A Sense of Place

1. The Experience of Place

Due Mon., Jan. 30

For the first post, write about your personal experience of a particular place — a room, house, a building, block, neighborhood, city, or region.  The first couple of pages of Tony Hiss’s essay, “Experiencing Places,” from The New Yorker, provides a good model for one approach: describe the sounds, feelings, smells, etc., of walking through a particular place, followed by reflections about the experience.  Yi-Fu Tuan’s article “Place: An Experiential Perspective,”  suggests several other approaches that involve the different scales of “place” — from a bed, to home, to city and region.  The suggested readings should inspire still other approaches, such as Lewis Mumford on his childhood in Manhattan,  bell hooks on returning to her Kentucky home, Ian Frazier on his apartment building on Canal Street, Vivian Gornick on walking the streets of New York.  Whatever your approach, make sure the post is  filled with vivid descriptive details and focused on a personal experience of a particular place.  


For further reading:

 2. The Spirit of Place

Due Thurs., Feb. 2

“Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there…The more living patterns there are in a place—a room, a building or a town—the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.” — Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

“The spirit of place is a strange thing. Our mechanical age tries to override it. But it does not succeed. In the end the strange, sinister spirit of place, so diverse and adverse in differing places, will smash our mechanical oneness into smithereens, and all that we think the real thing will go off with a pop, and we shall be left staring. — D. H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia

For this post, you can choose between two approaches or a combination of them.  (Be sure to do something different from what you did in the first post.)  For starters, to get some ideas about the different meanings of “a sense of place,” read Edward Relph’s essay “Reflections on the Emergence, Aspects and Essence of Place,” which summarizes some of  the various meanings of “place” in the academic literature.

One approach for the post would be to write about the “spirit of place” of a particular place — its unique character, its “genius loci.”  It might be a place you hang out, a place you’ve visited on your travels, or the neighborhood you live in.  A second approach would be to write about “spirit of place” and “sense of place” as they relate to a particular field of study.  For example, how does “spirit of place” figure in to a literary work, a work of art, photography, music, film, gender studies, business, etc.?  You might think about approaching the topic from the perspective of your concentration or major, or Google around a bit using key terms like “sense of place” along with the area you want to explore (music, film, sports, etc.)  You can combine these two approaches by focusing on the spirit of a particular place that relates to a particular field of study.  For more ideas, check out the Sense of Place News items on the sidebar.  The suggested readings may give you some ideas for how to approach the assignment.

Required Reading:

Suggested Readings:

3. City Form and Orientation

Due Mon., Feb. 6

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. This theme of orientation has also been explored in many other contexts, such as the neuroscience of the brain’s inner GPS.

For this post, write about something inspired by Lynch’s ideas about city form and the theme of orientation.  You could interview someone about their image of the city, make a cognitive map and write about it (try to post an image of it), tell a story about getting lost and asking or giving directions (try to incorporate Lynch as you do this), or do some research into a relevant topic, like the dérive of psychogeography, or wayfinding, or the illness of topographical disorientation disorder, or mapping.


For further exploration:

4. The Social Life of Places

Due Thurs., Feb. 9

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.  Observe the place and how people act there.  It doesn’t have to be a plaza, but it should be a public space, like the stoop in front of your building or the lounge at 1 Washington Place, where you can sit or stand and watch and observe how people behave. Try applying some of Whyte’s principles for what makes a good or bad public space.


5. Visions of Utopia

Due Mon., Feb. 13

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.


For further reading:

 6. Shock of the New

Due: Thurs., February 16

Write about “sense of place” as it relates to modern and postmodern architecture, e.g., the design of a particular building or an issue related to modernism (like historic preservation). 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 and postmodern architecture, but here are some places to start.  The Kunstler chapter is an easy start, and the Jackson essay is entertaining.  For a more in-depth and equally critical view, work through the Wolfe book.

7. Sprawl and New Urbanism

Due: Mon., Feb. 20

The interest in place and placemaking is in some respects a response to the sense of placelessness associated with suburbia.  For this post, write about the suburb where you grew up, some other suburb with which you’re familiar, some aspect of the suburbs as discussed in the readings, or one of the antidotes to sprawl like New Urbanism (a type of placemaking).  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 that’s available on You-tube, you can insert it into your post by changing the format from Standard to Video and pasting in the URL in the box at the end of the 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, but please convert it from the screen capture to a jpg.)


For further reading:

8. The Vernacular Landscape

Due Thurs., Feb. 23

The vernacular landscape refers to the indigenous, local, common landscape, in contrast to the polite, political, and national or cosmopolitan.  It’s the landscape that has evolved organically rather than being created by planners and architects (“architecture without architects”), that has been shaped by average people through their everyday activities rather than by experts and professionals, that reflects local building materials, traditional technologies, styles, customs, and culture rather than an international style.   It 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 the Wikipedia entry on “vernacular architecture” and these essays by J. B. Jackson, a landscape historian who wrote extensively about the history of the vernacular and its manifestations in contemporary America.

For further reading:

9. Placelessness and Non-Places

Due Mon., Feb. 27

“There’s no there there.” — 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. Placemaking, Place Fabrication, and Faux Places

Due Thurs., March 2

One of the legacies of the work of Kevin Lynch 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.  The practice also has a darker side, too, as when development corporations exploit the desire for place to attract investment, tourists, and so on.  The result is often a fabricated, faux, Disneyfied place.

For this post, write something about placemaking and/or place fabrication.  You might focus on how a place has been changed in response to the placemaking principles (e.g., the sitting areas on Broadway in NYC), or you might create your own plan for improving a particular place.  Another angle would be to engage with the debate over “authenticity” and “faux” places, as with the Disneyfication of Times Square.   Here are some readings, videos, and websites to get you started.  Take another look at this presentation for more ideas.

  11. A Cosmopolitan Sense of Place

Due: Mon., March 6

Strong attachment to a place can turn into an exclusionary attitude – “this is my place so keep out.”  It can lead to gated communities, private resorts, or much worse — forced displacement of entire populations from their home.  Doreen Massey and Yi-Fu Tuan try to resolve some of the problems with a parochial sense of place by advocating a global, cosmopolitan sense of place.  For this post, write about the readings and themes in the context of your personal experience.


12. SOP 2.0

Due: Thurs., March 9

New technologies are transforming the way we think about, experience, and design places.  For this post, write about something related to place in network culture.  You might do some research into the connections between new technologies and the sense of place themes we’ve explored during the course.  Consider topics like the networking of space, the spatiality of the network, sentient houses, responsive environments, the growing use of digital mapping, GPS, virtual places, web-based urban narratives, location-based services like Foursquare, hybrid spaces and the overlap between digital and physical place, locative media (digital media that uses portable devices and technology that is sensitive to the location of the user), digital placemaking, the influence of portable media on place, and so on.   For background, read the article on “Place — The Networking of Public Space” before you get started.


Place: The Networking of Public Space – Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg

More to look at: