Life Takes Place: Phenomenology, Lifeworlds, and Place Making
Routledge, May 2018
Paperback | 6 x 9 inches | 230 pages | English | ISBN: 9780815380719 | $47.95
Life Takes Place argues that, even in our mobile, hypermodern world, human life is impossible without place. Seamon asks the question: why does life take place? He draws on examples of specific places and place experiences to understand place more broadly. Advocating for a holistic way of understanding that he calls “synergistic relationality,” Seamon defines places as spatial fields that gather, activate, sustain, identify, and interconnect things, human beings, experiences, meanings, and events.
Throughout his phenomenological explication, Seamon recognizes that places are multivalent in their constitution and sophisticated in their dynamics. Drawing on British philosopher J. G. Bennett’s method of progressive approximation, he considers place and place experience in terms of their holistic, dialectical, and processual dimensions. Recognizing that places always change over time, Seamon examines their processual dimension by identifying six generative processes that he labels interaction, identity, release, realization, intensification, and creation.
Drawing on practical examples from architecture, planning, and urban design, he argues that an understanding of these six place processes might contribute to a more rigorous place making that produces robust places and propels vibrant environmental experiences. This book is a significant contribution to the growing research literature in “place and place making studies.”
The phrase “life takes place” hints at the fact that all of our lives happen…somewhere. Even when we browse in the supposedly placeless world of the internet and partake in other acts across virtual networks, we are doing those things in a place: in an office, in bed, in a cafe, even on the toilet. That “life takes place” is just obvious. But like many things that are obvious it ends up not being explored as much as it should. When it is, at least in the realm of architecture and the built environment, place is something to be created, designed for people in a way that enables for different actions to take place. People sleep at home, work at the office, relax in the park, dance in the nightclub, and so forth. Of course, reality is a lot more complex and a lot less regimented. But how do we portray the interactions of people and places? This is an important question, especially if we want to move beyond any direct causal connections between the designed environment and people’s actions and well-being. David Seamon, a professor at Kansas State University (where I attended architecture school a couple decades ago), tackles this provocative topic in his latest book of architectural phenomenology.
First off, I’ll admit this is not an easy book to get into and then tackle. Its language and point of view are specialized, making it more suited to academics interested in philosophy and phenomenology rather than architects concerned with place making. Regardless, Seamon walks the reader step-by-step through his almost mathematical definitions of understanding place, making complex concepts understandable. He starts with “analytic relationality” vs. “synergistic relationality,” in which the first “is understood conceptually as a collection of parts which are arbitrarily identified as a series of linkages then measured and correlated to demonstrate stronger and weaker connections and relationships” and the second “assumes a phenomenological perspective and works to interpret place conceptually as an integrated, generative field that shapes and is shaped by parts integrally interconnected in a physical and experiential whole.” (See what I mean by specialized?) He then moves on to monads, dyads, and triads of place: The monad simply defines a place as a thing, such as a school, while a dyad sets up a place as consisting of opposites (e.g. within and without), and triads see affirming (active) and receptive (passive) impulses interacting with a third, reconciling impulse.
Basing much of his thesis on the philosophical texts of J.G. Bennett, Seamon defines each of the triads’ impulses as 1 (affirming), 2 (receptive) and 3 (receptive) and breaks down their interactions in six ways: 1-3-2, 2-3-1, 3-2-1, 3-1-2, 2-1-3, and 1-2-3. Furthermore, he links these numbered impulses more directly to place, making them sequentially People-in-Place (PP), Environmental Ensemble (EE), and Common Presence (CP), in turn yielding: PP-CP-EE, EE-CP-PP, CP-EE-PP, CP-PP-EE, EE-PP-CP, and PP-EE-CP. Trust me, this makes a bit more sense reading the book than seeing it here, but Seamon does simplify these six triads even more as, respectively, Place Interaction, Place Identity, Place Release, Place Realization, Place Intensification, and Place Creation. More difficult than following the logic in these interactions is seeing them in the world around us; so Seamon uses stories from newspapers and short examples to create narrative linkages between the triads and our understanding of them. It takes some effort, but I think Seamon’s book is an important addition to the libraries of people who are versed in space syntax and who, more importantly, care deeply about how places are shaped and lived in.
David Seamon is a Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, USA. Trained in geography and environment-behavior research, he is interested in a phenomenological approach to place, architecture, and environmental design as place making.