Op-Ed: You Are Here

This op-ed column, authored by rotating guest writers, aims to stir conversations on architecture and design among our creative community. 

2014-08-03_DUSAfterDark-WP-06IMAGE: Ryan Dravitz  | WORDS: B. Martin, K. Seitmann, B. Tomecek, and B. Wheeler

WE HAVE FORGOTTEN THE IMPORTANCE
OF A SENSE OF PLACE.


“ … Space in the image of man is place.” -Aldo van Eyck

Place, in the most intimate sense of the word, refers to something that is part landscape, part culture, part climate, part time. There is a distinctly physical component to place-making, just as there is an equally important emotional component—true place exists in memory as much as on a map. Is it not, after all, some combination of landscape and culture that draws so many of us to Denver in the first place?

But even in such a definable, desirable cultural context, where has our sense of place gone? Our state capital is neatly situated between epic mountains and nearly limitless prairies, within minutes of nearly every climate known to man. But the geographic diversity which makes Denver unique is also part of the problem. How do we build in a region that exists in the middle of so many places? Simply replicating another city’s style or form isn’t the answer. Trying to define a uniform process for all to follow won’t work, either. Instead, it is the recognition of one’s place—our actual presence in body and mind—that reminds us what we’ve forgotten.

It is, of course, crucially important to understand where we’ve come from. Just as prospectors brought with them tools to uncover newfound wealth, so, too, did wealth bring along an architecture rooted outside this spirit. Long since importers of architectural style, Denver has struggled to find a representation of its own distinct sociological and topographic context. Adobe structures of southwestern Colorado suggest a rugged earthbound culture strongly tied to the landscape. The weathered, agrarian buildings that dot our prairies seamlessly blend into the periphery. Even the derelict water wheels and abandoned mining structures lining the path to the mountains cultivate a sense of nostalgia. And yet Denver itself lacks iconic structures that embody its people.

Author Yi-Fu Tuan said, “[T]here may be greater awareness of built forms and space in a traditional than in a modern community. One cause of such greater awareness is active participation.” It is this participation that creates attachment, as Tuan adds, “Attachment to the homeland is a common human emotion. Its strength varies among different cultures and historical periods. The more ties there are, the stronger is the emotional bond.” It is this bond, this tangible memory, that transforms mere space into place.

As has often been the case in nostalgic works we revere, builders used what they had locally, in knowledgeable ways, with the utmost attention to craft and detail. What they designed, often for their own use, was meant to last a lifetime. Inherent in this methodology is the lasting creation of memory and emotion critical for understanding our own place and time. It is, as Tuan writes, this loss of attention that teeters us on the edge of losing our sense of place. Hyperdevelopment, impatience, and detachment have forced us to move too quickly, eliminating our desire for craft and causing us to forget where we came from.

Where we came from is an acknowledgement of the unique social and cultural climate that exists in Denver. Walk any city street these days and there is an almost palpable sense of adventure, of a respect for nature, and of the passion and pride that drives people to live and work here. Just as strong is the creative craft culture emerging from local farmers, brewers, and designers. We find it in our food, beverages, and fashion, so why do our cities and homes make no distinction to this great place in which we live?

It’s easy to lose ourselves, architecturally or otherwise, in the modernization of the world around us. Today’s impatient, globalized culture positions us somewhere between reliance on universally understood processes and a desire to maintain our uniqueness. An excess of information, ever at our fingertips, leads us to idolize imagery from a foreign place and expect its clone to create an identical experience elsewhere. This globalization also leads us to no longer marvel at creations that can use any material, applied to any form, punched with any aperture, and placed at any exposure within any climate. With all the technological advancements in the building industry, we’ve conceded the possibility for thoughtless architecture. We’ve created a place that arguably has forgotten the importance of a sense of place. The same house now can exist in Denver, Denali, or Denmark.

Whether in architecture, art, food, or farming, attentive processes that acknowledge our rich past, that benefit from the technological advancements of today, and that are inimitably informed by the landscape and influenced by the hand of the maker, yield something that appeals not only to our human needs but to Denver’s desire to foster creativity. What inevitably follows is the reflection, in each and every detail, of the architect, the builder, and the client. And it is these details that allow us to touch a specific time and place. This is what creates that lasting memory and, in turn, as Aldo van Eyck suggests, turns mere space into place.

At its core, our original pioneering spirit has never left. To this day, we carry a true sense of pride and adventure in the city we inhabit, and with ongoing developments socially and culturally in the Denver area, there is no time like the present to reestablish our own sense of place. Architecturally, this freedom, this adventure, this strong tie to the landscape can yield a distinct and important architecture, and we are reminded of the questions we often ask ourselves: Why here? Why now? Why this?


 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Tomecek Studio Architecture is a design studio that creates buildings, objects, and environments that heighten the senses and celebrate the unique qualities of place. They seek imaginative clients and innovative projects that allow the firm to contribute to local and global communities through design excellence. Their handcrafted projects span residential, multi-family, and creative commercial, including parks and recreation work. Tomecek Studio recently received the 2015 AIA Colorado Innovative Practice honor award.