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In our recent Dialogue, On Place & the Future of Urban Living, we brought urban designers, artists, and planners together at Oakland’s 16th Street Station. Our conversation centered around the juxtaposition of Place vs. Space, in a building that was once the hub of community, providing transportation and a place of gathering. Now, the station remains underutilized in the wake of the Lomo-Prieta earthquake.

Our leading question of the night’s Dialogue was, “Where do you feel most alive?” With answers ranging from beaches and nature to foreign countries and adjacency to loved ones, the answers demonstrated that we all experience the nuances of place and space in different ways. Each guest brought perspectives from their own work and experience of placemaking in the 21st Century.

Continuing with our series of reflections from Dialogue guests, Architectural and Urban Designer, Eleanor Pries shares additional thoughts on what Place and Space bring up for her in her work.

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ON PLACE // ELEANOR PRIES

Golden Gate from Lands End, San Francisco -- Credit: Frank R. Tindell

Golden Gate from Lands End, San Francisco -- Credit: Frank R. Tindell

At the recent Dialogue: On Place & the Future of Urban Living, Rimma asked: “Is there personal meaning for you when you think of ‘place’ vs. ‘space’? What shapes your experience of each?”

As someone interested in philosophy and phenomenology -- a follower, though casual, of Merleau-Ponty and the “primacy of perception”[1] -- I would answer: my experience of place is related to, if not based entirely upon, the senses: sights, sounds, feels, smells, and dare I say tastes. Sensory experience. Or that slippery word, atmosphere.

Take San Francisco’s Golden Gate. It is filled with perceivable and contrasting phenomena, the heavy briny air, strong wind, brilliant sunlight, thick spilling fog, tiny winged boats eclipsed by hulking container ships that glide incongruously. It is an experience framed by the Bridge -- massive piers from below, and from afar that slim slip of International Orange that arcs from the cliffs and just floats across. It is robust and invigorating, piqued with a measure of mystery. And is yet somehow still quite benign. This overall benignity is supported by the accepted story of the area, a narrative crafted around optimistic real estate expansion, bold industry magnates, gems of civil engineering, civic-minded recreational facilities, art museums, and tourist destinations with their rugged beauty, iconic bridge views and cypress groves.

As part of a design endeavor, I recently collected more wide-ranging information on the Golden Gate, and more perspective. This information is less about the Bridge and more on the structure, systems, and flows of the strait itself. [2] It shows another, more complex, side — a precarious, changing, and wild past and present of sharks and shipwrecks, suicides and sandwaves. The Golden Gate is more sublime than its arcadian image. This is not about fear; it is about complexity and maybe about the role of information in experiential empathy. 

Information does not wholly transform personal sensory perception and experience. But it can re-situate it along a spectrum of other, or collective, experiences.

A set of terms create a new sketch:

artillery - batteries - bunkers - cemeteries - currents - faults - forts - great white sharks - gunblocks - lighthouses - mines - missiles - mutinies - paleochannel - poachers - radioactive waste - railroad - rescue - riptides - robberies - rookeries - rum-running - sea lions - shipwrecks

Imagine...

(cemeteries) An estimated 18,000 San Franciscans were interred at Golden Gate Cemetery (now Lincoln Park and Land’s End), some of whom may never have accompanied their headstones in the mass relocation to Colma.

(poachers) Opportunistic scavengers once scoured the rocky cliffs of the Golden Gate and even the Farallon Islands by hand to poach prized seabird eggs (auklets, cormorants, guillemots, murres, oystercatchers, puffins, and storm-petrels), carting millions of these delicate and speckled orbs back to the City.

(sandwaves) 300 feet below the surface, the floor of the strait is still sculpted by ocean swell that has brought hundreds of “sandwaves” (300’ long and 70’ tall”) up to the mouth of the Gate.

(shipping) 8000-9000 container ships pass through the Gate annually.

(shipwrecks) The Gate is an underwater nautical “graveyard” of 19th century ships.

The Gate is a paragon of beauty and a harbor of engineering marvels. The bridge is the essential, narrow lynchpin connecting the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay, its thousands of acres of estuary with all of its ecology and economy. It is a confluence and epicenter of perpetual forces and isolated movement — from atmospheric to geological, from natural to industrial, from the banal to the life event. It is also a tomb, literally and figuratively.

Add fault lines, prohibition rum-running, postwar radioactive waste disposal, great white sharks and fog to its arcadian image and the Golden Gate is re-situated as a sublime place and space. For some tragic and formidable. At a minimum, messier.

In my own work — and especially within San Francisco’s contested spaces — the complexity of additional and contradictory information cultivates inclusion and erodes hardened individual stances. I imagine experiential empathy as a kind of sixth sense. Fueled by information, it both expands and bounds a range of collective experience, revealing the atmosphere, the complexity, of San Francisco.

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[1] French existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote The Phenomenology of Perception in 1945.

[2] Common knowledge tells us that architects are interested in the visible and material. But since our task is to create new spatial experiences, we find design inspiration in many forms. There is among us a profound obsession with forces and systems — invisible or hidden or ephemeral. Systems with an inherent and describable logic can support concepts, or methods of ordering space, or inspire atmospheres.