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Ask an Architect: What Does Sense of Place Mean?

SHP

We’ve launched a new feature on SHP.com: Ask An ______. The series is just what you’d expect: you ask the questions, and we turn to our best and brightest team members to get the answers. Our next installment features associate and project architect Brian Lutz.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us, as a society, to question almost every element of our everyday lives. Even everyday activities that we formerly took for granted, such as the simple act of going to the grocery store, have taken on new meaning in the COVID era.

With a majority of the country locking down for nearly the entirety of 2020—and due to the uncertainty of a return to work for many corporate professions still today—homes were and continue to be transformed. For many, home is no longer a place to forget about work or school, and to relax and spend time with their families. They are now workspaces, study spaces, entertainment spaces and everything in between.

This blending of work and pleasure has caused many to feel uneasy in their homes, even after “official” work or school activities have ceased. The reason for this uneasy feeling may be that homes have lost their sense of place. The spaces adults and kids alike typically use as an escape from daily troubles have now become the spaces they use to focus on those troubles.

“Look at our own work experience. I really don’t like working at a desk in my bedroom. Because look at what that turns my bedroom into. Do I experience it as a place of rest and sanctuary, or of work and effort? When do I stop being at work?” Brian said. “There’s a clash of feelings within that space that’s not intended. The same situation happens with kids, too. When a student has to learn remotely from home, every room becomes a classroom, every room a place of learning and testing.”

Sense of place is a potent tool that our designers and architects use to create a space personalized to our client’s needs. But what does sense of place even mean? Is it just a made up term architects and designers use… or is there more to the story?

The term “sense of place” is used to describe the way people perceive the environments in which they live, work, play, study, socialize, relax and so on.  A sense of place is often tied to emotion. Sense of place is very important in establishing how a user feels about a space and may even be a determining factor for how they use the space going forward.

It is important to note that architects and designers cannot fully form a sense of place for an end user. Our team can define the shape, the color, the acoustics, the furnishings and the lighting of a room, which all play a role in how someone interacts with it, but they can’t determine the wide array of events that may take place in a space or provide the sensory and emotional connection to those events that truly shape how a user feels about that space long-term.

 In a nutshell, a sense of place is created by the combination of architecture, design and the emotional experiences within a space, all of which are ultimately defined by the users themselves.

Case in point: Brian had a chance to stop, sit, and think on a recent trip to the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. He described the sense of place he experienced while reflecting on the events of that fateful day in 1995.

“The design is in a place of loss, sitting in the void of the building and road. At night, the glass chairs commemorating the victims are lit up and the seams of the memorial gates are literally bursting apart, conveying a sense of lives destroyed and safety shattered. The experience of place comes from the physical structures and seclusion from the city around it, the use of light and the sound of water. But what really forms my sense of place is my understanding of what happened, and my actions and thoughts as I am invited to walk through and around the memorial, to stop and remember,” he explained.

“The designer’s job is not to create a sense of place for you, but to create an area physically conducive to the activities and emotion our clients are trying to evoke,” said Brian. “As the user of the space, it is your opportunity to make the most out of the area and do everything in your power to develop a positive sense of place for yourself and those around you.”

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