Place and non-place

Dovecote at Chastleton House, Oxfordshire. ©Emile de Bruijn

I have just returned from a fascinating conference at the University of Northampton about ‘consuming the country house’, which I mentioned earlier. ‘Consumption’ turned out to be a really useful theme to frame discussions about the social, economic, political and artistic aspects of country houses.

Detail in the garden at Great Chalfield Manor, Wiltshire. ©Emile de Bruijn

One of the speakers, Ruth Gill, who works for Historic Royal Palaces, mentioned a book by anthropologist Marc Augé entitled Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995). Augé analyses transient places like airports, stations and supermarkets in which myriad human transactions are processed but which do not encourage feelings of connection or belonging.

Door of the gazebo at Great Chalfield. ©Emile de Bruijn

Ruth warned against the dangers of historic houses becoming too much like non-places. Sometimes the measures taken to preserve the historic fabric of a place can have the unintended consequence of making the visitor feel that he or she does not belong there.

Vista at Hidcote Manor, Gloucestershire. ©Emile de Bruijn

We probably all know the feeling of being in a place that is objectively beautiful but feels somehow alien. Equally we can all remember those moments when a small detail in a painting, the smell of a tapestry or of polished wood, the proportion of a piece of furniture or a doorframe, an intellectual insight or a surprise vista in a landscape suddenly connected us to a place.

Detail in the garden at Hidcote. ©Emile de Bruijn

I agree with Ruth that enabling those moments of connection – between ourselves and the world, between the past and the present – is essentially what heritage is all about.

12 Responses to “Place and non-place”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    You raise some important and interesting thoughts here. These feelings of connection work from two vantage points–visitors can recognize this concept and seek out sites with the greatest ‘connections’. Organizations like the National Trust, on the other hand, must provide these connections, and while protecting the properties, must see that these human connections are not eliminated.

    Velvet ropes are one of the greatest killers in my own experience that prevent me from feeling a sense of belonging to the place. Another is over-restoration, when I feel that even though I am in an old place, that nothing is old or original any more. For these reasons I often seek out unrestored and even wrecked buildings–there may not be much left, but what can be seen is what was there originally.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. Susan Adler Sobol Says:

    Emile — What an interesting concept, “non-place”! It immediately called to mind a recent read, “Sissinghurst” by Adam Nicolson, a grandson of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson. The book was a wonderful recommendation by Linda Brazill who writes the blog Each Little World; we both enjoyed it immensely. It was fascinating to see how the estate with its more famous garden is evolving in the 21st century. I found it so interesting that the people who work at the estate feel as connected to it and proprietary towards it as the family, initially viewing Mr. Nicolson as an intruder. As Mr. Nicolson struggled with his ideas for the future of the estate, account was taken of the thoughts and feelings of those who work there. Is it because the garden is so central to Sissinghurst that the estate seems as if it has a life of its own? Susan

  3. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    One of my local museums is, unfortunately, headed in the direction of removing all signs of life in the name of conservation — nothing can be placed on tabletops, desks, etc., for fear of damage. No fresh flowers are allowed as they are fire hazards. The list goes on and on.

  4. Andrew Sheldon Says:

    I have often wondered what the dovecote in Bruton, Somerset, looked like in former days. Your picture of the dovecote at Chastleton House provides a possible answer – with or without the cupola.

    As a boy, I grew up with old stone walls covered with ivy. Every now and then, we’d “prune” the wall so that it looked like your picture of a detail in the garden at Great Chalfield Manor. When I last saw the walls, they had been “conserved”: loads of new mortar, and not a hint of anything botanical. The magic of the crumbly, but sound, walls has gone along with the ivy, toadflax, herb robert, pennywort, stonecrop, and assorted small ferns.

  5. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    One of my favorite memories was a dinner I went to during my college days. It was served in the main house of an early 19th century religious commune that was not unlike one of the shaker communities. I was absolutely transported to another time, and in retrospect I realize both the courage and wisdom the curators exhibited by having those evenings. I also know that the museum has stored up much support by its appoach.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Columnist, I agree: if it works well both owners and visitors of historic places contribute to keeping a place alive. And your comment about guide ropes reminds me of the 1960 Stanley Donen film The Grass is Greener, set at an Osterley Park lookalike country house (which I learned about through Gaye Tapp’s blog Little Augury:, where all the public rooms are rigorously roped off and the public is whisked through by a perfunctory guide.

    Susan, yes I too enjoyed reading Adam Nicolson’s book about Sissinghurst, bought by his grandmother and inhabited by his father and now by himself. As you say it is fascinating how he discovers that the people who work at Sissinghurst have just as much of a personal connection with the place as he does.

    Classicist, I sympathise 🙂

    Andrew, you paint a dispiriting picture of over-restoration, and possibly with the wrong methods being used as well. When I was last at Great Chalfield a couple of years ago the garden seemed to be in a perfect balance between maintenance and naturalness, with evidence of activity but also with a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere.

    Mark, yes those experiences stay in the memory, don’t they? I was inspired when I was a student by the example of the Japanese tea ceremony schools who will use antique and ‘masterpiece’ tea bowls to serve tea in, because actually handling and using the utensils – and the resulting vivid multi-sensory experience – is what the tea ceremony is all about.

  7. style court Says:

    Emile, I’m noticing that all of these wonderful images are your own. Each photo really seems to evoke the spirit of Ruth’s thesis — especially that intriguing picture of Hidcote.

    By the way, I think Gaye, aka Little Augery, wrote in-depth about that Cary Grant movie, if I’m not mistaken 🙂

  8. style court Says:

    Sounds like the conference was thought-provoking and successful!

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thanks for clarifying my muddle about who wrote about The Grass is Greener – I was probably thinking about your abiding interest in the interiors and other production design details in films – and apologies to Gaye!

    Yes those photographs are my amateur efforts, all taken in 2007 (already so long ago!). These three gardens all seemed to have the telling personal touches and thoughtful beauty that seems to characterise a real place (as opposed to a non-place).

    Yes a really stimulating conference with lots of interesting people and food for thought.

    And actually, returning to non-places, I think I sometimes quite enjoy them: a well designed airport lounge can be a pleasantly disembodied, weirdly calm sort of place. And glamorous department stores and shopping malls can give me a similar sort of thrill of floating along on a sea of postmodernity 🙂 I must actually go and read Augie’s book and see if there are any redeeming features to non-spaces.

  10. style court Says:

    Oh, great point about the redeeming features of non-places. I suppose what constitutes a non-place vs. a ‘place’ comes down to personal perspective, too. Some people feel a very strong connection to certain shops, markets, and even their corner Starbucks 🙂 And I feel connected to certain art museums but they offer a different sense of oasis (or refuge, whatever) than home or a house museum.

    • Andrew Sheldon Says:

      I agree with your suggestion about the influence of personal perspectives. Most modern housing developments I find quite uninspiring. Occasionally one comes across a development which somehow ‘feels right’. These tend to use a variety of house-types, sizes, arrangements, and finishes. Difficult to describe, but I know when I see one – a bit like your suggestion of some people with Starbucks, perhaps. It is very much a personal feeling. I daresay that, while certain places would feel right for large(ish) groups of people, other places might feel right for fewer or even just one.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes I too have great affection for certain spots in certain museums. If I were an artist I would do a video project about my favourite museum nooks and crannies and their subjective associations.

    Some of those have already been ‘redisplayed’ and changed out of all recognition, of course, for instance the magical darkened room at the National Museum of Ethnography in Leiden displaying a row of Buddhist statues, which I saw when I was about eight or nine.

    Andrew, your comment about spaces for limited numbers of people brings to mind the smallest size of Japanese tea ceremony room, which literally allows for just two kneeling persons plus a kettle on a brazier, but which because of the focus of the participants feels spacious rather than cramped.

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