“We shape our Buildings; thereafter they shape Us.” Winston Churchill
I am biased. I have a perspective all my own. I have had the chance to live in a number of wonderful places, inspiring structures, beautiful communities, in a wide range of settings and contexts, near, far, pastoral, primitive, and post-industrial. And I’ve lived in a number of places that weren’t one or any of those things. So my bias, my perspective, it gives me pause to reflect on those differences, on what are the cogs and pins and rails and levers that make up each machine that is each place, in each place, and what makes some resonate with only a few versus with many, what makes a place not only discrete and unique, but also desirable and exciting and, well, vibrant. Is it memory? What do we remember of a place, and how? Is it the details and dimensions and empirical stuff of metrics, or of the feeling of a place, of the smells and sounds and textures and tastes – the things that imprint themselves on each our own psyches and elicit visceral responses when triggered. Dogs ferociously barking at each other through fences and a young girl timidly practicing violin; the smell of wet paint and coffee roasting and someone smoking between two houses; rough broom-finished concrete underfoot and a rusty-staple-riddled telephone pole and sleet stinging your face; acrid trash and fresh-cut wood in the summer’s thick heat. No one cares about the drawings done on paper of this place, or even if they were done – they care only of what it is. To create a place out of nothing is impossible, to try is foolish, for everything has context. We shape our buildings, sometimes in the most banal, uninspiring, opportunistic ways, cheaply perpetrated on proud bones, trying to make something familiar, to make people feel comfortable, when in fact it does just the opposite, placing them in a sea of undifferentiated sameness, unmemorable and placeless. So shape with care, we advise ourselves, so as to be a model, an example of a road not easier but truer to place. To take a place and augment its character is to hear its resonance and pull it into sharper tuning, bringing out the overtones one on top of the last, to let it ring truer than it has previously had the chance. For this shit is important – terribly important, deathly important – if we don’t create great places, we limit our chances to be great – that is what Churchill would have us believe, and I don’t disagree. And you may not agree with this, and that is probably good. This is meant to be provocative, not a one-size-fits-all piece for the masses, but a question. This is not intended to make anyone mad, but to acknowledge one of those issues we all instinctively shy away from, like saying I Love You, as perhaps as too gratuitous or heart-stringy, despite its gravity and truth. But it is real – I have lived it, as one person among so many. And it doesn’t have anything to do with money, at least not directly. It has to do with time, and care, and thought, which are all at their core free, if we can keep all of the secondary matters at bay, or even finagle them to work to our benefit. A community is certainly more than a sum of its parts, but clearly it is also comprised of those parts, and so place is about the structures and the spaces between, the rhythm and cadence, harmony and dissonance, elision and separation, as much as place is about the people who live there, of this place and come to this place, among all the rest. We, right now, have the chance to shape those buildings that will in turn shape us long into the future. Proceed with care and abandon, both, for these chances are not perpetual.
“We shape our Buildings; thereafter they shape Us.”