Why ‘place making’ still matters in redevelppment today - RSA

Why ‘place making’ still matters in redevelopment today


  • Picture of Robert Maguire FRSA
    Robert Maguire FRSA
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Last month Jonathan Schifferes explored why the word ‘regeneration’ increasingly causes eyes to roll and why redevelopers are focusing on ‘place-making’ instead. Here, Robert Maguire provides insight into what ‘place-making’ meant in the 70s and 80s, and why he still believes in it today.

If I get understand Jonathan right correctly, he is looking at the ‘fit’ or ‘non-fit’ of names for intents and actions; with a great concern for how well-intended actions are found to have left some precious good intentions behind (or ‘goods’ which should have been included but weren’t); of a general feeling of embarrassment that the name given to the process itself betrays a falsehood; and whether the substitution of a new name is hopefully more accurate and implies inclusion of the ‘goods’ not reached. And, again if I get him right, (for not only jargons, but whole manners of expression change), the ‘goods’ he is most concerned about are not concrete but felt – whether people feel ‘at home’, or ‘comfortable’, or ’feel it is theirs’ in what is created – deep feelings often difficult for people to express.

It may be helpful to back-track some sixty-odd years, for we have been here before. Usually the possibility barely exists with the passing of thinkers and thinker-practitioners, but I am now 87 and was a prime mover in the field.

In 1956 I had two jobs: Buildings Editor of the weekly Architects’ Journal, and ‘on the side’ the start of an architectural practice with a substantial commission. At the AJ I was asked to start up hitherto absent architectural criticism, and as I was appalled at the bankrupt state of my beloved Modern Movement’s theoretical base in the UK, I had been seeking a convincing philosophy of architecture. I found this, provisionally, in Susanne Langer’s new book Feeling and Form (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1953), in which she defines architecture as ‘the creation of an ethnic domain’. She could not of course use ‘ethnic’ in that sense today – she means a group, small or vast, of people with a common culture and way of life (from say, university students to Cockney London) and that architecture is created when the relationships of the forms of the physical environment are brought to ’fit’ so closely with the culture that life is enhanced for the whole group.

(Cockney London never got an architecture: it got tower blocks.)

Central to the process, for Langer, was the finding of characteristics of a place appropriate to the users – if it is to feel like ‘their place’, what kinds of characteristics should it have?

Clearly, place is not concrete but abstract, and because its achievement is within the realm of feeling, it is this that assigns it to Art, Architecture (to which I would now add Urban Design).

At the time I was a radical reformist young Roman Catholic – far too much for the hierarchy to bear – and I was not only campaigning for an entirely new kind of church, but seeking to bring the design of my ‘substantial commission’ (a new Anglican church for an existing community on a bombsite in East London) into full recognition of what Langer’s placeness would mean for this close-knit Cockney community.

The church was listed Grade 2* in 1983.

I was also reading papers at conferences, and not unnaturally in the circumstances. the word place figured large.

Then, of course, it happened. The word was highjacked. It became the favourite buzz-word for those who wanted to jump on the bandwagon. It seemed that, for example, if you arranged eight standard council houses round a square, you had made a place. And look what’s happened to it in the decades since, until it turns up for Jonathan as something threadbare, paradoxically (I quote) ‘a retreat from the aspirations for social and economic regeneration’ – the very aspirations it originally embodied.

The Preservationists early-on highjacked ‘Conservation’, which we had been using in the architecture field as the creation of a new vital living environment whenever new things were to be put into old places. I have never been sure that ‘regeneration’ would come to mean fully what I, and evidently Jonathan too, want it to mean: it feels heavily bureaucratic.

However, I’ll end on an upbeat note. In the 70s I designed a 440-student village for a new university. The university had asked for a new way of housing students, because of their high drop-out rate. We said goodbye for ever to the old Hall of Residence, which the perceptive eye can tell from any floor-plan will breed psychological isolation. So; much time in pubs with students… A design-magazine critique of the scheme ends with the student quote “We like it, because it feels like ours”. When the stats came out, it seems the drop-out rate had dropped by one-half, as also had the suicide rate. And the maintenance cost due to vandalism.

I’m sticking to ‘place-making’, which is what I do; even if others have made it corny.

Fairly recently, I revisited and was told that this is still the place where the social life of the university happens.

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