The notion of place and creating place is frequently discussed in design school and professional practice. Over the past 10 months I have had the opportunity to understand what it means to be "rooted" in place and what it means to actually live in "place." It is easy to get lost in the idea that when we design places people will only use them for a certain period of time and remember them as something special. We, myself included, may tend to get caught up in the idea that we are designing solely for the visitor and not for the permanent resident. (We are designing for ourselves, imagining how we would use the place and what we think is appropriate)
After a semester long seminar of reading about and stretching the discourse on place theory, I have rather confidently confirmed that what I thought I knew was far from what I actually know now.
When I think back to my understanding of place literature, I realize that I kept on relating place and the creation of place to either my comfort zone or my ideal travel destination or past experiences. These concepts address the local and the short-term but don't comprehensively address place as something long-term, adaptable and resilient to the forces of change. After living in Aspen, a place I initially thought was my comfort zone and my ideal travel destination for the past 10 months I have come to realize that if we want to create place as designers, we need to be able to leave our preconceived notions behind and listen to the existing uniqueness of a certain place.
I'm getting at the concept of how well designers can work outside of their scale, their region and their country - and the limitations we should consciously acknowledge. For instance, a lot of us from the NY/NJ area have a far different notion of what makes a place special than someone from an impoverished neighborhood in, say, Kansas. Further, if we expand this concept to designing an urban plaza in a Santiago, Chile neighborhood, then we will be pushed even further away from our understanding of culture and societal wants and needs.
So what's the big idea? If I came to Aspen as a designer working on a park, an open space network or a residence with the understanding I had prior to living here for 10 months, my design would have addressed the items I thought were important. It would not have addressed the seasonality, the ecology, the rhythm and frequency of tourism and, most importantly, would not have understood the needs of the long term, permanent residents. Sure, you are thinking, this is why we conduct site analysis (but, in reality, how well do we do that on average?) have public meetings and work with local consultants. And, sure, you are correct. But, how much of our final product is influenced by our initial vision, our feelings and our internal conception of beauty?
If we think about place theory and think about more than just what we like about where we grew up and where we have traveled and instead think about what place means for the people living in the area we are designing, then we have a better chance of designing something special. We may actually design place, and the people who use it every day may actually want to continue to use it and integrate it into their daily lives.
Ultimately, design has to include research and, dare I say, even science. But, don't get me wrong, if we forget art and beauty then we might as well not even put pen to paper in the first place. Design has to respond to context, and I believe that is the elementary framework for place making.