The Sense of Place

As a man of the 13th century (it has been alleged), I might have an unusual “sense of plaice.” It is of something broad and flat: verily, a fish. Our modern sense of “place” (different spelling, same word) as a location was only beginning to emerge, in English back then. The word had come down a long etymological pipe, going back through the French and the Romans to the Greeks. In our older English, we would have said, “stead,” which is a place, indeed; a place where we may “stow” things. The older term survives but is quaint.

The “flat” in which I live is a stead, a place (the same ancient word, but delivered through the Germans). So might be a plate or a plaza. The idea of situation comes into this; hence a place can be a dwelling – a place where one may lie down, flat.

Consider, if you are still with me, gentle reader, the idea of something “taking place.” It seems such an innocent expression, yet will repay much thought. The transformation of one place into another is a thing of mystery. (Let’s not get started on what we mean by “thing.”)

These are all just words, and as a man who takes no part in modern analytical philosophy – preferring the old-time scholastic kind, or the playful etymologies of the ancients which our moderns so primly condemn – I will not lapse into jargon. For warm, living associations lurk behind the words, labels. Different languages may carry different associations, for the same thing.

We must look beneath our word “place,” and sound for its universal idea.

It is no secret to the archaeologists that a sense of place – allied to a sense of the numinous, the holy – goes back in all cultures to time out of mind. Our Catholic cathedrals, for instance, were not – even one – built in “just any place.” The old Islamic mosques, built on top of our churches, were put there in respect for place; just as our churches were so often built on older temple foundations.


This is a sense we lose, as we become “post-modernized,” or dehumanized: an innate understanding that some places are sacred, holy – as are some things, and some times. It is only a few generations since this sense was more or less common to all men.

Yes, it was an expression of power and appropriation – we can do this, and just did – but the power adhered to the site, not the building. For us, the place is only land. We might lament the loss of a priceless piece of architecture. (But hey, we have pictures, to show how it looked.) For us, the “where” is of no pilgrim importance; rather it is a question of real estate values, and construction costs. A shopping mall would be more profitable.

The importance of the architecture to the older frame of mind had everything to do with “place.” It gave witness, in its beauty, to the holiness of the site. It made “place” visible.

When we scour the earth, as we do today, down to bedrock to secure new skyscraper foundations, we pointedly erase our history. The “real estate” for us has become a trading commodity, like grain.

The intelligent retailer may stress “location, location, location” for his shop, but he means this only in relation to current traffic. Similarly, should he convert an old building to his new use, its previous use will have no meaning for him. He is just conserving “pretty,” to catch the passing eyes.

A façade may be retained. In the whole metropolitan area of Toronto, where I live – along with a few million non-traditional people – I sometimes wonder if the interior of even one old building has been preserved, out of love. If it has, it will have been “museum’d,” and one must pay to enter.

Not even old banking halls survive as they were, although in every case the redecoration was unnecessary, and the computer-box update could have been performed discreetly. Fashion rules us, and each new fashion must obliterate the previous, regardless of cost.

I sneer at “environmental sensitivities.” In my own building, for instance, more than one hundred working toilets were smashed up and landfilled to make way for models that use 20 percent less water, but must be flushed multiple times. They plug often, nonetheless, but can only be fixed by a professional plumber with a college degree – an ecological disaster, of insane waste, like almost every environmental scheme.

A restaurant of any standing with the moneyed classes must have its whole interior gutted and re-themed at regular intervals. The city at large is under constant “renewal,” to provide ever more ostentatious luxury with ever less substance.

Granted, this is good for the economy. It all adds to our GDP. The more absurd the makeover, the more repairs it will require, the sooner it will have to be replaced, the faster our economy is moving.

In the course of which, all “place” is denied, and the human soul must accommodate a life in which no anchorage is possible. Christians in it have “no place” that can be publicly recognized.

Yet under the gravel, the concrete, the asphalt, places once were. A little plaque may mark them. Now it is, say, a fast-food franchise – another professional plumbing operation.

“Progress” once implied improvement, enhancement, organic development. A building might be replaced by a better building, the art in its construction being of a higher sort, but always with reference to functions beyond the lordship of cash. It was part of a complex of relations that could not be erased, written over.

We live in a world of theory, now, of abstractly empty “space and time.” But the world for which human souls were fitted was one of place and moment. We were not placed nowhere.


*Image: The Tower of Babel by the Master of the Munich Golden Legend, c. 1420 [British Library, London]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: