summer 2014 01

When we talk and write about architecture in Montana and the larger West, we most often reference the object that is being constructed, divorced from its nature and setting—what many of us call, its place.  But this kind of conceptualization leads to a way of thinking and designing that fails to consider the depth and power, value and necessity of place.

Failing to consider place, we not only fail to consider the qualities of the landscape and terrestrial environment but we also fail to consider people, their social and cultural influences, and the living condition of what we make.

The Rocky Mountain West is currently in the midst of visual changes occurring within the built environment that have profound implications for how we see and conceive of the region.  It has been said that only by understanding a place can we consciously craft strategies for protecting the things in it we love.

But how do we come to know place?

And how do we know when we know it? Is it because we live in a place our entire lives, or that we have learned to observe patterns and classifiable conditions?


At what point do we stop thinking about the place as an abstraction identified by its comparison to other places, and start knowing its authenticity and originality through continuously being the place?  


Do we know a place because we can measure the environment and its changes in weather, time and season?  Or because we feel the things that make it ineffable?

At what point do we stop thinking about the place as an abstraction identified by its comparison to other places, and start knowing its authenticity and originality through continuously being the place?

In other words, how do we become reflections of place, setting our values by it, instead of imposing our will upon it, to the point its essence no longer exists?

Russell Chatham, one of Montana’s vaunted resident artists who moved here from northern California in the 1970’s—and then moved back again three years ago— says that it took him several years to know this place, several years before he could paint Montana. What Chatham means is that while he could paint the landscape of Montana’s mountains, sky or grassland, it would have been from the outside-discursively, from merely looking at but not from within - from the intuitive inspiration that comes from experiencing life. So rather than impatiently paint Montana, a place he did not know, Chatham waited.

Knowledge of place does not come immediately to an outsider, or without effort. Place seeps into us over time, becoming who we are. We must lie in its shadows and become a part of its day to day occurrences.  Being conscious, raising our awareness of place, may be the only defense in avoid the blightful homogenization of southwest Montana that has so destroyed so many other corners of the country.

Something strange occurs as you come to know a particular place and stop trying to assert the model for another place upon it. Its once identifiable qualities blur into continuous experience. No longer conscious of a particular place empathetically it becomes your life. You still sense its changes and continuities – its wholeness, but you are no longer startled by its unique characteristics.

I believe it is this blurring experience that artists attend to. They are given the responsibility to make the world visible and tangible when it is all but blurry for the rest of us. They remind us to pay attention to the things that matter. For both long time residents and visitors, a place comes present and distinct through an artist’s writing, drawing, painting, singing, sculpting, and yes, of course, the way that one approaches building.

What if we were to write about architecture, not as an object, but as part of a place, aware of its influences, its relations and conditions.   What if, as part of that awareness, we were fully conscious of the ways that architecture can alter—destroy or enhance—our relationship for the very nature that brought us and keeps us here?

Would we not share a greater sense of its place, its reality? I was most fortunate to share a friendship with Sambo Mockbee. Over the years we had many conversations about “architecture, sex and death,” as he would call it. I also heard him speak publicly a number of times.

While Sambo wouldn’t speak directly to the idea of place, he spoke often of his life in the South and its particularities. Mostly, he lived his life and practiced architecture through the unique lens of the South and the impressions of that place upon him. Sambo had this magic about him, a sense of himself in the world, a clear feeling and sensibility about the place in which he worked that was the gift given a poet.  His architecture was great not because of the forms, textures and materials he assembled, but because of his mythology which came to inhabit his buildings.

When he spoke about his work it was not to explain the plan and sectional organization of particular buildings but to share the experience of beauty he recognized in the world. Even in the tragic setting of southern Alabama and Mississippi he found beauty shining through in the lives of the people he came to build for. Sambo would talk and write about the Mother Goddess explaining her role in our cosmology. Such preoccupations are often seen as idiosyncrasies, odd conditions of our personality that others find difficult to comprehend.

But it is these preoccupations that bring to life the world, while the brief idiosyncratic experiential overlaps we share with others are those truths that don’t require words. Sambo confirmed my belief that our over reliance on the activities of analysis and objectification of our artifacts is a waste and dishonor to life itself. The best we can offer others of architecture is the story of why we design and build the way we do. This is the beginning of my story in Montana, a place and people I am learning day by day.

Next time:  On the other side of Bozeman Pass, Ryker riffs on paradise, true place-based architecture and her own humbling immersion in Montana.


Editor's Note: Lori Ryker Ph.D., a noted Montana-based authority on place-based architectural design, is founder of The Artemis InstituteOne of Artemis’ signature initiatives is Remote Studio, a learning program for architects of all ages who aspire to achieve a great understanding of the relationship between the natural world and the human footprint.  It has had students from across the country.  Dr. Ryker also has been a visiting professor at several prominent Design Schools.  Her column—The Power of Place—will appear regularly at