the design of objects.

One more useful way of understanding architecture can be gleaned, ironically, from the way the word is used in regard to other art forms, music in particular. In musicology the architecture of a symphony can be said to be the conceptual organisation of its parts into a whole, its intellectual structure. It is strange that the word is rarely used in this sense with regard to architecture itself.

In this book this is the root definition of architecture that has been adopted. Here, the architecture of a building, a group of buildings, a city, a garden...is considered to be its conceptual organisation, its intellectual structure. This is a definition of architecture which is applicable to all kinds of examples, from simple rustic buildings to formal urban settings.

Though this is a useful way of understanding architecture as an activity, it doesn't address the question of purpose—the 'why'of architecture. This appears to be another difficult 'big' question, but again there is an answer at the rudimentary level which is useful in establishing something of what one is striving to achieve when one is doing architecture.

In looking for this answer, simply suggesting that the purpose of architecture is 'to design buildings' is again an unsatisfactory dead end; partly because one suspects that architecture involves rather more than that, and partly because it merely transfers the problem of understanding from the word architecture onto the word building.

The route to an answer lies in forgetting altogether, for the moment, about the word building, and thinking about how architecture began in the distant primeval past. (Archaeological exactitude is not necessary in this, nor need we get embroiled in discussions about whether things were done better in those days than in today's more complex world.)

Imagine a prehistoric family making its way through a landscape unaffected by human activity. They decide to stop, and as the evening draws on they light a fire. By doing so, whether they intend to stay there permanently or just for one night, they have established a place. The fireplace is for the time being the centre of their lives. As they go about the business of living they make more places, subsidiary to the fire: a place to store fuel; a place to sit; a place to sleep; perhaps they surround these places with a fence; perhaps they shelter their sleeping place with a canopy of leaves. From their choice of the site onwards they have begun the evolution of the house; they have begun to organise the world around them into places which they use for a variety of purposes. They have begun to do architecture.

The idea that identification of place lies at the generative core of architecture can be explored and illustrated further. In doing this one can think of architecture, not as a language, but as being in some ways like one.

The architectural actions of a prehistoric family making its dwelling place can be replicated and updated in a beach camp. The fire is the focus, and also a place to cook. A windshield protects the fire from too much breeze, and as a wall begins to give some privacy. There is a place where the fuel for the fire is kept, and the back of the car acts as a food store. There are places to sit, and if one were to stay overnight, one would need a bed. These are the basic 'places' of a house; they come before walls and a roof.

Reference for Welsh farmhouses:

Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales—Glamorgan: Farmhouses and Cottages, 1988.

The inside of this Welsh farmhouse can be compared with the beach camp on the previous page. The places of the beach camp have been transposed into a container which is the house itself. Although such images can feed our romantic ideas of the past, the architecture itself was, before it became anything else, a product of life.

Place is to architecture, it may be said, as meaning is to language. Learning to do architecture can seem to be like learning to use language. Like language architecture has its patterns and arrangements, in different combinations and compositions as circumstances suggest. Significantly, architecture relates directly to the things we do; it changes and evolves as new, or reinterpreted, ways of identifying places are invented or refined.

Perhaps most important, thinking of architecture as identification of place accommodates the idea that architecture is participated in by more than the individual. In any one example (a building for instance)

there will be places proposed by the designer, and places created by adoption by the users, (these may or may not match). Unlike a painting or a sculpture, which may be said to be the intellectual property of one mind, architecture depends upon contributions from many. The idea of architecture as identification of place asserts the indispensable part played in architecture by the user as well as the designer; and for the designer who will listen, it asserts that places proposed should accord with places used, even if it takes time for this to happen;

So called 'traditional' architecture is full of places which, through familiarity and use, accord well with users' perceptions and expectations. The illustration on this page shows the interior of a Welsh farmhouse (the upper floor has been cut through to show some of the upstairs room). The places that are evident can be compared directly with those in the beach camp shown on the opposite page.

The fire remains the focus and a place to cook, though there is now also an oven—the small arched opening in the side wall of the fireplace. The 'cupboard' to the left of the picture is actually a box-bed. There is another bed upstairs, positioned to enjoy the warm air rising from the fire. Under that bed there is a place for storing and curing meat. There is a settle to the right of the fire (and a mat for the cat). In this example, unlike the beach camp, all these places are accommodated within a container—the walls

and roof of the house as a whole (which itself, seen from the outside, becomes a place identifier in a different way).

Although nobody is shown in the drawing, every one of the places mentioned is perceived in terms of how it relates to use, occupation, meaning. One projects people, or oneself, into the room, under the blankets of the bed, cooking on the fire, chatting by the fire-side.. Such places are not abstractions such as one finds in other arts; they are an enmeshed part of the real world. At its fundamental level architecture does not deal in abstractions, but with life as it is lived, and its fundamental power is to identify place.

Conditions of architecture

In trying to understand the powers of architecture one must also be aware of the conditions within which they are employed.

Though its limits cannot be set, and should perhaps always be under review, architecture is not a free art of the mind. Discounting for the moment those architectural projects that are designed never to be realised, as conceptual or polemic statements, the processes of architecture are operated in (or on) a real world with real characteristics: gravity, the ground and the sky, solid and space, the progress of time, and so on.

Also, architecture is operated by and for people, who have needs and desires, beliefs and aspirations; who have aesthetic sensibilities which are affected by warmth, touch, odour, sound, as well as by visual stimuli; who do things, and whose activities have practical requirements; who see meaning and significance in the world around them.

Such is no more than a reminder of the simple and basic conditions under which we all live, and within which architecture must operate. There are however other general themes that condition the operation of architecture. Just as the languages of the world have their common characteristics—a vocabulary, grammatical structures, etc.—so too does architecture have its elements, patterns, and structures (both physical and intellectual).

Though not as open to flights of imagination as other arts, architecture has fewer limits. Painting does not have to take gravity into account; music is solely aural. Architecture is however not constrained by the limits of a frame; nor is it confined to one sense.

What is more, while music, painting and sculpture exist in a way separate from life, in a transcendent special zone, architecture incorporates life. People and their activities are an indispensable component of architecture, not merely as spectators to be entertained, but as contributors and participants.

Painters, sculptors, composers of music, may complain about how their viewers or audience never see or hear their art in quite the same way as it was conceived, or that it is interpreted or displayed in ways that affect its innate character, but they do have control over the essence of their work; and that essence is, in a way, sealed hermetically within the object: the musical score, the covers of a book, or the picture frame. But even the essence of architecture is penetrated by the people whose activities it accommodates, which can change it.

[Architecture has also been compared with film-making— an art form that incorporates people, place, and action through time. But even in film the director is in control of the essence of the art object through the control of plot, sets, camera angles, script, etc., which is not the case in architecture.]

The conditions within which one can engage in architecture are therefore complex, perhaps more so than for any other art form. There are the physical conditions imposed by the natural world and how it works: space and solid, time, gravity, weather, light.. There are also the more fickle political conditions provided by the interactions of human beings individually and in society.

Architecture is inescapably a political field, in which there are no incontrovertible rights and many arguable wrongs. The world around can be conceptually organised in infinite different ways. And just as there are many religions and many political philosophies, there are many divergent ways in which architecture is used. The organisation and disposition of places is so central and important to the ways in which people live that it has through history become less and less a matter of laissez faire, more and more subject to political control.

People make places in which to do the things they do in their lives—places to eat, to sleep, to shop, to worship, to argue, to learn, to store, and so on and on. The way in which people organise their places is related to their beliefs and their aspirations, their world view. As world views vary, so does architecture: at the personal level; at the social and cultural level; and between different sub-cultures within a society.

Which use of architecture prevails in any situation is usually a matter of power— political, financial, or that of assertion, argument, persuasion. Launching design into conditions like these is an adventure only to be undertaken by the brave-hearted.

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