Is it really wrong to borrow from the past, from place or from context? The last 18 months have seen a tangible shift away from the homogenising effects of globalisation towards people seeking a reinforcement of local identity. Place-making has grown out of the underlying shift in emphasis and effort to reflect changing trends, however, the concept is overused and often underdelivered. Place-making is never going to be achieved with blobs and arrow master planning that does not take heed of the finer grain of site detail. In order for development to be successful and a sense of place achieved, work must start from basic principles of strengthening references to the context around them. Good master plans embed themselves in the setting and the customs of the individuals who live with or around the outcomes of master plans. Many will at this point wonder how this is at all different from what many professionals will practice and preach.
Yet a recent conversation with someone outside of the profession led to bewilderment when it was pointed out that many architects and urban designers sneer at the idea of designs that take on board lessons of the past, or borrowing characteristics of their surrounding context. It was astounding to this person that there was such a primacy to originality and a desire to challenge the artistic perception of place. To most people, comfort is found in traditional evolution of a place, integrating details and borrowing characteristics as places change. Traditional design consistently comes out being more popular with the public. The underlying sense of familiarity that such design engenders provides the context around which we define ourselves and influences our identity, so why ignore it. For many, personal identities are formed around home and to lose sight of this must undermine the success of design proposals. If new development must happen, it should strengthen local identity rather than disrupt it.
To borrow is not to copy, and familiarity is not a sin. The cumulative intelligence engendered by generations provides context, knowledge and identity that, if removed, undercuts the very essence of ‘place-making’ most schemes seem to seek. It is possible to be creative but not deny the existence or importance of what has gone before. Originality is of course desirable but true originality in architecture is almost impossible. Every architect is influenced by those that have gone before and by their own experiences of the world around them. Human requirements change very little and using untested means of construction rarely leads to positive outcomes. Daily experiences are shared by and with others and are part of what makes the interesting tapestry that we exist within.
The art of borrowing is a skill. It does not need to be complicated, but like a language, the more refined it is, the better the output becomes. Mies van de Rohe said that architecture could be worked on as a language, and if you commanded this language really well you could be a poet. The sentiment is exactly as it should be but the poet will only be heralded if the language is understood. There is no point trying to express yourself in terms that only a handful of select professionals find exceptional if the rest of the wider community cannot join in.
And so, what is it exactly that is being borrowed? There is no shortage of interesting points of reference or definitive lists but it is the elements of varying scales that reinforce the identity of the place being developed. It could start from the field boundaries that have historically divided the land, perhaps no longer there today in bushy form but recognisable at certain scales of observation, or pick up features that give the area the character. In cities, it might be the grain of the fabric around, the way people have lived, move or come together. These are such fundamental points it seems hardly necessary to write but so often it is forgotten or denied, and when it is picked up it is frequently abstracted. To borrow we need the understanding of why it was as it was, and now how it is. Borrowing allows people living with schemes to recognise the familiarity and identity with the place they move through.
The reproduction of borrowed elements or knowledge will inevitably lead to some degree of invention and this is where the art of borrowing can enrich our development. By the very nature of each person being slightly different, to interpret the smallest elements of solid and void in a varying manner and of course designing in differing periods does mean that the detail borrowed will never be exactly the same, and that is a good thing. If we can understand what we are borrowing, we can create a language such that professionals in the world of architecture and those that live with the world of architecture can coexist and work together for better places.
Robbie Kerr is a Young Urbanist and director of ADAM Architecture