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Regional Authenticity and Architectural Sincerity
Meaningful design is not driven by gratuitous 'decoration'
Posted on August 1, 2023 @ 5:42PM

In virtually all our travels now, we see all manors of decorative devices employed in the built environment. Most represent, overtly or indirectly, intentions, aspirations, or values. Often, signage supplements or simply replaces architectural iconography.

Regional authenticity is undermined by the forces of globalization and by the unbridled use of 'theme' centered imagery. Architectural 'style' is oft reduced in this context to superficial gestures. We all know this landscape. The motel building with brown 1 x 6 'braces' applied to suggest we have arrived in Austria; the prow-shaped 'vacation home' framing yet another tragic reenactment of "Wilderness: Home of the Jet-Ski." We are aware of the emptiness of these charades (Do we really buy the perverse premise of "fast-food Mexican?"), yet tend to accept them. We will them to succeed. Why? Ironically, perhaps these faux constructs appeal to universal longings for that which they displace - a sense of place.

Why else would a community-wide agreement to specialize in a collective fairy tale, such as Leavenworth, Washington, be viewed as such a (civic/commercial) victory? Perhaps for the same reasons we uncritically, willfully accept a Disney "Main Street" pedestrian strip mall as a "Main Street"; it is a pleasurable fantasy.

Consider - in contrast - any authentic regional environment. Visualize a Mediterranean hill town, organically born over countless generations. Remember a neighborhood of bungalows in Spokane's South Hill or an adobe structure in a wide Arizona valley. Consider a Norman castle in England built to resist Viking raids. Enjoy the memory of a snow fort you defended as a child. Visit a marina. Go to REI and look at tents. Genuine or authentic design is not driven by gratuitous 'decoration.'

Authentic regional character is potentially powerful and valuable as a place-defining reality. That the Northwest is not bound to an archetypal regional architecture does not leave us needing to reach for cliches referencing other places or times to develop a meaningful architectural palette. We may effectively borrow from architectural history, but only if we do so by means of a regionally authentic interpretation of that inheritance. I advocate seeking sincere responses to the indigenous qualities of this spectacular region, and to the particular character of the specific and singular place we intend to shape with our own architectural intervention.

Author: Sam Rodell

Sam has practiced as an award winning architect for forty years, and has also built many of his clients' projects.  He is licensed throughout most of the western USA and Canada, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) which expedites registration in other states and provinces. He was the first Certified Passive House Consultant architect in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.