Building in Old Settings as a Problem of Place

Essay by Christian Norberg-Shulz

Sverre Fehn, Hedmark Museum, Hamar, Norway, 1967-2005

Sverre Fehn, Hedmark Museum, Hamar, Norway, 1967-2005

Only a few years ago there was barely any trace of the integration of new buildings into an existing setting being felt to be a problem at all. Today everyone is talking about adaptation, and in con­ferences and seminars we are endeavouring to find a theoretical basis for discussion of the pro­blem. The reason for this change in attitudes is obvious in that we are everywhere experiencing a reduction in the quality of our environment. The old towns and cities are losing their uniformity of character due to demolition and expansion of cities, and most new buildings are without charac­ter and could stand just anywhere. For a long time we thought that the old towns and cities were "inhuman", and wanted to replace inner city den­sity by a new kind of garden city. Experience has shown us, however, that "green cities" cannot fulfil the basic human need in housing, because in contrast to housing in the past they have no character as places. The present crisis of environ­ment can thus be understood as a loss of place. In spite of all their faults, the old towns and cities were places with which we could identify and which gave their citizens a strong feeling of belonging and emotional security. The fact that this is "Care for Monuments Year" makes the growing impor­tance of this fact clear, but our understanding of what a place really is remains fairly superficial.

What does the word "place" mean? Many are inclined to take "place" as being synonymous with "space" and approach the problem of "place" with concepts relating to spatial organisation. This approximation is inadequate. A place is primarily concretely related to "here", whereas space on the other hand is an abstract concept. Whilst space can be described with terms taken from topology and geometry, the description of a place requires concrete or even phenomenological terms. These terms are part of everyday speech and consist of simple words such as "cliff", "tree", "hill", "moun­tain", "river", "valley" etc., as well as a few more general terms such as "earth" and "sky". Since places form basic constituents of our everyday world, it is only natural to approach them in this direct way. A place is consequently determined by the concrete "things" which form its "frontiers". Heidegger expresses this as follows: "The frontier is not where something stops but, as the Greeks knew, the frontier is the location from where some­thing starts to exist". "Accordingly, spaces receive their being from places and not from 'space'." "Things which as particular places make up the character of a place as a whole we call... buil­dings". In other words, the identity of a place created by people depends on the manner in which its main buildings are built. This means that the idea of an "international style" renders the existence of places with individuality impossible, and the history of modern architecture has in fact shown that this is the case.

I have indeed already pointed out that the iden­tity of a place is of fundamental significance for the development of human identity. Human existence does not develop in a vacuum, but as part of a specific environment with which it is in constant reciprocal relationship. We do in fact say that everything which happens "takes place", an expression which indicates the basic existential significance of the place where life is lived. In the ancient world people understood this, as is shown by the term "genius loci". Each place had its parti­cular character and in order to settle and live some­where it was necessary to first of all propitiate the spirit of the place. To build therefore meant having an understanding and respect for the existing environment, and the process of building gave people an existential foothold. Now this knowledge is practically forgotten, and as a result we live in a chaotic environment and inhuman alienation. The human being today hardly "dwells" in a place, and his "culture" is restricted to the hectic consump­tion of superficial stimulants. Heidegger analysed this state of affairs and reminded us of the real meaning of the word "Wohnen".*) Buildings bring the earth as an inhabited landscape close to people and simultaneously situate the closeness of living together under the opening of the sky". Here Heidegger is telling us that "to build" means the embodiment and making visible of the charac­teristics of an inhabited landscape, and that the development of the human community, a "neigh­bourhood", depends on there being a common place. Beliefs and ideologies can unite people and supply the impetus for social integration. They hardly, however, have the general value and power of integration of a common place. In fact we always relate ourselves to a place when we want to iden­tify ourselves, saying "I am Viennese", or "I am a Roman". But Heidegger is also saying that the community is set "under the opening of the sky", which means that each settlement forms part of a more comprehensive whole.

If we talk today about adapting our new buil­dings to a given landscape or a given architectural milieu, this is obviously aimed at recovering the quality of place and thus helping people to recover a lost hold. It is not enough however to recognise this general aim. In order to be able to "adapt" it is necessary to understand the "genius loci" in con­crete, structural terms. Such an understanding is coming about, and we have good reason for be­lieving that we shall soon have at our disposal a new significant theory of architectural forms. Kevin Lynch, in his pioneer work "The Image of the City" investigates the problem of human orienta­tion in relationship to basic spatial characteristics of places, by replacing the traditional geometric terms by more concrete terms relating to junction, way and area. In "Existence, Space and Architec­ture" I have tried to supply a psychological and philosophical foundation for this view and in my coming book "Genius Loci" I undertake a discus­sion related to the other basic aspects of place, the problem of human identification in relationship to the character of the environment. I have already shown that places (whether natural or human creations) are determined by the concrete pecu­lariaties of their boundaries. Terms such as junction, way and area remain abstractions if we do not know their precise nature. It could appear that this problem escapes theoretical examination since two places are never identical. The character of a place, however, is due to structural principles which can be understood and described. Once again, Heidegger's philosophy proves very help­ful. Thus Heidegger defines "living and dwelling" in terms of the human being on the "earth" and similar. But "on the earth" already means "under the sky". "The earth is the serving bearer, the blos­soming fruitfulness, spread out in rock and waters, rising up to plants and animals. The sky is the cur­ving path of the sun, the metamorphosing track of the moon, the wandering brilliance of the stars, the seasons of the year and their turning, light and darkness of the day, darkness and brightness of the night, the profit and loss of the weather, the clouds and the blue depths of the ether". These are the concrete "things" which form our "lived-in landscape" and which are symbolised by our buil­dings (or "collected" as Heidegger says). In the past architects understood "building" in these terms. Understood in this way, Mackintosh "built" the earth and light of Scotland, as Gaudi in his works gave concrete form to the landscape of Catalonia. Naturally, they also tried to achieve functional solutions, but as their highest aim they listened to the genius loci and created the buil­dings which gave visible form to the spirit of the place and gave people a feeling of belonging and identity.

The quotations from Heidegger show how this was achieved. He uses the words "spread out", "rising up" and "curving" to indicate that the phe­nomena of the environment are spatially related to one another. The earth expands and rises up (in an infinite variety of ways) just like the buildings which man builds on its surface. The sky closes the space of nature under its dome like the roofs and ceilings of our houses, and gives the light which first makes them visible. Palladio writes "The small temples which we build should be like the one great temple". Thus he indicates a relation­ship which goes much deeper than the humanistic concept of a general cosmic harmony. In other words, the character of each environment created by human beings depends on how buildings ex­pand, rise up and close in space. This "how" is a matter of both the essential elements and their relationship to one another, or, in brief, the mode of architectural expression. Where the elements are generally described with terms such as "massive" or "skeletal" (see my book "Logic of Ar­chitecture"), the relationships consist essentially of horizontal and vertical rhythms. Thus we return to a theory of architectural form which is in har­mony with the experience of past ages and simul­taneously escapes the dead-end of an academic attitude.

The modern movement protests against ab­stract principles as taught at the academies and against the "devaluation of form" brought about by historicism. Initially, however, the movement was not capable of creating a substitute, although it was its wish to return to the "real thing" (which is the true significance of the Neue Sachlichkeit). Thus we have experienced a return to arbitrary geometric schemes and a degeneration of forms in modern architecture to "motifs" which are used everywhere irrespective of place and purpose of building. Just as these motifs are generally sche­matic and not articulated, and are repeated ad infi­nitum, the result is an extremely monotonous and sterile environment. To counteract this general development a better understanding of the genius loci and its formal characteristics is abso­lutely necessary, and this in both spatial terms and terms of character. So far good examples are rare. As the German towns and cities were reconstruc­ted after the War, the spatial structure was some­times preserved and thus allowed a human "orien­tation" to continue. An identification with an envi­ronment with particular characteristics and which is in itself full of significance has, however, barely come about. If such character is missing, a "good" spatial organisation does not really help, and may even appear ridiculous, a fact which proves that "space" and "character" are mutually dependent aspects of the same whole, in other words "place". An appropriate mode of architectural expression is thus absolutely essential. We must once again accept that architecture has got something to do with the appearance of buildings, that "architec­ture takes place in the wall", to use the words of Robert Venturi. This does not, however, mean that we have to imitate the forms of buildings. We would not be respecting the genius loci in this way. The genius loci always requires new interpretations in order to be able to survive. It cannot be "frozen", but must be understood in relation to present re­quirements. Such a dynamic concept for the term "place" is the sole foundation for creative adap­tation to an existing setting. As an example illustra­ting the possibility of this approach I should like to mention the Chase Manhattan Bank in Milan, by Belgiojoso, Peressutti and N. Rogers. (I am leaving aside the question as to whether a bank should be built at all on this spot!). In this building the horizontal and vertical rhythms, the scale and dimensions, as well as the formal ele­ments and the general character, repeat the va­lues of the existing city landscape, although the building is a truly "modern" steel and glass struc­ture. Thus the architects succeeded in going beyond a narrow obedience to the previous func­tionalism without falling into the trap of a new hi­storicism. In this way they have preserved the identity of their city and "rescued" the landscape to which it belongs. In fact as Heidegger says, "Mortals live on in so far as they rescue the earth". Each building that we erect signifies a unique opportunity to rescue a part of our earth. 

* Translator's Note: 

There is no full English equivalent to the German word "Wohnen", which has all the connotations of to reside, dwell, live in a house or place. 


This essay is taken from New Buildings in Old Settings, Bavaria Satz, 1978