Placemaking and/or Architecture?

Let’s start with a quick quiz to see where you fall!


If you choose B repeatedly, you are a true Architect (no license or education required for the sake of this argument).  You are a design enthusiast, with loads of Tauschen books in your library and your vacations probably include a visit to a renowned building.

If you preferred column A then Placemaker is your title; you seek out public markets and pea patches and show up at city council meetings when there is a threat to your favorite retro movie theatre.

Placemaking is a buzz word right now, yet it is an old concept in the world of architectural theory.  While most all of us architects had to read Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander, we can’t help it if our favorite literary figure is still Ann Rand’s Howard Roarke.

After all it is our American birthright to pursue our individual creative genius, isn’t it?  We architects are seduced by form, the latest material technology, and the object itself like a piece of sculpture.

I’ll be honest, my responses to the quiz were 100% on the side of placemaking.  My favorite places are rarely designed by an architect, indeed, they are often well planned but leave space for the incidental, the accidental, and the ever changing.

Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy.   It is an approach to planning public spaces that capitalizes on the local community assets, inspiration and potential.  It results in public streets that you travel to instead of through.  It results in art, green space, public markets, street performances, and buildings that spill activity, and services onto safe and well used public spaces.  It results in a stronger community that has gathered to both build and benefit from their place.

WAIT!  But the architect in me shouts, “What about Ronchamp and The Guggenheim and Castelveccio?  Guilty pleasures aside, it is human to be moved by beautiful objects and there are examples of architecture both past and present that exemplify mankind’s greatest achievements.

So, in actuality, it is not an “EITHER-OR”.  To further explain my point I refer to another industry.

A friend of mine is a fabric designer. She finds inspiration from the world around her and paints and draws and collages. These 2d images are then transformed into and onto textiles that are used in countless ways. “The best part of my job is seeing what people do with my fabrics after I’ve released them”, she says. She is the creator but the ultimate creation is in the hands of artists, quilters, the sewers.   The final product and its multiple uses are sometimes 4 or 5 times removed from her original vision, and they often exceed her expectations and sometimes surprise her.

What if architects considered this our role? We would have to abandon the notion of the artistic hero in pursuit of designing an ideal object.   What if architects were really just the pattern makers and the fabric designers?  The quilt (the built environment) is really the end goal and can only be accomplished with the help of other makers and artists, city planners, and end users.  It takes a strong ego to do this because not likely will people identify your buildings as yours, instead they will belong to the streets to the people to neighborhood to the setting… the place.

The problem for an architect engaged in placemaking projects is that there is not portfolio piece to share. The words “not for profit” and “grassroots” don’t make for good photography.  There is nothing glamorous about community workshops, meetings, negotiations, grant writing, consensus building, or intermittent and small scale improvements over long periods of time.  There is also no clean punch list to finish up the work; it is never ending.

So what does good placemaking look like?  Here are five extraordinary examples, from the most monumental to the equally impressive but smaller examples occurring right now…closer to home.


What is your favorite place? Share your story or make a comment on my Facebook page at

Thanks and please…. go out and make your PLACE, it’s not just for architects.


Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris :: The High Line, New York NY :: The Valencia Corridor, San Francisco CA :: Temescal Alley, Oakland CA :: The Crosses of Lafayette, Lafayette CA :: Pikes Place Market, Seattle WA