Timeless Trait Tuesday – Sense of Place

I want to propose “sense of place” as an important trait of timeless design. It’s what gives our buildings and our homes, and for many of us, our lives, roots. It’s both a figurative and literal connection to our neighborhood, our society, our culture and our environment. Where I live is very different than Los Angeles, Seattle, New York or Chicago, because my city has its own story, its own past. It has a different pace of life than New York, a different set of values than Los Angeles, a different climate than Seattle and a different economical basis than Chicago. (I’m from the Midwest, and while that conjures up an image of a wholesome, corn-fed (make that meat and potatoes) girl, the states of the Midwest are large enough and widespread enough to create a wide range of differences.) There are two ways to look at sense of place: vernacular architecture and traditional architecture.

Vernacular architecture is the result of necessity, availability and function. These are the structures built by their inhabitants, using the materials and technologies they found close at hand. Think adobe homes in the Americas, mud or stone huts in Africa, yurts in Mongolia. Some vernacular structures were permanent, but some were moveable (think teepees!) as a result of nomadic societies.

(South Africa; Mongolia; Indonesia; Nepal; Inuit igloo)

Traditional architecture is, well, what we study in history classes, those buildings that can be categorized into a specific movement or style with recognizable features, the ones conceived and designed by trained architects. A quote on Wikipedia calls traditional architecture “polite” in comparison to vernacular buildings.

They sound like similar terms, and we might look upon the word “vernacular” in a somewhat endearing way, but if you ask a trained architect, they probably take a different view. For example:

Ronald Brunskill has defined the ultimate in vernacular architecture as: “…a building designed by an amateur without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable.  The function of the building would be the dominant factor, aesthetic considerations, though present to some degree, being quite minimal.  Local materials would be used as a matter of course, other materials being chosen and imported quite exceptionally.”  (Wikipedia)

The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World defines vernacular architecture as: “…comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people.  Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies.  All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.”  (Wikipedia)

Is there a happy medium between the traditional and the vernacular?  I’m just going to say that yes, there is.  But what does it look like?  How is it created?  What do we call it?

With Frank Lloyd Wright, we called it the Prairie style:

  1. influenced by the architectural tradition of Louis Sullivan
  2. horizontal structures designed to mimic surrounding environment (primarily Illinois and Wisconsin)
  3. low-hanging eaves and low-set ribbon windows to connect inside and out (interior decorative details also reflected this theme)
  4. construction materials sourced locally, again reflecting those found naturally in the surrounding environment
  5. later works influenced by Japanese architecture (vernacular forms which created traditional architecture)

                   FLW home and office; Oak Park, IL.                   Structure at Ise Shrine; Japan

Robie House; Illinois

Martin House; Illinois

With Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, we’re calling it……..                                        well, the jury’s still out on that one:

  1. seeks to build “buildings that respond to their environment” (via)
  2. respond to climate
  3. like FLW, horizontal lines complement the Australian landscape

It is Murcutt’s use of materials and technology in response to heat, light, and the elements that set him apart from other architects. Louvred panels, low eaves, and various sun-shading designs are the most noticeable details.                                         (photos from Pritzker Architecture Prize website)

OK.  So, how else can we create a sense of place, besides responding to the environment or vernacular tradition?  Well, I’m not entirely sure.  But here are some thoughts:

  1. family is the source of our roots – perhaps heirloom or hand-me-down pieces connect us with those who we identify with
  2. maybe it’s making sure that the homes we build not only reflect our sensibilities, but are visually related to the other buildings in the neighborhood/city/region
  3. using local materials – stone from local quarries, wood reclaimed from old barns in your state, support of your neighborhood thrift/antique/secondhand stores
  4. using native plants in landscaping

I’ve found this to be a difficult post to put together, because sense of place can mean many things to many people.  I think for me, it means surrounding myself with the things I love, things that remind me of my family, of my values.  It’s hard to feel rooted in your surroundings when you’re renting a townhouse.

I really want to hear your thoughts!!


9 thoughts on “Timeless Trait Tuesday – Sense of Place

  1. Pingback: (un)Wordless Wednesday | amaranthine aesthetic

  2. Wow what a great post! Sense of place for me is my family and being together. We can live in a home anywhere in the world and surround ourselves with “things” but what really matters most is our family. We can have our family for eternity. I want our home to be filled with peace and feel safe and lots of memories. I love repurposing old furniture or decor items even old clothing because a memory comes with it and it can form new memories in the new way it’s being used.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. We’re military and adhere to the cliche “Home is where the Air Force” sends you. Every few years, we move to a new place and have to quickly make it our own. Mostly we do that but just having all of us there.

  4. Recently I was visiting my hometown. My best friend back home bought her first house last month, so I drove across town to check it out. It was a nice house in a cute neighborhood, but the thing that impressed me the most was the second I drove into the subdivision, it *felt* like home. (Interestingly, the neighborhood was built around the same time and in the same style as my parents’ home and several neighborhoods on my side of town.) Architecturally speaking, it was nondescript, but emotionally, I was really struck with a sense of place and time there.

    Interesting thoughts!

  5. What an interesting post Jess!! We just bought our first home… And I get what you’re saying. We are just now really making it feel like our own, with our own sense of place as it were. Thanks for sharing this on Fancy This Fridays and for teaching me something new!

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