Read an Excerpt
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
PLACE. Place is the most fundamentaland the most personalof the ideas presented in this book. "To make place" is the basic architectural act: the response to a call for shelter and protection, for sanctuary, for claiming your ground. Think of tepees on the Great Plains, a cabin beside a planted field, a church steeple seen from afar. Think of an assembly of buildings in a town or city that creates a point of arrival and collecting, defining a constructed landscape of functional and aesthetic relationships. All make place in ways we readily recognize.
At the same time, place is defined not only physically but also emotionally. It embodies the smells and sounds and experiences that live in the recesses of our memories, shaping our identity and giving meaning to our lives. This idea of place is both personal and collective: The home place ... our summer place ... the ball field or drugstore where we spent time, growing up ... the hardware store and bank, the church and school and filling station that mark our life together as a community These are the settings that tell us who we are, that hold our stories and give us a sense of belonging.
Overleaf: Georgia Cottage, Mobile, 1840. Framed by spreading limbsof live oaks, a house claims its place in nature, firmly planted at the end of a long allée. The sandy drive, dappled with light, directs approach, cutting the tension between formal white classicism and lush vegetation. Master builder unknown. NR
Why do some buildings and sites have a sense of place and others not? What is it that makes one place differ from another in a way that we recognize and care about? The distinction traditionally has been rooted in the materials, building traditions, and responses to climate of a particular region and time: Fieldstone dwellings and stores tell of the land and life of St. Clair County, a high-ceilinged raised cottage of the Gulf Coast, a cotton gin crossroads of the Black Belt.
Other aspects of architecture also contribute to a sense of place. The use of familiar symbolsa gabled roof, a pointed spire, a crowning dome with a central clockspeaks to us in a seemingly universal language. Creative expressions of form, space, scale, and ornament make a building and our associations with it memorable. Legibility is importanta building or collection of buildings must have coherence, some sense of visual order that can be "read." And relationship is important, whether it is how the building relates to the character of its site or to the character of other buildings. Thus a chain store that looks the same in every town does not tell us where we are. It has no relationship to its setting (an enormous parking lot) or to the human scale (it is usually a big box with a big sign and little else). It has no distinctive character.
Perhaps the final quality of place is endurance. A building or collection of buildings that serve their purpose well, from generation to generation, have a sense of permanence and accumulated meaning. The longer a building has stood its ground, aging but unchanged in its essential integrity, and the more lives it has touched, if only visually, the more deeply it embodies a spirit of place.
Look around you. What are the buildings that represent place in your life? What distinguishes them from other buildings? What makes them special?
Every town has or hadits main street or courthouse square, that center of commercial life that defines the community for its residents. Broad Street in Selma bustles still, with its corner drugstore and classic Kress five-and-dime. The buildings have adapted to changing shopping habits without losing their distinctive architectural character.
Broad Street, Selma, developed ca. 1870 to ca. 1930. NR
Anyone who has spent hours absorbed in the deep quiet of a library understands how intangible qualities give definition to physical places. Here, in a splendid space set aside from the busyness of daily life, surrounded by books and scenes from world literature, the reader finds a serene retreat. Gently penetrating sunlight adds to the intimacy of table lamps and aged wood furnishings, making this a place to linger.
Linn-Henley Research Library (Birmingham Public Library), Birmingham, 1927. Miller & Martin, architect; Foster & Creighton, contractor Ezra Winter, muralist. KPS Group, Inc., renovation architect; Son & C Contractors, Inc., renovation contractor, 1986. John Bertalan, mural restoration, 1989.
Throughout rural Alabama, white frame churches mark sacred places, telling passersby of their community's spiritual life. The wonderfully inventive builders of this Hale County church added a three-sided porch to a traditional gable-end form. Its bold geometry catches the eye and invites you to enter. Fortunately, the builders left their names inscribed in a cement cornerstone.
Green Chapel CME Church, Hale County, ca. 1912. J. A. Reece, W G. Hardwick, B. L. Logan, builders.
The pungent aroma of barbecue announces the destination well before the nondescript building comes into view. Inside it is dimly lit, unpretentious, and single-mindeda joint devoted solely to barbecue ribs, with no frills and no extras. What evokes place is its authentic characteran addictive blend of smell and taste, accumulated wall decorations, and easy banter that people return for again and again.
Dreamland, Tuscaloosa, ca. 1958
For more than a century a cast-iron fountain in the heart of Montgomery has proclaimed "urban place." On the site of an artesian well, the ornate fountain transformed the colliding street grids of rival land companies into a pivotal design element, visually aligned with the steamboat landing that lay at the foot of Commerce Street and with the State Capitol at the head of Dexter Avenue. Nearby historic buildings, particularly the distinguished pair that flank the fountain (only one of which is pictured here), enrich the scene.
Court Square, Montgomery. NR. Fountain, 1885; cast by J. L. Mott Iron Works, New York. Maner Building (left of fountain, late 1860s, roofline possibly altered later Klein & Son Building (Central Bank of Alabama, behind fountain), 1856, Stephen D. Button, Philadelphia, architect. State Capitol (far right), 1851, possibly based on design by Daniel Pratt; Barachias Holt, superintending architect; John P. Figh and James D. Randolph, principal contractors; Holmes & Holmes, restoration architect, 1977-92. NHL, NR, maintained by Alabama Historical Commission
Road and train track form the lonely crossing, connections to the outside world. To folk who lived their whole lives here, working nearby fields, the general store, post office, seedhouses, and cotton gin were "town." The simple geometric shapes define a place and a Black Belt heritage passed down from generation to generation.
J. A. Minter & Son cotton gin, seedhouses and store, Tyler, late nineteenth century
Along an isolated stretch of road in Coosa County, an expressive steeple rises, beacon of an ensemble that witnesses to the religious rhythms of rural life. At the center stands Sears Chapel, with its arched memorial windows. Under nearby trees, weathered board tables wait for dinners-on-the-grounds, physical and social nourishment to supplement the spiritual food of Sunday services. And spreading out beyond, toward the road, picturesque gravestones testify to the faith of generations of local families.
Sears Chapel United Methodist Church, Coosa County, ca. 1895. Vestibule, tower, and memorial windows ca. 1905.
A sheltering roof and chimneys suggest the archetypal image of home. Though it has suffered from weathering and vandalism, the Asa Johnston house retains unexpected touches of architectural refinement, including interior wainscoting and graining and the arched ceiling of its open central passage. The dogtrot and the spraddle roof, which extends to freestanding supports beyond the porch, provided deep shade to relieve hot summers. The house is still in the family of its original owner.
Asa Johnston House, Conecuh County, 1842. Ezra Plumb, carpenter builder.
Encircling buildings create a sophisticated plaza at Five Points South in Birmingham. They stand on the points of land between five converging streets, their bending and curving facades relating to the center (once a traffic circle) and to one another. Similarities in forms and materials add to the visual unity, with Highlands United Methodist Church and the fountain in front of it providing the dominant focus. The place is full of the vitality and variety of city life, attracting nearby residents and visitors at all hours of the day and night.
Five Points South, Birmingham. Studio Arts Building, 1994, Design form, Inc., architect; Taylor & Miree Construction, Inc., contractor The Mill Building (Ware Building), 1930, Miller & Martin, architect. Highlands United Methodist Church, 1906-1909, P. Thornton Marye, Atlanta, architect; R. A. Stockmar contractor; bell tower, 1921, Bem Price, architect, in association with P. Thornton Marye. Fountain, 1991, Frank Fleming, designer Spanish stores, 1926, 1930, Miller & Martin, architect. Munger Building (not pictured), ca. 1929, Miller & Martin, architect. Urban design and public improvements, 1983, Blalock Design Associates; Mann Construction Co., contractor. NR
By JOHN TOWNSEND TROWBRIDGE
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.