Distillation of Place Essay

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    Keith Saunders

    Inspiration for connecting new developments to the local context can come from a variety of sources – vernacular building forms, local history, the grain of surrounding settlements, topography and geology. Designers should look beyond the copying of past styles towards a more profound celebration of context, interwoven with a response to community aspirations and practical needs.

    What we mean by distillation of place?
    In his 1939 novel Coming up for Air George Orwell made an observation on typical suburban expansion, commenting “I don’t mind towns growing so long as they grow and don’t merely spread like gravy over a tablecloth.”

    One of the biggest obstacles to the creation of new residential developments on the edge of existing towns and neighbourhoods is the invariable opposition they meet from local residents and stakeholders. Rather than inspiring new communities, locals see only anonymous suburban sprawl.

    To garner support from the existing community, good neighbourhood design should begin with an analysis and understanding of the local physical, historical and cultural contexts as a way of exploring potential design narratives. This exercise in capturing a ‘distillation of place’ will help to deliver new neighbourhoods with a strong identity and sense of belonging.

    Mere lip‐service is too often paid to the specifics of context, resulting in the superficial application of local materials and building elements. This might be a projecting bay, pitched roofs or decorated barge boards, retrieved from a cursory overview of the local vernacular and applied to a standard house plan – all in the anxious search for a sensitive and ‘safe’ response to local planning guidance.

    Unfortunately, this strategy delivers the same or similar generic outcomes across the country, resulting in spatially incoherent and disconnected suburban layouts of small ‘executive homes’ with little or no architectural variety.

    New neighbourhood designs should exhibit the distinctive characteristics of locality in terms of scale, grain and a specific relationship of built form to landscape. All of these have historically contributed to the distinctiveness of place. As Gordon Cullen, the great exponent of townscape pondered in his 1974 design report for a new settlement in Maryculter to the south west of Aberdeen, “People live in houses, but where do the houses live? If they are homeless, then all we are left with is the typical endless, featureless suburbia”.

    Read the full document HERE

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