The Works

The Language of Movement: Creating Spaces People Want to Be

“When you see kids playing on a playground,” muses SITE solutions Principal Eric Bishop, “when you see a couple having a wonderful dinner together, it’s those experiences and how people use those spaces that keep us most engaged in design.”

“Our focus is on people,” says the agency bio, prioritizing how individuals interact with a space, what they react to, and why. This requires an understanding of the physiological nature of design and user experience even more than just the physical. “Creating ‘spaces that become places’ is less about the buildings and surroundings and more about what happens with the people who use them,” says Bishop referencing SITE solutions’ ultimate goal: “We create spaces people want to be.”

Weaving the Story

To accomplish this goal, SITE solutions has an innate process which Bishop describes as, “Starting at the end – we consider the needs of the users and what the end goal of the project might be. We figure out what’s going to make our designs meaningful to our clients and community.”

Referencing a recent development, Bishop introduces The Works, a mixed-use 26-acre development on Atlanta’s fast-expanding westside. This collection of warehouse buildings was originally developed in the 1930s with continuing expansion through the 60s and the ask here, Bishop describes, was “to give the space a new birth – a new life. Our charge was to look at the exteriors of these old buildings and tease out what the experience of these places might be, looking at the material and the opportunity for interaction with a number of different elements from hardscapes to soft landscapes.”

“For The Works, that was about understanding the history of the site – how it developed and how the railroad interacted with it. From that beginning, we think about how we might use that language of movement and very utilitarian materials bringing it to a scale that’s appreciated by people. We figure out what’s going to matter the most, what the site has in place, what significance it already has, and from that you begin to weave out a story. You figure out a way you can tease out the elements of space and the different experiences people can have there and that allows you to create a more complete exterior environment.”

Another SITE solutions project that depicts this process is the Avondale Town Green, where the agency is generating a 2-acre park intended to become “a new heart for the surrounding area.” In development during the pandemic, virtual connections allowed SITE solutions to connect with greater numbers of the community and create engaging conversations on what residents wanted. Through this input came the ability to create a canvas that allows people to gather, sit, read, celebrate through events, all layered with the history of the place.

Culturally an area of Tudor architecture, SITE solutions wanted to honor the origins while creating “a place for now,” so they deconstructed the approach. “We took the meaningful moves out of those architectural styles,” Bishop says, “and reassembled historic materials in a more contemporary and refined way. This includes 23 birdhouses that create a Tudor Village for a sense of belonging and place that pulls out the playfulness of what we do and includes a bit of awe and wonder.”

Simple Moves that Recall History

Studying more than just the people involved today, SITE solutions invests extraordinary effort in research and historical metropolitan study before entering into a design process for a new project. In example here, Savannah’s Eastern Warf was a site that had gone through a number of iterations of development and had an infrastructural framework in place. Bishop discussed the intricate study of history involved in forward-looking decisions:

“Looking back at the process before we were engaged, there was only one approach in place: Extend the grid of Savannah that Oglethorpe had created and push east down the river. What hadn’t been acknowledged was what the site was prior to that. If you go back prior to settlement, it was marsh land, then rice plantations where enslaved persons had to work, then a wharf and shipbuilding area tying it in with ironsides from the Civil war. We went through research of what the land was before the modern development process, mapping out the dikes for the rice plantation and the location of the rivers, streams, and creeks, and from that generated these simple moves that create the recollection of history. Even if it’s not fully evident, it acknowledges that the place had a life and, in this case, a very long life from the 1700s to today.”

“If you take that foundation (which gives us some moves we can make from a design standpoint with organizational structure) and layer on how people will occupy the space, that’s where the element of interaction comes in: What events occur here, how parents will watch their kids play, where you want to be in the shade in the summertime in Savannah and have a cold beverage, what are the places that will give you those phenomenal views up and down the river while you’re having a meal. I try to find kernels of truth that exist in a site, which allow you to express how people used the land, capture history, and move it forward beyond when you will be around.”

The 5th Dimension: Interaction

To best serve this element of interaction, Bishop turns to the concept of dimensionality: “There are three dimensions of space, and the 4th dimension of time, but most interesting to me is the idea of a 5th dimension of interaction – like in physics with the interaction (or reaction) of particles when they combine. With the dimension of interaction in landscape architecture, you generate ideas that affect the physiological and psychological aspects of design and what those do to create positive outcomes for people. Consider human nature and how people interact with space, how that place can become a positive agent on several levels. The deeper you go into the idea of interaction and how things relate to one another you get these interesting layers of effect (ecological systems, personal growth) that snowball into incredibly positive future outcomes.”

A Garden of Places

Cultivating those long-term positive outcomes has always been in Bishop’s veins – or roots, in a fitting analogy. “I knew I wanted to take this career path when I was twelve,” recalls Bishop, for a reason that is deeply integrated into his work with SITE solutions: “I was interested in buildings, bridges, roads, but I also loved gardening. I met someone who was a landscape architect who told me what they did and I said that’s what I want to do, so I took drafting classes along with horticulture and across the arc of my career have been able to maintain that passion for having those things manifest in the world – nurturing and growing something, experimenting, playing, figuring out what can work together, studying the interactions of different ecologies of plants that are supportive of one another and intentionally putting things together in a way that creates beauty.”

“Landscape does another thing that most of the built environment doesn’t do: It tells us time. It transitions across years and seasons, but even beyond seasonality, it’s got a longer timeframe – it has a lifespan. Seeing trees planted as part of a streetscape I did almost 20 years ago now being massive shade trees providing a cooler environment for folks to walk around midtown is pretty cool,” Bishop says skirting the pun. “The temporal, evolutionary nature of plants is something you don’t get out of other design fields.”

Building What People Love

SITE solutions is able to build what people love because they think beyond themselves. “We talk to local folks to find out what are the things they’re missing.” For their projects in Savannah they asked, “what would bring them back to the river or what would bring them downtown which has a lot of tourism but not a lot of locals?” Bishop observes, “Combining what a site can tell you and what a community can tell you, pieces together what matters about the touch and feel of a place – how people interact with plants and what is that plant going to do throughout the year. It’s not static like a wall, it’s something that grows, evolves, has a life just like we do.”

The life of the plants, and the lives of the people living among them are the intersection where SITE solutions stands out from the crowd. “You begin to glue all of these elements together and it starts to create place,” which Bishop describes as the ultimate goal.

That philosophy resonates across the agency and is deeply personal to Bishop who asserts, “What we do is about creating a place of lasting memory; something that imprints itself on the community. The success of this is determined by use: If we’re successful it’ll be a place that people love, a place that matters in people’s everyday life, and a place that lasts far beyond us.”