PhD. Thesis

Global Architects Meet the Place: 
Bridging the Gap through Information and Communication Technology


Yael Valerie Perez

 Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Yehuda Kalay, Co-Chair

Professor Alice M. Agogino, Co-Chair


In this study, I examine the ability of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to narrow the gap between architects, aspiring to meet the place, and local users that are part of the place. The overarching goal is to identify tools necessary for successful place-driven design, particularly in the extreme design conditions in marginalized places. International architects are often invited to design in difficult to access, marginalized places through aid-organizations or through international developers invested in these places. This scenario propagates the gap between the architect’s conceptions of place and the local users’ conceptions of place. The design literature provides a range of recommendations for comprehending place. Yet, as expressed by several of the architects interviewed, these commonly used design methods appear to be ineffective in marginalized places, too often leading to designs that are inappropriate. Addressing the gap with marginalized places is especially valuable given their limited resources and the impact that design projects have on human development, which I refer to as ‘design freedom’.

In search for tools to comprehend place I take on Canter’s 1977 definition of place as the overlap between physical attributes, activities, and conceptions. Through interviews with architects, designing in marginalized places, both within the non-profit and for-profit realms, I found that while Internet-based ICTs are currently used for capturing physical attributes of place they are underutilized in communicating the subjective conceptions of place. By compiling the recommended methods in the literature together with those used by architects I interviewed I identify five levels of depth of the experiences available for comprehending place: egocentric, passive, active, interactive, and immersive.  My hypothesis is therefore that when designing in marginalized places, a set of technologies that communicates the breadth of place through deep experiences will equip designers with comprehensive information about the place, enabling more place-appropriate design.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodologies were used in two case-studies of design with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN), a Native American nation located near Ukiah, California. The first case study is a reflection on action through which I evaluated both face-to-face and mediated techniques for meeting the PPN. Through this reflection I identify the most-appropriate ICTs, and assembled them to communicate the PPN’s place. In the second study I assess and measure how these technologies are used in an actual design project through ParticiPlace, an international design competition that attracted 17 design teams from around the world, to work on the PPN’s Living Culture Center.

Through these studies I found that technologies which communicate all three elements of place – physical-attributes, activities, and conceptions – can bridge the gap between designers and place. More specifically, architects who visited the site produced, on average, the same levels of place-appropriate designs compared to those who were too far to visit it and relied solely on ICTs to experience place. I have identified social networks as a technology that enables immersion in the conceptions of place. Nevertheless, while social networks can immerse users in conceptions, several limitations, including privacy setting still hinder its professional design use in marginalized communities. Moreover, integration of social network with technologies to allow interaction with physical attributes and with activities of place is still required to make these more effective place-driven design tools. I conclude with recommendations for ICT attributes to support place-driven design with a focus on marginalized communities. 

Yael Perez,
Jul 16, 2013, 12:08 PM