“How to be modern and to continue the tradition, how to revive an old dormant civilisation as part of universal civilisation?” – Paul Ricœur

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Critical regionalism ©www.wsp.com

Throughout the world, with a rise in the construction of structures which barely respond to the context they are sited in, and adoption of styles which propagate advanced technology, global approach or historic ornamentation without a supplementing motive or principle, it becomes significant to know and comprehend the approach which counters this. 

 Critical regionalism is not a style of architecture, rather an approach towards the process of designing which aims to counter the placelessness and seeks to attain a balance between the global and local architecture while responding to its fundamental context. 

To recognize the essence and significance of critical regionalism it becomes crucial to understand its emergence and development. It was in the late 1900s, after the rise of modernism and postmodernism styles of architecture, which had gathered a lot of regards and were adopted and administered globally, irrespective of the immediate cultural, climatic, geographical and social context of the site. It was then that a few architects observed a need to embrace an approach that would recognize and respond to the context to create a design that was distinctive, intimate and unparalleled. 

Therefore, this not only led to the devising of structures that are contemporary and unconventional than their surrounding building but also are rational and pragmatic. 

“The fundamental strategy of critical regionalism is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from peculiarities of a particular place” – Kenneth Frampton 

What makes this process more thoughtful is the consideration of a context that is far more rooted in the site instead of the overlaid secondary context which has been generated through the established architecture of the region. For instance, the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon, a notable example of critical regionalism, opens it’s shelling towards the sea, identifying it as a significant geographical context, instead of the Modern architecture it is surrounded by. The form itself takes inspirations from the harbor basin and the sails, while the sail-like shells’ cladding of matt and glossy ceramic tiles supplement in establishing the requisite experience. Through other aspects such as the scale, material and spatial disposition, Utzon achieved in creating an unconventional and sacred experience of the visitors, making the structure distinctive and unusual yet befitting the context.

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Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon ©Source: Michael Hynes
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Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon ©Source: www.gct.com

The approach of critical regionalism doesn’t limit itself to a particular set of criteria of design, instead opens up to all segments of function, scale and contexts. It could not only be administered while designing wide-ranged public buildings but also while designing something as elementary as a house, opening up to various possibilities and experiences which differ as per the site. The diverse works of architect Alvar Aalto, reflect how he incorporated his approach of critical regionalism into designs of various caliber and functions. The Saynatsalo Town Hall designed by Aalto is an ideal amalgamation of modern forms, local materials like brick and wood, Finnish architecture and a humanistic approach while recognizing the cultural context of it’s the site, collectively creating and exhibiting a process of generating a symbolic identity.

His other project Villa Mairea, though smaller in scale, exhibits his principles of administration of traditional as well as modern architecture through a process strongly backed by factors such as culture, geography and nature.

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Saynatsalo Town Hall by Alvar Aalto ©www.archdaily.com
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Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto ©archeyes.com

It reflects how the process of critical regionalism also opens up several options of experimentation of materials, forms, spatial disposition and hence the creation of harmony and symbiotic relationship between the structure, it’s indoors and outdoors and the vicinity. The approach does not oppose the use of modern technology, forms or medium but rather tries stimulating thought processes to question their appropriateness, necessity and applicability.

In the present time, with globalization and a rise in the trade of technology and material, the architecture throughout the world is blending and unifying. The styles too, have been disproportionately employed and combined into the regions while materials have been filtered down to a few, in accordance with the architects’ desire and values, and more so as per the society’s conditioning. Here, critical regionalism plays a crucial role in sustaining the identity of the structures, especially in the coming future where, unlike the primitive times, recognizing and distinguishing the structures according to the region will barely be possible with the current approach. 

Critical regionalism, therefore, enables the design of structures rooted in context so deeply that, once uprooted from the context, the structure would fail to be coherent and relevant. This approach, therefore, would facilitate making the current and upcoming designs to be exclusive irrespective of the application of style and would be flexible enough to be followed into the designing process of the entire spectrum of categories and typologies of structures.


Manasi prefers writing over talking to express herself. Being an architecture student, she believes that designs and their resulting comprehensions are a mirror to look within oneself. She is an optimist who is considerate towards her surroundings and more so people. Structures, their stories and photographs fascinate her.