Archaeology as an Urban Design Tool

Bruce Mann, Archaeologist and Chair of ALGAO Scotland, describes how archaeology can inspire the design and development process and give communities a sense of place.

To understand a building’s history is to understand its soul. People, events, even memories, all lend significance to a building, making it more than the sum of its materials. It doesn’t matter the scale, that soul means something to someone. It can reflect anything from one family’s story to key moments in a nation’s history.

The host of that soul, the outward facing facade in which lives are lived, tells its own story. The vernacular design of our buildings should express the history of where they are found as much as the stories of the people who lived there. Granite or brick, tiled or slated, cottage or tenement, buildings of the past visually form a critical part of a place’s identity today. Buildings form a communities’ sense of place.

I see a problem though as more and more new development appears in the landscape. It no longer seems to matter where you are in the country; the setting of the landscape, the vernacular heritage into which something new is built, has become irrelevant. Local identities have been replaced instead with a generic architecture that rarely inspires, or tells that local story.

Of course developer profit drives much of this approach, along with perhaps an unknowing indifference from buyers. I understand this, market forces are king, but there are ways to embed community identity from the start. A way to give a new building a starter soul as it were.

The vast majority of archaeology today is undertaken commercially as a result of requirements placed on developers in the planning process. Too often the effect is to view archaeology as either a constraint or a form of pollution to be dealt with. However, if approached imaginatively, the results of archaeology can be used positively. Archaeology is no longer an issue to be resolved, but rather a key urban design tool for every architect to embrace.

If we think of the historic environment from the start of the design process, all sorts of possibilities present themselves. Consider how products of the archaeological mitigation process link with stages of the development process:

Archaeological Desk-based Assessment and the Site Plan

What was the landscape used for in the past? Are there specific shapes to the parcels of land which echo those uses? How can these be incorporated into the overall layout?

What are the key historic landscape features that could be retained (buildings, field boundaries, routeways, local names etc.)?

What are the traditional materials used in the region? What are the traditional building shapes? Is there a particular architectural detail that can be reflected in the new building designs?

Did anything of historical interest happen on the site, whether it be local or of national importance? What traditional stories does the community know about the site? Could these events be used to inspire art or other public realm elements?

Archaeological Excavation and the Public Realm

What was found? Could it be used to inspire shapes or art within the development (pavement art, plant beds or allotments reflecting the footprint of buildings found on the site, artefacts that could be accessibly displayed etc.)? 

Are any of the discovered remains worthy of being kept? Could they be included in the greenspace? If so then what types of interpretation could be introduced (traditional information boards, digital reconstructions, graffiti murals, 3D printed models etc.)? Could they contribute as assets for bringing visitors into the area?Could reconstructions be used for play areas or community facilities?

Which new streets or buildings could be named after particular things that have been found under or next to them? Can names be used to connect the new development with the area’s past?

Archaeological Publication and the Community

How can the technical archaeological reports be made more accessible to the public? Can it be made into an information pack that is provided as standard to every new householder? Could the information be used in local school projects?

Could a community walking trail be established guiding people to where things were found? Could a community timeline be produced, showing the depth of their history?

All of these ideas are just the tip of the proverbial design iceberg. Like an iceberg the true potential lies hidden out of site, only revealed if we go looking for it. We can never be entirely certain what archaeological remains will be found on any given development. What we do know though is that they, along with the wider historic environment, offer an opportunity to add personality to something new.

It helps embed development into the landscape, giving it a continuity with the local vernacular. It gives development an immediate soul which people can fall in love with. After all, if you only build to the design that everyone else is using, you will only build what everyone else is building. Instead look to archaeology for inspiration, and give communities a real sense of place once more.