It can enrich a project to understand the cultural, social and material qualities of a site early on. Mapping place-based relationships, finding out who’s there, what’s valuable and what’s missing can inform more meaningful people centred places.

A research group at the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam developed and expanded on the idea of the ‘tabula scripta’ as a counter critique to ‘tabula rasa’ where otherwise new development makes a clean slate of the site, supposedly sweeping away history to replace it with a more progressive iteration. They researched how the idea of a tabula scripta could inform design approaches publishing the research as a book Rewriting Architecture (2020). This explores how a site is already an inscribed or written place. Whether this is through its material or ecological character, the physical traces of people walking/using the site, or the memories people have of the place.

‘Most of our land is developed, designated, or in use. Resources have become scarce. As a result, the architect is forced to relate more to the existing conditions and to design on the basis of these conditions. The ideal of the ‘tabula rasa’, or creating from scratch, is no longer a viable option. We now have to embrace the context.’

They identify eleven appraches to interacting with a site; Eliminate, Continue, Obscure, Reconfigure, Repurpose, Densify, Copy, Overlay, Reimagine, (Re)Start or Abstain.

The landscape architect, environmental planner Peter Neal would highlight the need to understand the four ‘ologies’- typology, ecology, hydrology and archaeology and how they present at a site. To build the story behind a proposal it’s important to evidence an accurate understanding of the site and its inscriptions. The design team can assemble and take a view on information about the potential for nature recovery at the site and its role in the landscape character of the district. Looking at typology – landscape character and nature recovery in conjunction with geology and hydrology can help to inform and understanding of the site spatially and materially.

Historic maps are available online at the National Library of Scotland. Looking at the sites’ history the placement of routes, former field boundaries or buildings can give a sense of how the site fits. Identifying earlier groups of buildings around the site alongside listed buildings can help to understand the site’s material heritage and how a related contemporary character could evolve. Often nearby listed buildings are treated in the abstract and the main response is to keep a distance, but new development can make a sensitive relationship to listed buildings.

If there are listed buildings or important archelogy at or near the site – relating to this in the way new experiences are arranged can help to shape a convincing story. Looking at listed buildings carefully and photographing them well will make a point of visual reference for the design team. Design teams have also worked intelligently with communities to identify what’s valuable and what buildings stand out locally for them. This is highlighted as an opportunity in the Design Code Guidance Notes (2021). In Cambridgeshire the council prepared Village Design Guides as SPDs working with communities to evaluate places.

When talking about the Port Talbot Passion Play that he co-directed with Bill Michell, Michael Sheen said what they wanted to reveal was that; ‘what’s under the town was the memory of the town’ – this memory whether material or social is constantly being added to. Before beginning active consultation, design teams can map local stakeholders to begin to think about how to work creatively with the people living, working and playing there and how to bring their knowledge and experience to bear. The occupation of places changes dramatically on different days and at different times – sometimes it might seem as if nothing is happening. Looking at a Strava heat map or the wearing of footpaths over a grassy site can give an initial idea of areas of activity and important connecting routes.

Image – Strava heatmap, walking Shepton Mallet

Alkemade, F. et al (2020) ‘Rewriting Architecture. 10+1 Actions for an Adaptive Architecture, Tabula Scripta’, Valiz, Amsterdam

The Passion of Port Talbot, The Reunion, R4 – 21/04/2-024