Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sense of Place: Houston Lake

The early morning photo above is the par-four 18th hole at Houston Lake Country Club. It is considered one of Georgia's finest holes of golf. The first shot, the drive, has to cross a part of the lake. The tee is visible at the upper left. The second shot must cross water again, unless you lay it up, lying somewhere at the right in the photo. The green is in the foreground.

Houston Lake is generously endowed with traits that make up a sense of place. It's remarkable in that the naturally occuring factors seem to weigh about equally with the supporting, intentional ones.

Spanish moss, mature oaks and pines of this traditionally forested area line the fairways and ring the lake. Numerous bird species are always present, and signs warning of alligators greet anyone crossing the club's cart bridges. Squirrels are everywhere, and an occasional rabbit peers out from the edge of a bramble.

Front entrance to club dining room. Part of the experience of place here is knowing that fine dining is available. Along with excellent day-to-day menus, the Seafood Buffet, a monthly event, is a highlight.

Path to the first tee.

Apart from the clubhouse area with its terrace and views of the lake, playing the course offers its own complementary sense of place. There is significant variation in the terrain, with the land rising from lake level and falling toward creeks that run into the lake. This steady change in height adds a quiet drama to movement along the fairways, with sometimes long views alternating with a sense of forested enclosure. Frequent encounters with wildlife punctuate your way through the course as well.

A pair of Canadian geese on 18.

An accomplished group of golfers at the terrace's fire pit after a round. Current senior champion Tommy Toombs, facing the camera, is in the red sweater. He shot his age at 65.

Clubhouse porch over the lake.

Sunset over the 10th hole, from the porch.

All preceding photos this post by club owner Chris Murman.

Sense of place can exist on any physical scale. It can be seen as a room, a house and yard, a country club like this one, a state, region or country; the planet or the universe. The particular scale most commonly in mind when the term "sense of place" is employed is that which is perceptible to the senses at one's immediate physical location.

At Houston Lake, sense of place is experienced in sequences. If one only goes for dinner, the passage through the gateway from the road, into the parking area, and through the front door to the dining room and the view onto the lake makes up the sequence. For golf, the sequence from the parking area is to the right of the building, into the pro shop, then down the path to the first tee, through the course. The round is usually followed by a drink and a visit with playing partners and whoever is encountered inside the grille or on the terrace.

To me, the sine qua non of experiencing this place is sitting on the terrace during fine weather, late in the day as the sun sets over the lake. There is a palpable sense of enclosure and shelter with large trees about you and and the clubhouse's porch and interior spaces of the building at your back. A small shift of the breeze brings cooking smells from the kitchen. A peaceful and spectacular vista of water, sky and forest hangs before you. The Spanish moss, light wind off the lake and the coming and going of friends from the 18th and the clubhouse caps a memorable and complete experience of a unique and deeply comfortable place.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and architect Robert Campbell, FAIA, wrote an interesting article expressing his take on the subject of golf courses.

The following photos are my own, taken while playing the course. For some, the wildlife is a pleasant part of the background. For others it's a prominent and welcome part of experiencing the course.

Adding meaning to the term "water hazard," and expanding its area. He knows that any ball hit within 30 yards of his front teeth belongs to him.

A goosling settles in.

Squirrel getting ready for winter.

Great Blue Heron taking flight.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sense of Place: 1, Definitions

Some definition of the term "sense of place" is needed before getting into its discussion. At its most basic, it simply means the specific nature of our immediate surroundings and our awareness of them. But, because a place can have so many elements in its composition, and its perception varies among us anyway, defining "sense of place" can become a lengthy effort. It actually amounts to an academic discipline all of its own. Whatever appears in this post, more will likely follow in future posts on the subject. Here's what Wiki has to say about it.

In architecture, it would seem that the more factors that contribute to building a sense of place the designer understands, the better. Christian Norberg-Shulz's book, Genius Loci, is a definitive examination of phenomenology of architecture. "The distinctive atmosphere or pervading spirit of a place."
If we had a heads-up display for assessing sense of place, it might have a list of factors to one side with little red lights beside those present in the place. Part of the list might include physical comfort, memorability, uniqueness, security, spatial definition, a view beyond, people, beauty, available food and drink, well-designed or naturally-formed places to sit, weather, lighting, connection to nature, symbols representing one's values, familiar or newly intriguing fixtures. The list could go on to include spatial scale of intimacy or grandeur, sounds, smells, tactile objects and more. The point is, many factors can come into play.
To me, sense of place implies a relatively intense experience. This experience is formed by inherent attributes of the place itself, and by the current perceptual traits of the person who's experiencing it. The designer obviously can't satisfy the needs of every state of mind a place's users bring to it. Awareness and the best available accommodation of perceptual variations is all one can offer.
The more comfortable or meaningful a person finds a place, the better. Comfort can be nurtured by many things, but the most relevant are those which foster memories. A sense of feeling welcome, relaxed, often but not necessarily of specific spatial enclosure, of association with friends, family or allies are desirable. Familiarity with the place can contribute, but strong sense of place can occur without it. Some of the strongest experiences of place in one's lifetime can be diverse. A cozy, secure room in a house with a roaring fireplace might be one, while a grand landscape with a sweeping view of an immense mountain range may be another.
A sense of place can be designed or supported to a significant degree, or it can evolve without conscious intervention of any particular kind. Architectural design is, it's hoped, heavily influenced by the idea of a sense of place. Come to think of it, running a successful restaurant needs the same kind of sensibility.
If there is one attibute that is most closely associated with sense of place, it would probably be that of the place being memorable.
A Canadian geographer and professor at the University of Toronto, Ted Relph, gives a great deal of insight into sense of place. His book, Place and Placelessness, brings academic rigor to the subject which is often only fuzzily grasped by many who most need to understand it, architects. Dr. David Seamon, a professor at Kansas State University, teaches and researches this subject in a helpful and focused way. His article on Relph's work is in itself an excellent explanation of essential elements that make up what is known as sense of place.
I've mentioned him in earlier posts, and
Christopher Alexander offers some of the best insight into sense of place, even when he's specifically talking about other things. His books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language are great explorations into place and the things which resonate with us in the way we experience it.
Further links:
Ted Relph. Yosemite as a Mythical Place.
Barbara Allen and Thomas J. Schlereth, Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures.
Maria Lorena Lehman, Sensing Architecture.

Early morning, Houston Lake Country Club, subject of the next post. Click image to zoom.