Magazine article Alternatives Journal

The Resurgence of Place: Modernism Is out and Building Places That Fit with the Environment and Local Aspirations Is in. (Saving Place)

Magazine article Alternatives Journal

The Resurgence of Place: Modernism Is out and Building Places That Fit with the Environment and Local Aspirations Is in. (Saving Place)

Article excerpt

Over the past 30 years or so, a rich new movement in scholarship and advocacy has explored how better design of the urban environment can affect human behaviour and improve well-being.

Until the Industrial Revolution, most people had a sense of place that they took for granted. Whatever their deficiencies as living environments, pre-industrial places possessed a coherence that derived from the intersection of the three elements that are essential to place definition: objects, activities and meanings. (1)

For instance, an English parish church, as object, embodied local building materials that helped it to fit its geographical context. It expressed traditions in design and construction that were an integral part of local and regional culture. Its form and ambience reflected the sanctity of the activities that took place within it, and overall there was a fit between its form, activities, and meaning to local residents.

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the pace of landscape change quickened, and familiar environments were transformed to meet the imperatives of the new economy. Important landscapes might be turned into a slag heap, treasured forests turned into charcoal to process iron ore, and ancient city precincts tom down to accommodate giant factories and the high-density workers' housing built adjacent to them.

Hallowed meanings and traditions were often cast aside and landscapes more narrowly harnessed to the aims of industrial production. A century later, the built environment would also have to help promote the culture of consumption by becoming festooned with malls, parking lots, billboards and signage.


Initially, industrial cities were chaotic, filthy, overcrowded sites of human misery. The profession of urban planning largely arose as a response to the crisis of the industrial city. Its mission was to make the urban environment a more efficient site for industrial production and to improve the lives of the working classes. The new profession also sought to restore some visual coherence to the ravaged landscape. (2)

This was an era when the doctrine of environmental determinism was influential, both amongst the burgeoning social sciences and amongst reformers of various kinds. It was widely believed that "the environment made the man." Thus, order and amenity had to be restored to the urban environment to avoid the moral and physical ruin of the lower classes.

Later, beginning in the first decades of the 20th century, the pendulum of scholarly opinion swung against this doctrine, which was criticized for its obvious deficiencies. These included ignoring the fact that different cultures have made quite different uses of the same environments, and the fallacy that a harsh climate had made Europeans more "advanced" and industrious. (3) In rejecting this doctrine, academics threw the baby out with the bath water. They focused on abstract social relations and processes, such as the accumulation of capital or the bureaucratization of society, to the exclusion of the settings in which they took place. Human experience became devalued as a source of insight. Meanwhile, the economy continued to treat environments as a space of production or consumption rather than as a valued setting for the totality of human experience.

As many scholars and commentators have noted, this tendency to be indifferent to the experiential and the qualitative is one aspect of the dominant 20th century ideology of modernism. (4) In architecture, modernism is characterized by a fondness for tall buildings and large-scale projects, a desire to eliminate ornamentation in favour of stripped-down functionalism, a rejection of regional styles of architecture in favour of an "international style," and a focus on individual buildings rather than the urban fabric of which they are a p art. …

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