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Is Place a Journey?

Murray Silverstein

 Murray 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, 2002).
     A slightly longer version of this essay first appeared in Timber Framing, the journal of the Timber Framers Guild of North America; note Silverstein's frequent reference to timber framing and place. We thank editor Ken Rower for permission to reprint.

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.


    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



    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.


    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:

Who has twisted us around like this, so
no matter what we do, we are in the
of one who is going away? Just as, upon
the furthest hill, which shows him the
     whole valley
one last time, a man stops, lingers, turns--,
     so we live here, forever taking leave

     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.