Taking Possession of a Place

(Welcome!  This is the 4th post in the “Crafting Places” series, “kicked off” on October 4, 2010, with a “Preface”, accessible on-line at http://wp.me/pVUDj-np.  All published posts in the series can be accessed through the “Urban Design” sub-page “Crafting Places” of this “RenaissanceRules” site.)

Antecedents and Contemporary Studies

 B.    Botta’s “Taking Possession of a Place”

In his 13-page Introduction to the monograph “The Architecture of Mario Botta”, far back in 1984, Christian Norburg-Schultz adds to the vision seen through Botta’s work in the formula, Architecture = Archetype + Institution + Locality + Moment (Reference: Zardini, Mirko, “The Architecture of Mario Botta”, Rizzoli, New York, 1985, 232pp).

Norberg-Shultz’s statement that, “…we are no longer satisfied with an architecture which is merely ‘functional’, but want that the buildings should tell us where we are, and hence ‘explain’ the world to us”, clearly resonates today as the dire straits of both traditional city centers and aging suburbs is dissected and bemoaned.  Yet, contemporary discussion usually studiously avoids addressing the central lack in each, a sense of place, or demands application of a thinly disguised “cookie cutter” template solution delivered with cursory understanding of the Place and a great deal of patronization toward the benighted citizenry and its leaders.  Who decides what YOUR “Place” will become? 

THEY know whose place THIS is!  (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

THEY know whose place THIS is! (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

Well, whose “place” is it, anyway?




“Architecture (definition): The ‘taking possession of a particular place.” Mario Botta.

Norberg-Schultz clarifies that Botta’s definition does not advocate dominance over the place.  Rather, Botta’s intent is that one begins with a rediscovery of any proposed project location, of its City, of the history and memories connected with it – a Recapitulation, in the “RenaissanceRules” sense!  He states further, paraphrasing, that finding ‘meaning’ is best understood in terms of the qualities of a particular place and ‘memories’ of it that are connected with the very particular way of life fostered therein.  With that knowledge and comprehension (two different things!), “The site is transformed into a place where life ‘may take place’”, rather than just a parcel on which the planner and the architect impose their self-satisfying solution to a functional problem.  According to Mario Botta, “The Work of the Architect is, an interpretation of the environment as a given physical entity; and, an interpretation of the environment as a testimony of history and memory.”

Designing "Place" for the Night  (c)2006 Randy D. Bosch

Designing "Place" for the Night (c)2006 Randy D. Bosch

“It is not the task of the architect to ‘construct on a site’, but to ‘construct’ that site, so that the building becomes part of a new geographical configuration in direct connection with the qualities of history and of memories peculiar to that place.” Mario Botta


“That place” is not only a geomorphological artifact, but a recognized possesson and record of a society.  The responsibility of the planner or architect is suscintly expressed by one of Botta’s mentors, Louis Kahn, as,

“Everything that an architect does is first of all answerable to an institution of man before it becomes a building.”

Yet another level of meaning infuses this understanding and approach to design.  “The primary forms have to be interpreted locally to be real.  Man does not only live on the earth and under the sky, but in a particular ‘here’.  When living ‘here’…is adequately understood, the memories of life will belong to a tradition which is visualized as a (building tradition).  A tradition also represents a choice between the primary images, and consists in a set of locally meaningful types.”

This approach is not simple-minded espousal of a pietistic quoting of vernacular design of buildings and towns, but a profound but little accepted tenet that, “…forms do not have to be invented over and over again from ‘zero’.  They are handed down to us as a ‘language’, which it is our duty to know and use.”

Even where one does not “inherit” a viable local building tradition, this approach encourages — frees –you to “…look for essential archetypes, and in specific designs choose those which ‘fit’ the situation, unifying the general and the particular in a quest for the ‘figure’ or ‘image’”.  The innovation in design is then infused and paradoxically freed by the notion that “What will be has always been,” again quoting Louis Kahn.

Christian Norberg-Schultz summarized “Botta’s Lesson” as follows:

“Architecture, to be valid, must comprise all of the four levels of meaning: It must be founded on the archetypes of our being in the world at the same time as it incorporates the characteristics of institution, locality and historical moment.  The total world which is constituted by these four levels is visualized by means of the language of architecture.  Only when we are able to do that, architecture becomes a taking possession of place and a help to human society.”

What has happened in your City, over time?  Who has influenced it in the physical sense, how have they done that, and has it truly been a help to its “human society?”  Or, do you need to begin work as a community on a new Reformation and Renaissance, a new, beneficial and lasting…

Taking Possession of That Place


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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