Out of PlaceOut of Place
by Graham Ross

The title, "Out of Place" invites two distinct interpretations; one encapsulating the critical tenor of Hough's assessment of the shortcomings of contemporary environmental design theories which he argues results in designs which appear to be out of place with their surroundings; the other typifying his preferred, ecologically responsive, location specific design philosophy which seeks to identify solutions which emerge out of (the) place. The subtitle, "Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape" underscores this commitment to design solutions that acknowledge and emphasise the characteristics of a particular place.

The issues covered in Out of Place are very much of our time and Hough situates his argument about environmental/urban design within the wider context of growing concerns about the effect of globalisation, technology and tourism on both regional identity and ecology when he states,

"The apparent shift away from what is distinctive to what is similar in the contemporary world is the consequence of the complex social, economic and technological changes that have occurred with increasing rapidity since the industrial revolution….It is a truism to say that urban places all over the world seem to be suffering the same kind of homogenising fate as we find in other facets of contemporary life."1

The Regional Imperative

To counteract the homogenisation and standardisation of our urban environment which is driven by the requirements of "capitalism and economics"2 Hough develops his argument around the need to recognise the critical components that create a specific place prior to embarking on any design intervention in that context. This design methodology will create, Hough hopes, a response to place that emphasises its unique qualities and celebrates its distinctive character. This approach requires an understanding of what Hough calls the Regional Imperative which;

" is founded on natural processes and the native landscape
" recognises the holistic view of man as part of the regional ecosystem
" requires understanding of the essence and structure of the regional landscape

Central to this holistic approach is the recognition of man's role within the wider ecosystem, not distinct from it. Hough is clear that, "the concept of natural process is an idea that is useful only if one perceives humanity as a part of it. Artificial distinctions between what is 'human' and what is 'natural' …have dogged much environmental thinking..."3

Regional Identity, Necessity and the Vernacular

As a demonstration of the essence of Regional Identity Hough outlines a series of examples of human intervention within the regional landscape which evoke and develop a place specific character in response to context. The creation of, "Regional Identity is based on limitations."4 and Hough's examples demonstrate the determinants of a regional vernacular architecture and he identifies necessity as the governing factor in influencing its organisational, material and formal attributes. In his view, "Vernacular forms are shaped by many forces: the determinant of nature (biophysical forces and climate); the culture and history unique to each place and time; the role of a central authority whose decisions impose an organisational structure on the landscape." 5


From Plato's Republic via Thomas More's Utopia to Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, Hough examines, in a highly critical fashion, the legacy of these and many other idealised visions of the urban environment. Utopian visions have dominated political, philosophical and environmental thinking about the city since Antiquity and have had a significant and, Hough postulates, damaging influence on the way man has sought to create and develop cities.

Furthermore, Hough reckons that Utopian ideologies are the, "antithesis of regional diversity and identity, conceptually the imposition of a static authoritarian view on bio-diversity and human processes"6. Indeed Hough questions the compatibility of design and nature, considering the conflict inherent in the imposition of a designed solution on a natural landscape; a solution which by its very nature will be conditioned and lack the intuitive insight required to produce a sensitive response to place. In fact Hough concludes that, "in effect, design ignores regional identity"7

The Urban Region and the Loss of Identity

In Hough's view, whilst the rapid and pronounced loss of regional identity in urban, suburban and rural environments is symptomatic of the homogenising effects of global economics, standardisation and the dogmatic and unthinking application of ill-considered and inappropriate utopian doctrines, there are further, inter-related reasons for the shift from diversity to conformity in our built environment.

For Hough one of the key factors in the degradation of clearly defined regional identity is the move away from rooted communities tied to the land to the current paradigm of the transient, mobile society of the information age. He also implies that man's increasing separation from, and control of, nature from the Industrial Age onward has resulted in the imposition of man's will on the regional landscape with such force that the effects have created an environment which tends toward the bland and the indistinct. Primary causes of this homogenisation include the development and application of horticulture, industrial agriculture, the explosion of heavy industry and the voracious use of the regional landscape as urban resource and sink to fuel the appetite of the consumerist society and accommodate its detritus.

Predictably, Hough sets his sights on suburbia as a typical manifestation of the vacuous and selfish attitudes prevalent in contemporary society. For Hough, "the suburban (environment) … increasingly reflect(s) the imperatives of commodity production, and like any other mass produced commodity, it assume(s) everywhere a universal image"8

Hough bemoans, "urban expansion (that) now engulfs a rural environment which no longer serves the productive and symbiotic relationship it once had with a discrete urban place."9 and condemns the resultant lack of clarity and definition in the development of the contemporary city, particularly at its interface with its rural hinterland.

Tourism: searching for the differences

Beyond the factors noted above, Hough highlights the conflicts and contradictions presented by tourism both as one of the most insidious influences on the undermining of regional identity and as a potential catalyst in encouraging and celebrating the sustained diversity of regional characteristics, in a social and environmental sense.

He struggles to decide if tourism is a benefit or a liability to sustaining regional identity, initially stressing that, "one of tourism's dilemmas is found in the urge (it creates) for people to conform"10 whilst rightly identifying that, "tourism (has) a long and valuable educational tradition (contributing) to the discovery of the world and to our way of interpreting it."11 Hough raises concerns about issues of authenticity, demonstrating the fossilising effects an overwhelming promotion of historical imagery can have on a vibrant city, highlighting the apparent conflict between continuity and heritage, between consumption and conservation. The complexity of the impact of tourism on identity is summarised by Hough when he re-emphasises, "that the economic survival of many a…town depends on the wealth tourism brings, but tourism also provides the prescription for the town's demise"12 and loss of character.

However the theme of necessity and imperative re-surfaces when Hough states that, "tourism has the potential to be a major force in the protection and maintenance of regional character."13 as it becomes apparent that it is necessary to maintain inherent and particular characteristics of a region to ensure that it retains its attractiveness as a tourist destination, providing a distinct and different visitor experience.

Principles of Regional Design

Having established the main contributing factors to the loss of regional identity in the built environment, Hough turns from a critical appraisal of the aspects of contemporary life which have been synonymous with "progress" since the Industrial Revolution but have had a negative impact on regional identity, to outline his principles of regional design. Hough suggests that in contemporary society which is defined, not by constraints or limitation but, by the plethora of choice where individualism prospers in lieu of any collective response to the environment any meaningful reinstatement of regional identity in the cityscape will prove problematic.

Hough presents his principles as an open-ended theory, inviting interpretation and avoiding any notion of a prescriptive "design guide" approach. As before he questions the potential for design to be a force for positive change, underlining his view that, "it can be argued that purposeful design has done more to generate placelessness than to promote a sense of place."14

Hough's principles are, in essence, an ecologically responsive and responsible, environmentally sustainable approach. Interestingly he understands that any holistic, ecologically informed design approach centred on, "values that espouse a truly sustainable future will only emerge when it is perceived that there are no alternatives."15 echoing the recurrent theme that necessity is central to determining the course of development and change in the environment.

Knowing the Place

Hough's approach for achieving a design methodology which reinforces the regional identity is founded on an understanding of life processes, a celebration of diversity and could be defined as organic in its formulation. Reasonably he calls upon the designer to be able to detect the characteristic traits of a specific place, to be able to, "know the place" through observation, the development of a geo-psychic map of an area and an analysis of the way the place functions, recognising what does and does not work in that place. This, he feels, is critical prior to any development of a designed response to an environmental programme. In addition, in extension to, "knowing the place" Hough expects the designer to have an acute awareness to the psychology of behaviour, an insight into how people actually behave, what they actually do. Hough anticipates that through the sympathetic analysis of spatial context and human responses to place, and following the synthesis of these influences, an environmentally sustainable attitude to design will emerge which will deliver design solutions that are imbued with a human spirit and create places with human scale.

Maintaining a Sense of History

Just as he feels that an understanding of life processes and human involvement within the wider ecosystem is a key tool for any designer seeking to respond sensitively to context, Hough also highlights the importance of an historical perspective, demanding recognition of the significance of a latent collective memory as an important influence on future design.

Doing as Little as Possible

Hough is scathing in his criticism of design doctrines, attacking fashions and stylistic trends in architectural design as, "a series of never questioned mistakes repeated over and over again."16 In sharp contrast he demands that designers should avoid the strident imprint of their ego on their designs, and start to have the humility to, "do as little as possible". This principle, Hough explains, requires a sensitivity of judgement and a perceptive notion of how a design may act as a catalyst to future development and regeneration of the area under scrutiny, claiming that, "the true role of design is to sow the seed from which local processes take off by themselves - doing as little as possible for maximum benefit."17

"As a design principle, doing as little as possible implies, first, an understanding of the process that make things work; second, providing the structure that will encourage the development of diverse and relevant natural or social environments; third, knowing where to intervene to create the conditions for them to occur; and fourth, having the humility to let natural diversity to evolve on its own where it will." 18

Starting Where It's Easiest

Hough adopts the pragmatic principle espoused by Jane Jacobs that by "starting where it is easiest" the designer ensures delivery of, "environmental ideals that are firmly rooted in pragmatic reality."19 This approach takes cognisance of the impracticability of applying far reaching design ideals in one step. It encourages the tentative and gradual application of design concepts to ensure that they are adopted, evolve and become the catalyst for continued, sustained improvement of the built environment along regionally diverse lines.

A Response to Globalisation

Hough's vision of an approach to architectural, urban and landscape design instigated to reinforce regional identity is clearly a response to his understandable concerns about the negative impact that globalisation is having on contemporary society and the environment.

Since the publication of "Out of Place" the pace and impact of globalisation has been dramatic. The move toward a free-market global economy, the interdependency of world financial markets, the increase in the threat of international terrorism, the exponential growth in cyberspace, individual mobility through choice (tourism) or through necessity (emigration of refugees) and the advent of rapacious consumerism over the intervening period have all served to exacerbate the homogenising trends Hough repeatedly criticises.

This homogenisation also occurs due to the standardisation of products, experiences and culture and is accelerated through the ubiquity of international media and advertising. And this increasing conformity occurs despite the mirage of increased (consumer) choice. The equivalent commodification of urban space is vividly depicted and criticised in the Clone City concept developed by Glendinning and Page which argues that, "If the uncontrolled cloning of individual animals or human beings would encroach on personal identity, the Clone City - the city formed by mindless, market driven proliferation of built environments - represents a corresponding threat to our collective identity."20

It is worth considering that standardisation is not a new phenomenon in architectural design and theory with the Classical architectural language demanding the adherence to set design principles and, more recently, mass produced building materials being celebrated by Modernist architects.

Hough is motivated by concern at the environmental impact that consumerism and globalisation is having. His arguments are life affirming and echo Alexander "Greek" Thomson's call to, "let us ever bear in mind that the business of commerce is inferior to the business of life."21

The Influence of Geddes

There is also a clear correlation between Hough's arguments and those developed by Patrick Geddes at the turn of the 20th Century. Geddes's approach to planning theories placed strong emphasis on regional diversity and required extensive surveying of the area prior to the consideration and implementation of any plans. The interaction between a society, its region and its economy was the basis for Geddes's Folk-Work-Place triad, a matrix he developed as a planning tool and these relationships are reflected in Hough's writing. Furthermore, Hough's consideration of urban, suburban and rural environments and his call for a coherent strategy incorporating the full spectrum of the regional environment is reminiscent of Geddes's Valley Section which demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between the city and its hinterland.

Hough's analysis of the pre-industrial/vernacular, industrial and post-industrial region and its (human) ecology is also closely tied to Geddes's Eotechnic (Life in balance), Paleotechnic (Life threatened) and Neotechnic (Life insurgent) analysis of the environmental history of human habitation. Similarly Hough's attitude of environmental understanding through direct learning also recalls Geddes mottos By Leaves We Live, By Creating We Think and By Living We Learn.

Hough explicitly refers to and adopts Geddes's criticism of the Utopian ideal in which Geddes cited Greek translation whereby Utopia = no place and Eutopia = good place. Both Hough and Geddes promote that adoption of the Eutopian approach, one based on practical, pragmatic means of creating a better environment rather than pursuing unattainable, ecologically destitute ideological doctrines.

Interestingly there is a similar recognition of the legacy Geddes's ideas have in Clone City, though there is a word of caution that, "In discussing Geddes's ideas we need … to confront the danger of hailing him as a prophet whose ideas can be uncomplicatedly adopted today."22

Regional Identity: A Question of Authenticity and Relevancy

Hough's reinterpretation of regional planning outlined in "Out of Place" clearly identifies the characteristics of regional identity in the built and rural environment and highlights the threats to this inherited regional diversity, though his argument is not well served by his citation of his own work and personal anecdotes. In addition, though he emphasises that his principles are generic and open to interpretation, he fails to clearly outline any coherent strategy and though recent planning policy has developed to reflect more environmentally sustainable aims Hough's vagueness undermines the likelihood of the intentional adoption of his principles by practitioners.

A criticism that was also raised during the seminar discussion to which this essay relates centred around whether the regional identity is a positive concept, if it could authentically be reinforced by modern urban design, and, if it could, should it be. The concern centred round the interpretation of regional identity as a parochial concept, and at worst as a central component of concepts of collective identity which foster nationalism, racism, bigotry or sectarianism. Additionally, there was a thought that the idea of regional (cultural) identity was something that had been essentially lost and could not be recreated without recourse to an inauthentic pastiche of the past.

Neither of these criticisms is fair in relation to Hough's book or in a more general sense.

Firstly Hough is clear in his celebration of cultural and geographical differences, highlighting that the rich regional diversity we have inherited is something to be enjoyed, investigated and understood. His views are clearly internationalist, emphasising the inter-relationships between nations, regions and places and, in a similar vein to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, demonstrating the way in which a greater understanding of other places and cultures informs our understanding of oneself and our own place/environment.

Secondly, regarding the manner in which the contemporary urban/regional environment may be imbued with a regional identity, Hough is clear that this should not involve the drawing upon fossilised heritage or recall a mythical historical past. The creation of an authentic response to a place should draw inspiration from, and be informed by, the constraints of the place and its ecological, cultural and historical context.

This is not a call to return to traditional methods of building and a regionally diverse and environmentally sensitive design method should not result in a stylistic, formulaic design solution. The context within which we build now has both a regional and a global dimension and this should be understood and responded to in contemporary design. Whilst we can draw upon inspiration and material resources from world wide sources, an ecologically minded design approach will aim toward utilising local materials and construction techniques which reduce embodied energies and provide robust, climatically responsive built environments.

Natural processes tend toward achieving equilibrium and, if we are to create an authentic, modern regional design methodology we have to adopt a position which seeks a similar balance of local and global tendencies, whilst imbuing the contemporary with the lessons of the past and the aspirations of the future. Hough correctly concludes that changes will only occur when driven by necessity and as there is now a growing acknowledgement that the effects of globalisation have to be addressed and if we are to do so effectively we have to discard adversarial either/or models of past ideological debate and develop an inclusive both/and paradigm to apply to contemporary issues. This shift will result in solutions that are both particular and universal, both regional and international in outlook, both of their place and their time.

Hough's contribution to the argument supplements a developing line in theoretical investigation into the regionalist attitude to environmental/urban planning, one which, in tandem with an increased awareness of ecologically informed design is maturing into an approach which is influencing contemporary design practice, both in Scotland and elsewhere.

Appendix A


1 pg 85-87 Hough, Michael Out of Place
: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape

2 pg 19 Ibid

3 pg 32 Ibid

4 pg 58 Ibid

5 pg 34 Ibid

6 pg 64 Ibid

7 pg 67 Ibid

8 pg 93 Ibid

9 pg 88 Ibid

10 pg 163 Ibid

11 pg 165 Ibid

12 pg 171 Ibid

13 pg 149 Ibid

14 pg 179 Ibid

15 pg 179 Ibid

16 pg 192 Ibid

17 pg 210 Ibid

18 pg 193 Ibid

19 pg 194 Ibid

20 pg 5 Glendinning, Miles Clone City
+ Page, David : Crisis and Renewal in Contemporary Scottish Architecture

21 pg 26 Ibid

22 pg 32 Ibid

Appendix B
Selected Bibliography

Boardman, Philip The Worlds of Patrick Geddes
: Biologist, Town Planner, Re-Educator, Peace-warrior

Routledge + Kegan Paul (London) 1978

Center Journal New Regionalism
No. 3
Rizzoli (New York) 1987

Edinburgh Review Patrick Geddes
No.88 : Ecologist, Educator, Visual Thinker

Polygon (Edinburgh) 1992

Frampton, Kenneth Modern Architecture
: a critical history

Chapter 5 - Critical regionalism: modern architecture and cultural identity

Thames and Hudson (London) 1992

Geddes, Patrick Cities in Evolution

Williams + Norgate (London) 1949 reprint
Originally published 1915

Glendinning, Miles Clone City
+ Page, David : Crisis and Renewal in Contemporary Scottish Architecture

Polygon (Edinburgh) 1999

Hough, Michael Out of Place
: restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape

Yale University Press (New Haven + London) 1990

Hough, Michael Cities and Natural Process

Routledge (London / New York) 1995

Klein, Naomi No Logo

Flamingo (London) 2001

McHarg, Ian L. Design with Nature

John Wiley + Son (New York) 1992 reprint (Orig. published 1967)

Mitchell, William J. City of Bits
: Space, place and the Infobahn

MIT (Boston) 1995

Mitchell, William J. e-topia
: "Urban Life, Jim - but not as we know it!"

MIT (Boston) 1999

Team X Team X Primer

Check ECA Library for details

Zohar, Danah The Quantum Society
+ Marshall, Ian : Mind, Physics and a new social vision

Flamingo (London) 1994

Zucchi, Benedict Giancarlo de Carlo

Butterworth Architecture (London) 1992