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theory thursday: An Authenticity of ‘Rootedness’

Dear Archop Nation,

I was intrigued by the recent ‘Theory Thursday’ post concerning the concept of authenticity. Below is my attempt to further the discussion.

mantleThe 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.

Eiffel-TowerApplying 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.

london-bridgeIf 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.

murcottOur 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.


Michael Pinheiro

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2 Responses to “theory thursday: An Authenticity of ‘Rootedness’”

  1. i think connoisseurs of architecture will agree that good design is contextual, or as you say ‘rooted.’ i couldn’t agree more.

    what i find interesting however is how different architects are manipulating the spatial/temporal boundaries of ‘context.’ when a project is in the process of design and the designer(s) are vetting out information from the site [what i like to call the "DNA of place"] the spatial/temporal boundary is subject to the designer(s).

    an example: the design of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis by Jean Nouvel took its ques from the mill silos and the smokestacks surrounding the site on the Mississippi River. this clearly set the spatial boundary to the immediate surrounding. locally, we have the H Street Lofts, which similarly took it’s tactile clues from the surrounding railroad tracks and industrial materials.

    however, for the design of the new MOMA Tower in New York, Nouvel sets the contextual boundaries [space] to an entire city and [time] an entire century. in this case tipping his hat to the modernist style from the 20th century that dominates New Yorks urban fabric.

    what than, if any, are the parameters for ‘rootedness’? need it be a city block, or a district, or a region, or a nation, or a hemisphere………

  2. Arnie Kriegbaum says:

    Shaunt and Michael
    Thanks for a great post and a great comment. This is what the web is all about.

    The question here so far seems to be: What are the boundaries of “context”? My thought is that human scale is always what I crave. AT & T park succeeds because it carefully shrinks 40,000 seats in a way that Candlestick didn’t. I still really wish I could move into the top of the Fresno Pacific Tower (finances are a BIT of an issue) because it is a great building for a town the size of Fresno. Also, it isn’t beside the Empire state building which would ruin it as a site.

    New construction should draw from everything that both of you have said regarding scale of a project, and use of materials. All in a human scale.

    Again, thanks to you both for your insights.


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