How Do Places Mean? It's All in Your Head.

These columns -- in Departures and elsewhere at KCET.org -- participate (I hope) in a conversation about how places mean, grounded in something that the environmental writer Barry Lopez located in his own sense of place. Lopez said:

The reciprocity of personality and place that Lopez seeks as a defense against estrangement is framed in sensory terms by Juhani Pallasmaa, who argues in "The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses" that

The indwelling of place that Pallasmaa describes earned a Nobel Prize in medicine for John O'Keefe, Edvard Moser, and May-Britt Moser in 2014. They were recognized for their discovery of brain structures they named "place" and "grid" cells. These cells, they found, cooperate to make a coordinate system -- a "brain space" -- that renders unfamiliar places memorable and familiar places richly associated with collateral sensory effects.

They also found that places in memory are hardly ever static tableaux. The "place" and "grid" cells are supplemented by other neurons that take time into account, giving the experience of a place a sequential dimension. Wayfinding is what the brain does with the perception of time's flow across its grid of places.

Story continues below

The neurological arrow seems to move like the blue dot of Google Maps, but it moves affectively over the brain's interior geography. The arrow links assemblages of memories to build an "affective space" in which location, impression, and recollection are never individually dominate for long. Every encounter with a familiar place -- even if only in remembrance -- repositions both "dweller" and "city" in relationship to each other. From a neurological perspective, it seems, the map is the maker and the maker is the map.

I'm of a turn of mind that takes neurology (the Nobel winners) and phenomenology (Pallasmaa) in a tangential direction. What begins in mapping "brain space" and evolves into "affective space" is (for me) the imaginative apprehension of the immanent in the everyday.

Bear with me for a moment. The vernacular geography that gets you from your front door to your favorite bar can seem remote from Charles Baudelaire's poetic idea of the reverberant reciprocity between sensations and attenuating memory -- his ... longs échos qui de loin se confondent / Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité (... prolonged echoes that mingle distantly into a far and shadowed unison).

But the geography that's "all in your head" is felt as a presence, too.

Van Gogh leaves Paris for Arles in Provence "to paint the South" so that, he wrote his brother, the South might actually be seen. As Dwight Furrow notes at 3quarks Daily, what did Van Gogh see in Arles?

And Furrow adds, "The still-lifes of Cezanne, the ready-mades of Duchamp, the bricolage of postmodernism, all exemplify one prevalent theme of the art of the past 150 years -- the commonplace is extraordinary."

Places mean -- even the most ordinary places -- because they are remaked, however briefly, in a landscape where place and person seem to merge.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading