Artful transformation of perception

As creative partners, we are constantly challenged to reimagine place and to carefully craft communities that will be sustainable and ultimately stand the test of time. It is what we love to do and why we tirelessly challenge within our own design processes. The holy grail of placemaking!

But there is more to placemaking than simply re-inventing what worked before and evolving at increments; rather, it is a relentless pursuit to achieve authentic communities and villages that have a heartbeat, personality and distinction that feels right.

One fascinating ingredient, as part of a multitude of place considerations, is the perception of place – the sense of place to be precise. We talk about a ‘sense of place’ because of many attributes that we each value differently given our individual needs, wants, and yearning.

Some of these attributes, for example, may consider; social, economic, cultural, aesthetic, historical, ecological, and our personal relationships to place. We take a lot of care to research and understand communities to find meaning and value, and then build it up to explore new possibilities. Albeit very exciting to reimagine a new place, it is often the pre-existing sense of place that can hold things back or cast doubt in the eyes of an emerging marketplace. One can never underestimate that a sense of place is both inherited and created by those who live there.

It is for this reason that perception of a new place must be transformative. If we are inheriting a place that was once derelict or seen as an eye-sore, we cannot be naïve in assuming a new development will be welcomed with open arms or that it will be an instant success upon opening. It takes time to transform perception. Skilful craftsmanship is necessary to understand, interrogate, absorb, explore, unlock, and coach the community along the journey – a gratifying process.

In a recent example, Hames Sharley had undertaken extensive research and analysis into the repositioning of a tired, regional, town centre only to discover it had an interesting, lingering perception amongst a small segment of its demographic. A perception that left unknown would have been a missed opportunity.

A relatively small part of the community didn’t consider the existing place because the perception was that the centre was artificial and out-of-touch, while the remaining community maintained an opposite view. When digging deeper, and asking more questions, we discovered many interesting stories and saw the opportunities through a vastly different lens.

While not necessarily game-changing in nature, the new insights allowed us to create a richer approach that better relates to the entire community and slowly shift perceptions for a more engaging place. The outcome – a more refined and sophisticated place-based approach, on the whole, now sprinkled with layers of grit, imperfections and a better relationship with those who yearn for a certain vulnerability and rawness.

There are many successful examples of such altering senses of place around the world, and many are attributed to a deep, genuine interest in those who inherited and contributed to the place long-before it was reimagined. Some of which have done a remarkable 180-degree turn-around to create places that thrive in previously derelict or neglected environments. On a grand scale, places such as the redeveloping harbour city of Bjørvika in Norway and the southern Überseequartier of HafenCity Hamburg are pivoting from their historical settings into vibrant new communities.

Mt Hawthorn Laneway in WA

Other finer-grain examples include The Platform in Culver City LA and The Coal Drops Yard in London, each demonstrating that retail destinations are now more and more becoming the backyard or “living room” for the community. Similar local examples include James Street Fortitude Valley, Harold Park Tramsheds, The Grounds of Alexandria, Mt Hawthorn Laneway in WA and Burwood Brickworks. They demonstrate qualities of a transformation from an inherited perception of place into remarkable new communities with a distinctive sense of place and individuality and so becoming our place to linger, dwell and thrive.

Now, more than ever, we have a shared responsibility to nurture the places we create and ensure that the perceptions we set out to transform honestly, transition into places of value. A sense of place must enable humans and their communities to flourish as pressures within the urban realm continually challenge our communities.

Mt Hawthorn Laneway in WA

Opportunities such as; amenity, public realm, environmental and fiscal responsibilities, sustainability targets, increased densities, social factors, education, employment and health, will continue to inform our built environment. With increasing delivery of mixed-use communities across retail-based assets in Australia, I look forward to the ever-evolving sense of place and individuality on offer.



Harold is a Director with over 15 years’ practice experience in retail master planning, retail design, high-end residential design, commercial, warehouse and hospitality architecture.

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