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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Power and place: the importance of first-hand experience


Taking inspiration from a recent visit to Rome Jon Barnes, communications officer at CIH Cymru, reflects on the importance of experiencing a place first-hand to understand it fully.

Stand in front of the Pantheon, Rome’s ancient temple to all the gods, and the first thing you’ll see is fat granite columns over which is the inscription: ‘M-AGRIPPA-L-F-COS-TERTIUM-FECIT’ – Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time. Monumental boasting on an epic scale.*
Pantheon, Rome - picture courtesy of (where you can get free images under CC0 license, you don't have to attribute, we just chose to!)
But as you learn more about the building, you slowly come to a realisation about the power of that boast. Those columns, 39 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter and each weighing 60 tons, are made of a single piece of quarried granite. They were almost certainly quarried in the eastern mountains of Egypt and first dragged 62 miles to the banks of the Nile where they were loaded onto barges and floated down river to Alexandria. From there they crossed the Mediterranean to the Roman port of Ostia. At Ostia they were transferred back to barges and pulled for miles, against the current, up the Tiber River into Rome. That’s a lot of work just to support a boasting inscription. Makes corporate Twitter seem a bit lazy to be honest…**

That’s when the realisation hits you: there must have been easier ways to do it. Why go to all that effort? As you walk around Rome as it stands today there are countless stories, both ancient and renaissance, of things having been done on a different scale because of their awareness of the symbolism of place.

It’s not lost on a modern visitor, so to imagine the impact on a contemporary is incredible. Standing in front of that monument to power they must have understood, as we do now in retrospect, that no one, anywhere, had the power and the will to do the same. You could be in no doubt that you were at the centre of the world, in the most powerful city on earth.

I think sometimes in the pursuit of learning and understanding we forget the importance of being in a place to understand it. You can read those facts and figures about the Pantheon, and look at maps, and understand the mechanics of its construction, but until you stand in its shade, staring in awe at the sheer ostentatiousness of its existence, it doesn’t quite hit home. To understand a place, it really helps to visit the place.

Which leads me onto sharing the practice from the Welsh Housing Awards submissions. To help root the learning opportunities we can get from the Awards in a firm sense of place we’ve teamed up with Housemark Cymru to offer study visits to shortlisted and winning projects and developments.

Held throughout the year following the Awards, they will be your chance to get a better understanding of the mechanics of contemporary good practice in Welsh housing.

On the other side of the coin, as an organisation taking part, a study visit can be a great opportunity to promote and showcase the great work that your teams have done. That said, if we turn up and you’ve added 60 ton pillars holding up the inscription “SHORTLISTED-WHA16” then it might not be the best look…

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*Except he didn’t. The present building sits on the site of Agrippa’s earlier temple, but was in fact completed by Hadrian around 126AD – he just kept the original inscription. Whether this was to deliberately confuse amateur archaeologists almost two thousand years later is a decision unfortunately lost to antiquity.

**Although, just like corporate Twitter, Hadrian confused everyone by forgetting to update the bio of the building with the appropriate up-to-date branding…

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