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The Art of Placement to Create a Sense of Place

The erection of structures devoid of beauty is mere building, a trade and not an art. Edifices in which strength and stability alone are sought, and in designing which only utilitarian considerations have been followed, are properly works of engineering. Only when the idea of beauty is added to that of use does a structure take its place among works of architecture.
— A. D. F. Hamlin
The golden ratio

The golden ratio

This quote by the renowned architectural historian, professor and author has always been inspirational; it defines what it means to be an architect. The consideration of so many factors and components, be they personal, psychological, philosophical or professional, in concert with more tangible considerations of site, environment, climate and structure, is the milieu within which the architect toils and it is there where he finds his most satisfying achievement.

The design of any architectural project, whether large in scope or small, residential or commercial, private or public, creates many different issues. These issues run the gamut from wall color to traffic flow between buildings, yet each has its own role to play in the successful completion of a design.

Merely providing a scheme for the arrangement of spaces is not enough. It is the responsibility of the architect to not only create a scheme that reflects the advice and consent of those who will inhabit the space, it is also his responsibility to create, in the words of the late architect Charles Moore, a 'sense of place.'

Moore meant to convey feeling- a feeling of arrival, a feeling of being a part of a place and, upon leaving, a feeling of departure from that place. The time frame in which this feeling might occur could be a matter of a few seconds, as when one enters a room, or a lifetime, as when one arrives in the place destined to be home for generations.

Many components combine to create a sense of place. Those which architects use, and which lend themselves most readily to manipulation, are scale, proportion, balance, unity and style.

The scale of a project refers to the compatibility of the design with its environs. Proportion works consistently with scale to achieve a composition that the viewer perceives as desirable. Throughout the ages designers and artists have tried in various ways to define correct proportion. The Greeks gave us the 'Golden Section,' a mathematically precise ratio of width to height that they found to be pleasing to the senses.

However, Eugene Raskin, in his book Architecturally Speaking, states, "Each case, in short calls for its own proportions. There can be no formula, however esoteric, that applies to everything. Yet the human mind is often too lazy to think each problem out separately; it prefers to use a formula and, paradoxically, will do an enormous amount of work devising such a formula and then twice as much work defending it.” Raskin goes on to say; “it becomes necessary, therefore, to consider proportion not merely as a matter of relative dimensions but as a composite result of function, construction materials, scale and, in certain cases, time.”

“Remember to pay attention to the small things, for small things make for perfection, and perfection is no small thing.” - Michelangelo Buonarroti

The thoughtful placement of elements within a design can mark the difference between a balanced scheme that rewards the occupant with comfort, delight and perhaps reflection, versus a scheme that jangles the nerves and provides no such sense of serenity or emotion. Spaces and artifacts that have been haphazardly assembled without regard for the specific occupants make the user the servant of the space. As structure should amend itself to conform to the unique characteristics of site and environment, space should amend itself to best serve the needs of those for whom the space is intended.

Unity as an architectural concept does not mean the slavish repetition of pattern or spacing. Rather, it is the idea that disparate elements of a structure, its environs, and the program requirements of those who will inhabit it are in harmony and are at rest with one another. The same may be said for style as it applies to the built environment. Decoration and embellishment are merely the buzzwords of style, and the use or over-use of both is generally the hallmark of the lazy designer who substitutes trim for thoughtful arrangement of space. Style has as much to do with the personal interaction of structure and its occupants as it does reference to formal consideration. Style is evidence of choice; it is the manifestation of clear human purpose in places that have been made by and for people.

Proper planning of a structure or structures within the confines of a site can be handled in four ways- to merge, to command, to face, and to surround.

Good structures fit into one of these categories readily. Often, though, a structure will do several things at once as it sits on the land, and some memorable structures are combinations of more than one way of siting.

Mount Vernon for example, faces the Potomac River on one side. But on the other a pair of curving arcades connects the house to outbuildings in a gesture of surrounding. The scale of this side of the house, and of the arcades and the outside buildings, is smaller than that on the riverfront. What is created is a village green effect, where the simple comings and goings and everyday life of the place are acted out. A more formal, ceremonial air is created by the wide porch and colonnade on the riverfront.

Mount Vernon’s buildings and arcades - photograph © Virginia Tourism Corporation

Mount Vernon’s buildings and arcades - photograph © Virginia Tourism Corporation

The Sea Ranch on the northern California coast also possess good examples using multiple modes of siting: in the gently sloped shed roofs and rough-sawn redwood walls is an element of merging with the meadows in which the buildings are placed. But the strong shapes of the original structures, punctuated with towers, stake a very identifiable claim or command on the land.

Sadly, too many structures are forced by legal constraint and a sense of obligation to conform to an arbitrary suburban ideal. The results sometimes offer the fewest possibilities for variety in siting. As well, the elimination of sidewalks and porches has removed the human interaction from the neighborhood and has left only streets void of all but passing cars.

The Sea Ranch - © Jim Alinder / courtesy of Jim Alinder and Princeton Architectural Press

The Sea Ranch - © Jim Alinder / courtesy of Jim Alinder and Princeton Architectural Press

This is not to say that siting on the ground is the only manner of placement that deserves consideration. Placement of rooms, arrangement of spaces, the use of decoration and artifact, are all legitimate areas for thoughtful design consideration.

Often we are told that good taste is something someone else has, and that we must pay dearly for his or her insight and guidance. Tradition is less confining than the taste makers would have us believe. The thoughtful and deliberate designer, working with the committed and interested client, can bind together the material trappings of life and the ethereal world of dreams into a place that is unique.

The placement of objects generally has a profound effect on the way space is perceived and used. Anyone who cares enough about the manner and style in which they live will have strong likes and dislikes about the things with which they surround themselves. The things about which they care the most will occupy places of prominence; the rest will serve to support or enable that primacy. Knowing and believing in one's own abilities to pick from among the myriad choices which are available is a large part of the process. At the end, there will be a semblance of a familiar world, added to the community that surrounds it.

This should not be construed to minimize the importance of professional expertise. Expertise informs choice, often helping the client distinguish the real from the fake, the superior from the ordinary. When the architect moves and delights the client with the view from a particular window, or by the shape of an opening, it is because he has listened to the client and has gleaned some sense of the client's soul in the process. The structure is of great importance and interest to the client; it is the architect who must recognize and utilize that caring and interest in order to achieve the synthesis of inner and outer scale and proportion, interior and exterior balance, and inner and outer unity.

The placement of objects regardless of their origin is the essence of creating a sense of place. Whether it is the arrangement of furniture and found objects, the flow and interaction of rooms, or the relationship of structure to site, the successful project is the one in which each facet has been weighed and considered as a part of a whole. The synthesis of the architect's art and the client's desire is what constitutes architecture in the modern world. With these principle components, the sense of place joins space to produce timeless and useful beauty.