A Sense of Place

1. Topophilia

Due Mon., Feb. 2.

In The Poetics of Space, philosopher Gaston Bachelard examines simple poetic images of “felicitous spaces,” the spaces we love, for which he gives the name “topophilia.” In such places, one feels “at home” and safe.  For this post, write about a room, house, block, or neighborhood, even a whole city, that you love in some way.  It might be where you grew up, your grandparents’ house, a vacation spot, or your current apartment. Focus on descriptive, sensory details, as well as observations and commentary about why the place is special, its personal associations, its history, its overall character. To get started, read some of the following.

Also, to follow up on the discussion in the first class:

 2. Social Spaces

Due Thurs., Feb. 5

In his landmark study The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). William Whyte and his team observed people’s behavior in several plazas in New York City and then made recommendations about how to improve these places. For this post, focus on the social life of a particular place that you know from past experience or that you can go observe. Describe the place and how people act there. It doesn’t have to be a plaza, but it should be a public space, like the stairway entrance to the NYU student center, the stoop in front of your building, or the lounge at 1 Washington Place. Try applying some of Whyte’s principles for what makes a good or bad public space.

 3. City Form

Due Mon., Feb. 9

In his book Image of the City (1960), Kevin Lynch and a team of students studied how people orient themselves in their urban environment. They watched as people drew mental maps of the city, asked them to give directions to a destination, and prompted them to go an imaginary walk. The team analyzed the results in terms of five basic elements of urban form: path, edge, node, district, and landmark. For this post, write about something inspired by Lynch’s book. You could someone about their image of the city, you could make a cognitive map and write about it (try to post an image of it), or you could tell a story about asking or giving directions. Whatever your approach, make sure there are plenty of visual details in the post, and try to think in terms of path, edge, node, etc.


For further study:

 4. Orientation

Due Thurs., Feb. 12

Write about the experience of getting oriented in a new place, the experience of getting lost sometime, or another theme related to finding your way. You might look into the brain’s inner GPS, the exploratory derive of the psychogeographer, the illness of topographical disorientation disorder, or the ways maps, signs, and landmarks help you stay oriented. You could take a subway ride to a neighborhood you’ve never been and write about what happens. Here are some things to get started on this post:

5. Utopias

Due Mon., Feb. 16

Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) presents a critique of urban planning and the utopian visions on which they’re based. Her vision of the city put her at odds with the “masterbuilder” of New York, Robert Moses, as well as Lewis Mumford, one of the most influential architecture critics of the day. Her book describes what Jacobs thinks makes a successful urban environment — safety (“eyes on the street), density, mixed use, buildings of various ages and conditions. For this post, write about one of the themes in Jacobs’ book or one of these additional readings related to Moses, Mumford, and Jacobs.

6. Suburbia

Due Thurs., Feb. 19

Write about the suburb where you grew up, some other suburb with which you’re familiar, or some aspect of the suburbs as discussed in the readings. Themes to consider include the problems of sprawl, specific suburban developments like Levittown, TV shows that feature suburban life, specific aspects of suburban life. You might try to locate the place of your suburb in the history of suburbia as outlined in Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia. You might also watch End of Suburbia, excerpts from the Lakeland videos, etc., or check out other online videos about the burbs. (If you discuss a video on You-tube, you can put the URL in the field at the end of the post and it should show up with your post.) If you want to include a photo of your house, street, or suburb and don’t have one, try capturing an image from Google Street Views.

For further reading:

7. Vernacular

Due Mon., Feb. 23

The vernacular landscape is the world of common, ordinary, everyday places — the front lawn, the simple cottage, the strip mall, the garage, the farmer’s market. Write about an example of the vernacular landscape and how it reflects particular social attitudes and values. To get started, read some of these J. B. Jackson essays.

For further reading:

8. Buildings

Due Thurs., Feb. 26

Write about “sense of place” as it relates to the architecture of a particular building or an issue related to architecture, historic preservation, modernism, postmodernism, etc. You might do some research about a building, but don’t just summarize what you read online. Write about the experience of being in the building, the issue of human scale, etc. There’s lots to read about modern architecture, but an interesting place to start is Tom Wolfe’s book and this J. B. Jackson essay:

9. Non-Places

Due Mon., March 2

“There’s no there there,” said Gertrude Stein about Oakland, California. Many places seem to lack a “there” — they don’t have a unique character, or they’re just like everyplace else. One thinks of homogenous suburbs, airport terminals, shopping malls. Then there are the places that have been abandoned, like brownfields and sacrifice zones. Write about one of these “non-places” or “placeless places.” Describe it, explain why it’s “placeless,” and if you have any thoughts on the question, discuss what, if anything, could be done to make the place feel more like a “place.” As another approach, you might explore issues of placelessness associated with transitory housing, the global university, the modern nomad. To get started, read some of Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness, and note the last couple of pages of the part 2 selection, where he summarizes his discussion and provides a helpful list of placeless places, which should give you all kinds of ideas for writing.

10. New York Stories

Due Thurs., March 5

Write a short personal essay about living in New York City. The following readings suggest a range of approaches. You might focus on a street (like Frazier’s “Canal Street”), or tell a story about the experience of walking the streets (like Gornick’s “On the Street”), or reflect on arriving or leaving New York (like Didion’s piece), or something inspired by the Whitehead pieces.

11. Spirit of Place

Due Mon., March 9

The genius loci, the spirit of place, manifests itself in many way besides the built environment. This spirit can also be seen in the way people dress, the cuisine, the terroir of a wine, the way people talk. Novelists, poets, and travel writers represent the spirit of place in words when they describe a neighborhood or country. Artists represent the spirit of place in landscape paintings and a variety of other art forms. For this post, explore the “spirit of place” theme in one of these ways, but not through architecture or urban design.  To get some ideas, try a Google search using “spirit of place” or “sense of place” and a field of study (literature, fashion, etc.) or a particular writer, artist, literary work, etc.  And here are some readings:

 12. Placemaking

Due Thurs., March 12

One of the legacies of people like Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, and William Whyte is the phenomenon of “placemaking” — the practice of improving public spaces so they are more responsive to the needs and desires of the people who inhabit them.  For the final post, write something about placemaking.  You might think about approaching the topic from the perspective of your concentration or major. How can literature, photography, music, film, gender studies, business, etc., contribute to the placemaking process? To get started, take a look at some of the many websites about placemaking.