Making Places for People
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Making Places for People

12 Questions Every Designer Should Ask

Christie Johnson Coffin, Jenny Young

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eBook - ePub

Making Places for People

12 Questions Every Designer Should Ask

Christie Johnson Coffin, Jenny Young

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About This Book

** Honorable Mentionat the 2019 ERDA Great Places Awards **

Making Places for People explores twelve social questions in environmental design. Authors Christie Johnson Coffin and Jenny Young bring perspectives from practice and teaching to challenge assumptions about how places meet human needs. The book reveals deeper complexities in addressing basic questions, such as: What is the story of this place? What logic orders it? How big is it? How sustainable is it? Providing an overview of a growing body of knowledge about people and places, Making Places for People stimulates curiosity and further discussion. The authors argue that critical understanding of the relationships between people and their built environments can inspire designs that better contribute to health, human performance, and social equity—bringing meaning and delight to people's lives.

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Chapter 1
What is the Story of this Place?

What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises … structure in imagination before … erect[ing] it in reality.1
Karl Marx
Narrative has always been a common thread for understanding human experience, a thread that connects events in words. Narratives, or stories, can coalesce setting, personalities, and action, as well as add meaning and even a symbolic or poetic layer to design thought. Stories are told in prose and poetry, song, theater, and dance, in still and moving images. Built places tell stories in various forms and can emphasize different elements: place, concept, people, or action. Narratives of built places can be practical or metaphorical, non-fiction or fiction.
The last chapter in a love story, the Taj Mahal is a tomb built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, the Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal, who died at the birth of their fourteenth child.2 Exquisite in form and detail, the white marble tomb, with its iconic onion dome, its corners framed by four minarets, stands inside a walled garden complex. Following the Islamic prohibition of using anthropometric forms, its fine decorations derive from calligraphy and vegetative motifs. Ironically, it stands no longer in a Mughal empire but in a mainly Hindu country. Two recent claims that the Taj Mahal was built by a Hindu king were both dismissed by the Indian Supreme Court.3
Brasilia is the story of a new town built to recognize a new republic and bring a less known and less urbanized part of the country into prominence. Proposed in 1827 by Emperor Pedro I’s advisor José Bonifácio, the new capital was not put into practice until the mid-twentieth century by President Juscelino Kubitschek, who promised it in his campaign as part of a story about creating fifty years of prosperity in five years. Modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx organized elements of the new city in the shape of an airplane, a key symbol of contemporary life and one of many stories behind this new town.
Architects Polly Cooper and Ken Haggard’s Trout Farm outside Santa Margarita, California, tells a story of rebuilding resourcefully after a major forest fire. On the edge of a national forest, the original house and a broad mix of deciduous trees burned. The trees were in essence kiln-dried by the fire. A portable mill was brought on-site, and the trees became lumber for the structure and millwork for a new off-the-grid straw bale house, the San Luis Obispo Solar Group’s office, and a workshop dubbed “the tool temple.” The resulting complex, which includes several ponds from an ancient failed trout farm, is a wonderful place for large or small groups of people, making music, eating, working, or just watching the wildlife and seasons pass.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial tells the story of a war that scarred two nations. It was not designed by a professional group but by young architecture student Maya Lin who won a national competition. From the first, visitors have used it to tell their own stories of a loved one lost, a generation damaged, a sacrifice made.
Many have seen pictures of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and read about it, but experiencing a place is always something different. The Memorial is a wound, like war, a cut in the green lawn of the Washington Mall. One descends into the earth, as the dead must, along a reflective black marble wall flush with the lawn. The wall grows as you go down. Names of the dead are inscribed, organized by date of death, so there are few at the beginning, but as you go deeper and the wall grows higher, there are more and more names. The names are embedded in black marble slabs that reflect the living, the sky, and the trees of the world with an otherworldly eeriness.
Then there is a turning point, as all wars have turning points. In the Memorial it is an obtuse angle, where there are the most names, and there you turn and begin to ascend. As the wall grows shorter and the number of names decreases, you rise until there is no more wall and you are on the surface of the Mall, facing the Washington Monument, again part of the living, but remembering all the sacrifices made.4
From the first, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has drawn people to it. Some come to look, some to pay homage to the loss of so many, and many to leave flowers or notes or remembrances. Every design decision made, from the shape made by the wall dug into the earth to the materials and their detailing, intensifies those human experiences. When she lectures, Maya Lin describes how she designs to tell the story and give the facts—not tell people what to feel—so people can react personally.5


In all of these stories, place, concept, people, and action play a part. A story that focuses on place attends to the context and fabric of the environment. In the simplest sense, this can be the story of travels, like a picaresque novel. Designers often envision moving around a new environment, telling stories of a spatial unfolding, as a person walks through space from place to place. Curiously, these stories typically focus on entering a place and seldom include the experience of leaving the place. They focus inwards. Many tell the story of entering the Taj Mahal, but who remembers the story of leaving and reentering the fascinating and chaotic city. Active moving through space may add coherence, taking precedence over humdrum day-after-day use or less cinematic lingering.
In this type of narrative, a place is the star of a story featuring encountering, entering, and exploring a landscape, urban fabric, or building. When Paul Ma designed destination resorts, he learned from the film industry. With illustrator Christopher Grubbs, he developed actual storyboards that detailed events in a resort visit, starting with the glass of juice offered by the innkeeper in the entry garden and including the (optional) swim with dolphins. The storyboard, illustrated by small but detailed sketches of each event, became the program for building the resort. The episodic experience of the environment formed a key thread.6


The concept story is more abstract and focuses on problem solving or new thinking. The story is a quest. It asks a question, seeks an answer, and then solves the problem. The narrative may be driven by a concrete concept, such as meeting net zero energy guidelines; a social goal, such as supporting healthy adolescent behavior; or even a metaphor, such as “This place is a harbor for people in crisis.” The question can be a negative one, such as “How can this place be less institutional?” or a positive one, such as “How can this place be friendlier?” It may be poetic: “Can this place be like inhabiting a cloud?” It can be very practical: “Can this place be so easy to clean it can just be hosed down?” Seeking an elegant solution is the essential narrative.
Taiwanese community planner and architect John K. C. Liu talks about aboriginal Taiwanese, who were forced to relocate to escape landslides that inundated their town. Residents sought to replicate part of the old place by recreating a significant and very large rock in plastic. They made an exact mold from the original rock and cast a hollow plastic rock in the new town. Liu questioned whether the hollow replica could carry the history and idea of the original, but the villagers repeated many stories that the rock brought with it and attested to its effective place in the narrative of their town. The replica carried the story of the rock, adding meaning and substance to their resettled town.
The place itself may not be the focus. The emphasis may be on ideas the project can represent. The design of the place may concentrate on advancing knowledge in a more general sense or on supporting cultural practices or values. Student assignments in architecture school often focus on theoretical quests. Indeed, some built forms embody abstract concept stories, such as Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building for the Swiss National Expo.7


In people stories, people come first and are clothed in appropriate places. Stories infuse places with the characters that commission and inhabit landscapes and buildings.
The narrative can be a type of coming-of-age story or Bildungsroman. People may be at a crossroads, where something new and interesting can happen. Designers often tell stories about how the building will adapt, enrich, or change lives. Adding daylight will lift morale and increase productivity. A more compact hospital plan will eliminate many steps each day and provide more time for caregiving. An improved factory layout will improve productivity and reduce errors. Parks will bring people into the public realm and improve health. A new home will mend a failing marriage. Some of these narratives are fiction and some nonfiction. Stories can provide a clear narrative structure with plots and subplots for a place.
Embellishments to the narrative frequently include eccentricities of the characters, such as the need for a large safe in the manager’s office to keep clients’ valuables in a Mayo Clinic program used by foreign billionaires. In an early childhood education center in eastern Oregon, the architects named the interior paint “Donna’s blue” for the director who selected it to provide a unifying and calming environment. Hooks for hanging bicycles from the ceiling are showing up in workplaces of young athletic professionals. The practice of taiji can inspire the development of a level spot surrounded by significant trees. The life of individual people defines the fabric of these stories and may be used creatively.
Sociologist Russ Ellis and architecture theorist Dana Cuff have written about “architects’ people,” the characters that designers imagine, as they form the narrative for a building.8 These people are often compelling and interesting, but sometimes say more about the designer than the future building users. Architect Le Corbusier invented a person to inhabit his buildings, the modulor, and later developed an improved, taller modulor.9 The system of measurements was based on the golden ratio (1:1.62), long thought a graceful proportion by Western architects. It has been noted: no modulor woman. American airplane seats designed to meet the dimensions of 95 percent of American men do not meet the needs of 95 percent of American women. Men as a proxy for women in ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Making Places for People
APA 6 Citation
Coffin, C. J., & Young, J. (2017). Making Places for People (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Coffin, Christie Johnson, and Jenny Young. (2017) 2017. Making Places for People. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Coffin, C. J. and Young, J. (2017) Making Places for People. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Coffin, Christie Johnson, and Jenny Young. Making Places for People. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.