• B. Harper Howard

How Do You Know When You Know Place:The Architecture Of Site Specificity

I have been having recurring questions questions about site specificity, what that requires, and what limitations may come from this type of designing. Glenn Murcutt is portrayed as a site-specific architect and ONLY designs in Australia because he feels he’ll never know any other place yet there are numerous other architects who design all over the world and are also portrayed as site-specific architects. How do you know when you know everything you need to know in order to design for an area and its people? Is there a range or spectrum of site specificity? Is there a difference between site specificity and place specificity?

I approached my initial question through the angle of language and what it takes to simply know the language of the area you’re building in. There are two levels (below native speakers) to knowing language: proficiency and fluency. “In terms of language, the “proficient” label refers to a speaker who, while very skilled in the use of a language, uses the language with greater formality and less familiarity than a native or fluent speaker.”[1] To be proficient at something means to achieve a level of mastery and an in-depth understanding of it in a formal way. Mastering a language requires a quantitative understanding of the structure of the language and the rules which govern it. Whereas being fluent in a language requires additional qualitative understanding and is defined as being “very comfortable with the language — however, it is not necessarily their first, native, or mother tongue. Although it’s difficult to achieve, fluency can be attained through extended study and, usually, with time spent living in full linguistic immersion.”[2] Fluency requires an immersion and a full understanding of the language in informal ways. Fluent speakers understand the nuances and the slang within a language. Because of the way slang develops, this inherently requires an understanding of the culture and subcultures of an area. These are the qualitative elements of understanding language. Proficiency and fluency of language are often and easily confused with one another. Can the same occur with architecture? Is site-specific design of architecture equivalent to being proficient in language and lacking qualitative understanding? Is place-specific design in architecture equivalent to fluency in a language?

If a proficient understanding of an area leads to a site-specific design through the quantitative understanding of an area, then what elements take site-specific understanding to place-specific understanding and gives architects a fluent understanding of site? What unique aspects contribute to the culture, atmosphere, and presence of an area? To me, to know a culture is to live it. An area’s culture should be experienced, it’s food should be eaten, its music played loudly so the rhythm can be felt in your chest, and its traditions should be participated in. I think that in order to truly understand these elements and to begin designing in a place-specific way, immersion is required. At the lowest level of design, fluency and place of an area should be required.

What if, like Glenn Murcutt, an architect isn’t building in an area that requires learning on either a proficient or fluent level but instead are designing on a native level of site understanding? Through this understanding, because Glenn Murcutt his approach to architecture cannot be categorized as ‘a proficient speaker and site specificity’ or ‘a fluent speaker and place specificity’ but that of a native speaker. “A native speaker’s language is their first language. This usually means that it dominated their youth and is therefore the language they do their thinking in.”[3] Glenn Murcutt chooses to work only in Australia because it’s the only architectural understanding he thinks in. While this is an intoxicating thought, to only design in an architecture you think in, does it create limitations? Does this limit the growth of architecture? Does this put some regions in a disadvantageous position?

[1] (Defining Levels of Language Proficiency Avoids Confusion)

[2] (Defining Levels of Language Proficiency Avoids Confusion)

[3] (Defining Levels of Language Proficiency Avoids Confusion)

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