The first design steps in my practice always start with a reading of the context, and, whenever this happens, we realize that a proper perception of the place just comes while sketching it, while putting on paper its values, both natural and man-made, through hand-drawing.
It is actually renown among architects that the best way to know a place or a building is to sketch it. Every time you perform that simple act you discover details you hadn't noticed before.
It's perhaps not so well known that the relationship between the perceptive values of a place and the ability of man to understand it is primarily physical rather than just visual. The act of drawing is both visual and physical, as Juhani Pallasmaa has deeply disserted in the recent years, but the relation between the phisicality of a place and man's ability to understand it goes far beyond the very act of drawing.
The term 'drawing' derives from the proto Germanic 'dragan', which means to pull, and in particular to pull an object in a place, exactly like when we pull a pencil on paper. The equal term in Neo-Latin languages derives instead from the Latin 'designare', which means to mark with a sign, to choose through a mark. Today we also say design, from designare, with the same meaning of choosing between different possibilities.
The first architectural marks in history were stones and timbers, that, pulled to the right place could mark it with the sign of man and make it a chosen place.
Thus it's the making of things that makes us understand, feel the identity of a place and feel it as 'ours'. The understanding of the natural environment does not precede building: it's the very act of building that makes us completely understand a location, that makes us feel it as 'our place in the world', and comprehend its realm among our deepest psychological experiences.
These latter concepts have been first and systematically investigated by Christian Norberg-Shulz in his 'Genius Loci', where the author has developed a complete theory of a phenomenology of architecture related to the concept of place. This theory is also an architectural explanation of Heidegger's writings on the inhabiting, through which the philosopher expresses the idea that man's fundamental need is to experience his existence as meaningful. The act of settling, says Norberg-Schulz, is not just the making of a physical refuge, but the act of entering an existential dimension and need, from which man finds his place in the world. Architecture is the existential foothold of man.
Placemaking is thus an ancestral experience, through which man identifies himself as belonging to a greater whole that constitutes an understandable realm and thus that let man himself experience his acts as meaningful.
Is every later experience of place a repetition of this primeval emotion, related to our mood and to what we are performing? Related also to our level of understanding of the place and of our role in it? What is the role of place regarding our self-awareness?
Architecture is a framework of meaning, the physical structure of our minds in the world. Building is for bodies. Architecture for souls. Buildings and architecture should be inseparable, as our beings are.
The role of rite is attributed to architecture from the beginning of time. The most ancient architecture of history is Göbleki Tepe, a stone-age sanctuary up to twelve thousand years old, made before the invention of agriculture. The most important lesson that Göbleki Tepe tells us, says K. Schmidt, its discoverer, is that "First came the temple, then the city". First came architecture, then building.
It is difficult to operate with these concepts today, after so many decades of urban sprawl. Architecture seems a lost art, at least regarding common building. The spontaneous quality of vernacular settlements seems almost anymore reachable. Nevertheless a re-appropriation of historical approaches to design could be the only way out alienation and a good way to take back man to feel the place he lives in as his own so to experience life as meaningful.
I like to define what I try to do with my practice as an act of disclosing. Both with new buildings or on existing ones, both in natural or urban places. Disclosing means designing something that enhances the existing quality of a place, or, paraphrasing Kahn's sentence 'what a building wants to be', disclosing means, through the act of building, revealing what a place wants to be.
When architecture realizes itself it gives us "an instant of beauty", wherein we perceive a place as a complete whole. In this moment we lose the perception of ourselves, while at the same time our feelings get enhanced, thus architecture is revealed to us as a world in itself, a world complete. When this happens we feel the genius loci, the spirit of the place, and what we call placemaking happens.
When this happens, adds Peter Zumthor, our observation embraces a presentiment of the entire world, because there is nothing that cannot be understood.
There are no fixed recipes to start again to disclose places. Within my practice I have nevertheless discovered that you begin having a design strategy directed to placemaking, instead to designing 'objects', when it's placemaking that you care for. It's also an act of humility, a way to say something with your surroundings and not to them. This act is very similar to what Robert Venturi calls inflection, i.e. a design device not strictly related to the single building but to a greater urban whole, with the building becoming de facto part of it. As I have already and better detailed in the article published on Edge Condition Vol#01, my design method uses paths near to critical regionalism, to the use of local/natural materials, to shape a proper atmosphere for each function of the building/place and to reinvigorate the civic values of the site.
An approach like this can favour the appropriation of the place in personal and collective memory and ease both the conscious and unconscious perception of it as a part of personal experience; it can foster relationships and social interaction as well as casual encounters.
Everybody knows that climbing to a high point with a great view gives pleasure. The reason, as here explained, is that a panorama gives knowledge, and with knowledge self-awareness and thus meaning. Good architecture can act exactly like that panorama, and tell us that our lifes are meaningful.