What makes a place a place?
How our truth influences how we feel in our world.
The summer took me to Philadelphia, PA. A place I’ve been many times and always been fond of but this time was different — I fell in love and it was deep. It was like one of those moments in an 80’s film where they makeover the person everyone overlooks (typically a nerd) and suddenly long gazes their direction with lower lips gently bitten ensue. Every street, every interaction, everything about Philadelphia had me. So, as you do when you fall in love, I told my good friend, Ryan, to see if he could help me make sense of what I was feeling. Luckily, he could, and he pointed me towards the writings of Christopher Alexander.
(Now, if this article hasn’t been bonkers enough thus far, here’s the part where a graphic designer muses about architectural writings. To be absolutely clear, I love architecture but I don’t fancy myself an architect in any way. So, take my studies of Christopher Alexander as an audit of a night class taught by a late-add adjunct professor who takes apart circular saws in his free time because they couldn’t find anyone else.)
Christopher Alexander, spurred by a love of buildings and building, decoded the patterns that make houses truly livable. Uniqueness is at the crux of Alexander’s vision. But it is not the uniqueness of the avant-garde, of difference for the sake of being different.
He draws his parallels from biological systems and computer science, each of which employs simple sets of instructions — genetic codes or software scripts — to produce infinitely varied and unique responses to data inputs or environmental circumstances. The same genetic material for, say, a tree will give rise to a distinctly different organism in each different environment in which a tree might grow. The same spreadsheet will give a different set of output figures for every set of inputs. In the realm of architecture and planning, this means that a single set of governing principles — a pattern language — can give rise to an infinite variety of design solutions, each appropriately unique to its unique circumstances.1
In one of Mr. Alexander’s books, A Timeless Way of Building, he reveals an amazing concept, “The quality without a name” that is so powerful in its eloquence:
For as long as I can recall, I’ve been very curious about what makes something what it is. Why is this thing the thing? This curiosity has led to loads of self-guided exploration along the way. In my early double-digits, I once took apart a circular saw and plugged it in to see what inside made it do what it did. Not my smartest moment of curiosity, nor my safest. Add to that that my Pop wasn’t very happy either when he found his saw. My curiosity has also led to some odd social moments where I would share my musings in all their truth. There was a time in 7th grade where I shared my passion for toast with the entire class. I begged them to think about how amazing it was that a lowly bit of bread could transform into toast with merely the right application of heat. The teacher went on to explain that a kid my age should love pizza, not toast. I still believe toast is love-worthy today although my proselytizing has moved on a bit. I’m still curious and I am still deconstructing. In fact, I’ve found a gig in branding that rewards me for my curiosity and wandering thoughts. Yet even with steady application of both, my mind wanders, and lately it’s been trying to make sense of what makes a place a place.
Admittedly, it’s a weird thing to say, write or do anything with. Isn’t a place a place because it’s a place that is? The answer is yes and somehow it’s too easy and not very gratifying for me to leave it at that. For the purposes of this article, let’s think of the definition more as our atmospheric surroundings of our space rather than just the physical space alone.
Now, even though you’re trying to read this, I want you to close your eyes — but before you do, I want you to think of a place that you’ve really experienced. Think of a street you’ve walked down in that place. Can you recall the sights, the sounds, the scale, the materials and all the other senses that were awakened? When you’re finished, open your eyes and keep reading.
Let’s deconstruct this place for a moment: I’m guessing it was a place that’s a visceral memory for you. Some place you love or, maybe, some place you don’t associate anything positive with. Maybe some place you even find a bit disconcerting or scary (dark basement at age 8 for example). Regardless, positive or negative, it’s a place that’s imprinted upon you and something, or someplace, that’s more rousing than banal. I find this super interesting. What makes a place a place?
Why is it that some places come and go as easily as the pragmatic bits of our lives while others leave this lasting impression? I travel a fair amount for work and I ask myself this question quite a bit. Said another way, I catch my feelings in the moment and live in this very question. For me, it’s a list that evolves as I do. For example, I recall a trip to Atlanta 15 years ago that imprinted a negative impression. It felt like other places I had been that I wasn’t fond of. It didn’t feel uniquely like a place called Atlanta — I could have been anywhere. In that moment I decided I hated Atlanta. Omaha didn’t fare well at that point in my life either. Add Detroit to this list as well despite being a proud Michigander. But Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh did. These were places I fell into a deep fondness for almost immediately. I felt these places. Both the good ones and the bad. And, to be fair to Atlanta, I went back last year and loved every minute. Now, I’d move there, or at least entertain the thought. My list of bads could be someone else’s goods and my goods someone else’s bads. So, what is it that makes a place a place? Is it subjective? Objective? Let’s keep wandering.
To seek the timeless way we must first know the quality without a name. There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.
The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
In order to define this quality in buildings and in the towns, we must begin by understanding that every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.
These patterns of events are always interlocked with certain geometric patterns in space. Indeed, as we shall see, each building and each town is ultimately made out of these patterns in the space, and out of nothing else: They are the atoms and the molecules from which a building is made.
The specific patterns of which a building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead, they keep us locked in inner conflict.
The more living patterns there are in a place — a room, a building, or a town- the more it comes to life as an entity, the more it glows, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.
This is such an amazing idea and can be applied to so much more than architecture. Admittedly, I’m quite early in my exploration of Mr. Alexander’s work but I’m keen to translate it beyond architecture and selfishly, to me. For my purposes here, let’s translate this concept into the idea of ‘truth’ as there is nothing more elemental and essential that we search for within this mortal coil.
What if ‘truth’ was the quality without a name we are in pursuit of? What would that mean to the places we are fond of and, not so fond of? What if our truth was the operating system from which these decisions of fondness?
Allow me to test this theory on myself: By all measures, I grew up service class. My Pop was in the restaurant world and my Mother was a bank teller. Both worked hard and have retired (Congratulations M & P, I’m proud of you.) now but their expertise centered around serving others. From what I’ve witnessed, there’s very little artifice or theory in the service space. It’s hustle, eye contact and a cocktail of prudence and intuition we now call proactivity. The feedback of such a world is immediate — It’s either good or try again. A constant drumbeat of optimization, speeding up, slowing down and getting the job done well.
The interesting thing about the service class is it wears a job well done quite literally. If my father came home with the knot in his tie still at his neck, I knew it wasn’t a hard day. If my mother’s feet didn’t ache (despite commuting in white sneakers with pantyhose), she had a light day. And, if I’m honest, I saw this less than a handful of times in my entire life — hard work leaves an artifact. A really beautiful, well-earned artifact. Cumulatively, it’s patina. Often, a patina that’s overlooked but present everywhere.
This, as simple as it may seem, is my truth and how I connect to “The quality without a name” concept that Mr. Alexander speaks of. Cities, like Philadelphia, have this stunning beautiful patina of hard work. It makes me feels comfortable, connected and what he refers to as “wholeness.” There’s a metaphorical post-workday undone tie that is imbued into every street, every alley, everywhere. What I value, what fed me, kept me safe, what loved me despite taking things apart and what kept hustling so I could have something different than they did is here on display. And here lies our answer, maybe my answer to what makes a place a place: When what you value, when your truth is on display, the place becomes a place.
Admittedly, this is different for every person. Some people feel the most ‘whole’ in the quiet of the woods, or, the aspiration of Southern California. Different truths lead to different places. Despite the differences, some things hold fast throughout, like the concept of ‘artifice.’ There are so many places that don’t feel like places because they’ve tried to be another place. Any place. You know the place(s): The Taupe siding all matches like it’s a federal law. There’s a classy chain restaurant next to it is more of an everyday chain restaurant. It all matches and you can get an oil change too. Whether Rappahannock or Chattanooga or Texarkana, it’s all the same. Please don’t take what I am saying as an attack on suburbia. It’s not. Rather, it’s an attack on the artificial. Artifice is the opposite of truth. This is the reason I wasn’t able to find a connection with Atlanta all those years ago — I simply couldn’t find it. It was too taupe, too co-branded whiskey barbecue sauced to see the real place. And when I did finally find the real place, I dug it for its truth.
I mentioned earlier that I work in branding and specifically, as a designer. Back in school, I had a professor that used to say that the two most important questions we must constantly ask ourselves while creating is, “Why did I make this decision?” and, “Why didn’t I make another decision instead?” When you can answer those questions, you’ve created something that has no room for artifice. No puffery or just because. Only truth. Apparently it’s what makes for “the quality without a name” in all things. Easy to say and hard to do. Could you imagine how much better the landscape of brands, experiences and interactions we have every day would be if they were simply rooted in the truth? So elemental and yet so hard.
The thing is, we live in a world where it’s not easy to be yourself. It seems easier to buy the prototype scheme and bolt it on rather than to embrace what makes you rad and worth loving. Ironically, we’re all taught early on that the easy thing to do is always tell the truth. Maybe it’s in service of the illusion of progress. Admittedly, this article has taken a turn in service of a question I didn’t know I was actually asking: What makes it so hard to just tell the truth? Philadelphia, I love you for who you are. For sharing you with me. For not being afraid to be you and loving your patina.
Find your place. Live in your truth.