September 4, 2016

Place-making is among the more helpful definitions of what Architects do.  Had a conversation with a good friend this week, who knows our business well, and he still surprised me by dramatically miss-understanding our work.  So, let’s say that place-making is one of the first things we do, on the good days.

And there is a need for place, it’s desperate.  We’re always moving from one position to another, looking for place, it’s no less than a human condition.

I’ve been going to terrible coffee shops recently, the worst.  Been out of town for a few reasons, unfamiliar and inconvenient locations, or maybe it’s a sense of adventure.  I’m in one now.  It’s miserable.   Only paper cups.  Hard floors, flat paint, trim that doesn’t make sense, 2×4 lay-in prismatic lighting, round tables and miss-matched metal chairs.  I’ve changed tables twice.  The first open option was a too-large round table, right in the middle, next to the counter.  The second was by the window, but also next to the condiment station, microwave, and behind the bean grinders.  I’m now, embarrassingly, trying to use their “meeting room”, large TV and marker board, surrounded by walls that don’t go to the ceiling.  I haven’t escaped the conversations in the main room or the noise of the smoothie machine, but I’m less self-conscious, and there’s an available power outlet.

I’ve been in a surprising number of conversations recently about virtual reality, about synthetic environments, even alternate universes.  The most recent conversation was during the Express Permit Review for Volstead, an upcoming basement-bar.  Our design for the bar is all about place-making – it’s a large space, multiple thematic locations, hidden corners and choreographed pathways.  And while we’re actively working in the very local and actually built environment, our client is discussing the not-to-distant-future reality of the unreal.

We’ve moved our office files to the cloud.  I don’t buy CD’s anymore.  The intangible is becoming more present, more often.  We can work from anywhere, we can be entertained on the go, we can pray in our pajamas.   And yet, we keep looking for places, we need places.  We sit and we exist here and now, but we keep moving.

Architecture doesn’t happen without place.  Our work is defined by property lines and lease agreements.  And so, there’s always a source for the invention that we pursue.  Context, lawful occupation, and the site always exist.  Once we start, it’s easy to assume that we’re already done.  And, when I sit in a coffee shop like this, I think they stopped too soon.

We have three projects in the office now that are only about place.  One is a property we’re pursuing without a client, just an empty space.  We’re compelled by parking lots.  And it’s leading to conversations.  This is how we get a lot of our new work, this is how we meet people and stay ahead of the market.  These are the questions we want to answer and the commissions we want to earn.

The second is a pavilion in a garden, on borrowed land.  It’s about shelter, it’s about serving needs, it’s a landmark in a transient neighborhood.  We had a long conversation about whether it could or should be movable, about how it could be demountable and relocated when the time came.  We talked with the property owner about whether we could install concrete footings.  We anticipate development that will surround our small construction, but the project is about locating ourselves here to serve the needs we see now.

And the third project is the most profound, the one I’ve been most cautious to advertise, the one that cuts to the core of what I think place could be.  On the first Saturday of each month, I’ve been meeting with a property owner and other engineers, around a concrete table outside, in an alcove built into the granite hill of a private backyard.  Mark serves warm coffee from a thermos, and hard-boiled eggs.  We’re imagining a chapel, an enduring sacred place.  When we first learned about architecture, about the cathedrals and civic monuments, these are the places that we discovered, places that were built over generations, that have endured for centuries.  We’re starting to plan to carve it out of the rock now.  And today in this unfinished under-purposed misfit room, while the enthusiastic air conditioning burns my arms, while I listen to other people talking on their phones in multiple conversations, on a Sunday afternoon, that’s the place I imagine more.

To sit in this room, it’s right to be discontent.  We long for better places, for specific places, we need them and we move to find them.