Environmental & Architectural
Is Place a Journey?
Silverstein is an architect and partner in the Berkeley architectural firm of
Jacobson, Silverstein, Winslow. His most recent book is
Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design,
written with firm partners Max Jacobson and Barbara Winslow (Taunton,
When I began studying architecture in the 1960s, the word place had specific connotations. It was used to describe a valued quality of the human-made environment, a quality that was being destroyed by modern processes of development.
Certain regions, towns, neighborhoods were seen to possess a sense of place‑-that is, an identity forged over time by adaptive growth, nicely balancing traditional ways of building with local circumstances of climate, subculture and materials.
In contrast, modern architecture was regularly criticized as an enemy of local identity. Its quest for elegant "universal" space seemed antithetical to the unique historical and regional conditions whereby each community found its sense of place.
As students up-in-arms, we naturally sought ways of designing and building that were attuned to qualities of place and regional identity, and this of course meant that we were anti-modern‑-or, more accurately, anti-modernist.
The touchstone for our studies and visions was vernacular architecture. There was far more to be learned, we thought, from traditional Japanese farmhouses than from Mies's Farnsworth House.
In 1964, Bernard Rudofsky's Museum of Modern Art exhibit on vernacular architecture celebrated the extraordinary "fit" achieved in pre-industrial cultures between people and places, and the resulting Architecture Without Architects (Doubleday, 1964), made the rounds. Christopher Alexander had just published Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Harvard University Press, 1964), analyzing good fit in vernacular architecture and proposing methods by which it could be achieved in a "self-conscious" industrial world. Charles Moore and company were putting the finishing touches on what was to become the great icon of self-conscious vernacular, the first Sea Ranch condominium in Northern California.
Vernacular architecture was the real stuff, it seemed, where the quality of place resided in its purest form. And by sensitively observing (like Rudofsky), analyzing (like Alexander) and designing (like Moore), it could be achieved once again.
A LANGUAGE OF PLACE
This was the intellectual context in which we developed and wrote A Pattern Language.1 We had come to understand that vernacular architectures were created by shared languages of place; and that, throughout the world, such languages had been (and were being) lost in the press of modernization.
Our book, then, had a double purpose. First, we sought to show what a language of place was like‑-that it was made of spatial patterns; that the patterns were linked in a characteristic way; and that, like the hypotheses of science, these patterns could be based on empirical data and therefore open to debate, refutation and improvement by others.
Our second purpose was to present a language of place whose contents were so clear and so compelling that anyone, reading it now, could use it to shape the built environment, at whatever scale. In short, we were trying to plant the seeds for the growth of a "new" vernacular architecture grounded in the realities of place, yet appropriate to an open, dynamic, industrialized society.
Above: Cover image, A Pattern Language
TIMBER FRAMING AND PLACE
In working on the pattern language, we came to view timber framing as a particularly potent symbol of this attitude toward place. Timber framing was central to a great many regional traditions; its designers and builders clearly possessed and passed on craft-based pattern languages; and these languages produced gorgeous, soulful places at a variety of scales, over many centuries.
Hoping to convey this message, we chose the image of a just-raised frame to use as a medallion on the front cover of the book.2 And while we were not proposing (in the early 1970s) the resurrection of timber framing as a North American building system per se, we were certainly learning from it, hoping that the building systems we did envision would contain some of the character and meanings of timber framing. In the last section of the book particularly, images of timber-framed buildings appear repeatedly to invoke various patterns of place.
In recent discussions with timber framers, it became clear to me that the notion of place that informed our work on pattern language was, by and large, shared by the founders of the Guild. They, of course, were interested in far more than the symbolic properties of frame buildings. They were trying to revive framing itself as a realistic building system, one that embodied important and neglected attitudes toward place and community. Some of this group apparently found A Pattern Language compatible with their early efforts and used it in various ways.
In short, this idea of place and of buildings that create and sustain place seems to have been central to both our efforts. It provided an ideological basis for our work: as makers and caretakers of place, we fight the good fight, in opposition to the destructive forces in our society. Our work as place builders can be understood as part of the general attempt to envision and create a better world.
But it's eighteen years since A Pattern Language was completed; eighteen years since Max Jacobson and I launched our practice, theories in hand. And although we're still at it, still trying to make places that people love, our idea of place has changed. Practice has brought a shift. What was once an idea, clear as a bell, now seems more ambiguous, and, in unsuspected ways, more substantial.
Our original idea of place existed fundamentally as a wish‑-a wished-for fit between ourselves and some piece of the physical world. Reality, it turns out, is a different kind of place‑-a place that includes our wish, but is larger, more spacious. There is the longing for Place and there is the place within which this longing is experienced.
The idea of place, in effect, is a structuring absence. It is experienced as something missing, which by good work we hope to restore. Vernacular architecture is one clue that this missing harmony between self and world once existed and could again.
The bother, of course, is that we experience vernacular environments as outsiders looking in. We are not natives. For better or worse, as adult residents of the industrialized world, we are, in varying degrees, only tourists of the vernacular. It is as tourists that we admire "the real thing," feel its lack in our own lives, long to have it again. For post-industrial outsiders, pre-industrial vernacular architecture becomes the occasion to project onto the world the wish that place can be experienced, in an enduring way, from the inside.
I remember bicycling with my wife through the Cotswolds in 1970. The English villages were stunning, seen by bicycle especially so. We were outsiders trying to break the code. Coming upon the crest of one hill, wind in my face, farmhouses and barns, walls and streams all parcelling the world into one marvelous quilt of positive space, I fell into a swoon: good fit, a shared language of form, community! The lemonade springs, I felt certain, must be just around the bend.
The experience reminds me now of the Austrian poet Rilke's meditation in the Duino Elegies, a remarkable discourse on place and placelessness, on the bliss of tiny creatures who carry their birth shells with them. "O happy gnats," says the poet, a perennial outsider, "forever inside."
What we miss in our romance with place, I now believe, is this: deep inside (so to speak) the very nature of place, along with its obvious pleasures, is the desire to leave it. And this desire for individuation is experienced in a very primitive way as a destruction of place. The first place, embryo-in-womb, is destroyed by the push of birth; and a whole series of next-best-places are, in turn, destroyed by the push for exploration and separation. The place left behind may be left standing, but with each leave-taking (and life provides many, in all shapes and sizes) a fundamental harmonic between self and place is experienced as broken, never quite to be regained.
This experience, which we all share developmentally, reaches a historical watershed with the industrial development of Western-style democracies and their stress upon domains of individual freedom as against the stabilities of place. And once introduced into the world as a historical force, the heady taste of free space is hard to ignore.
For those leaving place behind, writes Rilke (and he's speaking to us) "all is distance; back there it was breath." Then he notes, "And after that first place, the second will always seem ambiguous and drafty."
Rilke has captured precisely what it is we love (and hate) about "second places." Thank God they leak! It's the fresh air we're after, when we leave place behind. The medieval peasants who migrated to city states like Florence coined the phrase, "City air is free air." Within the walled cities there was, per capita, less space than back in the countryside, but the fit between person and place (at that historical moment) was looser.
Remember that the word vernacular derives from the Latin verna, meaning a slave born in the house of his or her master.3 In Classical times, according to J.B. Jackson, it meant a native, one whose existence was confined to a village or estate and who was devoted to routine work.
The vernacular way of life, while it produces exquisitely adapted forms, is ruled by tradition, and assumes limits on thought, work, movement, and relationships that are in tension with many of the rights and freedoms we take for granted.
Standing before the vernacular landscape, we tend to see only the camera shot. But from the inside, the same place may be experienced as a confinement, producing as much pain (through restriction of freedoms) as pleasure (through the communion of self with place). Our experience as vernacular outsiders may also contain a touch of the voyeur; it's fun to love the Cotswolds with the wind in your face and a round-trip ticket in your pocket. It's a kinesthetic sensation: we're not stuck in place.
Americans have a particularly restless relationship to place. By and large it's a tale of journeys. I came to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, where my father had come from Ohio, where his father had come from Eastern Europe. The key American novels that mythologize our spatial imagination are journeys: Huckleberry Finn is the story of a kid and a runaway slave who escape the confinements of place for life on the river, while Moby Dick tells the tale of an obsessional father figure who pulls up roots to chase a whale across several oceans.
MODERNISM AND PLACE
The early modernist architects grasped this restless energy very clearly, and tried to work with it. Their strongest buildings sought to destroy conventional European images of place altogether. Walls gave way to the "free plan"; roof frames gave way to flat spans; well-defined hierarchies of place gave way to a flow of light, ambiguous space.
In some of these works, like Scharoun's 1933 Schmunke House, the building seems poised to sail across the landscape. Indeed, it's hard to clearly leave such places; one feels they might come after you.4
But it's easy to criticize Modernism. Its failures are legion, not the least of which is a serene disregard for vernacular solutions. More interesting, however, is to learn from Modernism what it knows best‑-the pleasures of fluid, ambiguous, free space.
In the end, the Farnsworth House may have less to teach us than the Japanese farm house, but it may have something to teach us. The users of our buildings, after all, do not live vernacular lives. Timber frame clients don't live like Elizabethan freeholders. People who are excited by pattern language imagery or timber frame buildings want certain qualities of vernacular places, but without their limitations. They want vernacular architecture within which to live modernist lives.
And this is true for us as well. We are all exiles, and what we seek, with varying degrees of awareness and sophistication, is not the reality of place, but its illusion. This room in which I sit‑-with a shaped ceiling and columns at the corners, with light at dusk from two sides and a fire and soft window seats‑-I live in this place as if it were the center of the world. I know it's not; intellectually I'm post-Copernican. But willingly and daily, I'm eager to suspend disbelief. This is the center and I'm inside‑-that's the illusion of place. Living as if at home in the world, when all the while we are en route.
Here is Rilke again:
Imagine a building that could express our longing for place and our desire to leave it behind, a building that, like a canny mother, could both hold us and let us go: equal parts place and journey, pattern language meeting early modernism inside and around a timber frame. Certainly it would be an interesting raising.
1. The book was written at the Center for Environmental Structure in Berkeley, between 1967-74, and published by Oxford University Press in 1977. The authors were Chris Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and myself, with Max Jacobson, Shlomo Angel and Ingrid King.
2. The image, a detail from a photograph of a barn raising, is used to illustrate Pattern 212, "Columns at the Corners."
3. J. B. Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
4. This is no joke. Now that modernist space is everywhere and one region like the next, the sense of leaving places behind or coming back to them is often flattened.