In an ever more interconnected and globalized world, the concept of regionalism seems both out of step and more relevant than ever. And the architects associated with an architecture of place are keenly aware that—whatever the wider world thinks—their work is not based on a menu of fixed typologies but on adaptive values. Regionalism today is not about quoting barns and silo-shaped houses but rather actively engaging with the deeper forces driving specifics of form—whether it’s time, culture, climate or cost.
Critic David D'Arcy reexamines Kenneth Frampton's canonical essay on Critical Regionalism with fresh eyes, while AN editors survey projects and practitioners that are carving out new principles as they engage with—or resist—the notion of regionalism.
It was a global landscape haunted and threatened by “the freestanding high rise,” “the serpentine freeway,” “the apocalyptic thrust of modernization,” and “pathological philistinism.”
This was the condition, not just of the built environment, but of architecture, said Kenneth Frampton, who accused architects of responding with eclectic historical nostalgia and a rapturous futurism. And it was only 1983.
Frampton’s response was a jeremiad deploring it all. And there was much to deplore.
His alternative was critical regionalism, seizing on a term first deployed in 1981 by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre. It was a warning, a manifesto, and a call to arms. Frampton termed it “a critical basis from which to evolve a contemporary architecture of resistance—a culture of dissent free from fashionable stylistic conventions, an architecture of place rather than space, and a way of building sensitive to the vicissitudes of time and climate.”
Frampton’s enemy then was post-modernism. He and others felt besieged by a tendency that was dragging critics and resources and young talent into nostalgia or into technological rootlessness.
Frampton heaped blame, not just on the postmodernists, but on the circumstances weighing upon them. Modernism, however, tended to be left off the hook. Just root it in a real place, he counseled. Here’s how he hovered around a definition, vaguely enough to be big tent: “Critical Regionalism depends upon maintaining a high level of critical self-consciousness. It may find its governing inspiration in such things as the range and quality of the local light, or in a tectonic derived from a peculiar structural mode, or in the topography of a given site.”
Back in the 1980s, Frampton and others would foresee another persistent factor. This regionalizing trend that they hoped for would not be a revolution. “The scope of activity available to the potential regionalist is interstitial rather than global in nature,” Frampton wrote in 1988, “which will be seen to some as a deciding advantage.” Frampton also called that work marginal—not the most effective term for recruiting.
It’s now clear that Frampton under-estimated the challenge—and the flexible advantage of regionalism. It was several financial crashes ago, before the Internet enabled almost everything besides dwelling to be virtual rather than tactile, and before destination architecture turned a battleground like Bilbao into a tourist mecca and turned an elite of architects into boldfaced names.
Some three decades later, regional architecture is a sensibility, rather than a movement. Like most tendencies that move from the bottom up, there are no clear rules, other than a tactility, a commitment to place, and an ethical attitude about community, all of which fuse into an approach to sustainability, a term that escaped the earliest formulations.
In a 2006 lecture, Alexander Tzonis updated the challenge: “Mindlessly adopting narcissistic dogmas in the name of universality leads to environments that are economically costly, ecologically destructive, and catastrophic to the human community.” As Yogi Berra might have said, it’s apocalypse all over again.
Like anything regional, solutions will vary from location to location. These are paths that lead to hybridization, rather than purity.
No surprise, it’s leaderless. But there are plenty of prophets, like Alvar Aalto, whose brick Synatsalo Town Hall of 1952 was a triumph of tactility for Frampton. Another one of Frampton’s heroes was Luis Barragán, whose 1947–48 Casa Estudio—an office, home, and garden in Tacubaya, a working-class suburb of Mexico City—is now being scrutinized in a new documentary by Rax Rinnekangas and the Finnish architect and critic Juhani Pallasmaa.
And adherents are growing, hailing from farther afield both, in geographical and intellectual reach. In Nova Scotia, architect Brian MacKay-Lyons has been gathering architects—under the suitably oblique banner Ghost—to appraise the future of master building in terms of landscape, material culture, and community. Both Frampton and Pallasmaa have contributed but the range of engaged architects is wide, among them Deborah Berke, Wendell Burnette, Ted Flato, Vincent James, Rick Joy, Richard Kroeker, Tom Kundig, Patricia Patkau, Dan Rockhill, and Brigitte Shim.
Among them is Marlon Blackwell, who is all too keenly aware that he has been scripted as American architecture’s regional everyman. Based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, he has developed an approach as likely to draw on mud towers in Yemen as the state’s ubiquitous long-haul trucks. For the Porchdog House, a post-Katrina dwelling, Blackwell rejected a retreat to the sentimental vernacular. Instead of a granny-style porch with geraniums and rockers, the Biloxi house sits on 11-foot pillars—a new prototype responsive to the elements, but also affordable enough to replicate.
Blending the mass-production possibilities of the prototype with locally resonant design defines a hybrid approach being taken by regional firms like Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, designers of the Apple Store. The product is a paradox—multiple corporate retail stores are also transparent physical gathering places for corporeal Apple customers who spend much of their time in virtual worlds. The stores are potent advertising logos, as well as local destinations.
Is this a case of regionalists already jumping ship or selling out? Only if the already-slippery definition of regionalism is seen as a rigid pledge or a straitjacket, which hasn’t been suggested by any architect. There is no required vow of poverty, chastity, or obedience. So far, no one has been excommunicated from Ghost for taking on corporate clients.
Or for creating a destination. And what, if not a destination, is the new and exquisite Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, a gambit hyped as a tourist site by destination-obsessed Denver and designed by Brad Cloepfil, a Frampton pupil at Columbia University who established himself as a practitioner of Pacific Northwest regionalism? Rather than create another billboard for the city, Cloepfil responded with a restrained design at a restrained budget. If the Clyfford Still Museum says anything about regionalist work, it is that it can be purposefully local without aesthetic compromise.
As regional work once thought destined for the interstices surges through the cracks, consider the food analogy. Declining quality, rising cost, and waste alarmed a small core of eco-minded consumers and producers, and spawned the locavore movement. Some three decades later, it has bastions throughout North America and Europe and beyond. Restaurants and producers have lifted local economies, which continue to grow, benefiting everyone from architects to sommeliers (and throwing off profitable vernacular subsections).
With architecture, as with food, the challenge is to move beyond the elite clients, and into the regionalists’ heartland, where the vernaculars of poor nutrition and cheap generic construction meet at the strip mall and sprawl outward.