The Identity of a Place: Place-Based Interventions Between Land and Society

A few weeks ago, I answered a call launched by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), in association with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for one of their programs – the Multidisciplinary Research Project. That project aims to promote ‘new modes for collective research’.[1] This year, the sixth edition of the Research Project had the following theme: In the Hurricane, On the Land; the relationship between land and architecture had to be explored on the background reality of the current climate crisis.

A couple of basic questions on that theme were asked to the participants, in addition to the request for the outline of a project proposal related to that theme.  What follows is my contribution to that call.

Q: How Do You Define the State of Being ‘In the Hurricane’? 

Answer: From the perspective of lived experience, it never happened to me to be in a hurricane, actually. Then, I can barely imagine the state of anxiety, urgency, panic, fear, or desolation that one may experience before and after the passage of a hurricane

From the geographical perspective, as a European person, even if ‘hurricane’ is not the name by which we usually call certain violent atmospheric phenomena, in recent times violent storms hit our cities with unprecedented force, bringing flooding, causing destruction, death, damages to things, thousands of trees blown down, even in my city of birth, Milano – Italy – which never recorded in history such powerful atmospheric phenomena, and with such frequency.

For these reasons, now, I think we all have some more clues to understand what it means to be in the hurricane because it is now clear that certain climatic or physical processes that used to hit with particular violence certain lands are now causing terrible destruction even in lands or territories where in the past no such violent phenomena were recorded. This is to say that the threshold of criticality and danger related to natural phenomena is going to be surpassed almost everywhere so that the difference between ‘here’ and ‘there’ is fading away.

Fundamentally, the metaphor of the hurricane reminds us that we are all on the same vessel – Planet Earth – and since we were kids, watching films, cartoons or reading fiction, we have been learning that vessels are destroyed by hurricanes: S.O.S. – Save Our Souls.

Image 01: During the night between 25 and 26 of July 2023, the city of Milano, IT, was hit by a violent storm that caused nearly a half thousand of trees to fall in many parts of the city, causing severe damage to things and infrastructures. Since we have records, never in history Milano was hit by such a violent atmospheric phenomenon.

Q: What Is a Land-Based Intervention for You?

Answer: In a certain sense, a part of the answer is already contained in one of the passages I’ve touched on before when I’ve said the differences between ‘here’ and ‘there’ fade away when we directly focus on the processes behind the appearance of phenomena. Yet, the image of the hurricane is useful to understand that what is happening here’ , now, on the American coastal territories or lands is related to, or entangled with what happened over there, before – that is, in the past – in the warm waters of the Ocean, thousands of miles away. So, the hurricane helps us to expose the spatial and temporal continuity of processes, showing that the past, in a certain place, has a certain role in the constitution of the present and future in another place, even if those places are far away. Entanglement is the term with which physicists describe certain phenomena, even at infinitesimal scales. The example of the hurricane makes it clear that we cannot divide physicochemical processes (which generate and fuel hurricanes) from biological processes or even from human sociocultural and symbolic processes given that, on the one hand, physicochemical processes impact the forms and existence of biological and sociocultural human processes on shorelines and nearby lands, but, on the other hand, at the same time, scientific findings in the last decades showed that these violent natural atmospheric or physical phenomena are exacerbated by anthropic factors. Again, entanglement between different orders of processes – natural and human. So, we need to expose this entanglement between processes behind phenomena, because it is properly this entanglement that results in the solidarity or continuity that any land has with its history and with other lands or territories that contributed to creating and modifying that history.

Image 02: Even if places have a specific identity, they cannot be studied in separation from their contexts (which are constituted by other places) because the processual dynamics behind places act with continuity on spatial and temporal dimensions as well.

Image 03: Any place apart from being dynamically and processually entangled with other places on a spatial dimension is entangled with its past on a temporal dimension: it is properly this continuity of processes on a spatial and temporal dimension that characterizes any land, territory, or place as unique. Every time we intervene on lands and territories their temporal dimension, or continuity, has to be carefully examined through records, data, histories, etc.

Planet Earth is a complex, dynamic system resulting from the entanglement of four classes of processes, basically: ‘physicochemical’, ‘biological’, ‘social’, and ‘symbolic’, which act with continuity along temporal and spatial dimensions ( see On the Structure of Reality). Any land-based approach has to be framed within a systemic and processual horizon: no human intervention can be accurate or even called ‘land-based intervention’ if those four classes of processes that constitute the overall land system are not given enough attention, both individually and collectively (that is, in their reciprocal combination – see Images 04 and 05, below), that is as parts of the land as a single system – a unique place.

Alongside the example of the hurricane, this spatial and temporal continuity of processes acting on lands can also be evoked by the image of a fractal: independently of the scale of intervention the four basic classes of processes are always present, so we continually need to have our focus on such processes, anytime we intervene to modify lands or territories.

Image 04: Any land or territory (i.e., any place) is a unique system of processes which is related to, or entangled with other processes in adjacent places so that nature presents itself as a nested chain of places evolving on a continuous spatiotemporal scale or dimension:  places within places, within places, within places… That’s why, in the end, we all live the same place: Planet Earth.

Project Outline: An Identity Card for Places – IDp

My professional activity in the last decade has been characterized by three main connected occurrences, which may serve as a guideline to understand my proposal for the sixth edition of the CCA-Multidisciplinary Research Program.

Those occurrences are: 1) the participation at an international architectural competition for the city of Zagreb – Croatia – concerning the requalification of an urban area of about 20,000 square meters, in a central district. That project was the result of a few years of studies I specifically dedicated to the investigation of the relationship between architecture and environmental questions, which I may synthesize in a 360-degree consideration of land-specific dynamics.  That project contributed to expanding my vision of reality far beyond the boundaries of architecture and allowed me to hypothesize a new or unconventional mode of thinking about the concept of place (and, consequently, space – the two concepts are deeply related).

2) The second occurrence, a consequence of the first, is the participation at an interdisciplinary conference, held in Oxford, in 2014, where I theoretically investigated the philosophical and scientific underpinnings of that landscape architecture project. From that moment on, my profession has been characterized by the transdisciplinary attempt to clarify from a theoretical perspective many important questions that I only briefly touched on in those two works – the project and the conference paper. Therefore, I started to collect systematically readings, thoughts and writings concerning my interest in spatial concepts and their connection with the way we understand and categorize the phenomena of nature, from different disciplinary sources.

3) Eventually, that approach took me to the third occurrence: the creation of this website – [2] where I investigate the connection between spatial concepts, nature, and its processes, on the base of an organic and/or systems view of nature.

This prelude was necessary because my proposal for the CCA-Multidisciplinary Research Program is theoretically substantiated, related to, and exemplified by material already available on the internet concerning those abovementioned three occurrences.

The proposal is at the same time simple and ambitious: just like any person, any place (consequently, any land) has its specific identity and character. As people have their identity cards (ID) that allow them to meet certain social requirements and functions, I propose to draw up an ‘Identity Card for places – (IDp)’ that those who work with the design and/or management of lands and territories must know in detail, and eventually comply with to produce their plans or projects for intervening in a certain place. To put it differently, I am proposing to draw up a report or document containing (that is, collecting existing or creating new) sets of data, records, histories etc. concerning the identity of a place, preferably at the scale of territorial municipalities, from small towns to cities. Anytime we make a plan or project for a territory, either natural or characterized by the human presence, the IDp document would serve as a mode of orientation or an easy-to-handle guide for designers, stakeholders, politicians, or other practitioners to anchor their intervention to that place, land or territory.

It is to establish as accurately as possible the processes that exist in a certain place and that characterize the appearance of that place. Very briefly, given that the processes acting on territories and lands can be synthesized into 1) physicochemical, 2) biological (hence, ecological), 3) sociocultural, and 4) symbolic processes, it is to create a collaborative table grouping different practitioners, at least one for each group of processes (earth scientists, biologists, social scientists, historians, architects, artists, etc.) with the scope to collect existing data, create new ones and draw up a unitary, organic report that will describe the identity of that place from those different perpectives. Specifically, the report will contain geological records, meteorological data, hydrological data and the like (that is data and records about the physicochemical processes of a certain place). The document will also contain data and records on the animal life and botanic species of that place (that is, about biological and ecological systems), and, of course, it will also contain data, records, and histories about human cultures (sociocultural and symbolic systems).

Image 05: A similar methodological approach for tracing the Identity of a place, synthesized on a few drawing boards, has been used by the author for the architectural project ‘Badel Block Redevelopment’, concerning the requalification of an urban area in a central district of Zagreb, HR, (in collaboration with Croatian ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic).

Possibly, some or many of those data and records on places and territories already exist, in different forms and produced by many different institutions and organizations, either public or private, yet, the proposal aims to collect those data, select and regroup them in a single document, and give them a new organic form for the scope, that is for the creation of the specific report regarding the identity of the place (IDp), according to the systemic, organic and processual understanding of nature that underpins the proposed methodological approach. Alternatively, if those sets of data and records are missing or if their number is not sufficient for a certain place, it is to create new datas and records, following the proposal of a collaborative table between different practitioners, and according to the idea that the overall identity of a place is given by the entanglement of those four macro orders of processes.

Image 06: We can understand the realm of Nature as a unique place, that is, as a system of processes. Any place, independently of its scale, is determined by the entanglement of those four classes of processes. This basic division must be taken as a mode of orientation to start reasoning on the specific identity of a place.

On a higher level of responsibility and decision, it is to cooperate with public institutions and private organizations (urban, regional, statal, etc.) to promote or adopt such a document to comply with, in case of intervention on their territories. Even more simply, the idea behind the proposal is that such a document (the IDp – the Identity Card of a place) can be the guideline adopted by any public or private institution that cares for the health and the identity of lands and territories. The scope is to sensibilize entire communities (from simple inhabitants that live in a certain place to practitioners who work with and modify places with their activities) on the importance of acknowledging the entanglement of natural and human-driven processes that give form and identity to any place, land or territory.

This proposal can be directly implemented during any Research Program or Project which aims to unveil the identity and character of a place by choosing a specific site to work on, following the proposed collaborative methodology to individuate and describe the processes that keep places alive, naturally rich and vibrant, both from natural and human perspectives.


[1] On the CCA-Multidisciplinary Research Program, see their institutional webpages at

[2] That name – Rethinking Space and Place – was the name that the organizing committee of the 2014 conference in Oxford gave to the section that included my paper.

Image Credits

Featured Image, by Raychel Sanner on

All other images by Alessandro Calvi Rollino, CC BY-NC-SA.

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