A Sense Of Place


That’s a picture of the train shed at the Bristol Temple Meads station. It’s a very old station, and it’s been altered several times. The shed roof here and the head house off to the left are, I believe, mostly from the 1870s renovation. I took this picture as I got off a train because it struck me as a good representation of the idea of architectural place.

The easiest way to describe my idea is to discuss a different trip, several years ago, to Paris. I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, walked through the terminal, got on a train, and got off at an underground station about a block from my hotel. Everything from the plane interior to the station could have been almost anywhere in the western world: planes, airport terminals, local trains, local train stations aren’t so very different from one place to another. I knew where I was, but the only visual clues that really suggested it were the signs in French. But then I got above ground right next to the¬†Jardins de l’Observatoire, where the trees’ foliage had been trimmed into cubes. And nothing says “Paris” to me as much as a cubical tree.

There are plenty of places where you can find metal-framed train-shed roofs next to masonry buildings, but those spidery-thin trusses directly abutting Victorian masonry says “England” to me more than just about anything else I can think of. Given my interests, I don’t identify different places by their food or their sound, or how people are dressed. I identify places by architectural (or pseudo-architectural, like the trees) details. “Brownstone” means Brooklyn to a lot of people, but “fake half-timbering” means Queens to me. “Insanely narrow downtown streets” means Philadelphia, a rectangular street grid with a lot of T intersections and flat-roofed houses means Miami, and miniature skyscrapers on a steep hill means Albany. Everyone has their own definitions of this kind, so not only does it not matter if other people think I’m wrong, I expect that almost everyone will think I’m wrong. We all develop our own sense of the appearance of a place, based on the same physical context but filtered through how we each see.

I grew up in Flushing and am basically the same age as Flushing Meadows Park, since it was built in its current configuration for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, which took place when I was an infant. My sense of the park is a vast open grassland with spindly trees and the leftover buildings from the fair. That sense is demonstrably wrong as it is based on how things looked in the mid-1970s. Those trees are now over 50 years old and are quite large. But even when I am physically in the park, as I was a few weeks ago, my view of it from my own past is that the trees are barely taller than me. This lingering sense of a place (and perhaps I should have titled this post “the persistence of memory“) helps explain why people grow attached to landmarks that are architecturally undistinguished or even ugly.