Critical Analysis of
"Towards a Critical Regionalism"
by Kenneth Frampton
©1995 Scott Paterson
"Perhaps it's an over-reaction. But, at least in the North American situation, it became rather clear to me that there was this sort of very polarized discourse between high-tech on one side - although there is a very primitive school of high-tech in the United States compared to what is happening in England - and what I referred to, perhaps with somewhat unfair pejorative implications, as a kind of scenographic reduction of architecture to a scenography which makes a very gratuitous, or parodied, use of historicist motifs." K. Frampton 1
Instead of continuing the debate over this text as either reactionary or propositional, I would rather situate the architectural examples put forward in the text - Utzon, Botta, and Aalto - with those buildings that possibly generated this reaction - Venturi, Graves, and Rogers to come to some basis of evaluating the criticalness of regionalism and its priority in the resistance to the destructive forces of universal technology. Simply put, is critical regionalism simply veiling a more general unsentimental argument for thoughtful, sensitive architecture?
0. Ricoeur
The text begins with a long quotation from Paul Ricouer describing the current state of destruction of traditional culture and its impetus by the universalization of civilization. The transition towards a mediocre civilization makes homogeneous the various cultures of the world problematizing the new growth of 'underdeveloped' cultures. The cultural past is put into question in the move towards modernization. Ricouer questions "how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization." 2
This question asserts the necessity of a historical model of continuous evolution whereby lessons of the past inform future moves. However there often exists, as Ricoeur states, the requirement to abandon a whole cultural past in order to take part in modern civilization. If critical regionalism is a solution then one would want to know how a region is to be (re)defined under the circumstance of whole cultural abandonment and therefore its shifting boundaries.
1. Culture and Civilization
Elaborating the Ricoeur quotation, Frampton discusses the state of building to be 'conditioned' by the building industry to the point of restriction. These restrictions extend to the urban scale such that any building proposal is either stripped bare to the elements of production or wrapped up in gratuitous facades hiding the bare reductive product. He categorizes these two approaches respectively as the high-tech and the facades of compensation to which we can assign some architects: Richard Rogers, high-tech and Robert Venturi and Michael Graves 3 , the facades.
Coupled with this is the demise of the city fabric and thus its corresponding culture. With the onslaught of universal civilization stirred by increasing hunger for development, freestanding high-rises and freeways more concerned with utility, culture's expression of its being and collective reality are squandered.
To this Frampton is reactionary. He is juxtaposing to his advantage the urban fabric of a typical European city with that of, say, Los Angeles or Houston, or for that matter, many larger metropolises in the Midwest. The underlying circumstances of each of these cities differs greatly and to say the solution, a critical regionalism, for one applies to all is romantic, and inaccurate according to Ricoeur. If a given culture must surrender to take part in modernization or if that culture were to be introduced to the universal project early in its infancy, i.e. Los Angeles, the impact of the transformation could actually be beneficial. It is presupposition that a European or even East Coast American solution applies to these areas. Here regionalism truly surfaces-despite Frampton's attempts to retreat from it-as sentimental, thus explaining his attempts to attach the word 'critical', to position the work as resisting the described apocalyptic situation but also retaining the feeling that architecture is limited, at best, in its role to single-handedly solve the problem. 4
2. The Rise and Fall of the Avant-Garde
This next section is used to demonstrate the role that the avant-garde, an inseparable aspect of society and architecture in modernization, has played in the past and its relation to universal civilization.
From Neoclassicism to 1975, the avant-garde has held different roles. At times advancing the process of modernization, "thereby acting, in part, as a progressive, liberative form, at times being virulenty opposed to the positivism of bourgeois culture." 5
As times change the ability of the avant-garde to sustain a liberative drive diminishes to the point of removing itself from the project. Here for the first time Frampton uses the term world culture, a hybrid of world civilization and traditional culture. This is a subtle indication of the target at which critical regionalism is eventually aimed.
The withdrawal of the avant-garde signals a 'holding pattern', similar to l'art pour l'art put forward by Clement Greenberg. 6 The avant-garde becomes a self-referential entity whose role in societal change is minimized. Despite this stance, however, Frampton states that "the arts have nonetheless continued to gravitate, if not towards entertainment, then certainly towards commodity and - in the case of that which Charles Jencks has since classified as Post-Modern Architecture - towards pure technique or pure scenography." 7
Critical regionalism is "also a sort of resignation, a sense of holding operation, a sense of resistance." 8 It is an attempt to preserve some ideal of what has been or what is today's culture. It is in a way attempting to put on the brakes of the avant-garde pendulum. Again we see the reactionary aspects attempting to reach stable ground but ineffectual politically.
But is it really a region that is being lost to the media industry? So far there has been little said about actual regions. The discussion has focused around socio-political groups. What is a region? What is regional?
3. Critical Regionalism and World Culture
The aforementioned holding position has a name, arriere-garde. It is situated equally between the 'Enlightenment myth of progress' and the reactionary return to vernacular forms. Frampton proposes that this arriere-garde position will generate a "resistant, identity-giving culture...having discreet recourse to universal technique." 9
Given a name the position is then strategized. Using Alex Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre's "The Grid and the Pathway", we arrive at critical regionalism, a "bridge over which any humanistic architecture of the future must pass." 10 Critical regionalism will mediate the spectrum between universal civilization and the particularities of place. To maintain its critical edge one need be aware of the draw of Populism. This movement seeks to economically supplant reality with information, often in the form of imagery found in advertising. Critical regionalism, situated between and beholding, simply requests the recognition of both world culture and universal civilization. This recognition must mediate the world culture by 'deconstructing' the eclecticism of acquired alien forms and the universal civilization by limiting the economy of technological production.
The example of Jorn Utzon's Bagsvaerd Church near Copenhagen built in 1976 is used to illustrate the different aspects of universal civilization and world culture. The exterior in general is constructed following the universal technique while the interior, in general, expresses the secular or world culture of the region, which is not specified beyond Copenhagen. The exterior built of concrete blocks and precast concrete wall panels is set up on the repetitive rationality of a grid. This is an economic building technique found throughout the world and largely 'conditioned' by the industry, therefore universal in nature. The interior, a billowing concrete vault is far from economic with its idiosyncrasies.
Now this is where Frampton's essay breaks down. The idiosyncratic vault signifies sacred space, well maybe a particular space of importance but not necessarily sacred. Then he goes on about its referring to the only precedent for such a form in a sacred context, the pagoda roof! He continues that Utzon cites this in an essay. But the next part is a stretch. The vault does not exclusively signify an Asian reading therefore it is secular(worldly, not of the church.)Why is this so? Precluding the 'usual set of semantic religious references' does not by default, secularize. Is an Asian reading so foreign as to throw the whole mix out of the sacred? This secularization of the vault therefore renders it in a way particular to the region, right? Well he says that this is a secular age.
Where is he talking about? Copenhagen? If Copenhagen were particularly secular then this is a regional aspect, the vault referring to that, but also related to world culture in that it is desacralized. It is therefore not wholesale but critical regionalism the mediation of the sacred and the universal which is secular. In Copenhagen. This just isn't clearly stated in the text.
4. The Resistance of the Place-Form
The last three sections develop a set of criteria, considering the mediation of the impact of universal technique and regional particularities, moving from the scale of the site, either urban or non-urban, to the body and its appendages.
The Megalopolis is taking over the city. It replaces the place bound urban form with theoretical networks and distributive logistics. The universal technique generates placelessness, or an indistinguishable domain.
Heidegger provides a metaphysical grounding in the which boundaries can be discerned. Boundaries defined as "that from which something begins its presencing." 11 Heidegger also shows that being can only take place in a clearly bounded domain. Only within such a bounded domain can architecture resist the pressure of the Megalopolis.
Essential to Hannah Arendt is also the bounded domain. It is in this 'space of human appearance' that society exists and gains its power. Density of people living together creates the always potential interchange and action of a 'polis'. By contrast the urbanity suggested by Venturi paradoxically loses its reason for a collective. Families at home watching their televisions do not a city make. They don't care for urban form. They live in Megalopolis.
The example of the perimeter block is given as testament to the defined space of density wherein lies potential political activity and a resistant place-form. Where is Megalopolis? This section seems to suggest an aregional approach to defining form based on a defined place. The two, form and place are inseparably linked by that hyphen between them. This can be applied anywhere.
Frampton suggests that Venturi needs it as well as Melvin Webber. But the perimeter block? This seems again to be a European import. Diagnosing the condition in America as a problem to be solved with foreign agents. Which I would say is not always incorrect.
5. Culture vs. Nature: Topography, Context, Climate, Light and Tectonic Form
As is evident in its title this section moves from the abstract general site condition to strategies of topography and so on. Modernization favors the tabula rasa approach to clear and flatten the site, thereby optimizing the economy of earth-moving equipment and also making way for the rational layout of building. This removal of topography is a gesture of the universal technique resulting in placelessness.
Critical regionalism would instead embrace the topography as a manifestation of the regions geologic and agricultural history. This then would be transferred into the form of any building placed here, the building set into the terracing contours of the land. Consistent with the writing of Heidegger, is this revealing of form brought into being by the site. Mario Botta is cited as using the phrase, "building the site." This refers to not only how his buildings rest on or into the ground but how it reconstructs the site in its various forms, historical, vernacular, geologic, etc. "Through this layering into the site the idiosyncrasies of place find their expression without falling into sentimentality." 12
Not going into detail, Frampton applies the case of topography to the urban fabric and follows with a discussion of climatic response. By paying particular attention to the light conditions one must resist the influence of universal technique and its tireless repetition. The window, a critical element in the expression of architecture, has the ability to inscribe the character of the region through its placement in the wall.
The interest of institutions to have a controlled climate is antithetical to place-form strategies. The placeless character of museums and galleries in the even distribution of light is to be resisted by allowing an expression of the local light condition and climatic swings. The 'place-conscious poetic' can be guaranteed by the constant inflection of a region. The occurrence of the fixed window and climate control are sure signs of the domination by universal technique.
However important these may be, the real issue for Frampton is the tectonic and not the scenographic. The autonomy of architecture, resides in the poetic resistance to gravity, the unmasked discourse between the beam and the column. This structure is not to be confused with the economies of skeletal frameworks for the tectonic, the relation between the material, craft, and gravity, is to be a structural poetic in contrast to the re-presentation or gratuitous coverings of the facade a la Graves, or scenography.
Two problems arise here. First, why did he not explore these issues in the previous example of Utzon's church. Surely the lighting in the nave is magnificent. We are given little to go on. How do local lighting conditions determine a region? For Many places are likely to have similar exposure to the sun. Possibly he is considering this, too, in a poetic way rather than a technical way, i.e. not discussing the sun angles and its affect on the location, size, and shape of the window. Regardless, the strength here is the attention to thoughtful and sensitive architecture, i.e. where to bring light into a building, rather than a recourse with the region.
The second is the male overtones to a poetic structure. The resistance to forces is akin to the power of man to fend of nature and all that garbage. Also, what is worse, the woman is resigned to surface treatment, scenography, and pure image covering up a demoralized skeleton. Anyway, the effect of this is to direct ones attention away from the critically regional and begin to consider this as a polemic on the tectonic. The kind of situation where one asks themselves what is he really saying.
6. The Visual vs. The Tactile
Here he goes the extra mile to substantiate the priority of the tectonic over the scenographic. Through the example of Aalto's SŠynatsalo Town Hall of 1952 he describes the use a tactile surface's ability to make legible the architecture. The brick steps on the exterior leading to the council chambers affirm the foot as it meets each tread. Inside the chambers the floor is wood therefore giving another reading and so on throughout the building, I would assume. This argument follows a book I know titled Thermal Delight in Architecture by Lisa Heschong where she describes the constant reinvigoration of alternating hot and cool sensations experienced while walking down a tree lined street. But he never brings this transcendental tactile tectonic back into the discussion of a critical regionalism except to say that it resists the technical.
7. (Conclusion)
By resisting the visual, and thus the perspective of Western tendency, Critical Regionalism brings to our senses all the range of human perceptions. Perspective as rationalized sight suppresses the senses causing a distancing similar to what Heidegger has called "the loss of nearness." 13 The tactile physically opposes this visual surfacing of reality, a medium conditioned predominately by the media industry and showing up in the architectural works of Graves, Venturi, etc. The return to touch will realize the poetics of construction, the tectonic. And the region? It has vanished.
End Notes | top
1 Kenneth Frampton in responding to the question of why he is making the plea for regionalism, in "Regionalism, A Discussion with Kenneth Frampton and Trevor Boddy" The Fifth Column, 1983, Summer, p. 53.
2 Paul Ricoeur, History and Truth, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), pp. 276-7
3 See note no. 2 in "Towards a Critical Regionalism" and page 53 from The Fifth Column article, an anecdote about Centre Pompidou.
4 Ibid., p. 54 Discussion of architecture as a marginal field in the project of the universal field.
5 Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism...", p. 18.
6 Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", 1939
7 Frampton, p. 19
8 Frampton's description of critical regionalism in The Fifth Column article, p. 54.
9 Frampton, p. 20
10 Ibid., p. 21
11 Ibid., p. 24
12 Ibid., p. 26
13 Ibid., p. 29