photo with blue overlay public park

CONTEXT: The View from 35,000ft

This essay was originally published in 33.3 This Point in Time, the fourth Opacity series publication chronicling HDR’s design excellence initiative and our annual design review where outside critics assess work from our global offices. 33.3 includes the voices of six prominent design journalists and critics who reflected on fundamental design principles: context, form, materials, program, space, and sustainability. Like the Opacity initiative itself, the essays are intended to foster dialogue and discourse, sometimes challenging the very essence of conventional precepts in order to advance critical thinking. The following essay interrogates the notion of context and its relevance in the modern age.

A few years ago, artist Robert Irwin described his process of understanding a site. We were sitting on folding chairs in his nondescript studio just outside of La Jolla. The walls were painted white, the floor gray. As sites go this one felt generic — one of several warehouses with roll-up doors close to a freeway exit.

“You make a circle, a wider one, and a wider one,” he said, his hands tracing a spiral.

He described how he runs his sensibility over a place, like a gumshoe looking for evidence. I could imagine his tall frame pacing a site, absorbing details: people, existing materials, or qualities of light. “I have no idea what I’m going to do, so I’m looking for something to hang my hat on,” he admitted.

He’s looking for context. His method is intimate, attentive, a close read.

Yet in an age of algorithmic wayfinding and Google Earth satellite images, context, a term so closely aligned with postmodernism and the search for meaning in architectural forms, has itself become somewhat abstracted. Place is interpreted via palm-sized devices mainlining data. The term means everything and nothing to those who wield the jargon: Context dictates historicist molding. Context demands subgrade parking. Context yields to computational expression.

Clues might be found in the work of anthropologist Marc Augé, who distinguishes place from non-place via questions of identity, mobility, and commerce. He attributes the rise of non-places to supermodernity, aka our contemporary neoliberal condition, and sketches a definition. “A world where people are born in the clinic and die in the hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shantytowns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce,” he writes in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, listing spaces that are architectural, but by their very programmatic nature are disengaged from local or regional context.

Augé begins his formative book with a prologue of contextless spaces. His protagonist travels from ATM to highway to parking garage to airport performing the series of spatial transitions so familiar to the global traveler. The description is nearly frictionless, passing from urban to exurb conditions, from passport control to a window seat with a view of the “Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal” below. With little effort one can imagine this non-space, summoning the details that would lead Rem Koolhaas to write in his famous essay, “Junkspace”: “Superstrings of graphics, transplanted emblems of franchise and sparkling infrastructures of light, LEDs, and video describe an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar.”

That uncanny familiarity has been with us for close to three decades: Non-Places was published in 1992 and “Junkspace” in 2000. In subsequent years, their observations and critique have been used to justify a polarity of architectural answers, from a widespread doubling down on a global, luxury modernism seen as much in Dubai and Singapore as at Manhattan’s Hudson Yards to the opposite, embodied in New Urbanism’s valuing of neo-traditionalism or the hunt for “authentic experiences” that comes with our Instagram-driven culture. At both poles, design is responsive to a narrow set of parameters, often market-driven, and still tilted toward the frictionless figure of the global flâneur, seemingly free from class, nation, race, or gender.

But what happens along the spectrum, when we interrogate the specifics of place and user? Rather than comparing place with non-place and coming up empty handed, can we interrogate it as a context in itself?

Events recently and over the past thirty years suggest this in-between is actively being reinvented in positive and negative ways worthy of attention. Homes are smart and networked. Refugee camps have become permanent micro-cities. Schools, once bastions of education, are fortified in the wake of gun violence. In Hong Kong, for example, non-places like malls are more than non-spaces of capital production, but contested sites rich with action, as Hong Kong citizens take to the mall for mass protests against Chinese extradition. Their stand against the coming Chinese sovereignty redefines traditional retail environments as context. A similar inversion is happening with fast food restaurants, where the spaces we’ve written off as place are now more relevant than ever. In cities where housing is at a premium, like Hong Kong or Los Angeles, McDonald’s outlets have become hubs for transient occupation24-hour facilities to charge phones and catch some sleep.

These changes in how spaces are used prove that context can no longer be thought of as an aesthetic or architectural style. Debates about “fitting in” or Mission Revival design covenants mean little in the face of recognizing that context is a bundle of socio-cultural factors, political and economic policies large and small that shape cities and suburbs.

“And you realize, when people come to a site, they don’t come from nowhere, they come from somewhere,” said Irwin, on that afternoon in his La Jolla studio. Those people, that somewhere is context.