The built form as a narrative: creating a sense of place

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”


“In a strange way, architecture is really an unfinished thing, because even though the building is finished, it takes on a new life. It becomes part of a new dynamic: how people will occupy it, use it, think about it.”

Daniel Libeskind


Architecture forms a physical and spatial connection between the past, present, and future.  At any point in time, the built form merely symbolises a chapter in the story of a place and culture.  Despite the intention of an architect to create permanence, architecture is a false illusion of a stationary condition.   It is not static.   It is not immoveable.

In order to enable the built form to tell the story of a place, architects need to work in the now, understanding the past and designing for the future. Restoration work does not need to take buildings back to a single point in time.  Instead, it can acknowledge that everything that has taken place in the intervening years between the buildings’ construction and where they are now has contributed to the story and experience of the place.  The purpose of restoration work can be to reveal what is there, but may be hidden.  The physical stripping of layers can reveal forgotten or hidden chapters in the narrative of the building and its surroundings.  It can reveal aspects of a building’s life at different points during its lifetime.

This approach is evident in some of the adaptive re-use projects in and around Perth which are contributing to the narrative of our city.  Projects such as spaceagency’s Rechabite Hall and the Farmers Home Hotel in Northam have created a sense of place by embracing the story of the built forms and their contexts over time.  Each building has had several identities and the resulting projects, in being adapted for modern use, even imbue a sense of irony.  Alcohol flows freely at The Rechabite, now a multi-purpose function and performance space, which was originally built as the centre of the local temperance movement (a movement which promotes abstinence from alcohol).  And, the Temperance Bar at the Farmers Home Hotel similarly takes its name from its historical association with the same movement.


Rechabite Hall, 1929 (Image: State Library of Western Australia)


Rechabite Hall, during renovation (Image:


Rechabite Hall, 2020. Respectfully embracing history. Features of the original
built form have been retained and adapted for modern use. A new mezzanine
level was added to the existing fabric when repurposing the space as a
performance space. (Image:


A past identity. The Farmers Home Hotel was previously the Shamrock Hotel,
an iconic Northam establishment. (Image: www.


Echoes of the past. The original fabric of the building has been restored and
enhanced. (Image: www.

Through deliberate and meaningful exposure rather than concealment, built forms and spaces can tell the story of their history and how their uses have changed over time.  The integrity of a building’s original structure can be maintained and its imperfections and scars can form part of its narrative. Just as a person’s experience helps define who he or she is today, a building’s history adds to the sense of place it creates.

In the words of Daniel Libeskind, “architecture is the biggest unwritten document of history.”  Old buildings can have new life breathed into them in a way which embraces their history.  Their stories need not be forgotten.  Instead, they are existing chapters in a continuing narrative.  The retention of the old and incorporation of the new for modern use can enable the story of place to be continued.