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It wasn’t until I walked into the Utah Veteran’s Memorial when I was in my twenties that I became conscious of the Spirit of Place. I vaguely remember the feeling being somewhat familiar suggesting that while this was the first time the sensation was strong enough to break through the hidden barrier of awareness, it must not have been the first time I had ever felt it.

What was so different about this place at that time that pushed these feelings into consciousness? Why this building and not the millions of other structures I had been in throughout my life? What was so different about this accumulation of brick, wood, and plaster then all the other piles of brick, wood and plaster?

Several years later, I read an interesting collection of essays by J. B. Jackson titled “A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time” (required reading for all involved in the creation of space). J. B. Jackson had already put onto paper what I had only recently become aware of, and that is, that the organization of the materials used to create space matters in creating spaces that become places which possess spirit.

It’s the Gestalt theory applied to architecture. But it isn’t universal. It isn’t the sum of just any parts assembled in any way. The spirit of place doesn’t just happen (most of the time, see my post below “Some Great Design Just Happens”). It takes effort, education, skill, and patience. I was recently reminded of these things when reading an article written by John Buccigross. He is, like me, a fan of hockey. And he, like me, longs for an NHL arena that has a spirit in the architecture that captures the essence of the game and its history. His article reminded me of other times when the spirit of a place was palpable.

I live in Central Minnesota and have 4 kids who play youth hockey. Every weekend for 3 months we travel to another nearly forgotten town where hockey is king and kids line up in the dark hours of the morning to late at night in order to get their few hours of ice time. I have been in shiny new arenas where the seats have backs and there are heaters to keep the fans warm and plenty of space, light and amenities. I have also been to arenas that are old, dark, dingy, and where the inside temperature is only slightly higher then the outside where you better come bundled up more like you were going to the Klondike then to a hockey game. Places that have been carved out of the landscape in order to provide a place to play the game. Fargo Hockey ArenaThey are the sandlots of the frozen north. Given the choice, I would choose to watch the game played in the latter. Why? Because one has a spirit of hockey and the other is as dead as the materials it was built from. The old arched wooden beams, wooden benches packed close to the glass, and the bubble of light that barely reaches beyond the ice surface are all elements that distinguish the older arenas from the new. It’s this combination of the intimate setting, the architectural elements that push the viewer almost onto the ice with little effort to protect them from the harsh, beautiful realities of why they are there: to participate in the game. These arenas have a spirit of place and come alive while the new concrete and steel boxes with all the amenities and safety netting are altogether forgettable and quite.

So, as an architect, city councilman, and business owner, what can be learned by this example? That spirit matters. For whatever purpose you plan to use your facility, the spirit and sense of place matters. It’s easy to talk about spirit when you design a church, temple or mosque. But your new bank should have the spirit of security and trust. Your new school should be filled with the spirit of learning. Your new gym should have the spirit of good health. As an architect you should never design, as a councilman you should never vote for, as a businessman you should never pay for, architecture that is a nondescript pile of materials, dead to the spirit of the purpose it is intended to house.

It is the architects responsibility to force into their consciousness the elements and principles used to create the spirit, or lack thereof, of the architecture around them and prepare themselves to utilize this awareness, along with their skill and training to provide a sense of place in every project. It is the civic servant’s responsibility to demand the same of their public facilities. And it is the wise businessman who will benefit from his willingness to accept nothing less.