Critical regionalism is an approach to architecture that strives to counter the placelessness and lack of identity of the International Style, but also rejects the whimsical individualism and ornamentation of Postmodern architecture. The stylings of critical regionalism seek to provide an architecture rooted in the modern tradition, but tied to geographical and cultural context. Critical regionalism is not simply regionalism in the sense of vernacular architecture. It is a progressive approach to design that seeks to mediate between the global and the local languages of architecture.
The phrase "critical regionalism" was first used by the architectural theorists Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre and, with a slightly different meaning, by the historian-theorist Kenneth Frampton.
Critical Regionalists thus hold that both modern and post-modern architecture are "deeply problematic".
In Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance, Frampton recalls Paul Ricoeur's "how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization". According to Frampton's proposal, critical regionalism should adopt modern architecture, critically, for its universal progressive qualities but at the same time value should be placed on the geographical context of the building. Emphasis, Frampton says, should be on topography, climate, light; on tectonic form rather than on scenography (i.e. painting theatrical scenery) and should be on the sense of touch rather than visual sense. Frampton draws on phenomenology for his argument.
Two examples Frampton briefly discusses are Jørn Utzon and Alvar Aalto. In Frampton's view, Utzon's Bagsværd Church (1973–6), near Copenhagen is a self-conscious synthesis between universal civilization and world culture. This is revealed by the rational, modular, neutral and economic, partly prefabricated concrete outer shell (i.e. universal civilization) versus the specially-designed, 'uneconomic', organic, reinforced concrete shell of the interior, signifying with its manipulation of light sacred space and 'multiple cross-cultural references', which Frampton sees no precedent for in Western culture, but rather in the Chinese pagoda roof (i.e. world culture). In the case of Aalto, Frampton discusses the red brick Säynätsalo Town Hall (1952), where, he argues, there is a resistance to universal technology and vision, affected by using the tactile qualities of the building's materials. He notes, for instance, feeling the contrast between the friction of the brick surface of the stairs and the springy wooden floor of the council chamber.
William J. R. Curtis and Suha Ozkan
There have been two different perceptions of Regionalism in architecture. One of which is of Western writers, like Curtis, whose definitions are not encompassing enough to analyse architectural styles especially in the last two centuries in the Islamic countries, like Iran. However, Ozkan's definition of Regionalism is more objective.
Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre
According to Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre, critical regionalism need not directly draw from the context; rather elements can be stripped of context but used in unfamiliar ways. Here the aim is to make evident a disruption and loss of place, that is already a fait accompli, through reflection and self-evaluation.
Critical regionalist architects
In addition to Aalto and Utzon, the following architects have used Critical Regionalism (in the Frampton sense) in their work: Studio Granda, Mario Botta, Eduardo Souto de Moura, Mahesh Naik, Mazharul Islam, B. V. Doshi, Charles Correa, Christopher Benninger, Alvaro Siza, Jorge Ferreira Chaves, Rafael Moneo, Geoffrey Bawa, Raj Rewal, Dharmesh Vadavala, Ashok "Bihari" Lall Neelkanth Chhaya (Kaka), Soumitro Ghosh, Nisha Mathew Ghosh, Tadao Ando, Mack Scogin / Merrill Elam, Glenn Murcutt, Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Ken Yeang, Philippe Madec, William S.W. Lim, Tay Kheng Soon, WOHA Architects (Singapore), Juhani Pallasmaa, Wang Shu, Juha Leiviskä, Peter Zumthor, Carlo Scarpa, Tan Hock Being. Peter Stutchbury, Lake Flato, Rick Joy, Tom Kundig, Sverre Fehn, Dimitris & Suzana Antonakakis are the two Greek architects for whom the term was first used by Tzonis and Lefaivre.
Critical regionalism has developed into unique sub-styles across the world. Glenn Murcutt's simple vernacular architectural style is representative of an Australian variant to critical regionalism. In Singapore, WOHA has developed a unique architectural vocabulary based on an appreciation of the local climate and culture.
In cultural studies
Subsequently, the phrase "critical regionalism" has also been used in cultural studies, literary studies, and political theory, specifically in the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In her 2007 work "Who Sings the Nation-State?", co-authored with Judith Butler, Spivak proposes a deconstructive alternative to nationalism that is predicated on the deconstruction of borders and rigid national identity. Douglas Reichert Powell's book Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape (2007) traces the trajectory of the term critical regionalism from its original use in architectural theory to its inclusion in literary, cultural, and political studies and proposes a methodology based on the intersection of those fields.
- Vincent B. Canizaro," Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition," (2007) Princeton Architectural Press.
- Kenneth Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance", in The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983) edited by Hal Foster, Bay Press, Seattle.
- Stylianos Giamarelos (2016). Intersecting Itineraries Beyond the Strada Novissima: The Converging Authorship of Critical Regionalism. Architectural Histories, 4(1), 11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/ah.192
- Alex Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre, "The grid and the pathway. An introduction to the work of Dimitris and Suzana Antonakakis", Architecture in Greece (1981) 15, Athens.
- Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging" (2007), Seagull Books.
- Douglas Powell, Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape (2007), University of North Carolina Press.
- Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, "Is Critical Regionalist Philosophy Possible? Some Meta-Philosophical Considerations" in Comparative and Continental Philosophy (2010) 2:1.
- Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Transcultural Architecture: Limits and Opportunities of Critical Regionalism (2015), Ashgate.
- ^Hal Foster, "Postmodernism: A Preface", in "Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture." Seattle: Bay Press, 1983. ISBN 0-941920-01-1
- ^Kenneth Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance", in "Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture." Seattle: Bay Press, 1983. ISBN 0-941920-01-1
- ^"The Theoretical Inapplicability of Regionalism to Analysing Architectural Aspects of Islamic Shrines in Iran in the Last Two Centuries"(PDF). The Collection of articles of the International Congress of Imam's Descendants (Imamzadegan). Esfahan, Iran: The Charity Organisation. 4: 16–32. 2013.
- ^Giamarelos, S. (2016). Intersecting Itineraries Beyond the Strada Novissima: The Converging Authorship of Critical Regionalism. Architectural Histories, 4(1), 11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/ah.192
- ^"Spivak on Regionalism". Retrieved 2009-11-19.
An ideological critique
Image: Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo
town hall in Finland (1952)
Frampton’s appropriation of Frankfurt School critical theory in his writings on architectural history is fairly typical of its reception by liberals in the Anglophone West. Still, this is often to be preferred to the uses that have been made of it by many so-called “radicals” within contemporary continental philosophy. Even then, Frampton is exceptionally skilled at identifying some of the central issues and thematics that concerned the critical theorists, and conveys them with remarkable accuracy and lucidity. In the introduction to his landmark Modern Architecture: A Critical History, he writes:
Like many others of my generation I have been influenced by a Marxist interpretation of history, although even the most cursory reading of this text will reveal that none of the established methods of Marxist analysis have been applied. On the other hand, my affinity for the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has no doubt colored my view of the whole period and made me acutely aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment which, in the name of an unreasonable reason, has brought man to a situation where he begins to be as alienated from his own production has from the natural world.
Nevertheless, despite Frampton’s adept deployment of these concepts in his historical inquiries, a number of critics have found his own, positive architectural program — “critical regionalism” — rather problematic. Beginning in the 1980s, Frampton began speaking of critical regionalist models as furnishing “an architecture of resistance.” This he defined as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself…”
Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo town hall (1952)
While the main political signifier for Frampton was in this case clearly “resistance,” critical regionalists such as Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre (who originally coined the phrase) stressed “identity” as the center around which a counterweight to globalization could be organized. To be sure, though, “identity” carried connotations of political resistance as well.
The object of resistance for the three theorists named is not identical, however. All refer, either consciously or not, to the dynamics of capitalist universality. For Frampton, the dynamic that must be resisted is “the relentless onslaught of global modernization,” i.e. capitalism’s temporal register. By contrast, for Lefaivre and Tzonis the dynamic that must be resisted is instead the modern “age of globalization,” i.e., capitalism’s spatial register.
Of critical regionalism’s critics, Fredric Jameson is probably the most incisive. In his Wellek Lecture Series of 1991, he examined critical regionalism at length:
[A]n architectural form of Critical Regionalism would lack all political and allegorical efficacy unless it were coordinated with a variety of other local, social, and culturaI movements that aimed at securing national autonomy. It was one of the signal errors of the artistic activism of the 1960s to suppose that there existed, in advance, forms that were in and of themselves endowed with a political, and even revolutionary, potential by virtue of their own intrinsic properties. On the other hand, there remains a danger of idealism implicit in all forms of cultural nationalism as such, which tends to overestimate the effectivity of culture and consciousness and to neglect the concomitant requirement of economic autonomy. But it is precisely economic autonomy that has been everywhere called back into question in the postmodernity of a genuinely global late capitalism.
Jameson located Frampton’s critical regionalism as occupying an uncomfortable space between modernist and postmodernist architecture. It rejected the amoralism and empty consumerism of late capitalist society, but also the modernist faith in the optimism of technological progress. The “rear-guard” status Frampton championed was meant to indicate that history was still heading somewhere, whatever the postmodernists might have said, but unlike the modernists critical regionalists don’t always like where it’s going. Another strange subtext Jameson picks up on is the “regional” scope of critical regionalism.
Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo town hall (1949-1952)
This intermediate aspect did not escape his criticism:
Frampton’s conceptual proposal, however, is not an internal but rather a geopolitical one: it seeks to mobilize a pluralism of “regional” styles (a term selected, no doubt, in order to forestall the unwanted connotations of the terms national and international alike), with a view toward resisting the standardizations of a henceforth global late capitalism and corporatism, whose “vernacular” is as omnipresent as its power over local decisions (and indeed, after the end of the Cold War, over local governments and individual nation states as well).
Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. (Thames & Hudson Ltd. London, England: 1982). Pg. 9.
Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a critical regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. (Bay Press. Seattle, WA: 1987). Pg. 25.
Lefaivre, Liane and Tzonis, Alexander. Critical Regionalism: Architecture and Identity in a Globalized World. (Prestel Publishers. New York, NY: 2003).
Frampton, “Towards a critical regionalism.” Pg. 29.
Lefaivre, Liane and Tzonis, Alexander. The Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2012).
Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 202.
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Posted in fragments, writings
Tagged Alexander Tzonis, architecture, Enlightenment, Frankfurt School, Fredric Jameson, Kenneth Frampton, Liane Lefaivre, Marxism, resistance