Contemporary Modernisation and Spirit of Place

A needle in a hay stack!

A needle in a hay stack!

Recently my husband and I spent some time in a cottage in Northumberland for a holiday. It was our third visit to the area as there is so much to see and enjoy. I call it the under discovered Cornwall of the north. The area is beautiful, with good hill walking for all abilities, beautiful clean coastal walks, loads of ancient castles, houses and manors for those with a passion for history. The eateries and hostelries will please I’m sure some of the most discerning pallets. If all that’s not enough the people are so friendly and helpful, you can’t wish for a warmer welcome, even if the weather sometimes leaves a little to be desired. Although, having said that, providing you are not expecting or wanting to return with a Spanish holiday type of tan then, generally we have found the weather to be better than expected.

So on this third visit the place we had stayed in before was book so we had to seek out another. Traditional stone cottage, converted from an industrial workshop in 1980’s, the current owners had had their work cut out for them. It was clear from the “before and after” pictures, by the time they acquired the place the heart of the building had already been ripped out, with no real trace of it’s industrial heritage and decked with aging 1980’s decoration. They then went on and reorganised the internal space into something much more workable and made it bright and modern with all mod-cons. All dues to them, they had worked hard and produced a comfortable and contemporary space. Sadly though we both found that the place no-longer breathed, often particularly upstairs where it was essentially an attic space, eves bedroom the air was stifling. To compound our comfort difficulties, it was mid-summer, the blinds didn’t completely shut the light out and as the whole place was painted contemporary white it meant that we only had about 3 hours a night of near darkness the rest of our sleep was taken in a dim but very light space. Lack of breath and sleep meant we didn’t have as restful a holiday as we would have liked.

The experience though really did get me thinking and wondering about how so many places though, seemingly converted very tastefully and with great thought and care still just miss the spirit of the place. As we move further and further towards the need for minimal, hi-tech, convenience, will this mean more areas will find their character completely lost? This is not to say that places should not be modernised and new designs incorporated within the old but there is something about the spirit of place which need to be respected and acknowledged. For example this place, had been a blacksmith’s work place for at least 150 to 200 years, there was nothing that even suggested or honoured this heritage, not even a log burner with grand chimney. Even in our modern age there is something about fire that still draws man and community together. It is so ancient, the instinct is still within us, there is something so sacred and warming to sit by a fire. It has been and still is (next to the television) the focal point in most homes and living room. Some of my best friends, many years ago when we used to hold a summer bonfires in the garden, they might not have particularly wanted or saw the point in a bonfire, but once there, often became among the keenest to stoke the fire. Finally just realising the primitive internal warming that comes with real fire. Please don’t think I am extolling the joys of pyromania not at all. I am talking about the power of the camp fire and the hearth in this instance. Primarily in relation to the place we stayed in, it had lived and worked with the power of fire to build a good proportion of the town’s gates, fences and no doubt kept trade moving, servicing horse and carts. Now nothing of that very important heritage was there to be rejoiced, remember or revered. It’s original use, gave meaning to the size, shape and position and how it related to the surroundings. Now with all that gone wonder the place easily felt cold down stairs and hot and stuffy up stairs.

Anyone who has worked in or with place design, interior or architecture will no doubt be no stranger to the phrase “sense of place” or “spirit of place”, this intangible thing that means that places just simply do work, attract and are lively spaces. While there is no doubt lots to do structurally, cosmetically, tangibly to a place what I am driving at is that there is a sole to every place which needs to be recognised, respected, worked with in harmony and in some cases reinstated. In the last year like many I’ve been to a number of conferences in London, often held in old buildings, which have been converted inside to house the most modern heating, ventilation, lighting and modern equipment. Most still are either too cold, too hot, lack breathe and more often conceal the original character and building’s heritage. Of course there are good examples, ones spring to mind such as The Brewery , London EC1. It is a grade II listed building and as the name suggests has a long history as a Brewery site for Wheatbread. The interior though flexible and modern for conventions, conferences, talks and hosting, somehow the spirit of the place is celebrated and you can still enjoy some of the high vaulted ceilings and large windows which would have formed a key part of the industrial workings in the past. Although the modern has been added it had been done so it blends with the original leaving much of the original features open and it is not over clad in modern materials, facilities and gizmos – it still breaths.

Another interesting angle on spirit of place, is when a building has been taken over for the direct intension of providing a space for meditation and spiritual wellbeing. Every last space in the place has been dedicated to breath, serenity, peace and well being. One example that sticks out for me is the Budhist Centre in Bethnal Green / Mile End. A converted fire station from the Victorian era, now for the last thirty years been used as a centre for Budhism and meditation. This classic Victorian Building with whispers of the gothic influence of the time, now inside houses a courtyard and meditation and temple space. The silence, stillness and serene atmosphere cannot be missed offering a retreat from the noisy busy and dusty Bethnal Green and thorough fair to East London outside. Such a contrast is hard to find. So now having housed the firemen of London, now is a house for the feeding the fire of the soul.

Perhaps the key to the sole of a place can be found through looking at the history of the uses, what it’s attracted over the years and in some cases perhaps even needs to be reinstated where it has become lost, soleless or lost under years of abuse and may even be attracting and promoting criminal activity. For centuries our society has thrived off the land and become adept at using resources, pooling resources, to make our daily lives more physically comfortable. However, in times past, ancient civilisations and tribes people, had to work more with the elements and the land as a result developed a deep respect for their surroundings, resources and their homesteads that supported them. This in turn means a very different relationship with the land, the environment and ultimately our planet Earth. Perhaps it is time we started to respect once again the environment which supports us every day, whether is be through simply providing us shelter and find out what it’s sole and spirit is so we can work with it in harmony rather then just to crash around on it. If we start from a different conscious place, our intensions, takes us on a different journey and the results are often then very different, from what we might expect.

Tanya Adams is a Shamanic Practitioner, who works with traditional shamanic techniques of journeying and soul retrieval, as well as space clearing, geomancy. Working with the Chinese Five Elements to restore balance. She also worked for a number of years as a Town and Transport Planner and is passionate about the relationship between people and spaces. For individual, group or workshop consultations email


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