“Hold my place.”
“Is this the place?”
“My place or yours?”
“Any place will do.”
“I have no place to go.”
“We’re well placed.”
and of course,
“This must be the place.”
There might not be a more complex and layered concept within the urban world than the idea of place. Sometimes the most commonplace things are the hardest to define and of the countless and illuminating articles on what place is and how it works, there are some core concepts that simultaneously make this word immediately obvious and unendingly elusive.
Geographers have long argued that our sense of place has been irrevocably changed because of our networks, movement and mobility. Places aren’t just locations, they are literal and metaphorical articulations in the networks of movement of our accelerating world. The ability of a city or metropolitan region to link up to the global network of information determines economic competitiveness and quality of life.
Back in 1991, Doreen Massey asked, “how, in the face of all this movement and intermixing, can we retain any sense of a local place and its particularity?” Her question remains relevant nearly three decades later. Are cities across the planet becoming more homogenous? It might seem so at first glance as what is thought of as authentic from one place is copied across the globe. But is it really that simple? If another Melbournian opens another coffee shop in the Lower East Side, are we really that much closer to all having the same coffee? These issues of superficial commonality usually have to do with how we consume, but nothing shapes the urban space around us more than how we transport ourselves.
In large-scale transportation architecture, cities have places that can do two things: they can link up to the global while solidifying the local. First, these places are both literal and figurative ways for the city to connect itself to the world and the global economy, moving people, goods, services and ideas across space. They are a physical manifestation of an articulation in our network of mobility. Second, transportation architecture provides a city with an opportunity to convey what is intrinsically unique about their location, place, and history, given the form is woven into the surrounding urban fabric. They can restore symbolic meaning. If, as Manuel Castells purports, “cities are communication systems that link up the local and global,” these places are opportunities to invite both local and global communities to actively define a place while connecting them to the world.
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok
In 2004, one of the most populous cities in Asia operated all its international flights from an airport built in 1914. Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport was beyond capacity and severely out-dated, and it was creating a lasting first impression for visitors from around the world. The 14th busiest airport in the world made Bangkok seem harsh and underwhelming for those that never had a chance to leave the terminal – far removed from the reality of the city.
So when the Helmut Jahn-designed Suvarnabhumi Airport opened in 2006, the impact it had on the city’s residents was profound. Finally they had an international gateway to be proud of; they were on the map. While working on the One Bangkok project earlier this year, we were told stories of the some of the city’s residents walking to the airport just to see it, because the catalyst piece of infrastructure had uplifted the city so dramatically.
Jahn’s design brought an outsider’s perspective to a city steeped in tradition, and played a critical role in a turbulent decade for the nation. The airport was unveiled in the same year as the military coup that overthrew the Thai government of the time and prefaced a period of dire economic instability, but as the Thai GDP has stabilised, investment in the city has started to pour in – with most investors welcomed through Suvarnabhumi.
Yokohama International Ferry Terminal, Yokohama
People don’t typically travel internationally by boat anymore, unless they’re transporting bulky goods or seeking a new experience. It’s cost ineffective, takes longer than flying and often leaves passengers at an end-point devoid of humanness in an isolated part of a city.
In Yokohama, Foreign Office Architects (FOA) set out to tackle the separation from daily life by designing a ferry terminal that brings together civic, cultural and retail uses to sit alongside the functional aspects of an international transit point. Determined to avoid the sterile environments that have come to define transit points, they opted for warm materials, movable immigration kiosks and circulation systems that facilitate interaction, pauses and encounters, “inverting the typical rigidity of border control arrangements and enabling the terminal to act beyond its usual functions”.
Yokohama International Ferry Terminal has grown to become a destination for the residents of Yokohama as much as it’s an important entry point for Japan. Its flexible open spaces are used for music events, markets, fashion shows, fairs, annual celebrations and ceremonies, elevating the terminal from merely functional to a waterfront precinct that is central to the city’s identity. It’s the kind of mixed-use, retail and culture-led space that has started to become common in urban train station design, but which is often forgotten when located on the peripheries of a city.
Grand Central Terminal, New York City
New York is synonymous with setting trends and Grand Central Terminal is no exception. Long before the movement of applying mixed-use urban design principles to transportation hubs, Grand Central led the way with integrated and connected services. In its century-long lifespan, it has housed destination dining (the infamous Oyster Bar); health and wellbeing facilities (the exclusive and secretive Vanderbilt Tennis Club); commercial tenants (CBS Studios 41 and 42); along with countless iterations of lifestyle and daily retail, connections to surrounding commerce and amenity and impressive transportation function. Grand Central Terminal is the blueprint for mixed-use transit infrastructure, housed within a cavernous Beaux-Arts exterior.
More than simply a manifestation of functions, this architectural behemoth is a true civic place and an unending representation of New York, evident in its many cinematic cameos. Grand Central is an articulation in space of how our lives have moved and which marks our 20th century in movement. These multi-scalar ways of thinking are at the heart of any great transportation hub. They’re places that connect us with other places, from another subway stop to another city, just as much as they can connect to the past or the future. In many ways the place is the sum of what we prioritise, a space that has so many uses and meanings that it can reflect back something about who we are.
Bangkok, Thailand; Yokohama, Japan; New York City, USA
Nick Jumara is an Editor and Researcher at Right Angle Studio. His background is in publishing, writing, performance and design, primarily in New York and Asia. He has worked in both academia and industry often intersecting research and production. Recently, a combination of independent magazine publishing along with venue and event management in Asia have led Nick to a practice of urban research and placemaking that is inclusive, connected and human.
Samuel Davison is Editor at Right Angle Studio. He has written extensively on cities for a range of international publications. He also publishes This is the Same Ocean, an annual journal of photography. His photographic work has been shown around the world and he was the 2016 winner of the Independent Photography Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.