Section 4︎︎︎ Meaning

“There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber... There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere—it doesn’t all get used up at once.”  

—Neil Gaiman,  Neverwhere

Meaning can be attributed to place through various levels of association. Whether the relationship or knowledge of place is in-depth or general, meanings are attributed to places through various lenses and to varying degrees. “Experience [of place] can be direct and intimate, or it can be indirect and conceptual, mediated by symbols.”16 For the most part, forms and activities inform meaning, they are interpreted different by every individual, making place meaning a unique experience for each individual. Meaning can be broken down into identity, attachment, and memory, and thinking about whether it was formed directly or indirectly.
    A place is defined through its relationship to the person, which can be either positive or negative. The field of environmental psychology studies this relationship between the individual and their surroundings, offering theories and ideas about the interaction of person and place. Place Identity, a term originally coined by Harold Proshansky in 1978, is a cornerstone theory of this area of study. Proshansky defined it as “the individual’s personal identity in relation to the physical environment by means of a complex pattern of conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings, values, goals, preferences, skills, and behavioral tendencies relevant to a specific environment.”17 At its essence, place identity is how someone views a particular place based on their own experience and opinions. Place identity, as defined here, can be examined through two lenses, that of the individual, and that of the collective. Both the individual and the collective views of place identity exist on their own but also interact and change each other. The individual’s perception of place is derivative of their own lived experiences and interactions with a place, in addition to their understanding and interpretation of the collective place identity. This identity can be shaped by their interpretation of form and activity of place, as well as their own memories and attachment to place. The collective place identity is the societal shared interpretations of place. This is a sort of natural branding for place, which can be seen in nicknames for big cities that have appeared in popular culture. While these names can change over time as the societal view of places change, some are persistent such as New York, “The City that Never Sleeps.” Paris, France also has a few nicknames—dubbed “The City of Love” by some, but some still refer to it as “The City of Lights.” The latter name arose from the fact that Paris was the first major city to extensively install gas lanterns. This nickname is no longer accurate since Paris is no longer unique, it is now one of many cities that each have hundreds of thousands of electric lights. FIGURE 17
    The bond an individual shares with a place is also an important factor when thinking about place meaning. Often dubbed “place attachment” in environmental psychology, this notion is the emotional bond forged through an individual’s life experiences and memories. Yi-Fu Tuan sums up this idea with his definition of the word Topophilia, which is the love and affective bond of people and place.18 This is often reflected in people boasting and loving the place they live or are from, especially cities. New Yorkers are notorious for having a strong place attachment. Whether it be for a specific block, neighborhood, borough, or the entire city. New Yorkers generally have a strong association with their place and consider it the best when comparing it to anywhere else. New York City to them is also referred to as “The City”, as if it is the only one that exists. But, New York is also an interesting example when looking at indirect place attachment. Many people, non-residents, and even people who have never been to the city, have a place attachment to New York, thanks to popular culture through music, television shows, movies, pop culture and the internet.
    Closely tied to place attachment is place memory and nostalgia. Memory informs a lot of place attachment, since past experiences can make or break place attachment, but memory also holds its own power of place. Memory of place allows places to exist beyond their space boundaries. While photographs and other documentation sources allow us to preserve the image of place, the true associations of place from bygone or changed spaces only exists in memories. Everyone has associations with a place from their past. Often as we grow older or no longer interact with that place, things change in the physical space making that same place new and different from our own experience. The version in our memory still exists as a place to us, even though the space has shifted to be something else. Memory allows place to exist outside of time and physical space. Memories by nature are also imperfect, they can be distorted, incorrect, or only partial truths. This plays an interesting role in place memory, making no place the same for two individuals. This allows place to be adaptable and non-representative of the physical space it is attributed to.
    Art is arguably the best method for the exploration of place memory. Do Ho Suh is one such artist that examines his personal memory of place by recreating his previous homes mostly out of sheer fabric. FIGURE 18 By altering how they exist in space, he translates the ethereal quality of his own memories of place into the physical environment. The rooms he creates are physically accurate, but the materiality allows for a slight shift of form of what is normally hard straight surfaces, providing a new experience of place and space. Italian artist Eduardo Tersoldi uses art to explore memory of space in his works by creating ghost architectural forms out of chicken wire. In his project at the Archaeological Park of Siponto, FIGURE 19 he explores place memory in all forms by recreating what historically existed on top of the ruins, juxtaposing the present and the past together fostering a new place out of physical space and memory.

16.Tuan, Yi-Fu.. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. 1977

17. Proshansky, Harold. The City and Self Identity. 1978

18. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: a Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. 1974

© Michael Rosenberg