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Place and Placelessness: Fabulous Frustrations

Douglas D. Paterson

Paterson is a landscape architect teaching at the University of British Columbia. He writes regularly on the nature of design as place making. © 1996, 2003 Douglas D. Paterson.
   This essay was one of five contributed to a special issue of EAP celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Edward Relph's seminal Place and Placelessness. See "selected articles" by Boschetti, Million, Relph, and Seamon.
 

In 1976 I was a partner in a 50-person interdisciplin­ary environmental planning firm that faced many problems. We had just been fired from a large design-planning project by a brewery because we objected to the fact that, while they advertised their product in a natural landscape, they seemed unwilling to make their own places anything more than was needed to meet their functional needs. Involved in some major visual-resource analyses for federal and provincial agencies, we were required to undertake our work according to "new analytical techniques" devoid of any sense of ecology, beauty, or place.

    Perhaps worst of all, virtually every planning change and mitigation measure we recommended was ignored by most of our clients. Landscapes, places, and the people responsible for their care were frag­mented in their values and actions, more concerned with technique than problem-solving, more dominated by a growing corporate mentality, and more interest­ed in appearances than in action.

    A world that purported to be rational was anything but. My optimism as a graduate in 1967 was thor­oughly squashed little more than ten years later!

A GOOD CHOICE

   By 1979 my dissatisfaction led me to leave my profitable job. I found myself in a tenure-track appointment at a new program in landscape architec­ture at a Canadian university. I was hired for my consulting experience but told I must become an academic. By the spring of 1981 I had my classes and studios sufficiently underway. I begin to investi­gate what the "thinkers" were doing. I spent an intense few days gathering readings. After scrutiniz­ing tables of contents, I selected Place and Placeless­ness as my first adventure. The choice was good.

    I immediately felt "opened" to a huge range of ideas and possibilities. The text was exciting to read. I found myself exclaiming "yes," "right on," and sometimes "no way!" I covered margins in questions, counter arguments, assertions, and endless exclama­tion marks. More than anything else, I felt a pleas­ant, thought nervous, sense that I was being lead through an argument that I was doomed to accept despite my natural tendency to be a sceptic.

    Relph's book was important to me for a number of reasons beyond the delight of a provocative text. First, the discussion allowed me to situate myself and my experiences in the world. This situating applied equally to my childhood sense of the world as well as to my adult experiences as both citizen and designer.

    Second, Relph's focus on a sense of dwelling in and valuing landscapes and places prompted me to reflect upon and write extensively and personally about my experiences of home, special landscapes, and everyday places.

    Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the book developed an argument for dwelling and place that merged the poetic and pragmatic. It seemed to me that the text could also have been titled "On Sensibility and Senselessness." In retrospect, I realize that my writings, my teaching focus, and my respect for the work of designers like Christopher Alexander stem from my engagement with Place and Placeless­ness.

SATISFACTIONS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS

   There are other aspects of Relph's book that are important to the general discussion of place. His integration of planning, design, geography, anthro­pology, philosophy, literature, and cultural criticism gave a comprehensiveness to the discussion that few texts of the time were able to match. His elaboration of authentic place making moved the discussion on the complexities of professionalism, historic preserva­tion, and the emerging corporate world into a serious commentary on how we live and make our world. His analysis of the extent of placelessness in North American society surpassed what many similar works today have yet to discover.

    There are also aspects of the book that leave me disatisfied and wondering. I have read the text several times and invariably find that there are areas of discussion that I wish Relph had decided to pursue further. I'll note two areas of concern.

    First, the central issue in the text for me lies in Relph's categories and definitions of dwelling‑-on the dialectics of insideness and outsideness. I wish he had given this issue greater attention. For example, are his categories complete? What is the role of fear, novelty, or imagination in these kinds of insideness and outsideness? Is it not somehow too harsh to define existential insideness as a condition of dwell­ing "without reflection"? Are the categories of dwelling, from existential insideness to existential outsideness, also describing degrees of, or categories of, goodness in dwelling? Are there not occasions when existential outsideness is a "necessary good"?

    My sense is that had Relph elaborated further upon this focus of the text (for me, the real theory in the work), then his subsequent discussions on authen­ticity and placelessness would have been less impor­tant to the text and more obvious to the read­er.

    Second, I wish Relph had placed more emphasis on the nature of what he terms "peak experiences" (p. 123). When and why do they occur? Too what extent can we accentuate such experiences in place? What aspects can be manipulated of the physical setting, the activities in that setting, and the meanings and values that people bring to that setting? Do certain ways of doing things (policies, programs, and the like) improve the likelihood of creating more varied and intense peak experiences?

    Ultimately, I believe we need to know more about what it means to realize good places and less about why so much of our landscape is placeless. We need stronger, more informed imaginings.

AN AMAZING EYE OPENER"

    For many of my undergraduates, the first time they read Place and Placelessness is an ordeal. The text is "thick," the photographs muddy, and the overall appearance of the book uninteresting. One or two years after graduation, however, the same students inevitably come up to me with the admission that they finally "really" read the text and found it to be inspiring or, as one student recently exclaimed, an "amazing eye opener". One wonders what would have happened had the book been less modest, more sweeping in its images and assertions, more compre­hensive in its theoretical descriptions. I suspect readership might have exploded.

    These quibbles aside, Place and Placelessness is a classic‑-as important today as when first published. My only real regret is that I haven't yet had the opportunity to meet Ted Relph‑-to have a long discussion, for there is much still left unsaid. Until such time, I remain in a state of fabulous frustration. The least I can do, however, is offer my sincere thanks for his inspiration.