Occasionally I am asked why I named my domain “drawingonplace.” The reason behind it is at the core of my aspirations in architecture, so I thought I’d take a shot at explaining it, and then illustrate the idea as I begin to follow our next project on the blog.

I was introduced to the concept of Place by the architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz in his book Genius Loci (Rizzoli, 1979).¬†Beyond mere location, he uses Place to mean qualitative environmental character or “atmosphere,” made up of concrete phenomena like texture (material), density (scale), color, and light. It was a refreshingly concrete idea for me against the abstract notions of Deconstruction that were the rage when I was in grad school.

We have all experienced places that have exceptional character–great cities, natural settings, neighborhoods, rooms; what Schulz shows is that we can identify why these places are exceptional, and use that knowledge as designers. But Schulz also takes it a step further to connect the idea of Place to something deeper, which is our connection to landscape and the way we as humans settle in different environments. Desert, forest, prairie, savanna, have traditionally called up powerfully different responses (he uses Khartoum, Prague, Rome, and Chicago as examples), though, sadly, sensitivity to landscape is usually literally and figuratively bulldozed these days.

All of this was simmering in my mind when I was ready to start my own firm in 2006. I knew I wanted to pursue sustainability, but I did not want to sacrifice design for efficiency, or sacrifice efficiency for vanity. So one day on vacation in Charlevoix, Michigan, I was standing and looking at one of Earl Young’s Boulder Park Houses, and what was evident to me was Young’s love of his place–he made it real in those houses. And the light went on for me: if you really connect a building to its environment in a sensitive way, you are well on the way to both beauty and sustainability; you will be drawing on the native resources (local materials, light, solar gain, ground forms, views), and establishing a sense of place in the process. The best modern building would be like the best traditional building in that it would fit and glorify its locality–I like to call it “resonating” with its surroundings–but it would go beyond appearance to integrate the best in efficiency and technology a la Passive House.

So that’s the big idea–“drawing on place” means creating a quality of space-experience in vital balance with its environment; it means “drawing on” the positive, healthy qualities of a place to design a building/landscape that amplifies those qualities while establishing its own character. I often reflect on the Daoist concept of Yin and Yang, the dynamic balance of opposing forces. Our work can be seen using that analogy: if the setting is the Yin, our building is the Yang: the best design will be one that brings a dynamic vitality to the whole.

In my next post I’ll put this into action on a project just starting downstate–here’s a teaser pic of the restored prairie at the entrance of the site (house will be back by the woods), taken in early March:

Happy Spring!