Patterns of Place

2014 | William L. Rawn, FAIA, Principal | Cultural + Civic Realm

For us, architecture is fundamentally about the ‘making of place.’ It is about creating and celebrating places that are engaging and inviting to everyone. It is about strengthening the sense that one place is unique compared with any other place—about capturing the idea of particularity that makes a place memorable and real. Guided by this understanding of what we call ‘Patterns of Place,’ we are then able to bring our contemporary designs seamlessly into settings that are long cherished and historically complex—settings that hold special meaning for a broad public. And we are able to create places that, albeit new, connect with people’s emotional attachments.

‘Patterns of Place’ applies across projects of every scale and type. The principal concern of the architect, is how buildings relate to the public — the most important audience.

‘Patterns of Place’ applies across projects of every scale and type. We are most interested in its application to the public qualities of American cities and American campuses. Cities are made up of a system of streets, parks, civic buildings, retail districts, residential districts. These are designed by architects. As part of an ensemble, these buildings establish the ‘place’ of a city, a particular district or neighborhood, or even a city block.

Similarly, on a college campus the historical core often is well recognized and much beloved. At its best, this intrinsic sense of place can extend outward to adjacent campus precincts and to buildings of different uses, sizes, and styles. A distinct character sets one campus apart from the next; recognizing this is important. At best, that character represents an evolution of a campus over time, acknowledging inevitable change while still giving that campus a richness that is powerful — and not necessarily homogenous. ‘Place’ on the campus— or in the city—presumes a variety of differing, though connected, ‘places.’

Architecture is, without question, a public art. An ensemble of buildings stands as an even higher form of civic art. Architecture should not be self-centered or self-absorbed. Rather, it carries with it the responsibility of creating, responding to and strengthening a sense of community. The principal concern of the architect, then, is how buildings relate to the public—the most important audience. People often have strong, visceral responses to a place. They may like it; they may dislike it. Those opinions can be heartfelt and emotional. A place might make a person feel comfortable. Or safe. Or excited. Or simply happy and at peace.

As architects, we should immerse ourselves in ‘Patterns of Place’ long before we begin specific building designs.

As architects, we should immerse ourselves in ‘Patterns of Place’ long before we begin specific building designs. Through rigorous early exploration, we develop a nuanced point of view about a place, one that anchors the rest of the design process. Defining the abstract qualities of a place is essential to this search. What is the spirit of a community or an institution? What is the essence of a city, a town, or a university? What is the ethos of a college or a cultural organization? How can the history and traditions of a place shape its future?

Moreover, ‘Patterns of Place’ is about defining something ‘special’—identifying the characteristics that make one setting unlike any other. It is about capturing the commonalities of a place and simultaneously determining how it might be different. To be certain, ‘Patterns of Place’ is not about copying something nearby or next-door. Rather, it is a process of discovery that revels in the ability to add complexity—and special characteristics—to a place.

We consider ourselves contemporary, modernist architects. We design glass buildings, metal buildings, and cleanly cut stone buildings. We design buildings that sit proudly on the land yet feel as if they are part of that land. Our buildings strive to be crisp and, often, minimalist. At the same time, our philosophy holds that, no matter what type or style, buildings are obligated to ‘fit’ into their settings.

‘Patterns of Place’ is our way of ensuring that our contemporary buildings achieve this in a particularly meaningful and interesting way. ‘Patterns of Place’ suggests a connection with what has always been there and with what might be built there in the future. The architect Harry Cobb has often talked about architecture as the successful balancing of memory and invention. ‘Patterns of Place’ is clearly about memory. But it is equally about invention. And a healthy intervention. Introducing new forms and materials can help to create engaging and forward-looking places—places that connect to an evolving world.

‘Patterns of Place’ is about just that: connecting to an existing pattern and simultaneously generating a new pattern. It is about changing the current pattern slightly. Or in a big way. All in service of the place as it is, and as it might become.

We consider ourselves contemporary, modernist architects. ‘Patterns of Place’ is clearly about memory. But it is equally about invention.

Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood. The Tanglewood site is organized with two manor houses located at the prow of the hill overlooking Stockbridge Bowl. Eliel Saarinen placed his Music Shed of 1938 down the backside of the hill, set back from the prow. Our contemporary curved-roof Concert Hall is similarly positioned. Thus both music buildings—like typical workaday farm buildings—defer to the primacy of the manor houses, emphasizing that everyone is a guest on these estates.

Williams College, ’62 Center for Theatre & Dance. This project could have overwhelmed Williams’ quintessential New England campus, but we positioned the building so that its narrow facade faces Main Street, mirroring the pattern of narrow campus buildings along this street and enabling our new, contemporary building to fit seamlessly within Williams’ cherished campus landscape.

Cambridge Public Library. Built in 1888, the original Cambridge Public Library was placed in the middle of a large park. One hundred and twenty years later, on the same site, we created a very contemporary glass building that extends this civic tradition by forming a stronger, more immediate edge to this urban landscape.

Swarthmore College, Alice Paul and David Kemp Residence Halls. These two residence halls bring contemporary design to a campus of traditional ashlar stone buildings. Made of crisply cut stone to lock in their connections to the campus, the buildings are organized around a three-sided courtyard, mirroring the pattern of three-sided courtyards that dominates the campus while also reflecting the College’s outward-looking Quaker character.

Temple Beth Elohim
. Like many synagogues, Temple Beth Elohim is organized as a procession. One first moves through a well-defined 70’ x 70’ outdoor courtyard, with walls of Jerusalem limestone that anchor the space in its spiritual past. The procession culminates in a 70’ x 70’ glass-enclosed sanctuary—a decidedly contemporary space that connects to its ancient Israeli precedents. Inside, the sanctuary space is defined by curved benches that can be arranged circularly or rectangularly, which allows congregants to see one another and strengthens the community’s bonds.

University of Virginia, Caplin Theatre
. This project was first conceived as part of our Master Plan for an Arts Precinct, not far from Jefferson’s Lawn. Centered on a steep slope, the new theater addition and its surrounding brick buildings (including the Smith Band Building, also designed by our firm) create a well-defined ‘UVA space.’ The theater, a very glassy and contemporary structure built into the hillside, pushes out slightly into the Quadrangle and creates a subtle but powerful focal point for the new precinct.

This essay was originally published in the firm monograph William Rawn Associates Architects by William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc.

©The Images Publishing Group Pty Ltd 2014

A full copy of the monograph can be purchased here:

Photo Credits: Steve Rosenthal, Robert Benson Photography, Bruce T Martin Photography

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