In J.K. Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet a young boy, named Harry, who, on his 11th birthday, has just discovered that he is a wizard, a discovery that will transform his life forever. Harry meets Hagrid, a representative from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry will soon attend.
Hagrid introduces the young wizard to a whole new world of magic and spectacle and tells him of his parents and the history of the Wizarding World he is now a part of. His first stop is Diagon Alley where he will buy all of his supplies for school. After supply shopping, Harry meets up with the rest of the first year students at the train station. They are all ready to commence their long awaited journey: to Hogwarts.
The train ride to the school is one of intense anticipation, this is the beginning of an extraordinary adventure for Harry and many of the other students on the train and (most of them) have been waiting their short lives for this day. The climactic moment when the class finally arrives at Hogwarts is only best captured by Rowling herself:
Slipping and stumbling, they followed Hagrid down what seemed to be a steep, narrow path. It was so dark either side of them that Harry thought there must be thick trees there. Nobody spoke much. Neville, the boy who kept losing his toad, sniffed once or twice.
“Yeh’ll get yer firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,” Hagrid called over his shoulder, “jus’ round this bend here.”
There was a loud “Oooooh!”.
The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a great black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers.
This monumental piece of architecture inserts itself as a launching pad for an unforgettable adventure for Harry, his new friends, and the reader. But what makes a place like Hogwarts so significant? Why are the students so awestruck when they see it for the first time? Is it its unfathomable aesthetic? Or perhaps it's positioning on the high mountain? Yes, the physical appearance of Hogwarts contributes to its grandeur but there are other, more important factors that contribute to its authority. Characteristics that apply to all spaces, not just Hogwarts.
At face value it is often believed that our emotional response to a place lies in its physical appearance, attributing it to a response we might have for a beautiful painting or work of art. But more so than appearance, our visceral response lies more in a place’s identity, that is, it’s non-physical qualities.
Every place has a history and that history drastically shapes its identity. One of the most famous street addresses in the United States is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington, D.C., it has been the residence of every U.S. President since John Adams. The White House is a building rich in history, without it, it would only be another neoclassical piece of architecture. The historical significance gives it its identity.
If we take Hogwarts, it has a long history attached to it also. For the students just arriving it is almost mythical, close to the tune of a place like Mount Olympus. They know that they will now become a part of that history and this adds to the impact of their feeling towards it.
Every place has a history, some richer than others. Without understanding a place’s context in history it is hard to measure its significance. And in our interaction with it we in turn become a character in that historical narrative.
This is almost a subset of history. Most places are in some way, associated with something: a person, or an idea perhaps, and whatever that association is contributes to its identity and thus our emotional feeling towards it.
If we go back to the White House, throughout the years this building is associated with different Presidents and depending on one’s feeling toward that particular President our feeling toward the identity of the building is influenced.
Places are made significant by their associations. Like with the White House, our perception is based on the ideals of the President, what he or she represents. The place becomes associated with those ideals.
And so in capturing the identity of a piece of architecture or a place we must understand, to a degree, it’s associations.
At some point most of us have had to go to a Best Buy, Verizon Store, or any other electronics store and get some kind of technical support for a product we own, probably a phone or computer. For pretty much every store, you’d walk into the building and look for the big sign that says “Customer Service” and walk over to have your problem solved. The experience is usually quite simple, you wait in line, or check in at a counter for your appointment and then wait patiently to learn your fate.
But there is another kind of place with a very different kind of “tech-support”. This place you walk in, you don’t have to look very far, usually in the back of the store you’ll see the sign on the wall for where you need to go: “Genius Bar”. And of course this place is the Apple Store. The Genius Bar is really nothing more than Apple’s tech-support but, if you’ve ever experienced it, far surpasses the other models. Why is that?
Well, first off, Apple has a pretty good score in our first two characteristics of spatial identity: it has a rich history and it’s associated, for the most part, with the right things, making it into a company, for those who are fans of it, that radiates innovation and cutting edge. These qualities give the Apple Store it’s identity.
So the Genius Bar is standing on a solid foundation. What it does brilliantly is embrace the third characteristic of spatial identity: connotation. Essentially, it’s what the space represents. For Hogwarts it’s a connotation of education, rigor, and adventure. For most of us, the symbolism of our home is a place of rest and refuge. Almost every place has some kind of connotation and it contributes to its overall identity and “feel.”
Physical appearance is an obvious characteristic in identifying a place. If we cannot recognize something then we cannot identify it. Without physicality we could not ascribe any of the other building blocks of spatial identity to a place. It is the physical object that calls our attention to it, which in turn, gives us the ability (and the opportunity) to respond to it.
Each person has their own individual memory, laced with experiences and nostalgic recollections of the past. Almost every memory we have has some kind of environmental setting, a place. That place has characteristics that make it unique. Later in life when we find ourselves in a similar environment (or perhaps that exact same place) the emotions we experienced in that initial circumstance begin to swell up, giving us a particular response to the space we now find ourselves in.
This memory is probably the most personal aspect of spatial experience and is, consequentially, the reason why beauty can ultimately truly lie in the eye of the beholder. It reminds of a something Rem Koolhaas said:
People can inhabit anything and they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that’s both liberating and alarming.
That ultimately, despite what the architect might hope for, people will feel how they are going to feel regardless of the space they are in.
And so as we contemplate the power of identity in architecture we can embrace the deeper non-physical characteristics of it, seeing its history and associations as intertwined with its physicality and symbolism expressive in the memory of each of our unique and individual minds.