some ideas, some music, some gardening

A dao that may be spoken is not the enduring Dao. A name that may be named is not an enduring name. No names – this is the beginning of heaven and earth. Having names – this is the mother of the things of the world. (Dao De Jing)

Here is the inevitable trap about concepts like “sense of place”: When you feel it, you’re not thinking about it. “Sense of place” is like that moment of pure focus when you have left yourself for another activity, yet when you snap back to it, you didn’t even know it happened. “Sense of place” is not an “ideal” like Nirvana or the Dao, but it is a mindset that prevails when you conceive of the earth a bit differently than how it is presented now.

The phrase “sense of place” became more common in the mid-20th century in the multidisciplinary intersection of architecture and phenomenology. Architectural writer J.B. Jackson had complained about sense of place as a “much-used expression, chiefly by architects but taken over by urban planners and interior decorators and the promoters of condominiums, so that it now means very little.” Indeed, writings on sense of place have meandered between forest management, tourism, festival organization, child psychology, and so on. But “sense of place” has stuck around with architecture for almost a century, likely because of its origins within an 18th century poem by Alexander Pope:

Consult the genius of the place in all
That tells the waters to rise and fall
Or helps the ambitious hills the heavens to scale
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale… (1731, lines 57-60)

The “genius of the place”, in Latin genius loci, became a repeated phrase for centuries to come. For Alexander Pope, genius loci pointed to a divine guardian that took stewardship of a location; with god-like gifts, they could personally shape the natural landscape to their own desire. From this perspective, we could infer the aesthetic desires of a divine power by studying the natural landscape. On a more tangible level, we should be able to see the spirit of a township or its ruler by the changes made to the landscape and the methods in which buildings were constructed. Norwegian architectural phenomenologist Christian Norberg-Schulz, connected genius loci to the modern demand for a “sense of place” when entering a town or building. To Norberg-Schulz, achieving a sense of place meant to design a town and structure with full regard to the natural and cultural environments; in other worse, buildings should be fully informed of their context during the design process. You can see this in any city where architects are allowed some creative room, but still seek to constrain themselves by the styles and culture of the locality; even postmodern architects must validate their bold choices by reasoning that their building is attempting to convey the city’s “essence” despite sticking out like a sore thumb.

The underlying assumption about this architectural perspective on “sense of place” is that people do not want to be alienated by their physical environment, and would prefer that a new building still follows the same design language as others in close vicinity. It’s an aesthetically conservative point of view as well, seeking the traditional or the slightest deviations from tradition.

Why? I propose that there is a comfort in recognizable symbolism: People, seeking a common language with others, can find it in traditionally-constructed buildings; undermining that brings the more conservative to a literal loss of words.

The problem is that the architectural envisioning of “sense of place” depends on auteurs who are willing to put in the extra effort to design new buildings with regard to their cultural and natural landscapes. As housing and building developers consolidate and become more “efficient” in their design templates—in other words, reducing the number of variations in designs to maximize economies of scale in material use and logistics—towns and cities all over the United States are starting to look the exact same. At times I forgot whether I was walking through 4th Street in Austin or K Street in Washington D.C.; the mass housing developments in Stoughton, Wisconsin didn’t seem any different from those outside Bellevue, Washington. Even more visibly, Wal-Mart and Target and Best Buy effortlessly turn any plot of land into the same cookie cutter shopping center.

From a descriptive point of view, the why of all this is obvious: the United States has evolved to become a nation of chains and mega-developments, because that’s where the money is; if the money was anywhere else, we’d be there. From a prescriptive point of view, the why is more impassioned: The natural processes of centralized government and commerce, if unquestioned, will continue to erode any sense of locality or rootedness in the physical environment.

Think of the aesthetic conservatism proposed by the architectural “sense of place”—resistance to deviations in design will only hold for a generation or two of people. A once-contentious issue building design will look like cultural wallpaper to a child, who grows up with this building as a point of fact rather than a point of argument. The goal of aesthetic conservatism then should not be a battle over designs, but over the spirit behind the design: Right now, we see a cultural spirit to turn every corner of the United States into a templated condo. Understand the spirit’s origins by pinpointing what it fulfills in people, and try finding ways to fulfill people by encouraging an alternative spirit.

I believe that the current spirit against locality, region and natural environment is fueled by a loss of one’s “sense of place” and the seeking of this feeling within cultural constructions rather than that of the familial and natural. The problem with rooting one’s identity in cultural constructions is that one’s identity thus becomes as malleable as the symbolism of the culture. One may identify with New York City, but only with the magnificent buildings of Manhattan than the contours of the Hudson River. Another New York resident might think of NYC as “Brooklyn first, and then the others”. Thus the New Yorkers, while able to call themselves as such, will have no shared language with the other; as time passes, Brooklyn and Manhattan get replaced with new buildings and apartments and these New Yorkers, if gone too long, lose the language of their own locality. In other words, the construction one’s identity from cultural symbolisms is like trying to keep hold of a particle of water in a river: Before you know it, you’ve already lost that molecule to the un-ending churn of progress.

Rekindling a sense of place will not be as simple as taking a few hikes each day or joining the Earth Liberation Front. This sense depends on restructuring one’s perspective on land and water as not a commodity but the extension of the individual and their community; more accurately, the individual and community are an extension of land and water. If this is to ever be believed, then one must also think critically about the assumptions made by a modern, technological, global society, and how these assumptions produce a habitual distinction between humans and all other life on the planet. Finally, to understand the root cause of why so many of us don’t have a sense of place anymore, we must understand the spiritual nature of why we try to distinguish ourselves from everything else.