The environment we experience around us, is increasingly evolving around the swift and the undeclared.

“A fuzzy empire of blur, it fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed. Seemingly an apotheosis, spatially grandiose, the effect of its richness is a terminal hollowness, a vicious parody of ambition that systematically erodes the credibility of building, possibly forever…”  – Rem Koolhaas

This is an undesirable development, as it instigates the loss of specific cultural connection, regional attachment and spatial identity. Globalization assumes the morphing of individual cultural aspects into a global collective context frame. But, global unity is far from being a possible reality. Boundaries might merge as economies connect, people however still need specific identity to enable regional attachment and to function within a social system. With this paper I want to argue that we should go to a future in which the necessity of the fast and the fluent, is being replaced by an environment that brings place, identity and social constituents in a profound experience to define locality. Specific; true; and lasting. It describes an alternative approach, revolting against the practice of generic, anonymous, junk space that has become the standard amongst architectural objects and city scapes across the globe. I will characterize this approach by definitions of Time and Place in relation to the Third Ecology.


Introduction: Why the world is not flat

There is a tendency amongst prominent theorists, architects, sociologists and historians alike, to think that because of increasing globalization the world is becoming more and more alike. Indeed you could argue that globalization leads to a global standard in which regional characteristics are either ignored at all or blend in the overall ambitions. This contemporary global culture defines its standard based upon Western societies and increasingly denies the relationship between empirical reality and its original context. It thus stimulates undefined places and detached societies to emerge. These universal conditions define a dogma of non-specificity in time and place as they become increasingly non-contextual. Pictures of city-scapes in Hong Kong, Dallas, Chongqing, Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, and so forth all look a like; generic shopping centers have become the new temples of human progress; skyscrapers the voluntary prisons of office slaves. As Thomas Friedman writes:

“The World is Flat. (…) a global market where historical and geographical divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant.” – Friedman

But, as I mentioned in the introduction, this is far from being global reality. Traditional divisions might be fading, but new boundaries are pulled up. The battle for economic progress continues and the assets of people, in terms of available workforce and a direct consumer market, become more important and safe-guarded within certain regions. A skilled, productive and creative labour group is an essential component for innovation and development for economic regions. So as a result of ʻflattening globalizationʼ (Friedman), there is growing competition to achieve distinguished characteristics that turn generic environments into unique places of specific attachment. In this Spiky World (Florida) of differences every city, region and village tries to find ways to create regional context as an attractive, tangible identity; to attract people to its region and to keep them there.

“Globalization is not flattening the world; on the contrary, the world is spiky. Place is becoming more relevant to the global economy and our individual lives. The choice of where to live, therefore, is not an arbitrary one. It is arguably the most important decision we make, as important as choosing a spouse or a career. In fact, place exerts powerful influence over the jobs and careers we have access to, the people we meet, our “mating markets” and our ability to lead happy and fulfilled lives. (…) Making the place where you [decide to] live the most important decision of your life.” (Florida)

Trying to invent identity, create context, evoke imagination and enable attachment. Although ideas, identities and trends globalize, the aspects that relate most to our direct inhabitable environment remain contextual. So place becomes again important, or:

“Place is not only important, it is more important than ever.” – Florida

So where do we choose to live? We move to the city. Or better; to the urban environments.

As a result of better living conditions, the availability of economic potential and the richness in facilities we see people flocking to the urban areas. The density of opportunities is attractive. But as we are more free to settle, we are also more free to leave again. (New) cities have become similar in experience, but still depend on specific regional attachment of people within their vicinity. A stable density is key in successful development of new urban areas and the question is no longer ‘how can we attract?’, but ‘how can we sustain?’ the people within our boundaries. In the past ten years basically every city has developed two or three focal points that should lead to an improved, independent and ‘unique’ identity. A whole new profession has risen, ‘City Branding’ in which teams of architects, graphic designers, strategy consultants and media communicators try to provide solutions for creating the ‘Instant Perfect City’. Something out of nothing. ‘Better City, Better Life’. And here we have a problem. We see crazy efforts in trying to be different, to outsmart the global.

Learning from Las Vegas

In order to develop unique identities the brand image becomes prescriptive for spatial strategies. Thematization of architectural ensembles tries to generate an environment in which people can hide inside a narrated entourage. The Shed shields this identity from unwanted influences and fake authenticity becomes the norm. Indeed we are Learning from Las Vegas (Venturi, Scott-Brown). Designers are asked to create environments that are disconnected from any direct contextual influence. The Las Vegas dream is to provide a substitute reality that conforms to animated experiences. And this is where the architect should be revolting. Non contextual shallowness that enforces a total disconnected context. Spatial experience and regional characteristics transformed into easily digestible atmospheres. How can we agree with such obscene notions of fake ornamentations?

The facilitation of place making and the ability to imply rooted contextual characteristics into a local identity are key components in the architectural profession. How can we start with these qualities to enable true regional identity?

Architecture and the third ecology

To understand how architecture can deal with these definitions of the human habitat, it is important to understand three levels of possible operation. Historically there have been two realms of scale in which humans would operate to define places. First of all the human ecology. This realm concerns the essential conditions for humans to form settlements, ie. the individual house and its directly related necessities. Framed by Heidegger in his essay ʻBauen, Wohnen, Denkenʼ and coined the First Ecology after Aristotleʼs book about the logics of the house ʻEkos Logisʼ. (Tzonis)

The second scale would be the natural environment surrounding these settlements, also named the Second Ecology. This is the realm where humans are subordinate to natural effects, in terms of producing food, harvesting building materials, using water supplies, threats of natural disasters and the consuming of oxygen from the atmosphere. Or, in a broader sense, all natural elements that supports human life. It is very well defined and analyzed by ecologists in particular.

But since the development of larger networks of settlements a third realm of operation has formed. This realm goes beyond the conservative role of the master builder or the architect as translator for direct human needs. It comes to define a scale that mediates between natural environmental systems and the conglomeration of human settlements. This scale thus connects local specificities to an overall defining context. It has been referred to as ʻthe Third Ecologyʼ.(Tzonis)

In the title of this paper I embedded the notion of ʻlocalityʼ to describe the focus of characteristics that are related to this third ecology; the realm that connects the individual with the global. It is here that the contemporary architect is asked to intervene, and here that I define the characteristics that contribute to a genuine embedded locality. The architect thus has a good position to consult developments and strategy directions. How can we go towards an environment that brings place, identity and social constituents in a profound experience? And what is the role of the architect in this process?



Addressing issues of rooted locality and the notion of how to define identity of architecture and environment within a global context, I should now introduce the concept of regionalism. Since the conceiving of this term in the 1980ʼs (Wikipedia) there has been quite an evolution in the use of the original concept, splitting of in sub-definitions such as nostalgic-, nationalist-, political- and reflexive regionalism. I have consciously chosen not to use this term as a leading concept for my paper, but instead to see it as a frame of reference to my characteristics of the habitat. By choosing to do so I am more free in the interpretation of my conceptual intentions as I feel that recently the regionalism-terminologies have limited and biased the original freedom of the concept. And for me regionalism describes more of an approach, method or style rather than a true experience. Here I want to address the initial ʻregionalismʼ framework, currently transcribed as ʻcritical regionalismʼ:

“the need to define a role for buildings and cities in a planet that seems to be united only by the media and ʻglobalizationʼ, and divided by confrontation and competition. In this role, designers whether solving problems or exploring possibilities, should think critically – in the Kantian sense. They should overcome biases favoring imported or local choices through questioning and reflection, considering the specifics of the actual situation, the region. While welcoming what the open world can offer give a hand to interaction and exchange, they should value the uniqueness of the ʻregionʼ, the quality of social ties, the physical and cultural resources.” (Wikipedia)

This definition actually implies that an architectural prescription of steps to engage a design process can never be defined. In the same time it also acknowledges the possibilities derived from global exchange, always referring back to the regional qualities at hand.



One issue that remains specifically uncertain when talking about regionalism are the conditions that define the characteristics or the region. What defines the ʻuniquenessʼ of region? What is local(ity)? What is the realm we relate to when we develop a specified intervention?

Architects have the ability to create space. But I would like to define how the creation of space leads to defined contextual identity through the notion of time and place. How space can be conceived to enable uniqueness of ʻregionʼ.

A – Time

First of all; time. Time can never be generic. Time is considered the fourth dimension that defines spatial parameters. The experience of an environment is always related to time as the moment of perception and the duration of the experience. Neither of the two can be non-contextual, or without any sense of place. To an architect this is obvious as both the impression his creation has to people witnessing it, or the aging of these objects and environments through time, are evident. Within Western history both the notion of temporality and the importance of the moment have been thoroughly addressed, for example by the Roman writer ʻHoraceʼ. Talking about:

“Carpe diem, quam minime credula postero.” – Horace

“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future as the enjoying of the time at hand and.” – Horace

In related texts there are also some words about the lasting effect of your creations on generations to come (that the true virtue of a man is to consider his creations as outlasting the next solar solstice). The Book of Changes (Yi Ching) from the period of Ancient Chinese philosophy also addresses time and experience, but goes one step further. It is based upon the idea that chance shapes the occurrence of events, without the presence of an underlying causal condition. This accumulation of chances drifting in the abstract, is then only relevant to our experience when seized in a specific moment, in a specific place. These are the only conditions upon which these chances can be read as events befalling our empirical reality and thus capture its characteristics, as an identity of space and time.

“Thus it happens that when one throws the three coins, or counts through the forty-nine yarrow stalks, these chance details enter into the picture of the moment of observation and form a part of it – a part that is insignificant to us, yet most meaningful to the Chinese mind. With us it would be a banal and almost meaningless statement (at least on the face of it) to say that whatever happens in a given moment possesses inevitably the quality peculiar to that moment.” – Wilhelm, Jung

In this sense it is remarkable to see our environment is more developing towards a timed sequence of events without relation to a contextual, temporal notion of space. Architectural design becomes Urban Planning; the arrangement of scripted spaces and narrated experiences. Contemporary city planning is developing as static design of encapsulated identities (Heidegger), defining the Third Ecology as a fixed body without personal attachment. So I propose we re-address the optimistic ideology, that recognizes change as a dynamic solution for future developments. An architecture of hope, as pioneering instigator.

“Only that which is alive and changing, stays fresh and contemporary.” – Zen Buddhism expression

We can think of showing the life of a building in a way that would make a buildingʼs ordinary static appearance and fixed impression into a changing world always eager to be explored; changing from day to day and stimulating curiosity in people passing by. Or we can think of creating environments that allows for spontaneous activities. The Third Ecology thus becomes a true connecting system of unscripted spaces. It thus relates specific place to time and chance, temporality allows situations to come and go, shaping local identity.

“ (…) the hexagram was the exponent of the moment in which it was cast – even more so than the hours of the clock or the divisions of the calendar could be – inasmuch as the hexagram was understood to be an indicator of the essential situation prevailing in the moment of its origin.” – Wilhelm, Jung

B – Place

Time is a contextual derivative. There can be no notion of time if it where not for a space in which it is perceived. The same goes for the notion of place. It is entirely depending upon a conception of space in which places can be formed. It is, likewise, per definition contextual; regional and unique. As architects we cannot create places, neither we can design time, but through our actions as designers we can facilitate creation of place.

“Architects define space, people create places.” – Tschumi

This is an interesting notion of regional dependance. The spatial context forms the backdrop for personal appropriation creating unique places of social attachment.

“Plek impliceert een bijzondere toegevoegde waarde aan de ruimte. Wat ruimte tot plek maakt is de invulling die eraan wordt gegeven. Plek is warmte, het vuur. Ruimte is verlangen, een verwachting van mogelijkheden, naar buiten, op weg, dynamisch en open. Een plek is waar je thuiskomt, waar je associaties aan hecht.” – Hertzberger

“Place implies significant added value to space. Space becomes place by the interpretation given to it. Place is warmth, the fire. Space is desire, an expectation of opportunities, outward facing, on the road, dynamic and open. A place where you come home, to which you attach.” – Hertzberger

The second character of spatial conception within the Third Ecology thus becomes the importance of the allocation of peopleʼs appropriation. People attach to certain spaces because they have the ability to be activated by personal attachment. Through this attachment people develop regional appropriation and local identity. Both the notion of temporality and the creation of place have to do with the notion of the designer as not providing closed-end environments. Within place-making people become actively engaged in the richness of the overall environment. As (architectural) designers we can facilitate this engagement through our understanding of social cultural processes that occur within spatial systems. Cultural exchange, public interaction, outdoor gatherings, playgrounds, parks, nature, appropriation and community are key elements to consider in place facilitation.



“We all complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are completely similar. We say we want to create beauty, identity, quality, singularity. And yet, maybe in truth these cities that we have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides the best context for living.” – Koolhaas

In my addressing discontent with the current state of affairs in global architecture, I choose a difficult position. Who am I to say my position is relevant, as the world around us seems to be doing fine and people seem to either not care too much, or to respond that ʻwe are not in control anywayʼ.

Well, first of all, I believe architecture (still) plays a very important role within the environments we create around us. The architect is the one person able to facilitate our individual developments, through space and community considerations.

Secondly, the quality of our daily habitat is become more defined by the layer we occupy when we are out of our homes, into the third ecology. Within this paper I tried to outline the importance of this urban ʻin-betweenʼ layer that should form a connective tissue of spatial opportunities.

Thirdly, place is more important then ever. Definition of space, participative places and open-ended spatial design can lead to healthy new surroundings in which quality of region is embedded within the environment characteristics, creating unique sense of place.

Thus local definition creates spatial identity enabling regional attachment; towards true and attractive local definition within the spiky world.


Einstein, R, Relativity, first published 1913

Florida, R, Who is your city?, 2009

Friedman, TL, The World is Flat – A brief history of the 21st century, 2007

Healy, P, Beauty and the Sublime, 2004

Hertzberger, H + Van Rooy, M, Cultuur Onder Dak, 2004

Horace, Odes 1.11

Koolhaas, R, Content, 2004

Venturi, R and Scott-Brown, D, Learning from Las Vegas, 1977

Wilhem, B + Jung, CG, theYi Ching or Book of Changes, 1967

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