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  • Writer's pictureJulian Raxworthy

RESEARCH: Specificity

My first refereed paper from 1997, "Specificity: the impossibility of not projecting" published in Landscape Review Volume 3, No.2, which arose from the "Ology" studio at RMIT.


Ultimately, no matter how one may avoid it, and from whatever angle one approaches it, all environmental design is judged in terms of its 'appropriateness'. The inherent subjectivity of any judgement of appropriateness has become the enduring paradox of environmental design practice. Despite this paradox, however, most designers would agree, from an epistemological perspective at least, that the determination of appropriateness would reside in how the design is seen to respond to the specificity of the brief (or program) and the site1. Considering this, the brief could be seen as being 'given', while the site 'received'. The challenge of 'appropriateness' would seem to be the location of the 'specific' in the site, and the Landscape Architect, in the Olmsted-ian tradition as custodian2, or at least curator & speaker3, would be the person for the job.

The Specific and Analysis.

The appreciation of the 'specific' is the same as an understanding of that which is 'significant' in a site. This appreciation is, within the discourse of Landscape Architecture (and perhaps all discourses), based upon the collection and assessment of 'relevant' information about the 'nature' of the site (or subject) through 'analytical' methodologies, the most dominant of which is the generic 'Site Analysis'4. In deconstructive terms, if one were to work from all the extant 'stuff' on the site, backwards, to that which the analytical system regards as fact, but which is simply privileged information, one begins to discern the prejudices of the discourse, the ethical and ideological systems that form its basis5. This suggests that the information ignored plays an 'uncanny' role in the 'Site Analysis' process; it is at once 'irrelevant', yet it is required to determine that which is relevant, simply through its status of 'otherness'6.

The Specific is a Projection.

Considering this status of information in Landscape Architecture, as being gathered through prejudice, what is the constitution of the 'specific' of the site? Asking this question can give only one answer; whatever the discourse of Landscape Architecture at the time wishes it to be. The discourse will project onto the site the significance it wishes to find, through the conditioning of its criteria. This projection is carried with the discourse to every site and therefore all sites are generalised into a commonality, acting as a gesture of 'generalising out' whatever it was that was specific (assuming the discourse could see it, which it couldn't)7. Landscape Architecture does this through the selective allocation of significance mentioned above.

The Specific is a product of culture.

In its afore-mentioned role as 'the custodian of the land' for 'the good of the people', Landscape Architecture assumes its role within the cultural production of systems of value, at once conditioning by and for them. Correspondingly, each discourse modifies its premises and its modes of practice to that of the cultural context in which it is located. This puts Landscape Architecture in the rather awkward position of, in its custodian role, privileging ecological information as inviolate fact8, while at the same time, in being 'for the people', it is consciously and uncompromisingly partaking in the environmental degradation that is inherent within the production and consumption of capitalism9, through its status as a 'service' industry.

In discussing the status of the 'discourse' in the project of modernity, Habermass regards this as a breakdown in 'communicative rationality', where an entire world view is seen through the filter of a single discourse, or where the discourse attempts to shoulder an entire world view10. Again, in deconstructive terms, the great weight that is placed by Landscape Architecture on the allegedly 'objective' discourse of ecology emphasises the fact that there is no such thing, or at least, no such thing that is currently available11.

Despite all this, however, the imperative of 'appropriateness' and therefore 'specificity' is no less urgent. What other methods are there, then, for accessing such information, or determining what 'specificity' is, or more specifically, what is 'specific'?

The Specific and Essences : Historical Moment.

Another strategy of accessing the 'specific' is the location of the essential or the 'essence'. This is most commonly undertaken by mainstream Landscape Architectural practices through the adoption of the 'Period/Era' motif to capture historical specificity. In effect, this strategy operates in the same way as the 'Site Analysis'. By selecting a particular element from a particular historical period, and then identifying it as significant, by utilising it as motif, what actually becomes significant is those times that are left un-referenced, that contextualise the motif and locate it in the historical frame. Left ambiguous through un-self conscious interpretation, these motifs rather emphasise the simplification of history that occurs through the breakdown in 'communicative rationality' mentioned above. This is of course, not to mention that it is impossible to have something that is specific to a single site, that occurred simultaneously everywhere. This, then, makes it another generalising projection, rather than a genuine attempt at locating the specific12.

The Specific and Essences : The Vernacular.

Relatively recent discussions in Landscape Architecture would attempt to locate 'the essence' in the 'Vernacular', particularly in an attempt to re-engage 'the middle landscape' of suburbia. The 'Vernacular' tends to refer to a vocabulary of forms and arrangements of the 'everyday' that occur spontaneously in un-designed environments13. This approach would see the vernacular and the banal as genuine, un-pretentious cultural production, as a kind of unconscious expression of belonging to a specific location. This view fails to note that designed and undesigned cultural expression both fit in within the structure of capitalist production, and therefore cannot so easily be separated. Assuming there is such a thing as the essence in the 'Vernacular', however, this is another instance where the inherent modes of operation of the discourse would interfere.

The discourse of Landscape Architecture would have to have, even to be able to note the existence of the vernacular, an institutionalised means of ascertaining membership to the category, such that it was something 'specific'. However to have such a mechanism would suggest that the vernacular was able to be formularised, and such an understanding would undermine its ability to be something 'specific', that is something in which 'significance' resides.

Apart from this the utilisation of the vernacular must be, in itself, a contradiction. It is impossible to be utilised precisely because it accretes unselfconsciously. To attempt to utilise it is a self-conscious act and as soon as one becomes aware of it, it is rendered unavailable. Through its own belonging, it is unavailable to the outside, and through its pretentious application it is invalidated. This is not to mention that, assuming the discourse had access to the vernacular, and that the discourse was actively involved in the perpetuation of its self-conscious moral and ethical codes, inherent in the vernacular is patriarchy and ethnocentric racism, exactly because it is part of a cultural production by a culture in which those values are inherent. Consequently, also any 'specific' site would also be engendered with the same values, through the cultures spatial production14.

The Specific and Scale.

The 'specific', for the purposes of its utility in design, must occur in a spatial location and therefore be a certain size to be significant, apart from any criteria that judges its qualitative aspects that allow it to be categorised as 'specific'. This is critical in discursive terms, because its ability to be located within the graphic of the discourse, as well as its ability to be captured in a cartographic sense are also vital prerequisites to its membership of 'significance', its ability to be 'useful' information. Assuming that the above strategies were able to access the 'specific', the issues of scale and representation become critical. At what scales is the 'specific' available and relevant?

There is here a significant difference. While something may be available at a certain scale, it may not be relevant, and vice-versa. Such a methodology would subordinate the specific to its means of representation15. Despite this, however, is the fact that such a determination of the scale at which something is relevant is a projection from the brief to the site, and is, therefore. another means of generalising away from the 'specific' or the importation of the specific to the site.

The Specific and Representation.

Representation, apart from the problems inherent in a media, mentioned above, has its own specific issues. Since representation is a validation mechanism, the logic could be seen to be 'if it can be represented, it must be there'. Representation of something requires some familiarity of knowledge, such that, one, it can be recognised, two, that it can be represented and three, that others will be able to view the representation and appreciate the original16.This would appear to be an inherent contradiction, since the 'specific' is by nature unique, whereas the representation requires previous recognition17.

The Specific : Non-existent.

All of this would seem to simply indicate that it is impossible to locate the 'specific' as a site specific unique entity. The ramifications of this are great when one considers the role of the specific in the legitimation of design decisions, and even greater when one considers that Landscape Architects design complete environments, which have a definite role in the passing on of societal conditioning18. Of even greater significance is the status of the fact, and from there it could appear to be a downward slide into Sophistic solipsism. Assuming one would wish to avoid this, where to from here?

Strategies toward Specificity : Self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness may be the only legitimate mode of practice available, if one wishes to sincerely deal with specificity19. This must rest in a recognition that all that is specific resides in what one puts there, and therefore that specificity resides in the culture, and the discourses that make up that culture. Deconstructive discourse, in which one notes those critical points of compromise on which a discourse depends, may be the best strategy one can utilise to address this issue20. Consequently the danger is the development of a culture of 'in jokes' and irony, that renders the work unavailable to those people which, as discussed, it is largely responsible for conditioning. A self conscious appreciation of conventionality, as the unconscious production of the discourse may be another.

How then does one develop a 'Critical Regionalism'21? If, as has been discussed, the most one can do is critique the specificity of the discourse, and the discourse it global, then it already exists within such an economy. However taking into consideration the 'tyranny of distance', regionalism could reside in the particular modulations of the discourse locally.

Strategies toward Specificity : Doublethink.

In a disturbing sense, the rejection of the existence of fact may be a liberating gesture. It squarely places everything within the sphere of culture, and discursive practice, such that any search for the 'specific' becomes a hermeneutical act, a means of better understanding the mode of practice, it is by nature self-obsessed, since it would argue that the discourse is all that could be known.

This is where the conscious adoption of flawed systems of ethics and morals, and the strategy of sous rature, may be a means of encoding the work at a range of levels. Sous rature, or under erasure, is a Derridean strategy that, at once recognises that everything has a 'given' meaning (or is loaded with a priori values), yet still utilises this language, without subscribing to this given meaning22. The Orwellian system of 'double-think'23 comes to mind, and could offer a viable and honest means of dealing with this paradox. While Orwell utilised this to signify a strong conditioning, such a strategy actually recognises that since no linguistic system is composed of inherent facts such that a strategy of holding contradictory views would allow one to, on the one hand hold an 'irrational' (in conventional terms) belief system while simultaneously subscribing to a conventional one also. There is a liability of responsibility to be shouldered in this instance, as a certain leap of faith is required to be able to exist holding two such systems, however, simply the self-consciousness of such a manoeuvre is some sort of assurance that one is aware of the inherent contradictory nature of 'everyday' existence. This means that the individual is able to have a conscious commitment to their ethics and morals, because of this awareness of their contradictory nature, rather than simply, unconsciously, perpetuating a series of received values. Such an ability would have to be regarded as Freudian, not to mention Postmodern.

Whatever the strategy that is to be utilised may be, ultimately the 'specific' in the site, represents the 'specific' in the discourse and, correspondingly, the 'specific' in the practitioner, and therefore 'significance' rests within the 'projectionist', not the 'land' on which one projects.



1. Lynch, K. & Hack, G., Site Planning, 3rd ed., MIT Press, Mass., 1983. p. 29. Lynch and Hack note, in a book that has formed the basis of American (and by default, Australian) Landscape Architectural practice, that '..the site and the purposes for which it will be used - the 2 sources of site design''.

2. Laurie, M., An Introduction to Landscape Architecture, 2nd ed., Elsevier, New York, 1986. p. 11.

3. Meyer, E., Landscape as Modern Other and Postmodern Ground, from Edquist, H. & Burne, R. (eds.), The Culture of Landscape Architecture, Edge Publishing., Melbourne, 1994.

4. Laurie, op. cit., p.133

5. Deconstructive here used as a mode of practice, rather than as a 'style', as defined by Wigley, M., The Architecture of Deconstruction : Derrida's Haunt, MIT Press, Mass., 1993. p. 214., where he states '..(Deconstructive) inquires look for slippages in the tradition by questioning all its routine catagories and strategies but not simply to overthrow them.'

6. Owens, C., The Discourse of Others : Feminists and Postmodernism, from Foster, H.(ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic : Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Seattle, 1983. Owens notes that ' is the Man who speaks, who represents mankind. The woman is only represented; she is (as always) already spoken for.'. Similarly, 'irrelevant' information also has the status of being spoken for; having been uncommented on, it is nescessarily better represented by the information of relevance.

7. Foucault, M., The Order of Things : An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Vintage, New York, 1970. p. 47. Of Quixote, Foucault notes that '..his whole journey is a quest for similitudes: the slightest analogies are pressed into service as dormant signs that must be reawakened and made to speak once more.'

8. Witness the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects environmental charters. Need ref.

9. The production of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by the Landscape Architect, paid for by the developer client, would be the most blatant example of this.

10.Habermass, J., The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol.1, Reason and the Rationalization of Society, Beacon Press, Boston, 1981.

11. Wilson, A., The Culture of Nature : North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, Blackwell, Mass., 1992. p.59. Wilson notes that this is emphasised through the reluctance of ecology to be hybrised with the 'humanities'; economics, law, history and sociology.

12. Soja, E.W, Postmodern Geographies : the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Verso, 1989. p.15. Soja notes that '..(historiscism creates)..a critical silence, an implicit subordination of space to time'.

13. Jackson, J.B, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1984. p.85. Jackson notes '..(the vernacular)..does not pretend to stylistic sophistication. It is loyal to local forms and rarely accepts innovations from outside the region'.

14. Lefebvre, H., The Production of Space, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991. p.81. Talking of Marx, Lefebvre comments ' merely note the existence of things is to ignore that things embody social relations'.

15. McLuhan, M., Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man, Sphere Books, London, 1967. p.15. 'The personal and social consequences of any medium result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs.'

16. Heidegger, M., The End of Philosophy, Harper and Row, New York, 1973. p.110. 'Appropriation grants to mortals their abode within their nature, so that they may be capable of being those who speak'.

17. Foucault, M., loc. cit.

18. Habermass, J., loc. cit. Habernass notes that visual communication through environments is one of the greatest modes of 'handing down' conditioning, as does Lefebvre.

19. Tafuri, M., Architecture and Utopia, MIT Press, Mass., 1976. p.181.

20. Wigley, M., loc. cit.

21. Frampton, K., Towards a Critical Regionalism, from Foster, H., op.cit. This is the ability to be located in a global discourse, while maintaining a local angle.

22. Spivak, G.C., Translators Introduction, p.xviii, from Derrida, J., Of Grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, London, 1974. Sous rature, or under erasure is '..the strategy of using the only available language while not subscribing to its premises'.

23. Orwell, G., Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Books, London, 1954. p.244. Orwell describes words that are composed of 2 contradictory conjunctions, as Newspeak B Vocabulary expressions.


Kirsten Bauer, who, as co-studio leader and friend, has been equally responsible for this investigation, and who has frequently pulled me up on my tendancy toward grandiose statements; Peter Connolly, who, as friend and mentor, introduced me to much of this thought, and made me recognise the role of language; to the Students of the 'Ology in Process' studio, whose work allowed me to draw these conclusions, and whose participation and commitment to the studio allowed this book to come out.

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