Book Review: The Nature of Place

With an expertise in affordable housing, Avi Friedman’s previous book Narrow Houses included case studies, essays, design principles, and a history of narrow lot design. It was rich in images and ideas for residences on small infill lots and perhaps my delight with this resource colored my expectations for Friedman’s latest book The Nature of Place (published by Princeton Architectural Press). Several deep chapters in particular would have benefited from a similar visually-oriented format.

A professor at McGill University in Montreal, Friedman is also a columnist—the new book is a collection of his writing. While informative overall, the tone is a bit dry and each chapter jumps to a new topic. This shifts in the last two chapters, however, when Friedman’s voice suddenly opens into an exploration on place and authenticity. For instance, the meaning of place is more than a list of historical references and architectural forms. Nostalgic reminiscences and longing for historic use do not speak to the present nature of cities nor how we as a culture imbue meaning on the land and form an identity from and around that place over time. A reprimanding lecture on environmentally responsible design draws us no closer to the genius loci, nor offers designers and citizens the motivation to protect a locale and its heritage. Exploring the nature of place is far more substantive. Key to finding such authenticity is not by looking at the landscape as an object or canvas apart from oneself. Authenticity is found in the deeper synthesis of organic and cultural factors. The nature of place is found in those excavations. My hope is that the next edition of the book features these two chapters, bookending images that illustrate his thesis and elucidate the character of these compelling places.


Tadao Ando’s Glass House at the Phoenix Island Resort in Jeju, South Korea. Local materials and green construction focus on experiencing the features of the surroundings.
Photo courtesy of Phoenix Island.


About Melinda McMillan

Working in both her fields since graduating with two master degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, Melinda also writes about design and social justice, and consults for a non-profit. She has received awards for both her design work and writing. Recent architectural work include a healing garden at a cancer center and a masterplan for a school and orphanage in Haiti. Other projects are in the high-tech, religious, and medical arenas.

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