Re-imagining the Spirit of Place

I’ve long thought that the phrase “if you build it, they will come” to be fundamentally flawed – it implies that the spectacle of any new building is enough to draw attention and thus use. While China demonstrates the ability to erect skyscrapers in  a matter of days, the question of whether the skyscraper will have full occupancy remains to be seen.

I recently asked a principal at Berger Partnership, a landscape architecture firm well-known for their environmentally conscious urban and civic landscapes, what he considered his role as a designer to be, to which he replied “a positive agitator”. He described clients wanting to develop projects that mimic other well-known re-constructed parks such as the Highline in New York, without their understanding that the success of the Highline came from its specificity of place, that the park was a re-imagination of another world grounded by the familiar.

This concept, along with an enlightening discussion during last week’s class understanding that housing development does not cause housing prices to rise, highlights the fact that existing demand, from buying a house in a ritzy area to wanting to spend time in public spaces that recall the familiar, is the driving factor for the use of a place. While structural engineering can certainly solve many issues (the timeliness of construction, the capacity to weather natural events, and to improve environmental functions in an urban environment), the respect for the socio-cultural values of place even if it is messy and can’t be calculated, must be incorporated to engineer a truly socially valuable space.

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