Sense of Place

It is the end of summer in San Francisco, which usually means grab a sweater and hold on to your hat, but this year it has been downright balmy – and occasionally even hot. Earlier in the summer, we spent a week in Oahu, and over Labor Day, spent the long weekend in the Russian River Valley. I have been taking credit for bringing a little Hawaii back home with me . . . especially the warm surf-friendly waters.

My first trip to Hawaii was in 2009, at the tail end of a year of breast cancer treatment. Our clients, Martha and Ed, contacted us as we had designed a remodel of their daughter’s house in Noe Valley, and insisted we come to Kailua and help them. After a futile attempt to turn down the work (there are plenty of great architects and designers in Hawaii), they convinced us to trek over and take a look.

The first design concepts were generated before I had been to the site (or any Hawaiian islands). They were not only naïve, but completely disconnected to the sense of place. Politely, Martha and Ed let me know that the initial ideas were “interesting” . . . but lacked a fundamental understanding of what it means to live in Hawaii. At their insistence, I travelled to their house and spent a week on site (solo – what a luxury!) designing the project. A dream job if there ever was one. There is nothing like living in a place 24 hours a day for seven days to create an understanding of place.

I have always been a site specific designer and committed practitioner of the humanistic phenomenology mode of design – philosophically anchored by the 15th century poet and architect Leon Batista Alberti, modernly interpreted by Kenneth Frampton, and excellently practiced by the likes of those well known in the humanistic-centric world of design such as Juhani Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor. A few more of my faves that are not quite as obvious or well known: Patkau Architects (in particular their houses), Shim-Sutcliffe, and Line and Space.

As our work gets broader recognition, we are being asked to design places far and wide; recent locations include Seoul, South Korea; Vancouver, BC; and closer to home, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Designing in these locations has been exhilarating (discovering a new place), challenging (understanding the soul of the people and the place before – or while – designing), and curious (we are fortunate to practice in a place where the mundane is as valued as the wow). But in the end, we are not sure if this is an avenue that fits with our ethos.

In some, the work process has lacked the connectivity we have come to rely on, not just with our clients, but with the multitude of makers that do the hard work of building our designs, and the joy that comes from spontaneous laughter at the end of a two hour design meeting (not replicated in teleconference and too risky with new people in a new place).

As such, we are reflecting on the opportunities coming our way to design places outside of the Bay Area. We have recently been talking with some folks about a restaurant in a valley – which seems to have more in common with Tuscany than San Francisco. Despite our eager and competitive yearning for the work (it’s definitely an aspirational project for us), there is some deep and fundamental question about whether one can create authentic design when you are not from or spend your time being in a place. As architects, we are trained to understand place through climate, location, weather, local styles, landscapes, and are as skilled as the best travel writers to absorb and re-imagine this world.  So, until or unless we are no longer embodied humans on this planet earth, I will continue to anchor my design work in the humanistic experience of place.