2613 words (10 pages) Essay in Architecture

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It is an undeniable fact that renowned architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton has been one of the most influential architectural critics of our time.  As an architect, scholar and professor he has been teaching at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture since 1972.  Some of his most-well known works include: “Modern Architecture: A Critical History” (1980), “Studies in Tectonic Culture” (1995), “American Masterworks” (1995), “Labor, Work & Architecture” (2005), and more recently, “L’Altro Movimento Moderno” (2015) and “A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form” (2015). In 1983 his most seminal work “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance” was published and formed the cornerstone of architectural discourse on Critical Regionalism. In the 1980’s through Frampton’s contributions the architectural concept of Critical Regionalism emerged as a tangent and critique of late modernism and post-modernism.

Historical and Political Context

Considering the political and historical background Frampton mentions the terms Avant-Garde and Arriere Garde. Historically, the avant-garde has always been progressive, believing that Art should have a political function and that it needs to lead. This is reflected in certain movements which are often seen as progressive,

such as the Neoclassicism in the 1850s, Art Nouveau at the turn of the 19th century and other movements such as Purism, Neoplasticism and Constructivism of the 1920s. On the other hand, Frampton has coined the term, the Arriere garde which can be understood as a Reactionary Movement against the modern progressive. The Reactionary Arriere-Garde uses Art has a tool of critique, reflection and analysis. The reactionary Arriere-Garde has lost faith in the progressive Movement. Historically the Arriere-Garde has presented itself in the Gothic Revival, Arts and Crafts Movement, Post-Modernism, and more recently Critical Regionalism.

In the 1960’s the interplay between civilization and culture still played a role in steering and shaping the urban fabric of cities most of which were still made up of 19th century city fabrics. These have gradually been replaced by modern and universal civilization – the freestanding skyscrapers and the dominant highways. These uniform high rises are optimal structures for capitalizing on the increased land values, which are driven further up with highways and transportation systems. Frampton describes this phenomenon as the rise of the “Burolandschaft” an office landscape where the universal civilization, characterised by the placelessness of international style and universal production technologies, are dominant over local culture. This local culture which forms the roots of a society has, therefore, become overshadowed by the speed of modernization and the triumph of modern architecture in the 1950s which is characterized by dominant universal architectural building culture.

Rather than a “style” that is characterized by preferred set of aesthetic attributes Critical Regionalism is to be understood as a process of assimilation that emphasizes unique “peculiarities” of a place such as quality of light, a tectonic method, or topographical features. It is a process which differs vastly according to location and specific conditions. Critical regionalism is a process that is distinguished by a contradictory nature, a paradox as Riceour described it. Although Critical Regionalism was a reaction to universal modernism, it was also reliant on its technology and to some extent had to sympathise with it. Critically regional architecture, therefore, had to strike a balance between merging local physical and cultural attributes with global technology, and economic environment. While Critical Regionalism had a convoluted association with modernity, its relationship with Post-modernism is not simplistic either. According to Frampton Postmodernism has diminished itself to “pure technique or pure scenography.” He also claims that “[the] so-called postmodern architects are merely feeding the media- society with gratuitous, quietistic images rather proffering, as they claim, a creative rappel d’ordre after the supposedly proven bankruptcy of the liberative modern project.”

However, it is not entirely clear whether critical regionalism is a direct antithesis of postmodernism. While Critical Regionalism condemns the cynical and superficial nature of Postmodernism which lacks purpose, it validates postmodernism’s pluralism of styles as a result of a lack of dominant ideology. Critical Regionalism also empathized with Post-modernism’s reaction to modernism which became an increasing threat to identity. The early 1980’s was also a period where nationalism emerged amidst political uncertainty and aggressive foreign policies of the USA and the USSR. Critical regionalism might also be understood as a direct response to both these movements.

Balancing Local Conditions and Global Modernization

Frampton quotes Ricoeur to illustrate the difficulties in reconciling global conditions (modernization, technology, homogenous culture) with local circumstances (traditions, cultural past). The essay commences with a paragraph from Paul Ricoeur’s writing titled “Universal Civilization and National Cultures” (1961). Ricoeur claims that the “phenomenon of universalization […] constitutes a sort of subtle destruction, not only of traditional cultures,” but also of “the creative nucleus of great cultures.” Furthermore, Ricoeur highlights a great conflict, which forms the theoretical framework of Frampton’s essay.

But in order to take part in modern civilization, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific, technical, and political rationality, something which very often requires the pure and simple abandon of a whole cultural past. It is a fact: every culture cannot sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilization. There is a paradox: how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization.”   -Paul Ricoeur

Frampton uses philosopher Ricœur’s essay to support his arguments. For Ricoeur, the universalization of human culture has been imposed around the globe, and with the rise of a single-world civilization comes the loss of diversity and the disappearance of local traditional cultures that are the creative nucleus for defining and giving identity to a place. Although the imposition of a universal culture and civilization is unavoidable, a sensible balance between rootedness to a place and the capacity to take part in modern civilization must be reached to in the pursuit of better architectural outcomes. For the built environment to preserve its social value, cultural roots and identity, architecture must convey values of the past while complying with the requirements of the present and future.

Frampton defines critical regionalism as a self-conscious response to the “global modernization [which] continues to undermine, with ever increasing force, all forms of traditional, agrarian-based, autochthonous culture.” (modern architecture, 315) Furthermore, Frampton’s critical regionalism not only resists the loss of regional culture and traditions imposed by globalization, it counter-acts “universal technological norm,” and the negative effects of global capitalism such as international style and a lost sense of place. Frampton defines Critical Regionalism as an “architecture of resistance” that aims “to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place.” Thus, Critical Regionalism is a response to universal uniformity, homogenization of culture and the placelessness of modernism.  Although Frampton criticizes the uniform nature of modernism, he recognizes the benefits of technical value and cultural manifestation that a century of modernism brought to society

Critical regionalism distinguishes itself from regionalism, which is often linked to the sentimental return to the vernacular through materiality, spatial qualities and cultural reference. Therefore, vernacular regionalism is often regarded as primitive, outdated and irrelevant to modern global requirements. Critical regionalism, however, responds to current demands of modern society by critically adapting universal techniques, developing self-consciousness with regards to the uniquely distinct characteristics of its place such as quality of light, a tectonic method, or topographical features.

Architectural Examples

It could be said that Frampton seeks an architectural medium that reinterprets local conditions yet reflects the universal technologies of modernity. Some of the examples that Frampton himself mentioned will be analysed with critical appraisal. These examples were mostly local and limited, smaller scale buildings such as houses, gardens or churches “consciously bounded” in space and time. Architectural examples mentioned included but were not limited to Jorn Utzon (Denmark), Alvaro Siza (Portugal), Tadao Ando (Japan), Oscar Neimeyer (Brazil), and Luis Barragain (Mexico).

Built in 1976, the Bagsvaerd Church which was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon is situated in a suburb in the outskirts of Copenhagen. Frampton illustrates that the church uses pre-cast concrete standard components in combination with reinforced shell vaults (Frampton 1992, p. 315) to produce building volumes which establishes the felt presence of sacred monumentality. The use of universal technology is not only limited to the interior, the exterior of the church retains a certain industrial imagery grounded in contemporary materials that include concrete walls, and aluminum-glass roofs. Utzon’s use of modular construction reflect principles of global culture. Although there is some attempt to make local references using the folded concrete shell to refer to Scandinavian architecture by alluding to the barn form found in rural Scandinavian landscapes, Utzon makes a multitude of other cultural references from overseas. The structural frames which enable the changing heights of the façade are “formally related to Chinese construction types and Japanese torii gates, and show Utzon’s increasing interest in traditional Far Eastern architecture through the 1960s.” Additionally the church’s rectilinear and modular structure, as well as its spatial characteristics (courtyard and connecting corridors) allude to traditional Buddhist temples in China. 

Utzorn himself traveled and worked extensively in many different countries and continents such as America, Mexico, Japan, Morocco, China and Australia. He was deeply inspired by all this international exposure which influenced his architectural language as reflected in the Bagsvaerd church which reflected. Far East influences of China and Japan.

It is questionable why Frampton exemplifies the Bagsvaerd church as the prime example of critical regionalism. One may wonder whether this argument was forcefully made as the Bagsvaerd Church seems to reflect a prime example of “universal critical regionalism” that synthesizes universal technique and multi-cultural international influences as opposed to local conditions.

Another point of criticism would be whether critical regionalism itself forms “a single correct regional style [that] was implied, or imposed, sometimes from inside, more often from outside. For instance, this is reflected in over-representing one architect’s work of the region over all others: Tadao Ando for Japan, Oscar Niemeyer for Brazil, Charles Correa for India, and Luis Barragan for Mexico.

The Western understanding and imposition of what a “single correct regional style” should be for a certain country like Mexico is reflected in Frampton’s example of Luis Barragain. In the early 1970s, Barragan’s architecture was mostly unappreciated, inside Mexico and unknown outside of it. However, the 1976 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) soon changed this and introduced Barragan’s work to the west. The success of the exhibition propelled Barragan to fame. In 1980, he was honored with the prestigious Pritzker Prize by a jury of American, Japanese and British architects. His architecture work was praised for being “so very Mexican, or Mexican at least in a sense that people in places like New York, London, and Tokyo could readily understand and appreciate.”  Certain features like minimalistic cubic geometry, rough textured walls and voids, vibrant saturated colors, references to Spanish Colonial convents and haciendas were interpret from the outside western world as being inherently Mexican. It is, however, noteworthy to mention Barragan’s work was influenced by pioneers of modernist architecture and “directly informed by the work of Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, […] more than it was by any Mexican vernacular examples.” Although Frampton mentions Barragan’s work in Pedregal as critically regionalist, this claim is questionable. Prior to the construction of the first houses, El Pedregal was advertised to potential buyers in the USA. This raises concerns of how much of these houses’ “sense of place” was the result of local physical and cultural conditions, and how much of it was aimed at pleasing the foreign preconceptions of Mexican architecture.

A more contemporary example of recent times Chinese architect Wang Shu. Following China’s economic reform in 1978, the 1980’s were marked by a period of economic growth that called for an unprecedented need of infrastructure. Cities became rapidly urbanized through urban planning and massive scales of construction. Confronted with this Scenario, Wang Shu took an approach that different from the prevalent norms.  His critical regionalist approach reflects a concern to preserve cultural past while resisting ideological and commercial purposes as China finds itself in the thrust of rapid globalization.

An example to illustrate this is the design of Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou which is inspired by traditional Chinese landscape paintings

The roof covered in grey tiles forms the primary central element and alludes to a traditional Chinese landscape with gardens. Wang’s design of Xiangshan Campus Phase II was also inspired the Mountain Watching Tower and its stone cave below in the Surging Waves Pavilion in Suzhou which was architecturally translated

into irregular shaped wall openings to accentuate entrances and enabling walkways. Wang was impressed by the Mountain Watching Tower and its stone cave below in the Surging Waves Pavilion in Suzhou, the openings of the stone cave were transformed into irregular shaped wall openings at the Xiangshan Campus Phase II, defining entrances, allowing sunlight to enter, and external walkways which are literal reminders of the convoluted mountain paths. Wang Shu’s architecture could be criticized for being on the verge of regionalism and kitsch, an architecture that has lost its legibility and integrity.

Wang Shu was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2012 which consisted of a Jury of Australian, American, and British Architects. Much like Barragan, the conception of what Chinese architecture should be like stems from a western understanding of Chinese culture and traditions. Perhaps the architectural references of traditional Chinese paintings and mountainscapes was interpreted as particularly Chinese in the eyes of a foreign jury.

Conclusion

Frampton’s theory of critical regionalism has not only steered an ongoing discourse about modernity, tradition, cultural identity, and sense of place, it has established a widely-recognised framework for the practice of Critical Regionalism. which remains an influential architectural concept and presents itself as the dominant working technology in most places.

However, as an intellectual construct it is to be regarded critically. As a theoretical concept critical regionalism becomes a general theory of the, a diversity of local examples that synthesise with a global universal framework. The examples of Barragan and Wang show that Critical Regionalism can also marginalise and distort the cultural practices it seeks to analyse.

Architectural critic Anthony King cautioned against such generalist theories that “enable those who produce or adopt them to view the world of others from one particular place, from one point of authority, from one particular social and cultural position. They produce a totalizing vision or overview which is likely to be at odds with the meanings which the inhabitants … place on the buildings themselves. In looking for ways in which to think about buildings ‘internationally’ we need to be sure that we’re not creating a new intellectual imperialism.”

References

  • Andersen, Michael Asgaard. “Revisiting Utzon’S Bagsværd Church”. Nordisk Arkitekturforskning (2005)
  • Eggener, Keith L. “Placing Resistance: A Critique Of Critical Regionalism”. Journal Of Architectural Education 55, no. 4 (2002): 228-237. doi:10.1162/104648802753657932. [accessed on 12/10/2018]
  • Carlson-Reddig, Kelly. “Re-Reading Critical Regionalism”. In ACSA Fall Meeting, 2011.
  • Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture. 4th ed. (London: Thames Hudson, 2007),
  • King, Anthony D. Writing The Global City. 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2016), 71.
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