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Understanding Place and its Powers

Delve into the concept of place as a source of power for design.

The story of St Martin’s Bilborough which you read in the previous section is the story of a ‘place’ that was in some sense ‘resurrected’ from its own hidden treasures – its own assets. These assets included the mural, but also the love of the guardians for their church; the readiness of the Reverend and Churchwarden to approach the discovery of the mural as a creative opportunity rather an obligation; the openness of all the incumbents and congregation to engage with the wider community in order to rethink the future of the place; but also the responsiveness and interest of the wider community. Assets were also the location of the church building which is at the heart of the village, encouraging the wider community to experience the church building and its spaces as something that really matters to them. All these elements define the meaning of place.

  • Most people would think of a place simply as a site (or location) and as a space (physical or sometimes virtual) that people occupy. Places are thus thought of as the containers or vessels within which the material and living world exists.

In this sense, St Martin’s church is a vessel with a specific location and spatial properties. It is situated at the heart of a beautiful village, so it has a geographical location. Its location creates certain relations with its wider spatial context – the surrounding roads or the village more broadly. The building itself is a physical object in space and time (history). It has its form and arrangement of rooms (spaces) that physically enable or obstruct light, sounds, smells, views and of course the movement of people and their activities (as you learned in Week 2). People – as the inhabitants or citizens of a place – enact their rituals and practices within this vessel. They may visit the church to pray, to connect with God, to admire a mural, to escape from a busy day, to attend religious services, social events or gatherings. Time is also important, the history and the timing of events, or practices within a space.

  • On the other hand, one may argue that places are not simply containers or vessels within which the material and living world exist. A place provides a space and time where human, social, natural and built assets all come together into something that has a certain meaning or value. The exist as they exist as experiences, as conceptual and emotional spaces.

The location of a church with the wider local community is not just an abstract/mathematical spatial coordinate that defines distance between objects and people – it is an experience. People relate to the place and create meanings that become part of their personal, cultural and social identity. For example, in the case of St Martin’s, people felt that the Church is at the heart of community life and that all people, including those that are not necessarily churchgoers, need to feel welcomed to contribute to the life of the church.

  • Beyond these ‘perceived’ meanings and values, a place is also a territory for ‘conceiving’ new realities and possibilities. A place also contains a potential.

In the case of St Martin’s the discovery of the mural triggered new ways of imagining the future of the church as a religious but also community place. In this sense the place can play an empowering role, enabling people to pursue different futures, and to enact their dreams and hopes.

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