Sense of Place

November 06, 2013

By Jane Hendricks

I met you again / In the place we knew before. / Do you remember?

The haiku comes from old friend and artist Alexandra Nelson, on the occasion of our recent high school reunion in the leafy Midwestern university town where I grew up. Some people wondered if social media would bring an end to reunions in general, on the possibly sound theory that if you're never actually un-united from your old classmates and pictures of their pets and children, the urge to reunite may be somewhat diminished. For me, attending the homecoming football game and talking late into the night with old friends was completely entertaining, but the real thrill was returning to a deeply remembered place I hadn't visited in nearly four decades.

It's full of sentimental details. My old house: still there, but painted a better color. The cool record store: a dental office. The high school: physically about same, academically much stronger. Most of the people I knew have moved away/moved on, as people in college towns do, but the background of built forms tolerates this change with a comfortable familiarity that filters through the experience of many other places since.

Place has an overwhelming power to give structure to experience and memory and to create a model for understanding the future. Back in town for the first time as an architect, I thought of Calvino's Invisible Cities: "the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places." The physical character of this place (its definitive flatness, the huge deciduous trees, the occasional exceptions to a simple street grid, the modesty of buildings both private and public) have created a framework strong enough that I can still recognize the many layers of community built upon it, and inherently flexible enough to support many future layers.

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Jane Hendricks

FAIA, LEED AP

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