In the preface to Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, Christian Norberg-Schulz writes that space and character – the two elements that combine to create place – are “directly related to architecture, following the definition of architecture as a ‘concretization of existential space’” (Norberg-Schulz, 5). The author then asserts that concretization should be understood in the same way as gathering, in the Heideggerian sense that things “gather the world.” To illustrate this concept, Norberg-Schulz employs two of Heidegger’s examples of man-made objects gathering the natural world: the first is the bridge from Building Dwelling Thinking, where the philosopher asserts that building a bridge between two general locations “causes [the banks] to lie across from each other; with the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of landscape lying beyond them” (Norberg-Schulz, 18). The second example is the jug from Heidegger’s essay The Thing: by bringing water into the home it gathers both the earth and sky – “in the spring the rock dwells, and in the rock dwells the dark slumbers of the earth, which receives the rain and dew of the sky. In the water of the spring dwells the marriage of sky and earth…” (Norberg-Schulz, 168) – and is therefore a thing that connects man to his life-world.
It is this concretization of the natural environment that is a prerequisite for dwelling, which occurs when man can “orientate himself within and identify himself with an environment” (Norberg-Schulz, 5). It follows that when man dwells within a meaningful environment, he is not simply existing in a random location, but actively living and interacting in a unique place.
In a traditional setting, where the buildings and objects (things) of daily use are extensions of the immediate surroundings, a relationship between the individual and place is likely to form. Conversely, in the contemporary world – where architecture does not necessarily reflect the surrounding natural environment, where mass-produced objects are often sold thousands of miles from the sources of material and labor that create the products, and where people move freely between cities and countries – such relationships may be more difficult to develop. Edward S. Casey terms this loss of place displacement – as opposed to implacement, which he considers essential to human well-being and “an ongoing cultural process [that] acculturates whatever ingredients it borrows from the natural world, whether these ingredients are bodies or landscapes or ordinary ‘things’” (Casey, 31) – and regards nostalgia a preeminent symptom of being displaced. Thus, unsurprisingly, Victor Papanek writes of the “simple, modest dwellings of the past [that] exert a strong fascination, and offer a beguiling area for research and study” (Papanek, 113). In light of this “fascination” with traditional, pre-industrial times, the intention of this paper is to explore some of the fundamentals that have historically promoted a strong “sense of place,” and to examine how the modern mode of life, namely the mass production and consumption cycles, has affected the relationship between humankind and place.
J.B. Jackson asserts that the term “sense of place” is “an awkward and ambiguous modern translation of the Latin term genius loci” (Jackson, 24) that actually refers to the guardian divinity of a place, rather than the place itself. On-site rituals and celebrations that paid homage to the divinity thus imbued the place with a special status that, in the modern world, has come to be understood as the atmosphere of a place, or “the quality of its environment” (Jackson, 24). Norberg-Schulz insists that atmosphere, or character, is what distinguishes a place from mere space, and asserts that place is a “qualitative ‘total’ phenomenon,” which cannot be reduced “to any of its properties…without losing its concrete nature” (Norberg-Schulz, 8). Due to the concrete nature of place and its components, Norberg-Schulz turns to the qualitative method of phenomenology – “a return to things, as opposed to abstractions and mental constructions” (Norberg-Schulz, 8) – to analyze place. His analysis leads to a framework for understanding the elements that compose both natural and man-made places.
The first of the two basic components of place that Norberg-Schulz examines is space. Rather than focusing on “space as a three-dimensional geometry [or] space as a perceptual field,” both of which he considers abstractions of everyday lived space, the author calls for a “concrete space,” which is the setting for “concrete human actions [and is] distinguished by qualitative differences” (Norberg-Schulz, 11). Interiority and exteriority are two characteristics implicit in the description of concrete space and, therefore, Norberg-Schulz asserts that extension and enclosure are qualities inherent to any concrete space.
While extension and enclosure can be understood at many scales ranging from the interior of a room to the limits of a city, it is helpful to use Norberg-Schulz’s conception of a landscape (extension) containing settlements (enclosures). Landscapes are also enclosed by topography and/or the horizon, and settlements have their own extensions, but this model is especially relevant as a segue to the concept of environmental scales. As the name suggests, spaces can contain other spaces, as demonstrated by a house within a city, located within an encompassing landscape. It is within this hierarchy that the sense of a place is “gathered” by the buildings and things within it. Thus Heidegger’s aforementioned jug – constructed of clay from the region in which it is used – brings water that is part of an extensive hydrological system to a table in an enclosed room. The jug “‘explains’ the environment and make[s] its character manifest,” (Norberg-Schulz, 16) and thereby becomes meaningful since the place itself meaningful.
Character, the second component of place, is, paradoxically, “a more general and a more concrete concept than space” (Norberg-Schulz, 13), in that it can convey both the general atmosphere of a place as well as distinct properties of the boundaries and elements of a space. Norberg-Schulz asserts that the character of natural and man-made places can be understood by asking “how” is a place; general adjectives such as “safe” or “confusing” can describe atmosphere, while distinct objects, such as boundaries – or facades, in the case of buildings – should be examined with respect to their material and “formal articulation” (Norberg-Schulz, 14). In the case of material, the different visual and tactile qualities of, say, stone and vinyl siding would be considered. The former is imperfectly colored by nature and coarse to the touch; the color of the latter is uniform and it is mechanically planed smooth. Formal articulation can be understood as how something is built – hand-crafted or by machine – and how it visually relates to its surrounding environment.
It is through the combination of space and character that the “spirit of place,” or genius loci, can be understood “as an environment consisting of definite characters” (Norberg-Schulz, 18). In a time of global interconnectivity, vanishing local traditions and accents, and increased urbanization, it is important to keep in mind the existential importance of being from somewhere in particular, and, in the interest of well-being, being able to return home for rest and repose.
Nature, Mass-produced Objects and Place
Following Norberg-Schulz’s assertion that it is through concrete things that we understand place, it will be illuminating to focus on several concrete examples of mass-produced objects and examine if and how they “gather” the surrounding environment. Two “products” of industrialization will be investigated: the railroad system and the modern coffee shop. Each of these is a product that also requires buildings (stations and the coffee shop itself). But before addressing these concrete things, it is worth revisiting the concept of environmental levels and exploring the all-encompassing level of nature, specifically the unspoiled landscape of North America from the colonial years up to the dawn of the industrial revolution.
At two extremes, there is the landscape as the overarching environmental level and the body as the most compact. Casey considers the body “the primary agent in the landscape” (Casey, 26) and considers that which exists between the body and the landscape “place.” He then asserts that place has a “distinctively cultural dimension” (Casey, 29). This cultural bridge between body and nature is clearly represented by the garden, which can be understood as a cultivated middle ground – or boundary (enclosure) – between civilization and nature, and can serve as a dwelling place. This sort of dwelling can be understood informally as wandering throughout a cultivated place, like a park, or more formally as the perambulation rituals – the inspection of the boundaries of a place – that Casey dates back to ancient Rome (Casey, 155). This garden metaphor is especially poignant when considering the industrialization of the bucolic North American continent.
In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx writes that “the European mind was dazzled by the prospect” of “withdraw[ing] from the great world and begin[ning] a new life in a fresh, green landscape” (Marx, 3). Previously, this opportunity was merely the stuff of dreams, dating back the gentlemanly shepherd of Virgil’s Ecologues. The resulting pastoralism, which Marx describes as having two manifestations – popular and sentimental on one hand, imaginative and complex on the other – was thus embodied in the American culture from the beginning. Moreover, opposing conceptions of the land as cultivated and threatening arose, but both were seen as freedom from the complexities of civil society. Marx cites Shakespeare’s The Tempest – written during the age of exploration – as an imaginative and complex work that explores these disparate points of view, and ultimately “affirms the impulse of civilized man to renew himself by immersion in the simple, spontaneous instinctual life” (Marx, 60) found in nature. Almost two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson was of the same opinion. He was a proponent of rural virtues that saw mechanization as a means to unburden the worker, but despised the factories and cities required to create the machines (he later admitted domestic industrial production was better than falling behind Europe economically). Ralph Waldo Emerson took a similar position: he, somewhat surprisingly, supported the construction of the railroad since it would give urban dwellers access to the cleansing power of nature.
As the railroad network grew – spurred by open land, vast resources, technological ingenuity, and “a democracy which invites every man to enhance his own comfort and status” (Marx, 204) – it “gathered” settlements once separated by great distances and captivated the popular imagination. Like Heidegger’s bridge, it created important places at each terminus. For instance, in the 1860s, before the railroad arrived, Denver was losing residents who were not as successful in mining for gold as they had been previously. But with the arrival of the Denver Pacific Railroad, Denver established itself as the hub in the Rocky Mountain region. Industrial works popped up all over the city and “by 1900, a hundred trains a day snorted in and out of Denver’s Union Station” (Noel, “Mile High City”). In Norberg-Schulz’s terms of extension and enclosure, the railroad extended westward the flexible boundary of the place called the United States: for example, in 1869, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were connected by rail, thus concretizing the concept of Manifest Destiny, and giving future settlers a direct route to the west.
The railroad also expressed the character of the young country, which was embroiled with the idea of “progress,” in both the technological and social spheres of life. “The railroad, animated by its powerful locomotive, appears to be the personification of the American,” wrote Guillaume Poussin in the mid-nineteenth century, after visiting from France (Marx, 208). In his speeches, Daniel Webster, the eminent New England politician, celebrated the national unity and social equality that the new technology would bring. As “a mode of conveyance available to the rich and poor alike” (Marx, 210), Webster’s tenant farmers considered it “their railroad,” upon seeing construction materials along the future alignment. This “visual possession” of the landscape, of which the railroad was becoming a part (Figure 1), evokes what Humphrey Breton considered appropriation of the landscape through the gaze. Commenting on Breton’s idea, Casey writes, “one appropriates one’s own property not just legally but by looking at it from the windows of one’s house” (Casey, 170). Though the tenant farmer does not literally own either the land or the railroad, this concept partially explains how the popular imagination could become enamored with the expanding railroad.
In his speeches, Webster mocked the idea that the railroad disturbed the peace of the countryside and desecrated the landscape, and encouraged its proliferation to aid serious, profit-seeking enterprises. While reluctant supporters like Thomas Jefferson would have likely envisioned the sort of human-scale harmony between industry and nature that Tony Garnier later expressed in Une Cite Industrielle, the result was much different. Rather than the careful integration of industry within the natural landscape, the result was industrial zones that developed around railroad tracks in urban areas; zones that Jane Jacobs considers border vacuums. She asserts that “by oversimplifying the use of the city at one place, on a large scale, [border vacuums] tend to simplify the use which people give to the adjoining territory” (Jacobs, 259). This simplification, which appears visually as a homogenous expanse of indistinct buildings, is anathema to the diversity that she considers a driver of vibrant cross-use and a resulting strong character.
To understand the impacts of such an area on the sense of place, it is helpful to return to Norberg-Schulz. He writes, “when man dwells, he is simultaneously located in space and exposed to a certain environmental character,” and that to “to gain an existential foothold, man must be able to orientate and identify himself with the environment” (Norberg-Schulz, 19). The concept of orientation depends on understanding the spatial structure of the surrounding environment, or, in other words, creating a mental image. In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch christens the ability of an area to produce mental images imageability and seeks to determine which elements promote it. He identifies five categories – paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks – by which to understand places, and asserts that “they must be patterned together to provide a satisfying form” (Lynch, 83), or, as Norberg-Schulz might say, a qualitative total phenomenon.
An industrial zone, built up around the railroad, can be considered a district since it has some common characteristics and can be entered mentally (Lynch, 66). While an industrial district, such as South Seattle, does have a sort of continuity between the building types – single story metal structures, in the case of Seattle – that is required to define a district, there is no set interrelation between them, and therefore is not particularly memorable. Furthermore, the district is checkered with parking and vacant lots, crisscrossed by homogenous paths (roads), and lacks distinct landmarks or nodes that serve as gathering places. Per Lynch’s criteria, the image of such an area is weak and therefore orienting oneself within it is difficult. Lynch, evoking Norberg-Schulz, writes that “if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and conceptions. Then it will become a true place, remarkable and unmistakable” (Lynch, 92). Furthermore, as a purely utilitarian construct that does not reflect the natural environment, it fails to connect citizens to the higher environmental levels, and thus further neglects the role of an authentic man-made place.
Conversely, a train station – a node and an often a landmark, in Lynch’s terminology – can be an imageable place and contribute to the sense of place of a larger district or city. Lynch writes that such places are important as junctions, where people must make choices and therefore perceive their surroundings with greater clarity, and as thematic concentrations. A classic American example of such a node/landmark is the Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Functionally, it gathers workers from the surrounding bedroom communities; it is a junction where commuters can enter the city and either make their way out on to the surface streets or transfer to the subway in the adjacent station. Thematically, the terminal is important as a transit hub, a retail concentration, a tourist attraction and as an enduring example of Beaux-Arts style architecture.
It is also helpful to analyze Grand Central Terminal with respect to Norberg-Schulz’s five phenomena by which humans understand natural and man-made places: (natural) things, (cosmic) order, character, light and time. The limestone façade reflects the natural world out of which the station was built, while the classical style of the building and its orientation on the gridiron structure of Manhattan’s street system evoke the Roman cardo-decumanus system that pays homage to the four cardinal directions. The building projects a bold character: it appears “serious,” to use Webster’s adjective for such railroad and industrial enterprises, and rests atop the earth, signifying that the rail system has conquered space and time. Light is also an essential feature of the building, whether reflecting off the white exterior or famously entering the lobby through the grand windows (Figure 2). Time, too, is represented explicitly, via the exterior clock and train timetables, and implicitly through the classical architecture and the nod to times past in which the railroad was the dominant form of transportation.
Furthermore, the terminal confirms Norberg-Schulz’s position that “places conserve their identity during a certain stretch of time” and “should have the ‘capacity’ of receiving different ‘contents’” (Norberg-Schulz, 18), as is demonstrated by its current incarnation as a functional node for travel, as a tourist destination – the terminal “gathers” tourists – and even as a stage for public performance art.
From the brief examination above, it should be evident that the railroad – America’s first foray into industrialization and mass production – has had a remarkable influence on the sense of place of the nation and its cities. Many options for further study of sense of place with relation to the railroad could be pursued: one could be an examination of the small communities that grew up around the railroad and how they have responded to urban growth at the termini that have, in many cases, “gathered” the later generations of small-town citizens; another possible thread to explore could be the sense of place that Beat Generation wanderers felt for the railroad itself, rather than for – or in addition to – the cities that the railroad connected.
That ubiquitous white paper cup with the green circle around the crowned siren can be interpreted as a contemporary version of Heidegger’s jug. Rather than gathering the world through the water from a nearby spring, the (disposable) Starbucks cup gathers water from the municipal system, coffee beans from afar and, depending on the customer’s order, a wide variety of dairy and artificial flavorings from diverse natural and artificial origins (and that is not even counting the labor and resources consumed to create and ship the ingredients, build the store or bring the customers to the cash register). The extent to which that paper cup gathers – whether one is enjoying a beverage in Seattle, Paris or Beijing – is not just the local slices of earth underfoot and sky overhead, but a synthesis of places that would be best measured by latitude and longitude.
The question of whether this complex mode of gathering helps concretize the surrounding world, of whether it promotes understanding of the enclosing natural environment and therefore promotes dwelling, remains. Norberg-Schulz writes that “if a thing does not [concretize or reveal life it its various aspects], it is not a thing but a mere commodity” (Norberg-Schulz, 169). To answer this question, the cup of coffee must be further scrutinized.
Ignoring for a moment that this particular cup is disposable and emblazoned with a logo, it can be considered what Le Corbusier terms a type-object. According to his definition, such an object supplements our natural capabilities by serving typical human needs, or type-needs; it is “a docile servant [that is] discreet and self-effacing” (Le Corbusier, 79). A Corbusian cup would likely fall somewhere between Heidegger’s jug (as the work of a craftsman) and the disposable Starbucks cup. It would differ from the former in material (likely metal in lieu of clay) and production (mass-produced rather than hand-crafted); it would differ from the latter in material (metal rather than paper), be free of logos and intended for reuse. And while Le Corbusier would likely consider his mass-produced type-object an improvement over the vernacular jug, he would almost certainly consider the Starbucks cup a piece of disposable junk to be hidden beneath decoration (as his Industrialist suggests in “A Hurricane,” the chapter on the Industrial Revolution in The Decorative Art of Today), in the same manner that a coffee connoisseur would accuse the chain of “burying bad [coffee] flavor under [flavored] syrups” (Clark, 213). Therefore neither the beverages nor the container clearly concretize the immediate natural environment.
However, Starbucks coffee shops are undoubtedly successful at gathering people, both as a daily ritual and, in the case of the original store in Pike Place Market, a tourist destination. Promoting their shops as a third place, Starbucks strives to “capture a unique warmth that sets it apart from the first two places in most people’s lives: work and home” (Michelli, 11). And while Starbucks has been successful at establishing itself as such, the effects of their distribution (layout within concrete space) and design (character) on the sense of place – in the urban fabric and within the store itself, respectively – should be examined.
Above all else, Starbucks prides itself on being convenient. For instance, when driving toward an urban center, the majority of the Starbucks outlets will be on the right-hand side of the road, making them easily accessible to commuters (Clark, 117). This convenience also extends to the function of the store: if the lines are becoming too long in any one location, the company will often open another nearby. Such development patterns parallel suburbanization in their ostensible devotion to immediate satisfaction, and consequently mesh well with the decentralized layout of such areas. However, with regard to developing a strong sense of place, coffee shops distributed in such a manner – namely those with drive-thru windows – do not promote dwelling. The drive-thru window is much like the hotel room that Casey describes as “the very essence of transiency, of not dwelling somewhere, of merely passing through on one’s way to somewhere else” (Casey, 114). Moreover, he continues to explore the etymology of the verb “to dwell,” and notes that the Old Norse dvelja means “to linger,” a concept that is antithetical to the drive-thru window. By integrating such a feature into its outlets, Starbucks reduces its chances of creating a true place. Furthermore, by virtue of their omnipresence – which some critics say homogenizes neighborhoods; in some cases two shops have been opened across the street from one another (Figure 3) – the shops also contribute heavily to the character of the areas in which they are located. Namely, the joy of discovering something new from among many choices is supplanted by the expectation of the old standby.
Of course, the “unique warmth” that Starbucks strives to project is typically inside the shop rather than on the outside, much like a typical suburban home, and does invite the customer to linger. The interior is a concrete space, enclosed by glass, and is designed by staff architects to create the desired atmosphere. In a maneuver very similar to that of AEG under Peter Behrens, Starbucks carefully designs everything from the interior finish color palette and lighting down to the napkins and music. The color palette endeavors to reconnect the store interior, the product and natural environment by using green, red, blue and yellow, which correspond to ancient four elements of the earth: earth (growing beans), fire (roasting beans), water (brewing coffee) and wind (aroma of coffee) (Clark, 104). Starbucks’ standard layout also evokes Behrens’ design philosophy that expresses function as part of the aesthetic by placing the espresso machine front and center (Clark, 102).
Though many of the design features are present in all the stores, “leadership chose to consciously meld [the] consistent environmental features in its store designs with community-based nuances” (Michelli, 57), in a sort of customization that evokes Kieran and Timberlake’s ideas for an evolution in mass-produced housing, and also reflects the popular beverage customization – “two-pump vanilla, half-caf, soy latte” – that supposedly personalizes a drink that comes off a miniaturized production line. On the surface, this idea seems to jibe with Norberg-Schulz’s call for “modern architecture [to] give buildings and places individuality, with regard to space and character” by “tak[ing] the circumstantial conditions of locality and building task into consideration” (Norberg-Schulz, 195). However, his examples of successful local adaptations are reserved to landmark projects by the likes of Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, which are all distinctly different types of projects than a typical strip mall Starbucks outlet. Nevertheless, Starbucks has, according to Lawrence Cheek, the architecture critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, adapted some its stores to their surroundings. Specifically he discusses a store on Mercer Island that is “a dramatic Northwest contemporary shed with a high-rise roofline, an inviting lattice-sheltered drive-thru queue, and structural biceps strutting nakedly and exuberantly on the outside” (Cheek, “On Architecture.”). Though this case is encouraging, the fact remains that most outlets are more similar than not, and questions about the resulting “place-ness” remain unanswered.
Jean Baudrillard shines some light on the concept of reproductions in his essays on simulacra and simulation. In discussing an exact replica of the Lascaux caves, which was constructed to save the original from tourist traffic, he writes that “from now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication suffices to render both artificial” (Baudrillard, 9). With the “disappearance” of the original, it is impossible to determine which came first and what now remains is two “copies” – the very definition of a simulacrum: “a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard, 1). While Starbucks outlets are certainly not “exact replicas,” this situation seems applicable since they are often indistinguishable. Baudrillard continues to describe the homogenizing affect of such places on visitors as “controlled socialization: retotalization in a homogenous space-time of all dispersed functions of the body and of social life (media, leisure, media culture)” (Baudrillard, 67). Though this statement is undoubtedly hyperbolic, when one considers that Starbucks are typically opened in areas with similar demographics – levels of high income, population and education (Clark, 119) – and that the employees are encouraged to interact with customers in a similar manner, the homogenizing force is evident. Or consider the books and music that many outlets are now selling: each selection could be described as innocuous or wholesome – “feel-good” Mitch Albom books rather than fatwah-inducing, thought-provoking works like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; universally-accessible jazz by Norah Jones instead of, say, the politically-charged stylings of Rage Against the Machine – and is directed at customers that might rightly be described as “the Starbucks type.” Such a place may in fact exude a strong sense of place and concretize an existential space, but one is left wondering if that is necessarily a good thing.
Casey also offers an interpretation of replicated places; returning his discussion on cultivating gardens, he writes that “cultivation as caring-for extends to the architectural realm as well” (Casey, 173). He insists that to become dwelling-places, buildings must be cultivated – personalized, cared-for and settled-into by the users – and that this process begins when the place is constructed. The care required to undertake such a construction process evokes the vernacular craftsmanship that Modernists seek to replace by mass-production: according to Casey, the builder must consider the materials, the immediate surrounding of the future building, the entire landscape and even the desires of the future end-users (Casey, 174).
While this degree of care is rarely taken in contemporary construction, on a spectrum of the resulting “place-ness” of a building, it could be considered the ideal. The opposite end of the spectrum would be Kieran and Timberlake’s mass-produced/mass-customized building: “places destined for dwelling are neither merely presented to us as already made…nor can they be built instantly or ex nihilo [italics added]” (Casey, 174). A typical Starbucks outlet, with its mass-produced, standardized design features, would probably fall closer to the Kieran and Timberlake model than to the Casey model, thus making it less of a distinct place than upper management would like to believe.
In conclusion, the widely reproduced Starbucks experience – though it can take place in an environment that is distinct when compared with other places, excluding other Starbucks outlets – seems to be without significant qualitative differences and a standardized product of mass production, meant for mass consumption, which is essentially the definition of a commodity. And while that paper cup does, in a way, concretize the complex, globalized modern world, its nature as a piece of such an entangled web prohibits it from concretizing the nature of a unique place.
As can be seen by the extent of this discussion, the effect of mass production on the concept of “sense of place” is both complex and far-reaching. It is, nevertheless, a relationship that has implications on the well-being of humanity, the aesthetic quality of the built environment and, though it was not explicitly examined in this study, the ecological health of the planet. And while the chosen examples of railroads and Starbucks coffee shops could be investigated further, as could many other staples, past and present, of American culture, an interesting direction to extend this study would be into the realm of high-technology. An especially interesting angle to take would be a study of the worldwide “gathering” capability of portable communication devices, and the resulting effect on place, considering that users can be both in a concrete, physical place and an abstract, virtual place.
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