Site, Ascendant

In an ongoing series, David Heymann explores the charged relationship between buildings and sites.

Left: Andy Goldsworthy, Rain Shadow, 1989. Right: Henry Moore, Large Spindle Piece, 1969. [photo by Larry Miller]

The role of site in various forms of Western cultural production has evolved dramatically over the past 50 years. Roughly speaking, where once site was seen as setting, now it is seen as source. It’s easiest to see this change in certain evolutions within Western artwork over the past 50 years. Compare, for example, Andy Goldsworthy’s Rain Shadow to Henry Moore’s Large Spindle Piece. As the artist Robert Irwin has pointed out, the Moore may work well in landscape (in the photograph it has temporarily landed at Kenyon College), but even here we perceive that the work is fundamentally about the internal concerns of Moore within his oeuvre, and has little to do with the qualities of this specific place. 1 The site is merely a setting, gazing in rapt and wondrous (and properly silent) appreciation at the great man’s struggle. By way of contrast, Goldsworthy’s piece is entirely the by-product of certain circumstances true to the site — there’s a dry sidewalk passing through springy green open-ness, and it is starting to rain. The transitory nature of the work is a form of appreciation of a particular place at a particular moment. There is arguably no struggle here at all. The site does most of the work (the artist just has to lay still) and it is rewarded substantial credit as collaborative author.

Though a broad impulse to defer content and, to some degree, authorship to the natural landscape is surprisingly uncommon to the long history of Western art, the current cycle has been around for a while, at least since the late 1960s 2. You see it in the usual suspects: the work of Smithson, Heizer, DeMaria, Turrell, et al. Various arguments have been made for why this work began and succeeded when it did (curiously, you hear many architects speak as if it were still actively happening). Most center on the idea that these artists were seeking to counter the consequences of an increasingly world-wide (that is, location free) media-driven consumption-based society — of which the museum and gallery, the format of which these pieces resist, are merely mouthpieces — in favor of an unmediated and difficult experience of authenticity arising from the distillation of essential location. Other arguments can be made, including the economic evolution of organizations and patrons capable of financing artists independently of the marketplace, but most have this underlying theme in common: the site is a source of experience that is perceived to be meaningful because it remains authentic and intransmutable. I put this in italics because I think this belief is probably more widely and powerfully held today.

Clockwise, from top: Robert Irwin, One Wall Removed, 1980. James Turrell, Skyspace, 2006. Tadashi Kawamata, Toronto Project, 1989. Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect (detail), 1975.

But one point needs to be made about this work. As much as these constructions seem concerned with natural landscape, nature is actually a subtopic. These pieces are first and foremost about site. This is a complicated distinction, but an important one. Many of these artists chose to work in natural landscapes, but many also had the opportunity — and sometimes actively pursued the possibility — to work in urban conditions. The examples shown here — works by Irwin, Turrell, Kawamata and Matta-Clark — do not in any way seem incongruous set against the celebrated work that these artists designed for non-urban sites. That is because there was no pejorative consequence to the content of the sculptures arising from working in urban situations. Instead, each location was treated as an equally ripe source of meaningfulness. The larger concern — regardless whether the work was in the high desert of New Mexico or the Lower East Side of Manhattan — was to identify or expose or respect or strengthen the explicit value of each location — each site — as it structured singular experience, rather than as it served within a biological frame.

So it will be true of such sculptures in natural landscapes that they concern the natural — but this is because natural (variously defined) is perceived to be an indwelling condition of their sites. Much of this work was, and still is, called Environmental Art, but here environmental refers to clarifying experience within the larger frame of a landscape, and not to the environment as a biological system. This artwork is more aptly called site specific, and, though the number of grand gestures has tapered off — critical artwork has moved on — it has not gone away as a popular format. If anything, it has only become more pervasive. Certainly the underlying problem, the dislocation of modern life, has not gone away! One strange (albeit indirect) proof of this is the pervasiveness of legal requirements for artwork in publicly financed buildings, most of which are calls for site-specific works. There is an interesting inversion at work in these pieces. The site is the new construction, for which the artwork serves as a form of place authentication!

James Turrell, Roden Crater, Arizona, scheduled to open to the public in 2011. [courtesy of Grid City]

Work that proceeds from site as the source for its parameters has been understood to be responsible to landscape, even if it is not responsible to landscape from a biologically environmental point of view. Turrell’s work at the Roden Crater is a good example of what I mean. The planned sequence of chambers, sight lines and other constructs aligns with various cyclical occurrences in the positioning of the earth in regard to the sun, moon and stars. Turrell is clearly intent on making deep natural orders legible, but the methods used to construct these connections — including earth-moving at a vast scale — are unavoidably the by-product of an unsustainable culture. A useful analogy is bird-watching (an activity that has exploded in popularity over the last twenty years). To be honest, most birders do little for the environment — a bird-watcher flying to Central America for a week of scouring the countryside in order to add a hundred species to a life list has a ridiculously high carbon footprint — beyond providing local economic incentive to not clear natural landscape. Yet no birder would imagine that he or she is against the environment. After all, calling attention to the environment and doing something about it stem from the same wellspring of emotional reasoning. But these really are fundamentally different things ethically and tactically, and the transition from notifying to correcting is not clear: will it be a revolution, or an evolution?

In either case, it helps to understand what is happening right at the changing point, at the cusp. The same trajectory that we see in Western sculpture — of site evolving from setting to source — can be traced in Western architecture over the corresponding time frame. It is of course possible to cherry-pick the history of buildings to prove that any era is site sensitive; so one might point to the Casa Malaparte or Fallingwater to prove that the Modern was committed to site as source, as Hatshepsut’s tomb might be used to prove the same for its era. But extraordinary sites have always tended to elicit extraordinary site responses, overriding other considerations. A better place to look is at ordinary sites: how does the natural play a role here? A good faith comparison might be Ralph Rapson’s Greenbelt House, designed in 1945 (as part of the Case Study sequence) for a developer’s lot in Los Angeles, and Tod Williams’s Tarlo House, built in 1979 on a subdivided potato field near Wainscott, Long Island. Both of these constructions are conceived for sites that are defined economically, rather than experientially; that is, for ordinary plots of otherwise unexceptional land. 3

Ralph Rapson, Greenbelt House, “Case Study House No. 4,” 1945.

The Greenbelt House famously revels in the potential of the outdoors, and so it is a useful means to point out the Modern distinction between outside and site. If the outside was understood as an extension of the inside, and vice-versa (and this is a familiar Modern trope), it is clear that the outside is seen as a continuation of a world measured by function and convenience. In Rapson’s drawings we see the happy family planting and playing: the outside is a setting for essentially utilitarian activities, the fact of which becomes the method by which meaningfulness is partly measured. There is no issue with the arbitrariness of the property lines and the establishment of site, since these arise also from a landscape of convenience and purpose 4. The house is self-sufficient: it has no problem with the anonymity of its location, which merely provides the setting for its normative activities.

Tod Williams and Associates, Tarlo House, Suffolk County, New York, 1978.

Though similar in syntax, the Tarlo House is construed of formal gestures that are almost without exception site responses, rather than functional tactics. Of the house’s four distinct pieces, the first is a screen wall that shields the house — it’s literally a fright mask – from the adjacent road to its north. This mask connects to the house volume by a suspended deck shading an outdoor space. The volume of the house proper, though laid out to sensibly manage interior need, is rotated from the property line orthogonal partly to take advantage of views of the distant ocean, but primarily to maximize cross ventilation in summer. The southernmost element of the house is the second shading element, a brise-soleil that shields the southern windows from summer sun exposure (while letting in winter sun). If none of these factors are solely specific — or better endemic— to the plot of land available to the architect, they are nonetheless true of the site in a larger geo-physical sense. Like Land Art, the house can be understood, with regard to this plot of land’s absolute ordinariness — that is, to this plot of land’s not-site-ness — as a cry for help against the strategies of land ordering that generate such sites, and the arbitrariness of its lot lines with regard to the concrete experience of things that are now considered meaningful: the passage of the sun and the movement of the wind. Here, site — experientially rather than economically defined — is clearly intended to be the source, not just the setting.

Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates, Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla, California, 1978 (below) and model (above).

One can nicely measure the further evolution of site’s role in architectural design by comparing the Tarlo House to a later work of this firm, now Tod Williams and Billie Tsien: the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. At the Tarlo House, quantitative site factors are the basis for pragmatically justifiable formal moves. At NSI such moves are enriched by gestures that touch on qualitative and immeasurable assumptions about site inhabitation, associating specific activities with landform and location. The massing seems to complete an existing bowl-shaped valley (actually it forms this valley). Thus created, the valley floor — a landscape location long associated with public space and public activity — serves as a setting for common interaction; it is further defined by a fountain as its well or spring. One enters the public realm through the semi-circular opening this spring has “eroded” into the edge of the massing. Central to the open valley floor is a concert hall partly submerged in a mound — a landform long associated with burial and the storage of cultural artifacts. The walls of the valley — a landform associated with individual and small group dwelling — are where the scientists work in their cave-like labs: here the architects have detailed the curtain wall so that it changes from window to rail, refusing to allow window to disrupt the reading of valley wall. The top of the landform — a space in landscape associated with the dwelling places of gods and the enlightened — is left as an open platform intended to serve the scientists as a place to walk and think. Only the director of NSI is allowed to dwell in this traditionally (at least until Jefferson built Monticello) forbidden zone, and that is whose office sits astride the ridge.

Like the beauty of that Blur Building cloud (discussed in an earlier essay in this series), none of this will likely strike you as odd. But that is only a measure of the present. With the exception of the ever contrarian Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers, and perhaps Aalto, no Modernist would have dared venture so deeply into mystical notions of site to justify anything, this sort of backward-gazing anti-progress being viewed with the utmost suspicion. (If we look at a yet more recent project from the same architects — the Natatorium at Cranbrook Academy — we see another stage in this evolution. Here technical and mystical definitions of site go hand in hand with the mechanical operation of biologic need. The extraordinary skylights of this pool are operable, used not only to continuously balance the head load of the building, radically reducing its energy usage, but also to allow you to be outside while you are indoors. But this is a building on the brink of a non-contradictory site and environmental paradigm, so it is ahead of the topic at hand).

Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates, Cranbrook Natatorium, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1996.

I think one can safely assume that the sources for the differences in the Greenbelt and Tarlo houses existed outside of architecture. Antagonism to the sense of dislocation — that much noted consequence of late Modern society — was the driver here, as it was with changes in sculpture. Yet the evolution of these pressures can be seen within architecture. You sense it already in the criticisms of High Modern architecture leveled by Team X, in the work of Hertzberger and Van Eyck, or Candillis, et al; or in the work of their inheritors, like James Stirling, in whose charming study for housing one can at once perceive a compositional or production rule at work, the necessarily abstract quality of which is associated with the Modern, and, at the same time, in its complex result, a nostalgia for the patterns and scales of local landscape. This is a great example of a long-standing Modern yearning for a guilt-free picturesque! 5

James Stirling, Village Project studies, 1955.

Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, 1988. [courtesy of a_mcqu]

If there is not, in Western architecture of the 1960s and early ’70s, an upheaval on the same scale as Land Art — with the odd exception of the radical but oddly inconsequential Capitol Building in Australia — there is nonetheless a complex codification of the inherent primary value of site in the Post-Modern assault and its consequences. Both Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Aldo Rossi’s Architecture of the City suggest that buildings have certain inherent long-standing rules of behavior in landscape, and that they should be allowed to play by these rules. The seeming self-evidence of this argument is of course a sham. That buildings have behaved a certain way does not mean they must continue to behave that way, unless their function is to make — and to a degree to uphold — landscape. The Post-Modern arguments of Rossi and Venturi made sense because they fell on ears open to the possibility that landscape cohesion is primary to building form!

Despite the fact that the Post-Modern assault can thus be sympathetically seen as an attempt to protect landscape, the inherently conservative consequences that its initial practitioners suggested to architectural design were met with unease within a large part of architectural culture, particularly with regard to the daunting crisis of jettisoning abstraction — the tough birthright of the Modern — for the thin forms of representation offered by Rossi and Venturi (and today offered by New Urbanism). 6 Though there was not a popular counter-manifesto sharing the same desire but resolving it by means still sympathetic to the strengths of Modern method, one can still see these issues being worked out across a broad spectrum of constructions, from, for example, Alvaro Siza’s Boa Nova Teahouse, to Rafael Moneo’s Museum of Roman Antiquities in Merida, to Maya Lin’s masterpiece, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station, to Peter Zumthor’s Zogt Benedikt Church, to Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada Aoyama.

Alvaro Siza, Boa Nova Teahouse, Leca, Portugal, 1963.

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1982.

Clockwise, from left: Zaha Hadid, Vitra Fire Station, design presentation and drawing, 1990. Rafael Moneo, Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida, Spain, 1985. Herzog & de Meuron, Prada Aoyama, Tokyo, 2003. [Photo by David Heymann]

Peter Zumthor, Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumtvig, Switzerland, 1989. [Photo by David Heymann]

Present in these examples is an extraordinary range of strategies — from the typological, to the mapped and authorless site gesture, to the distilling object — but also a distinct commonality. As is evident in the success of their presence — and in this the architecture of the past twenty years is unparalleled — one can see the importance of site in the building’s definition of landscape. I love the story that, to design the Fred and Ginger building in Prague, Frank Gehry apparently commissioned a highly detailed, room-sized model of the kilometer-by-kilometer portion of the city surrounding the site, in which — popping his head up like a gopher — he could study the design from every conceivable approach. Gehry’s work is a good example of the complexity of the calculus at work. These are difficult forms — talk to the curators at the Bilbao Guggenheim! — the ultimate measure of which is resonant site presence rather than any other parameter.

Here is one last example of the insidiousness of site — of the ascendance of site — as a primary form-driving factor in current architectural design: the Seattle Public Library by OMA. Rem Koolhaas, OMA’s founder, has made a strong argument for the advantage of anywhere-ness — that is, of precisely the condition that most current design strategies have evolved to combat. At first glance, the SPL seems to hew to basic tenets of anywhere-ness: an illegibility of order, a lack of scale, a crassness of generic material presence. But, in fact, the volume of the SPL may be derived by mapping a series of limits that are endemic to its site: the zoning volume, views to the site from important vantage points, and views to Elliott Bay and the distant Mt. Rainer. Two separate things at are work in this contradiction, one economic, one cultural. On the one hand, there is the architect’s economic need to convince a location-sensitive public that is paying, and — anywhere-ness be damned! — there is no better way to lie a building into being than to suggest that it is fit exactly to its site. On the other hand, there is something more interesting arising from the cultural apotheosis of site: the idea that the architectural object is authored by the site and not by the architect. How many times in the recent past have you heard an architect present a building that way? The site made the building. But — come on! — this is nonsense. In the immortal words 7 of Rush: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Seattle Public Library, Seattle, Washington, 2004.

About the SeriesE

“Site, Ascendant” is part of a series of articles drawn from Landscape with Buildings: Essays on Site Design, a work in progress by David Heymann.

  1. From Robert Irwin’s interesting (and, for architects, troubling) attempt to categorize object/site relationships: “Conditional,” from Being and Circumstance, Notes Toward A Conditional Art (Venice: Lapis Press, in association with New York: The Pace Gallery and San Francisco: Museum of Modern Art, 1985).
  2. The date commonly used to mark the public efflorescence of Earth Art is October 1968, with the opening of the group exhibition “Earthworks” at the Candace Dwan Gallery in New York City.
  3. A topic nicely drawn out in Carol Burns’s great essay “On Site: Architectural Preoccupations: Construing Common Language,” from Body, Image, Text, edited by Andrea Kahn (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991).
  4. Rapson indicates on the site plan, with the letter “S” immediately adjacent to the building, that the house itself is oriented to south, sensible given the extent of the garden imagined. But it isn’t clear that this orientation is fundamental beyond function, since Rapson’s site plan does not share this basic orientation, and seems instead to be oriented to the geometry of the subdivision property lines.
  5. The search for a guilt-free picturesque in the Modern era is the partial subject of future essay in this series. The essential issue is that picturesque composition was castigated as immoral at the start of the Modern — by Stieglitz and others — and vanished as an intentional form of composing. Nonetheless the exceedingly pleasing consequences of picturesque space rapidly returned in the format of the collage. Picturesque composing has thus always been present in Modern cultural work, but it has always been guiltily snuck in the back door, and its presence excused away as a consequence of the means of production.
  6. I clearly recall a 1978 lecture by Colin Rowe in which he bemoaned the “throwing out of the baby with the bathwater,” his lament to the demise of abstraction.
  7. From the great (and weird) rock anthem Freewill: “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Words by Neil Peart; music by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson.
David Heymann, “Site, Ascendant,” Places Journal, December 2010. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • Tom

    12.16.2010 at 11:31

    People have been making architecture in particular ways sensitive to particular places forever. And I'm always amazed that Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial is used as an example of site-specificity when it has, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with the site that it's on other than pointing to the Washington Monument. The concept that the site in architecture is "moving from setting to source" has a nice alliteration, but like all generalities it reveals very little and is dependent on careful storytelling. A responsible essay would try to explore why this is happening, if indeed it is.

  • David Heymann

    12.16.2010 at 17:04

    For me the pointing angles of the VVM are the LEAST interesting aspect of its site specificity. I would argue (see above about SPL) that that pointing is merely a convenient means to publicly justify a geometry here-to-for not associated with public architectures. But that does not mean the VVM is not a masterpiece of site response. There are many subtle and beautiful moves: the ring of trees that, in conjunction with the cut (and an encircling sidewalk), suggests a mound (a form long associated with burial); the protective step that adds visceral weight to the reflective wall; the sectional condition, which banishes the noise of the Mall; the southern exposure that makes a microclimate in winter; the reflective granite, which includes the passerby in defining site, etc., etc.. I do think the essays point to "why this is happening!"

  • Anthem!

    12.19.2010 at 02:59

    I have enjoyed the content of these essays, particularly the willingness to observe that massive constructions such as Roden Crater are not "environmental" in any biological sense (or that a patron saint such as Murcutt is, in the end, still building stand-alone single family houses that are only as "off-the-grid" and "sustainable" as the Range Rover, Fed-Ex, and strict enforcement of property rights will allow).

    But the truly striking and original you've saved for last: concluding with lyrics from Rush!

    Prog rock offers many observations on landscape and architecture - a reading of Tschumi's Acropolis Museum against Rush's epic Hemispheres! HdM's Beijing Stadium as filtered through King Crimson's Discipline! - that it's refreshing to see this rich vein finally Tap'd.

    Look forward to the next in the series - here's to writing in 9/8 time signatures.

  • Jeff Brown

    01.05.2011 at 23:16

    David, I agree with you on the "why it is happening" ...there are many sectional layers of experience....and just think, it all started as a single 'line' in plan!....the reduction of that single act embodies all those sections of experience!