Dear Archop Nation,
The notion of authenticity has in it the idea of a pure, genuine original, a sort of Platonic ideal – ‘this is an authentic 1952 Tops Mickey Mantle Rookie card, all others are copies, replicas, or fakes’. A thing’s authenticity is a measure of its faithfulness to the original; and its value is measured by the degree to which it approximates the original. The authentic rookie baseball card is a far greater prize than the re-issued anniversary edition.
Applying this model of authenticity to the built environment sheds light on a notion of authenticity that enables us to assess the building’s value. If an exact replica of the Eiffel tower were erected today in Buenos Aires, it is doubtful that it would become the same symbol of national identity and pride for Argentinians that it has for Parisians.
If the London bridge was removed from its original location and reconstructed in Lake Havasu City, Arizona –then it would be an abhorrent grafting that stripped a historic structure of any meaningful contextual significance.
What is clear from the above examples is that the measure of a building’s authenticity is inseparably wed to its time, its place, its people, its cultural milieu. It is not so much the degree of faithfulness to the original that matters, but, rather, the degree to which a building is faithful to the environment in which it exists. It is this notion of “rootedness” that provides us with a meaningful tool for assessing the value of authenticity for a built work.
Perhaps no living architect embodies this notion of “rootedness” better than the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt. When asked what idea he is most concerned with communicating to his students, Mercut replied:
They must think that every project they do is worthy of being. Their work has to speak about place, technology, climate, structure, materials. They must work honestly, with heart and mind, rather than structuring what is a visual delight alone. Their work has to have roots. I think what we admire
most about architecture of all periods is rootedness, authenticity. We recognize authenticity, and we recognize the five-minute flash. The authentic lives on; the flash quickly dies.
Almost all of Mercutt’s work has been done in his native geographic region. He does not have a single high rise, flashy concert hall or show piece museum on his resume, yet he has received the two highest professional honors that can be bestowed upon an architect – the AIA Gold Medal and the Pritzker Prize. What he has left is a trail of thoughtful, progressive, sustainable ‘gifts’ to his clients and fellow Australians. I offer his Marie Short House, built in Kempsey in 1975, as a model of an authentic building rooted in its environment. A May 2007 New York Times article entitled “The Native Builder” features the building.
Our challenge as designers will be two-fold. First, we must study, comprehend and recognize what is unique to our culture, our area, our people. Second, we must share and celebrate these findings in the public forum that is our local built environment. Beauty will have no choice but to follow; and we will all have reason to smile. I will be listening with open eyes and mind.