The Tuesday Topic: The Phenomenon of Place
As architects design, the concept of Place is always an underlying factor. To create a functional layout which remains relevant to its location, it must cater to the clients needs. But authenticity is a defining element of a community’s ethos. New buildings must consider their environments to understand what is appropriate and may be vulgar. How we research a neighborhood, city block or identifiable character of a community often provides the answers to what works best visually. Yet as technology is more prevalent in our society, how do we maintain creativity, even if it goes unnoticed?
I was born in 1983. I am technically a Millennial (1981-1996). I was raised in a sleepy farm town in eastern Indiana by a Quaker pastor and music teacher. We were simple, pragmatic…and very frugal. Legos, Lincoln Logs and erector sets were a staple in my childhood. I had the derogatory Huffy bike I called, “The Tidal Wave”. The TV show, “Stranger Things” was a close representation my childhood. Around 1989, however; the personal computer became affordable for the layman. The game of choice was, of course, “Oregon Trail.” Yes, I died a lot from dysentery and many of my children were bitten by snakes, but I loved that game and it defined my generation, at that point in time. It also initiated a rift in the millennials. Home entertainment systems like the N64 and PlayStation introduced better and more realistic games but I and my fellow floppy disc brethren remanence about the yellow monochromatic Magnavox, telling us our wagon had broke down. We had become the Oregon Trail Generation, or as Cassie McClure, from the Las Cruces Sun-News eloquently puts it, “remembering a time before the digital age, but barely.”  This divide of the millennial generation expresses the real dissent technology has had in a first world society. Half of us played Oregon Trail and half of us never had the pleasure.
In “The Phenomenon of Place”, Christian Norberg-Schulz relates the object of identification to concrete environmental properties, often developed in childhood. As it stands today, technology is the epicenter of our society. From Facebook and Twitter to Adobe and Revit, we are all reliant on communicative software to march through the day and into the night. “In fact, modern man for a long time believed that science and technology had freed him from a direct dependence on places. This belief has proved an illusion; pollution and environmental chaos have suddenly appeared as a frightening nemesis, and as a result the problem of place has regained its true importance.”  Norberg-Schulz relates “place” to the physical and psychic senses. In other words, a sense of security is created by understanding and relating to environmental order through orientation and identification. We have devoted so much of our humanity on convenient technology and communication, that we have lost our childhood understanding of Place through a denial of necessary physical interaction to develop. This new “Nurturing” philosophy shows no support to the understood “Nature of Things”. We don’t really know how kids these days will develop where the iPod (2001) has always existed (I recognize I just became an old man in that sentence).
The understanding of Dasein is defined as “thrown into” situations. This philosophy is driven by the guiding principles of civilized humanity. Compassion, fear and guilt, are aspects of Dasein. The Mitrovic text studies the philosophy of Martin Heidegger who states, “A human being is essentially a being-of-the-world…”  and Dasein is what provides authenticity to our lives. “One could compare the Christian understanding of creation with thrownness, guilt with the teaching about original sin, authenticity with salvation through fear of death, and so on.” Heidegger is saying that authenticity is what drives us to live our life through conscious, independent and repercussive decisions that define our personalities. I bring this up to compare the reliant, human need to be independent and yet depend so heavily on technology in order to thrive. We have become a society of techies and struggle to find the benefit or just recognize the inconvenience of what our parents generation considered stable, honest living. We no longer need to work in an office to do a job, 43% of Americans claim they spent some time working remotely.  Our entertainment resides around social media, living vicariously through celebrities lives (it is estimated in 2017 that in a lifetime, over 5 years and 4 months will be spent on social media ). Our technology has introduced us to a new, uncharted reality. Mitrovic claims, “Human relationship to places is thus constituted through dwelling. The process of building makes a place by creating and connecting spaces.” Our dwelling is now our technology, and our connected spaces are solely through fiber optics.
While this is an inevitable reality, it does not need to be the constant. The intention of science and technology was also to provide relief from so much responsibility and blend health and lifestyle within an everyday life. Fitbit constantly discloses our lack of movement through subtle shame by showing missed daily goals. Social media is broadening our understanding of world needs and is promoting social goodness. Even industry standard software (AutoCAD and Revit) is providing proficient and reliably communicative applications that share more information in less time, at a stable cost, benefiting the client most.
“To dwell between Earth and heaven,” Norberg-Schulz says, “one must experience meanings; only when the man-made environment is meaningful can man be at home.” I have a three-year-old son and struggle daily to not rely on technology to raise him. The lifestyle I am fostering is reliant on convenience and technology, all of my own doing. Streaming TV and high speed internet are essentials to get through the day. My memories of childhood were of curfews and skinned knees. I want my son to have the same experiences of living, breathing and playing as I did, even in this modern age of managed screen time and digital engagements. I know he’ll never know the joys of buying enough gun powder to decimate the buffalo population on his way to Oregon, but I know with attentiveness and diligence he’ll ride that huffy to school every day and have his own, none digital stories to tell.
I’ll end this tome with a question, Jacques Derrida identified voice to designate an immediate presence of a speaker, “the emphasis on the priority of speech…sees a wider emphasis on the idea of presence.” As we become more and more reliant on technology, do we see a concern that architecture as art and a representation of our current society will become flagrant, unnecessary and ultimately more utilitarian? Will society reject the need for architecture as beauty and serve solely as shelter to protect their technology? I find the function of design imperative on what our culture is currently expressing. We should never abandon creativity for strict convenience. But I design buildings every day, so I may be tremendously biased.
Norberg-Schulz, C. “The Phenomenon of Place”
Mitrovic, B. (2011) “Philosophy for Architects”. Princeton Architectural Press