The notion of a “site” has become something architects fixate upon. We yearn for a potential client to identify a site in order to begin developing intriguing concepts to help win the job. We analyze the ecology, orientation, mobility infrastructure, utilities, history, cultural traditions, habits, and broader urban context in which the site exists. In doing so, we think about the program, allowable building density, building traditions, and overall goals of the client. In some cases, we may consider the buildings that still exist on the site or that have existed on the site in the past.
Generally, the site that we are given is in a desirable location. It is a place that a group has determined is of value. This value is often directly tied to the program that the client hopes to bring to the site. Further, this value is tied to the inhabitants who will animate the program when the building is complete. The location must conform to their expectations, desires, need for security, proximity to other activities, and broader cultural tradition defining how they interact with each other and the city. If these conditions can be fulfilled by a particular location, then it is determined that the site can support the often considerable investment required to create a new structure.
As we consider the characteristics of the site and how to design the best building for the site, the question might arise as to the limits of this site analysis. While we might look at the immediate neighborhood, we rarely think about the much broader context. To do so, would be to open the analysis to an almost infinite set of possible points of influence. Further, it might run the risk of taking focus away from the site that will ultimately receive the primary investment. Failing to do so, however, runs the risk of leading to an approach to the site that is insular and inward looking. Such an approach likely does not consider the many demographics that may be excluded by the new development. This is particularly alarming when new construction displaces and existing community or causes the price of land or rent to rise – ultimately leading to higher taxes and an inability for some people to remain in the neighborhood they have called home and taken care of.
In this context, we might ask whether site analysis could consider other vacant sites both nearby and much farther away. These sites might include both sites that would be appropriate for similar buildings as well as those much farther afield that could not support such buildings due to lack of similar buildings nearby, land value, lack of infrastructure, nearby typology, or neighborhood character and history. These “other sites” – often on the periphery, lying in-between, or the residual of some earlier use – are often considered to have less value. They do not attract residents or visitors. Those who find themselves living in these areas often do not necessarily do so by choice, but instead as a result of their socio-economic circumstances. These areas are often deemed dangerous – riddled by gun violence and drug dealers. While the majority of those who live in these areas are not engaged in such activities, the reputation is sufficient to discourage development. If, however, the apparent danger is in part an illusion, why should we not consider ways seeing beyond this illusion? Moreover, why shouldn’t we consider ways of connecting development in higher rent areas to that in lower rent areas so that the value of the higher can be leveraged to develop the lower – perhaps mitigating the risk in the process.
The opportunity to engage in such speculation is not just motivated by an interest in situating a building within an expanded field that enhances its relation to place and drives a deeper sense of meaning. It is motivated by the need to construct more units of affordable housing to meet an extreme shortage and the laws that have been put in place to ensure that developers of higher price real estate make a contribution to the effort. In Chicago, this has meant an affordable housing ordinance that gives developers the options to build affordable units on the site of their development, contribute to a fund that will build such units, or build / invest in units in certain designated neighborhoods that are in need of reinvestment. In electing to build in these distant neighborhoods, most developers would hardly consider that there is a spatial, architectural, or conceptual relationship between the two endeavors. They are simply fulfilling an obligation that, to a certain extent, is largely a hindrance to their primary goal of developing and profiting from the creation of new real estate. In what follows, we would like to argue that this relationship can be more than one of obligation and become one of opportunity and perhaps even knowledge.
The specific origin of this opportunity to derive knowledge, meaning, and information from the relationship between one site and another is found in the concept of “site / non-site” developed by the artists Robert Smithson (fig. 1). For Smithson, the site of investigation was shifted from the studio of the artist and the interior of the gallery to a specific location in the world outside of the boundaries of culture. Such sites were imbued with meaning ranging from the residual of the industrial American city to a pristine forest. This site where the work occurs, in turn, was displaced into the pristine gallery as a site of transcendence of the modern project. Smithson believed that this could be achieved through the confrontation between earth and work / labor. Such a confrontation would create or open an aesthetic dimension because of the misdirection of both work and earth. Essentially, through an unconventional use, definition, and relationship to each, he believed that a new horizon of meaning and insight could be achieved that would lead to an alternative future not grounded in the modern project.
In many ways, all buildings are already a manifestation of the relationship between a site and a non-site. Workers come from neighborhoods around the city to build the project, materials are brought in from around the region, country, and world, and capital whose origin could be a pension fund halfway around the world is deployed to finance the project. In these cases, however, the assumption is that the building will not consciously reflect these origins. Instead, the building will be seen, inhabited, and understood as being unique to and grounded in that place. In Smithson’s terminology, the non-site where transcendence occurs never comes into existence. While the work of architecture may be able to find meaning and transcendence elsewhere – though I would argue that an increasing number of projects by even the most notable architects are becoming increasingly empty – limiting the capacity to reflect the “other” locales that make the new building possible may be a missed opportunity. Perhaps even more alarmingly, it may be one of the only opportunities that remain to code a work of architecture with genuine meaning.
The origin of the notion that two connected sites can inform each other existed prior to Smithson’s work. It can be found in the work (the dérive) of the Surrealists and later Situationists. Both were interested in walking and wondering as a means of freeing the mind and encountering the unexpected. They were interested in a purposeless walking that opens both a direct route and also the potential for getting lost and pausing. Some would gather objects along the way, pull fragments from advertisements, and meet people who would inspire their work – perhaps becoming characters in stories, models, or lovers. Walking through Paris of the early and middle 20th century, these artists had the capacity to section vast swaths of a city that was rapidly changing. They were able to move between wealthy sections, neighborhoods retaining an historic character, and the nomadic periphery. In doing so, they pulled together different perspectives and people – creating an art form that was perhaps more inclusive. In the process, they could investigate the history and collection of people that power the center of the city and make it valuable (figs. 2-5).
The act of walking and crossing boundaries for no other reason than for walking itself, of course, has a much longer history extending to the walks through pastoral settings that became popular in the 19th Century. These walks, however, had the purpose of connecting to nature and restoring one’s health. A walk taken through a derelict city, post-industrial landscape, or even through the barren landscape of the American West is something else entirely (fig. 6). Moreover, if one can convince a sufficient number of people to join one on such a walk, it can quickly transform into a march that has the capacity to protest a broader situation. Such an everyday activity can in turn produce a new space on top of the existing urban fabric when public squares are commandeered, barricades are erected, and protests form. When protests turn violent, the capacity for such movement through the urban fabric to escalate and damage or destroy property is elevated. In the process, however, a community takes control of space and comes to identify with the space they have transformed.
Inherent in the capacity to use the act of walking to draw a section through a city is the ability to take multiple different walks informed by a range of subjectivities, perspectives, hopes, and desires. Rather than conforming to a single source of truth, the value of these journeys through the city can only be understood through their relationship to each other and to the landscape itself. Networks and relationships form a mesh that decentralizes a general orientation to the built environment. From such a perspective, a site and non-site has far less value than sites and non-sites that are gathered from a much wider group of actors engaging the city. Still, these actors and the network they inform and that inform them can be aligned around a particular activity, task, or desire such as going to a place of work, collaborating on a performance, or voting for a new affordable housing ordinance. The creation of a new building could be one such event that creates alignment. In what follows, we will explore how a building can actively become an event beyond one defined by erecting, welding, cladding, and finishing.
There are a number of ways that distant sites in a given city can inform a building site (figs. 7-9). At a fundamental level, the process involves inviting a range of people to select one or more “other sites” and then engage in a process of comparing, contrasting, connecting, and assimilating the two. This process might ask those assembled to convey why they have selected a specific other site and the relationship that they see to the site on which a building will grow. With specific other sites selected, the routes from the site to the other sites could then be drawn. These would not have to be strictly the shortest path between one and the other. Instead, they could be meandering paths that may deviate to connect to a location that is particularly important to the person or group proposing the other site. As these routes are walked and drawn, the path can be documented in literal manners through photographs, objects, artifacts, and narratives. In addition, the path can be documented in a diagrammatic manner by mapping the relationship, tracing adjacent typologies, the geometric properties of each site, the ecological properties, and how they are linked via systems and infrastructure. Further, the relationship can be understood from an interpretive perspective by considering the meaning of the relationship between the two, the opinions that people have of each site, and the way that each and their combination relate to theories and histories. Beyond these methods, it is possible to undertake direct transfers between one and the other. The rituals of one site can be performed in the other, the material of one site can be transferred to the other, and the image of one site can appear in the other.
If we return to the mandate to fulfill the affordable housing requirement inherent to a new residential project in Chicago at a site in a less expensive neighborhood, we might then ask how the new construction on both sites could trace their connection and the broader process that traces a line in-between. One way in which this might occur is by taking an element of a building – a wall, roof, floor, window, door, fireplace, etc… – and singling out a special application that occurs on both sites. This might be something as simple as a retaining wall or lobby wall. It could be as complex as a wall that sections the site and forms a broader parti. This wall could hold an object or take an image that connects the identities of one site to the other. At the same time, a more ephemeral approach can be taken. Projects could be deployed in multiple locations over anything and on any surface. They could be turned on or off depending on the time of day or use of the space. Moving images could also be integrated into the materiality of the surfaces of the buildings. Another tactic would be the literal displacement of objects, soil, or even entire building sections or buildings. Still another approach would be the figurative displacement of a stylistic or cultural reference from one site to another. Finally, we might consider adding a program that marks this transfer such as a museum or archive that might include a narrative. This could also include commissioning an artwork that marks this transference and that could be incorporated at any point of the building.
One might object that introducing these elements as points of influence in the architecture of a building would be to allow urbanism, sociology, culture, politics, and economics to become determining factors in the form that a building might take on. To do so would be to take away from the purity of creating space via form, material, light, color, texture, detail, and hierarchy. It would be to depart from the tradition of modern architecture that has dominated how cities are built around the world. Perhaps, however, this is exactly the reason for doing so. Although certain postmodern architects – ranging from those stylistically called post-modern to all those who come after and drew upon the language of modern architecture – have registered a critique of the shortcomings of modern architecture, it remains a tool of control and the dominant interest of those who control capital. It is anti-indigenous, anti-vernacular, anti-low cost, anti-environment, and anti-local knowledge. Instead, it is pro-global, pro-debt, pro-speculation, and pro-endless expansion of square feet.
The consequence of this approach might be to introduce an architecture that reflects an expanded contextual field while also introducing formal elements that, while perhaps existing alongside a traditional modern architectural vocabulary, destabilize the hegemony of that vocabulary as well as the singularity of the building as autonomous object. While not necessarily directly empowering people, this approach would give a broader group of people the capacity to contribute to the material development of sections of the city they might not otherwise have access to. Moreover, it would imbue a building with a greater sense of depth and meaning – thus countering the trend towards reducing a building to an image to be sold and exchanged. It would encourage seeing the building as a platform or stage rather than as something to be consumed. In doing so, it might lead to a new approach to urbanism that sees the city as a network and that encourages people to explore. Those able to live in the high rent site might even be encouraged to travel to the other site and, in doing so, might gradually catalyze broader development of the city.
To end, we might consider the limits of the relationship between one site and another. This is to ask, how far apart can one site be from another? Can we trace the path between a site on one side of the world and the other? Further, how much meaning can be imbedded in a given building? How much can a space hold? To a certain extent, this is to ask whether a building can reflect the broad ways in which we have become increasingly interconnected to places and people all around the world. Such buildings would not reflect their international determination through adoption of a style, but through how they convey specific connections. This again would involve developing a strategy capable of this specificity while also being able to express the myriad connections that exist and that form a genuine picture of reality. On one hand, this might involve reducing the traces of those connections to the micro level – for example, inscribing this trace in a single brick on the wall of the lobby. On the other hand, it might be to maximize the trace through a digital projection that can change over time. Whatever strategy is adopted, it will likely be the case that the inhabitants will have to learn how to read the building if genuine transmission of meaning and knowledge is to occur. Hopefully this will be the case as all too many spaces have become inert, unfeeling, and disconnected from those who inhabit them. In the process, it might just lead to a new sense of embeddedness and feeling of connectivity to the world we inhabit – perhaps even prompting us to take better care of our world (fig. 10).