A place based approach is gaining momentum in many built environment fields fuelled by its recent successes in placemaking. I recently noticed a real estate for sale sign spruiking an average suburban houses “contribution to its suburb’s unique sense of place”. This signals its filtration into popular commercial culture. Its use in Public Art is common and it’s also increasingly being used by architects, landscape architects as well as a range of other fields.  Use of this approach within different fields however requires further evaluation.

In Western Australia we’ve seen a number of shifts in the procurement of our public buildings. Many years ago the Government through its Public Works Department employed architects designing most civic buildings. After abolishing the PWD many were designed by local architectural practices for a long period. Around ten years ago a shift towards commissioning leading architects from the eastern states, albeit often teamed with a local architect, emerged. Perth Arena designed by ARM in conjunction with CCN is a result of this approach. More recently international architects OMA in conjunction with Hassell were commissioned to design the new Perth Museum. In many ways this is moving away from a place based approach which is heavily reliant on local knowledge.

Architecture historically employed a place based approach through regional vernacular construction and climate responsiveness. In the modern era however architecture has often explored abstract ideas that have little in common with a place based approach. The life cycle of buildings as well as the time required for buildings to progress from concept to reality has meant it often aligned itself with notions of permanence and universal values maintaining their relevance over long periods. It has been less concerned with fashion or style trends which change quickly and less responsive to a particular moment in time. The type of present moment ephemeral experimentation employed in placemaking doesn’t easily translate into Architecture.

Yagan Square designed by Melbourne based Lyons Architecture and Aspect Studios in conjunction with local architects IPH established a meaningful connection to its local context and history. Its success is strongly linked to use of a place based approach. Buildings such as the Sydney Opera House contribute to defining a unique sense of place without necessarily drawing inspiration from their local context. Sir Norman Foster’s recent Apple Store proposal for Melbourne’s Federation Square is an example of ignoring the surrounding context resulting in a strong local community backlash. For some architects a place based approach requires a re-evaluation of the profession‘s core values.

The field of placemaking is inherently more nimble, flexible and responsive to a specific place and moment in time. It’s often described as a multi-faceted approach to planning, designing and managing public space by capitalising on the assets of the local community. In part it’s also a reaction to the increasing generic commercialisation of our built environment.  Viewed in a wider sense it tackles complex problems in a dynamic system using a consistent characteristic. In its purest form it is generated collaboratively by local communities for the community. A place based approach is fundamental to placemaking which is achieving successful outcomes. When something works we tend to apply the same approach to other problems.

Use of a place based approach in Public Art is producing mixed results. The issue exists both within its implementation as well as the compatibility of the approach itself. Certainly many successful public art outcomes respond to their surrounding context. Subtle references to local context are often more interesting. Arts strategies produced by capital cities often align themselves with experimentation, exploration and innovation. These are qualities which align with the values of many high quality artists. In comparison many smaller councils single mindedly align their arts strategies with strengthening their unique sense of place which can often be counter-productive to the intended outcome and borders on using the arts as a form of local area marketing.

It consistently forms the basis of briefs which are often highly restrictive. This typically generates generic, predictable outcomes resulting in blending into the crowd rather than differentiating yourself. They limit freedom of expression rather than accepting the arts as a channel to explore alternative ideas as well as social and cultural issues. Giving artists more freedom will inevitably result in greater community discussion, debate and negative feedback but this should be embraced. Literal implementation of a place based approach also erodes your connection to high quality contemporary artists. Establishing, maintaining and cultivating relationships with leading contemporary artists should be a priority for local councils wanting to generate a truly unique sense of place.

Placemaking is a place based approach. It is a decentralised, community led model working at a grass roots level encouraging experimentation. When we see improvement in one field we tend to transfer the approach to other fields without fully understanding its limitations. Architecture could benefit from stronger use of a place based approach however it has limitations. Architecture is primarily a top down process. Placemaking is a bottom up process. They should complement each other to achieve outcomes the other can’t. Literal interpretation of a place based approach in Public Art is generating a lack of diversity and artistic integrity. Key elements such as experimentation and innovation have been lost in translation producing unimaginative outcomes.

In essence this is a discussion about our collective approach to curating our built environment. Who should be entrusted to design our community spaces and what approach is appropriate? Do traditional design models allow for sufficient community involvement and input? In a rapidly globalising world with mass travel and instant communication when is a locally generated place based approach appropriate? Conversely when should global or universal ideas be explored through international designers? 


June 2018

Image - Yagan Square in Perth by Lyons Architecture, IPH and Aspect Studios