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The Big Rethink Part 7: PLACE AND ALIVENESS - Pattern, play and the planet

The cultivation of a sense of place embeds architecture more fully in the world as an experience that goes beyond buildings to articulate and resonate more intensively with wider human concerns and ideals

Creating place − environments with a distinct sense of place (of being somewhere memorably distinctive that is rooted in and shaped by the many specificities of its larger setting) − is an essential aspect of how we have made a home for ourselves on earth, and so also of how we made the earth our home. It is impossible to generalise about all places: some can be forbidding and provoke unease; others, those we are concerned with here, are welcoming and entice us to engage with them. In such places it is easier to be fully present, to feel a sense of belonging to, and relationship with, our setting, to open up and simply be.

Place thus contributes to our identity, it is where we can dwell rather than merely reside, facilitating the unfolding into the depths of our humanity and the experience of connection with and reverence for the world. Place is something that for millennia we created instinctively and inevitably, yet now only rarely achieve. But the environmental crisis and the need to create a sustainable culture is asking us to come back home, to feel a sense of belonging to and deep respect for the earth, things we cannot do in the alienating and placeless world we have been creating.

Among the most common criticisms of modern urban developments, one acknowledged even by architects, is the absence of a sense of place, Gertrude Stein’s ‘There is no there there.’ Less widely recognised, although commented on by some, is modern and contemporary architecture’s lack of aliveness − here intended as a quality conveyed by the form and fabric of buildings and spaces rather than liveliness of use (an equally important quality, but not our concern here).

These absences, of place and aliveness, are closely related and the inevitable consequences of, even intrinsic to, modernity: the erosion of place is, among other things, a correlate of some of the freedoms it promised; lack of aliveness is, in part, an unconscious reflection of modernity’s underlying Newtonian paradigm of a dead and meaningless clockwork universe. Both are symptomatic of what has now brought us to the brink of disaster, including the extinction of many forms of life as arguably presaged in our lifeless architecture. For reasons we will explore, reinvesting a sense of place and aliveness in our built environment must be part of creating a sustainable culture. Yet the experiential relationships that go with place and aliveness, the sense of connection they afford, can no longer only be to the locality and its genius loci, as it generally was in pre-modern times, but must expand to recognise our interdependent connections with the whole planet.


Placelessness of a contemporary street and its soulless, extruded elevations of gridded glass and metal

Among the most common criticisms of modern urban developments, one acknowledged even by architects, is the absence of a sense of place, Gertrude Stein’s ‘There is no there there.’ Less widely recognised, although commented on by some, is modern and contemporary architecture’s lack of aliveness − here intended as a quality conveyed by the form and fabric of buildings and spaces rather than liveliness of use (an equally important quality, but not our concern here). These absences, of place and aliveness, are closely related and the inevitable consequences of, even intrinsic to, modernity: the erosion of place is, among other things, a correlate of some of the freedoms it promised; lack of aliveness is, in part, an unconscious reflection of modernity’s underlying Newtonian paradigm of a dead and meaningless clockwork universe. Both are symptomatic of what has now brought us to the brink of disaster, including the extinction of many forms of life as arguably presaged in our lifeless architecture. For reasons we will explore, reinvesting a sense of place and aliveness in our built environment must be part of creating a sustainable culture. Yet the experiential relationships that go with place and aliveness, the sense of connection they afford, can no longer only be to the locality and its genius loci, as it generally was in pre-modern times, but must expand to recognise our interdependent connections
with the whole planet.

Place is now the subject of study and speculation in many disciplines such as philosophy, particularly phenomenology, as well as environmental psychology and urban geography. But discussion here is deliberately non-academic and narrowly selective, particularly to what is pragmatically applicable by architects. Aliveness in architecture seems still to be of concern to only a few architects, and is probably a baffling idea to most others. Yet it is a major theme in the writings of Christopher Alexander, and in The Old Way of Seeing by Jonathan Hale.1The Timeless Way of Building2 and A Pattern Language,3 by Alexander et al, are about the creation of networks and hierarchies of interlinked places of various sizes and functions that exude a sense of aliveness, while the four volumes of The Nature of Order4 are concerned, in large part, with the qualities that invest a sense of aliveness in artefacts. The Old Way of Seeing is less known than these books but equally marvellous, although it confounds a good proportion of those few architects who encounter it. Indeed, the latter parts of this essay may prove for some architect-readers to be among the most challenging of this series, less in understanding the argument than in the resistances provoked to applying some of what is implied as necessary to invest a sense of place and aliveness.


The enclosed vista of a medieval European city is imbued with a strong sense of place.

Some urban geographers argue that place is not conferred by physical characteristics but is a purely social construct, a cumulative intellectual or cognitive overlay. Certainly memory and meaning attach themselves to places and these add to our experience of them. Familiarity influences the experience of place, so that someone first encountering a place where locals feel at home might initially be uneasy there. But place, like aliveness, is something we recognise intuitively rather than intellectually, and both might even be recognised by the feeling stirred in us when we open up to engage empathically and experience rather than merely detachedly observe or rationally contemplate. The argument here is that these qualities arise largely from physical characteristics, the most challenging of which for contemporary architects to address is the role of pattern. This is not pattern as a continuous decorative surface, as is currently fashionable, but pattern as an irreducible perceptual gestalt that confers on a building a distinct physiognomy, a sense of stability and wholeness, and raises it from useful, subservient artefact to a being in its own right.

Some phenomenologists assert that place implies a distinct boundary, even if that is the horizon or beyond, as in a prairie or desert; also that as important as the sense of horizontal boundedness (which may be defined by the trees visible to and seemingly enclosing you if in a forest) is the vertical connection to earth below and sky above. Certainly manmade environments seem more likely to be experienced as places if spaces are positively defined and enclosed, as in a classic layout of streets and squares and, perhaps even more so, when combined with the closed vistas conferred by the curving streets and irregular layout of medieval urban fabric. A ground plane textured by cobbles and paving slabs also seems to enhance a sense of place, while blandly smooth ground surfaces can leave you feeling as if in a computer rendering. (For example, imagine how different would be the experience of the British Museum’s Great Court if the floor was textured or patterned, with cobbles say, and how much more present you would feel when there, subliminally more aware of the floor beneath your feet.) Moreover, each such place is experienced as an entity in itself, even when on the way to somewhere else, ideally as part of both a network of interlinked places and a hierarchy of interlocked space of differing scale (such as street, projecting portico, ornamental doorcase and so on). Although not essential to a sense of place, such thresholds, and those between clearly differentiated urban areas, can enhance a sense of place by signalling visually the transitions between places, and intensifying and prolonging the experience of transition.


A textured floor would have given the British Museum’s Great Court a greater sense of place to make it less like a computer rendering

Phenomenology, and architects and writers influenced by it, have many other insights to offer about the characteristics and perception of place, such as that place is experienced through all the senses and not sight alone. And the visual perception of place does not privilege foveal vision, which is concentrated on the centre of the retina and holds the object observed at a distance, but also draws equally or more upon peripheral vision and the sense of intimate immersion in, and even tactile engagement with, the surroundings this brings. Place also tends to be engaged by the whole body, thus temperature (not just of the air, but of the warmth of wood or coolness of stone, say) and texture, whether felt underfoot or from a surface sat or leant upon (which could be soft leather or rough stone) might be crucial, even if these are evoked only empathically. As well as haptic responses of this sort, acoustics and smell can be important to the experience of place. Although phenomenology has much more to say about place, the writings of influential writers such as Juhani Pallasmaa, and before him Gaston Bachelard, are so popular with and well-known by architects that the subject need not be pursued further here.

Modernity’s erosion of place

Modern architecture’s erosion of place is largely obvious, although the gradual diminution of a sense of aliveness and place started earlier, as will be explained in the later discussion on pattern. Just the name the International Style announces its disdain for place. The abstract, floating white forms deliberately dissociate from context, local culture and history, and even deny their vulnerability to the passage of time. The buildings were once pristine bubbles of newness where the cloying constraints of place and past had been discarded and the only connection with context was as framed views in the picture windows. The thin planar forms look weightless and invite no empathic engagement, appealing only to the distancing sense of sight (foveal vision), nor do the horizontal strips and larger expanses of glazing evoke the presence of the human body as did the traditional vertical window. These were buildings that refused to relate: to history, older neighbours or, except at the level of functionality, to us as humans. But place and aliveness are qualities of perceived and experienced relationship.

Such buildings are at their best in lush landscaping but, with notable exceptions such as some German housing schemes, mostly make unsatisfactory urban tissue. Freestanding, set back from the street and separate from each other, space is not stabilised by being enclosed and defined or by the sense of weight of buildings bearing heavily on the ground; instead it sloshes between buildings, under those raised on pilotis and up and over those without a cornice. Further developments compounded these problems. Neue Sachlichkeit or Rationalist architects proposed identical housing slabs in regimented rows, oriented and spaced only for ideal solar orientation and to obviate overshadowing, as in Ludwig Hilberseimer’s well-known proposals. Postmodern criticisms of modern architecture have meant that architects are again inclined to at least respect the block pattern and address the street edge. But as the fad for icons proves, this is still far from universal, nor is it enough to create a sense of place. Too many architects are still infected by modernity’s celebration of individualism and creativity as self-expression. This is perhaps seen at its worst in upmarket suburban residential areas where each architect-designed house is different in form and materials and reduces a once-beautiful landscape to an ugly visual cacophony. The repetition of only one or two building typologies not only results in visual harmony but also helps to create a sense of place.


Ludwig Hilberseimer’s hyper-rational vision of an anonymous, placeless modern city

Later, the sometimes-called Second International Style of air-conditioned glass boxes and towers ignore even orientation. Instead of delivering transparency, the hermetically sealed glazed facades sever all relationship between inside and out, occupant and passer-by, while their slippery sleekness accelerates the placeless space that sloshes past them. The curtain walls are mere wrappings and like most modern elevations are extrusions of a repetitive grid. When well-proportioned with skilfully shaped transoms and other details, the results can be very elegant; but they are also lifeless and, without any focus (or foci) to hold the eye or elements interlocking inside and out, are unable to hold the space before them and help invest it with some sense of place.

Partly as a bored reaction to these glass boxes, came the forceful articulation of function and structure; circulation, service shafts, structural frame and different kinds of spaces are all separated out and clearly expressed, all in total disregard for the potential uses and meaning of the residual spaces around them. Initially such buildings were in exposed concrete and hard engineering bricks with raked joints giving them a deliberately macho and aggressive demeanour. Worse still was when architects tried to invest these buildings with some suavity, using dark brown or purple brick, dark anodised aluminium frames and dark or tinted glass. 


Entrance porticos and aedicular windows interlock interior and exterior, house and street, in this London setting

To get some measure of what has been lost, two comparisons are instructive. First, contrast the dark, dead and inscrutable buildings just described with, say, a terrace of Georgian houses, the lively rhythms of the white windows jumping out from the velvety soft brickwork in which red arches and quoins contrast with the browner dominant brick. Second, contrast a recently built central urban area with a historic one, after hours once both are empty: the former is a lifeless husk while the latter, even without anybody around, is a comforting presence, full of life and the suggestion of life. Most modern materials further compound the problems of lifelessness, in that they do not gracefully wear, weather and patinate, softening their presence and recording the march of use and time, nor do they record their long processes of natural formation as does the grain of wood or stone. These both invest the materials with life and help you to relate to them.

Again, all these forms of autistically aloof modern buildings described above stand free from each other with undefined space whooshing around them. And the outdoor space closer to the buildings is merely residual (often because ease and cheapness of construction resulted in rectangular buildings on a non-rectangular site), a purposeless and unloved left-over pathetically camouflaged with landscaping or paved and labelled patio or piazza. As must be obvious, Parametricism takes all these pathological aspects of modern architecture to an extreme, often stirring rather than stabilising and defining open space and devoid of forms of anthropomorphic resonances or physiognomic gestalt. This is why it is merely a sunset effect, saying goodbye to modernity, and irrelevant to the future − no matter how dynamically futuristic the forms.


Plan of Auch, France, shows a network of well defined public spaces each with a strongly differentiated character

These characteristics of modern architecture should not, as they usually are, be blamed on architects alone. They reflect, and are the inevitable consequence of, more general characteristics of modernity, the era that began with the Renaissance, particularly those on which modern science is predicated. These were rehearsed in earlier essays and only some are summarised here. A core notion underlying modernity is that there is an objective reality, external to and independent of us, that can be fully known through detached observation, measurement and reductive analysis.

This denies the multiple webs of relationship − beyond those simple chains of cause and effect studied by mechanistic science − in which everything is inevitably enmeshed and which are again being recognised as crucial dimensions of reality. Place and aliveness arise from these webs of relationship and are perceived through evoked empathic relationship. In terms of Integral theory’s All Quadrant All Level diagram (AR March 2012), modernity and modern architecture emphasised the right quadrants, but again place and aliveness are experiential dimensions belonging to the left quadrants, along with such other left quadrant domains as meaning and memory. Modernity is also seen as over-emphasising the left hemisphere of the brain − which is logical, linear and reductive (intellectual) − at the expense of the right hemisphere, which is more intuitive and holistic in operation. And as will be explained later, place is a consequence of drawing on intuition during design rather than the intellect alone. Little wonder, then, that modernity eroded the sense of place and aliveness in our built environment.


Le Corbusier’s plan for St Dié with object buildings arrayed in undifferentiated sloshing space

Electronic communications also impact our sense of place, though it can be argued both that they make it less relevant or, contrariwise, even more so. Today everyone, at least those with television and internet access, is connected, no matter where they may be, simultaneously with everywhere else. So while you may seem to be in just one spot, you are, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, connected by electronic extensions of your nervous systems to the whole globe from which you are bombarded with images and information. Some see this as an argument for the irrelevance of place, and others for the need for a heightened sense of place − intensified through exaggeratedly sensual and textured materials and plants (as encapsulated in the phrase high-tech, high-touch) − as a stabilising anchor in this world of overload and flux. Quite long ago now, Joshua Meyrowitz also argued, in No Sense of Place,5 that television erodes our sense of place by blurring the distinctions between private and public modes of behaviour. Prior to television, we behaved differently in public than in private, formally in the former and more casually and intimately in the latter, as well as differently when in front of adults or of children. But television is a public medium that invades the home. Not only is it watched by adults and children, but it favours public figures who talk and behave in a quietly intimate fashion as if in private with you the viewer. The result has been the merging of once distinctively different modes of behaviour − or at least more nuanced distinctions between them. Is this something unconsciously presaged by modern architecture’s blurring of the differences between inside and out as well as in the continuity and diminished distinctiveness of the internal spaces?

Reinstatement of place

As argued in previous essays, the modern era is now waning. As a mindset it proved immensely potent in mastering aspects of nature: harnessing energy; creating networks of transport and communication; increasing food production; eliminating many diseases and so on. But now we need a very different mindset to help us to use this power more responsibly and sensitively, with greater awareness of its knock-on effects on society and nature. We must also overcome the alienation and disenchantment that are the legacy of modernity and its blind use of power. If these do not actually fuel our disregard for the environment, they certainly anaesthetise us from caring about its destruction. We desperately need to regain a sense of connection to and relationship with our surroundings and the planet. One step towards doing this, which might make the adoption of others less discouraging, would be to reinvest our built environment with a sense of place. 

This is a formidable challenge as it requires different ways of thinking, perceiving and designing, as well as overcoming entrenched aesthetic prejudices. Here we discuss just a few measures that will help to reintroduce a sense of place, which need to be used in combination to ensure much success. Remember though that place rarely, if ever, has to be created from scratch. Instead it starts as a response to place, to what is local and pre-existing, enhancing and even intensifying the genius loci of both site and setting, as well as relevant factors in what might be a large hinterland; place is also a lasting legacy to be patinated with the overlays of time, use and memory. Thus creating place starts with sensitive attention to what is there and the embrace of a much larger spatiotemporal continuum than is customary with Modernism. Design tends to cement relationships with elements in the surroundings, often resulting in novel relationships between these, while also bringing into visible focus the myriad forces − from climatic to cultural, economic to land use − that shape or act on the site and location. (Much of this will be discussed further in a future essay on urban design.) This is a very different dynamic to the sort of passively parasitic contextualism that merely tries to fit in or, as do so many minimalist buildings, depends entirely for its effects upon its contrasts with its setting; both these strategies tend to sap character and vigour rather than adding them to place. Instead of such parasitism, a designer might explore the many forces impinging on site and setting and seek to resolve them in a synergetic synthesis, as the essential nutrients for a design that is rooted in place and manifests as its ultimate flowering. Or the designer might ask, when drawing on all these same forces and factors, what would the earth or evolution dream into being here? 


Paul Klee’s ‘Blossoming’ depicts in an abstract composition how nutrients in the surrounding moist earth feed and are fulfilled by the opening flower – an example of how buildings may draw on and fulfil their context

To enhance a sense of place in public spaces such as squares, many writings − such as those on Italian piazzas and urban design, or of Neo-Rationalists like the brothers Rob and Leon Krier − assert the virtues of traditional, positively-shaped streets, squares, courtyards and so on. Some of these writings discuss also the importance of preventing space from ‘leaking’, for instance through corners that are too open. (Such a rule is particularly relevant when a square is centrally located and has abundant pedestrian through movement. But if not, such a square can be dangerous and it is by being overlooked through such leaks that safety is ensured and people enticed into it. Thus the location of a square or other public space within larger networks of movement and open space determines much of its character, meaning and intensity of use and identity.) Less often mentioned than enclosure in plan, but also important, is the role of the cornice in terminating a building and suggesting an upper limit, making the street or square more room-like. Though most contemporary architects are averse to cornices, seeing them as anachronistic, an equivalent is increasingly evident in the use of a recessed top floor under an oversailing roof, such as in several buildings by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. The handling of the ground plane can be critical too, both the paving and the levels and slopes. Part of the problem of an unsuccessful historic piazza in Barcelona was that the ground sloped up to a central fountain: when the ground was instead slightly dished people crossed and occupied the now safe piazza. The tiniest details can profoundly affect the character of a place.

The composition of the facades addressing or surrounding a public space is crucial to its sense of place and aliveness. For modern architects, elevations were the products of the needs and expression of the functions behind them and/or the logic of construction with repetitive components. Alignments and proportions could be adjusted, but otherwise, to go beyond this was denigrated as facadism. Yet one of the facade’s primary purposes, one just as important as reflecting what lies behind it, should be the role it plays in articulating and animating the space before it.


Diagram from The Old Way of Seeing by Jonathan Hale shows how 60-degree regulating lines at 3 foot intervals organise the facade of an early 19th-century commercial building in Massachusetts

Besides aptly communicating many dimensions of decorum, facades bring a place to life in many ways, not least in how openings, balconies and so on suggest the presence of the inhabitants. Also important in creating a sense of place is how facades convey a sense of stability, how intermediary elements interlock inside and outside and how symmetry reinforces both of these.

As already implied in comments on how sleek, sealed glass facades erode a sense of place, the material presence and sense of weight of a facade can contribute immensely to a sense of place. Highly textured or visibly grained materials slow the apparent flow of space and add to the palpable physical presence of buildings (one reason for the rusticated base of classicism), while a sense of heavy loads coming down to the ground roots the buildings and arrests the flow of space further − as suggested by the engineering term, statics. If the discipline and logic of the structural solution is readily legible, this can also help people to engage with the building, even if only subconsciously, and this too adds to a sense of presence and place. Yet a light and filigreed facade that seems porous to the space before it, with sufficient coherence and complexity of pattern to command attention, can also contribute to a sense of place. This porosity can help a building interlock with the space before it, a place-making strategy usually achieved by interlocking of interior and exterior through smaller intermediary places, such as arcades and aedicular windows, porches and porticoes. These stabilise the outdoor space and suggest the presence of the occupants within, so humanising the space, as well as playing important rhetorical roles that can add another dimension to a sense of place.

Along with rejecting facadism, modern architects tended to have a prejudice against symmetry, although it is one of the oldest and most powerful of place-making devices. A symmetrically composed facade, particularly with a central portico, projects a building’s central axis forward into space. Cross axes from facades facing differing sides of a square help pin it in place and relate it to the buildings, while also perhaps bringing an ordering strength and serenity. The effectiveness of symmetry in bringing even a small building into relationship with its setting, or more usually vice versa, can be seen when a symmetrical building, perhaps with an approach avenue or garden extending the central axis, can command and draw into relationship with it an extensive landscape.


The symmetrical composition of Boschendal outside Stellenbosch, South Africa, helps the small building hold its own against the imposing mountainous backdrop

The key roles of such things as visual focus, composition and physiognomic pattern have already been suggested in commenting on how repetitively gridded facades are unable to hold the space before them. But these same facades, seemingly rolled out or extruded to area or length required, are consistent with the disciplines of modern construction. Yet they, and the tinted or mirrored glass they are associated with, as well as the minimal glazing bars they are fixed in − or often today, with the aid of glues or clips, none at all − are major contributors to the sense of placelessness and deadness of the modern urban environment.

Though many architects would concede this, they may balk at adopting the approaches to facade composition that counter these qualities. Instead, they may pursue strategies such as Renzo Piano has experimented with on a series of schemes, using carefully sized, proportioned and spaced terracotta elements to introduce an enlivening optical flicker. In some buildings he has compounded this visual vibration by placing adjustable glass louvres outside the terracotta facings for an effect he aptly calls pointillist.  


Facade of Renzo Piano’s Cité Internationale in Lyon, France

Much more could be discussed in this vein, but we will finish by drawing on only a few of the key insights offered by two architect-authors, Jonathan Hale and Christopher Alexander. These insights are complementary to each other and have been validated to personal satisfaction by many years of intrigued but initially sceptical observation. In The Old Way of Seeing, Hale argues that architects have lost the capacity to see the patterns of light and shade in building forms and facades in the way we all once did. As architecture became more concerned with such things as function, economic return and mastering the rigours of contemporary construction, so it became increasingly an intellectual left-brain pursuit, and we lost the capacity for intuitive right-brain perception of pattern and its playful manipulation.

Once you start looking, it becomes unarguable that buildings from before the early 19th century have a companionable, subtly alive and place-making presence that modern buildings mostly utterly lack (Hale dates the beginning of the deterioration in America to 1830). It is not only a matter of attention to proportion (many modern buildings are elegantly proportioned), although in many old urban areas the use of similar proportions ensures harmony among what might be quite diverse buildings. Equally telling is that modern and contemporary buildings tend to be mechanically repetitive in their gridded elevations or the placing of openings, and the latter are devoid of coherent pattern, while buildings from before the mid-19th century are composed to form a coherent, geometrically disciplined and irreducible pattern. When analysed, these patterns are disciplined by regulating lines − which may be diagonals of various sorts, parallel lines at the same angle or lines radiating at common angles to each other − or other geometric figures such as circles or equilateral triangles. It is this that gives these buildings their sense of life and what he calls their smile.


Typical North London semi-detached houses enlivened by a compositional discipline which regulates lines and the interplay of various ‘centres’ of symmetrical elements between which the eye dances

Although austerely minimal, the front face of Church House, Grittleton, conveys a welcoming smile, owing to its beautifully disciplined composition

Hale argues that the buildings were not necessarily consciously composed in this way, but that while we still retained the old way of seeing − right-brained, intuitive perception − and a playful attitude to design we managed to achieve such coherent patterns instinctively. He also asserts that this is a way of seeing that can be quickly recovered − it only requires a simple shift, such as that explained in Betty Edwards’ well known manual Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.6 The benefits go beyond investing buildings with a smiling aliveness, an apt analogy because the irreducible patterns invest each building with a distinct physiognomy and presence. Thus each becomes almost a being in its own right, rewarding our attention with its coherent composition and holding the space in front of it and contributing to an animated sense of place. More than that, buildings composed in this way fit together harmoniously, even when very different.

Other, complementary ways of investing the composition of buildings with life are described by Christopher Alexander. In the first of his four volumes of The Nature of Order he lists and describes 15 characteristics that invest a sense of aliveness in designs or artefacts. Personal observation suggests one of these characteristics to be particularly pervasive and potent in enlivening facades and plan organisation. Alexander argues that aliveness arises from formal arrangements both constituted by a number of ‘centres’ and by the relationships between these ‘centres’. The composition of many old buildings is indeed composed of a number of centres − each of them usually symmetrical, such as doors, porches, windows, bays of windows, groups of identical windows − and often of centres nested within larger centres, in an overall arrangement that need not be symmetrical. (The sub-symmetries, though, seem crucial.) It is the interplay between the centres, the way the eye dances between them, that brings such a composition alive; and this gains in coherence and capacity to hold the gaze (it smiles more) when the composition forms a coherent pattern of the sort analysed by Hale. Yet though the visual evidence might be irrefutable, it is difficult to imagine many architects being willing to adopt such compositional disciplines, which they might dismiss as anachronistic.

Analysing buildings, particularly street elevations, makes clear that the loss of aliveness that concerns both architects and critics did not start suddenly with modern architecture, and also there were modern architects who could still invest a building with life. Instead there was a gradual tailing off of visual vitality through the latter part of the 19th century as facades became gradually more mechanically repetitive, more extrusion-like with the rhythm of evenly spaced windows extending across rows of house fronts. Similarly, adopting the forms and materials of vernacular buildings or the rhetorical elements of Classical buildings without the underlying compositional discipline of physiognomic pattern achieves nothing. The buildings of contemporary classicist Robert Adam, for instance, pile up Classical motifs as a compendium of signifiers, but are a lifeless dog’s breakfast as composition. In Hale’s terms, he, like those who endorse such designs, and the New Urbanists too, has lost the old way of seeing, which is much more important in investing the qualities so many cherish than the use of historic forms.


A recent building in Piccadilly by Robert Adam, made up of Classical components devoid of a disciplinary sense of composition, is both chaotic and lifeless


To want to revive a sense of place is much more than nostalgia. If our huge global population is to survive in decent living conditions, if we are to achieve true sustainability rather than just lower fossil fuel consumption and emissions, then we must profoundly change how we live on and relate to the earth. But to stop merely camping or picnicking upon the planet as irresponsible transients − to truly dwell upon, belong to and feel reverential connection with the earth −we once again need to make environments conducive to this: real places. One way we will know we are getting there is when there are no longer the meaningless and unloved residual spaces that surround modern and contemporary buildings, and instead even the smallest spaces are proper places, and cherished for that. Yet though we must learn from the past, as Hale and Alexander have, we cannot merely go back to the way things were.

Although some sacred places had a microcosmic dimension, with symbolic connections to celestial bodies, space usually was essentially local and associated with a certain parochialism. One aspect of the AQAL diagram not yet discussed is the significance of the levels. Those in the Upper Left and Lower Left quadrants signify psychological and cultural development respectively. The many distinct levels they depict can be simplified into three larger categories indicating how people and cultures evolve from being egocentric to ethnocentric and on to world-centric. The places we cherish were created by ethnocentric cultures, which were relatively homogeneous and whose concerns and loyalties were parochial. Those we must create must be ethnocentric, cementing our relationship to community and locality, yet also world-centric, highlighting our planetary connections and responsibility, as well as being suited to the greater cultural diversity that characterises most cities today. How that will be achieved is one of the key collective creative challenges of our time, one we have not even started to think about.

Click here to read Part 8.


1. Jonathan Hale, The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost its Magic (and How to Get it Back), Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
2. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa.
3. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel, A Pattern Language:Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press, 1977.
4. Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, The Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, 2004.
5. Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place, OUP, 1985.
6. Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Tarcher, 1979.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Erick Bojorque

    Saludos cordiales.

    Muy buen punto de vista.
    Pero es interesante comprender que como un ente vivo, un edificio puede estar enfermo energéticamente por su inadecuada composición geométrica. Ella puede ser, su energía, curarse con energía misma, sobreponiéndose la vitalidad sobre la geometría.
    Análogo en una persona, es detectar cáncer físicamente. Aunque se mantenga una disciplina alimenticia, no se asegura una sanación. Pero, si se sana su energía, se asegura la sanación de tal.

    Erick Bojorque

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