The Poetry of Place
AIA DESIGN THEORY – January 2013
Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Matt Cosby
Michael Belleau on what place means and how our senses process it.
Architect Michael Belleau’s favorite Emerson quote is from the essay “Nature”: “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” This transcendent state involves both a heightened awareness and a sense of peace within. Belleau says his work seeks to create such an opportunity for his clients. “When I begin designing a project,” he explains, “my goal is to create a poetic condition—a space that the client would describe to a friend in poetic terms because no other terms would suffice. This involves manipulating light, space, materials, and history so that one is allowed to feel uplifted and moved to positive emotion inside.” MH+D asked Belleau to elaborate.
Q: HOW DOES AN ARCHITECT DESIGN A POETIC PLACE?
A: First, an understanding of what place means and how our senses process our surroundings is necessary. For me, place is both a regional term in that it implies a larger geographic area distinct from another (e.g., New England versus the deep South) and as well an idea of a precise, smaller location that you know when you have entered and when you have left (e.g., the Old Port or the inside of a cathedral). The former involves geography and culture; the latter can be a specific neighborhood, building site, or one space. When I was a young fisherman working on a dragger off of Cape Cod I stood on a regionally crafted purposeful vessel full of construction detail and imbued with local culture. In Kenneth Frampton’s essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” he argues for the creation of buildings that are of their place, reflecting the local culture as a way to avoid the placeless quality of so many modern buildings and the kitsch of so many postmodern buildings. We see this placeless effect and kitsch in generic places like chain stores and restaurants and parking lots and logos that fail to change as we move from one end of the country to the other. As Gertrude Stein said, “There is no there, there.” Frampton, however, addresses the design of buildings and how they can participate in both the local culture and the universal culture by using materials, construction methods, and programs that are local, as well as some universal properties such as the industrial process of manufacturing. It’s no surprise that this approach is the most sustainable because it requires us to combine the common-sense climatic building techniques of the past with the building science advances of the present. When I teach I have my students read this essay.
Q: HOW DO OUR MINDS PERCEIVE PLACE, ESPECIALLY IN AN EVER-CHANGING ENVIRONMENT?
A: When my first son learned to walk on the steps down to Camden harbor, I felt a very distinct sense of place. Often a pattern of some kind—such as a string of row houses or a group of piers—can define a distinct place. Patterns are sought by the mind to interpret our surroundings. How our senses process our surroundings is key to understanding how architecture can create poetic places. Architecture is the stage on which one’s interactions with space and the objects around him or her are played out. Our minds process the information taken in through the senses and send reactive signals to our bodies for physical response and to our minds to create emotions and stimulate pattern searching. It is the architect’s responsibility to create spaces that provide appropriate emotional states and patterns for the pleasure of the mind and comfort of the body. When my children walk to school, their feet fall on ever-changing brick pieces with various-colored plant debris as they move through a space filled with building volumes, trees hovering above, and paths that bend and open up new vistas. Every new day brings different colors and weather and modifications to the day before. The world is a constantly mutating organism; each pattern of growth and decay changes so that no fixed state exists. This is true of our thoughts individually and collectively. Every interaction of one thought with another changes each thought into a new, mutated one. The sciences of chaos, complexity, fuzzy logic, and fractal mathematics attempt to identify the patterns of growth and change. Architecture must allow us to feel comfortable in the world in which we find ourselves. Thus, the places we create should allow for thoughts of constant mutation, recombination, dissolution, and birth. My work seeks to harness this energy to enhance the users’ quality of life.
Q: WHAT IS AN EXAMPLE OF A PROJECT WHERE THIS IDEA CAME INTO PLAY FOR YOU?
A: I designed a little studio addition to a farmhouse in Cape Elizabeth for Guggenheim fellow and Princeton faculty photographer Jocelyn Lee. We all have primal safety instincts to gravitate to the cave or the tree, and this project creates a sort of tree-house effect by hovering up and away from the rest of the house. Our regional culture feels comfortable with gable roofs and wood shingles. Our universal culture is comfortable with ribbon horizontal windows that allow broad uninterrupted views of the landscape in back of the house, the obvious “place” that the project focuses on. And when one walks up into the studio space, a sense of a distinct “place” is apparent. The structure further displays modern traits by cantilevering out in two directions, there are frameless glass window corners, and one set of glass doors below lies across an end of the volume above. On the other hand, the roof is of plain old corrugated metal. The studio commands the backyard, the play space below creates indoor–outdoor connections, and a deck above and behind the hovering studio allows access to nature from the large multidormered attic level of the original farmhouse. Architects can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary even in small projects like this. I often pass by small beach cottages and imagine how they could be transformed from the banal to the wonderful.