Place-making is a dangerous concept that has very little to do with architecture, argues Sean Griffiths.
In awarding Terry Farrell its prestigious Gold Medal for 2017, the Royal Town Planning Institute cited the architect's "outstanding impact on place-making". Place-making, for Farrell at least, involves trying to emulate the city's existing grain in new developments and adding a sprinkling of historical narrative.
Caruso St John is another practice that claims to pursue an architecture "rooted in place". For them, it is about the poetics of construction and an adherence to the rigours of European typology. By contrast, and somewhat paradoxically, Joe Morris of Duggan Morris Architects has suggested that the elusive qualities of "place", might uncovered by a bunch of architects going on a series of jaunts to foreign cities. In his words, by "pooling resources, questioning, collaborating, making and experiencing the cultures of each host city as a means to broaden minds". A sort of EasyJet version of place-making, if you like.
Conjuring, as it does, the aura of a general, localised niceness combined with a warm nod to history and culture, place it seems is one of those words wantonly bandied about by architects, which can mean all things to all people.
Place is one of those words wantonly bandied about by architects
This is unfortunate, because it is a deeply conservative idea. If we were to find ourselves in a provocative mood, we might be so bold as to suggest that discussions of "rootedness" in architecture skirt uncomfortably close to the kinds of invocations of nationality, locality and authenticity, whose sinister overtones we've recently been hearing all too often. And this would not be merely coincidental. For the concept of place – as explained by Norwegian architectural theorist Christian Norberg Schulz in his 1979 book Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture – owes a lot to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, whose own affection for the rooted and the authentic did not sit uncomfortably alongside his infamous membership of the Nazi Party. That the language of place as espoused by some architects can sound like a sanitised version of UKIP ideology should be ringing more alarm bells that it currently does.
It should come as no surprise to find that the language of place-making also assimilates itself frictionlessly into the marketing parlance of estate agents selling Esperanto architecture to their global clientele. So it is entirely predictable that developers should attempt to mask this reality by employing highly-thought-of architects who like to think in terms of "a sense of place" (Argent's Kings Cross development comes to mind), when it is only too clear that the sprouting speculative offices, luxury residences and sites of internationally-branded retail therapy draw not from the wholesome wells of locality, but from the irrigated flows of global capital.
If we must use the degraded chatter of "genius loci", we should start by dispensing with the idea that a place can be magicked into being via the mere construction of tastefully designed buildings. The quality of a locality has much to do with the evolving practices and processes that happen there, more often than not generated by local actors who "produce" the place and its attendant characteristics. It has much less to do with the specific attributes of architecture.
The language of place as espoused by some architects can sound like a sanitised version of UKIP ideology
A good example of this is Rye Lane in Peckham, south London – a highly successful, multi-cultural, entanglement of re-appropriated, if dilapidated, markets and shops, colonising closed-down, art-deco department stores and the unintended gaps left by Victorian railway viaducts. It is the specific structure of how the largely immigrant population use these existing spaces – a process that, for those who are interested, has been beautifully documented by the LSE research project Ordinary Streets – that creates the street's specific character. The architecture itself is no different to that found on a hundred other London high streets.
For the anthropologist Tim Ingold, Rye Lane would be a manifestation of place that fits his conception of it, as a knot of interconnected movements which, in allowing for the structure of the locality to incorporate temporary and permanent migratory flows, produces welcome contaminations. These contaminations negate the unspoken suggestions of cultural stasis, homogeneity and timelessness that characterise architects' idealisations of place.
Ingold's version also allows for the possibility that locality might be produced by the practice of everyday life, rather than by a mystical obsession with things that are supposedly pregnant with essences. It is ironic that, in a profound repudiation of the grandiose claims made for architecture's role in the creation of places, it is often the case that, in the very name of place-making, architects are complicit in the act of social cleansing disguised as regeneration, which eradicates these very activities, processes and structures. Unsurprisingly, Rye Lane, in becoming a victim of its own success, is currently threatened by just such a "design-led" regeneration.
However, the dangers posed in these globalised times by a reliance on the concept of place are not limited to the fact that it is now a hollowed-out concept. It is also true that the traces of nostalgia that embellish the idea of place leave it ill-equipped to address the spatial and representational challenges of the 21st century. Perhaps this is because Joe Morris's concept of place is more accurate than I have thus far given it credit for.
If place, in the sense that it is determined by the characteristics of architecture, exists at all today, it does so most prevalently in the spectacle of a billion photographs posted on Facebook and Instagram, saying: "Look where I am!". And if the collective memory that is embodied within places was once understood as an essence that could somehow be excavated from within their depths, it now exists in the more directly retrievable, if flattened, form of a database that happens to be owned by a corporation.
If place exists at all today, it does so most prevalently in the spectacle of a billion photographs posted on Facebook and Instagram
The database might be one example of what philosopher Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects – weird entities that we inhabit and which inhabit us, and which, importantly, are characterised by being non-local. Climate change, the Anthropocene, capital flows, new plastic geologies, air laden with particles and worse, are things and events that know no boundaries. Yes, they impact upon and shape localities, but our knowledge of them and our ability to mitigate them depend on a huge, international cyborg apparatus of satellites, computers, weather stations and borderless scientific cooperation. This implies an entirely different paradigm for architecture than that suggested by genius loci.
As we wander the privatised spaces of consumption otherwise known as places, we are miniaturised versions of that cyborg apparatus, combinations of human and machine, talking perhaps to our companions, but also retrieving, posting, messaging, tagging, feeling, checking-in, sharing, being here and being there, local and global, citizens of somewhere and of nowhere. Is it not striking that some of the main generators of vitality along Peckham's Rye Lane are the small stalls, often manned by migrants and refugees seeking to gain an economic foothold in the great metropolis? And that they mainly offer services related to the workings, appearance and maintenance of mobile phones? Welcome to 21st-century place.
Photograph of Rye Lane is by Martin Addison.