Culture and identity in architecture are contentious subjects that have preoccupied architects and theorists since the time of Vitruvius. In ‘The Ten Books on Architecture’, Vitruvius elaborated on regional variations in architecture owing to geography and explained these to be like the varying “physical, intellectual and behavioral characteristics of the people who made these architectural forms”. Centuries later, the modernist movement reignited this debate on architectural identity as a response to the growing ‘placelessness’ of architectural forms within the industrialized context of the profession.
However, much of the architecture conceived in opposition to the modernist movement took the form of revivalist pastiche and thoughtless imitation. Shunning this trend, Lewis Mumford attempted to define regionalism as: “Regional forms are those which most closely meet the actual conditions of life and which most fully succeed in making a people feel at home in their environment: they do not merely utilize the soil but they reflect the current conditions of culture in the region.”1This definition played an integral role in the critical regionalism movement that followed forty years later.
Although the term critical regionalism was initially coined by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre in 1981, it is predominantly linked to Kenneth Frampton’s multiple essays on the subject. In ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’, Frampton sets out to define the term in opposition to the “phenomenon of universalization”1. He builds on regionalism and urges architects to move away from nostalgic preservation of the past whilst simultaneously moving away from the commodification and the technocratic obsession brought on by industrialization. His proposal for critical regionalism focuses on the themes of Space/Place, Architectonic/Scenographic, Artificial/Natural, and Visual/Tactile. These analytical pairs are instrumental in critically assessing works of architecture in relation to local and global influences.
What follows is a closer look at eight projects conceived in the 20th century that define critical regionalism:
1. Säynätsalo Town Hall, Alvar Aalto, 1952
The design of this iconic community center was a turning point in Aalto’s architectural career and represented his successful attempt at capturing the essence of Finnish architecture whilst embracing modernism. This unique design was derived in part from the traditional European ‘town square’ typology, consisting of a courtyard and tower. Aalto built upon the vernacular language by incorporating staggered and asymmetric volumes that echoed modernist principles of design.
Aalto’s choice of brick further illustrates the relevance of the Town Hall within the critical regionalist dialogue. His rejection of the modernist obsession with glass, steel, and concrete is evident in this choice.
2. Olivetti Showroom, Carlo Scarpa, 1958
Carlo Scarpa is the most underrated architect of the 20th century, who incorporated regional – modernism in his work long before it came under the purview of theorists and modern architects. The tectonic properties of the Olivetti Showroom portray Scarpa’s extraordinary eye for detail and his ability to juxtapose the old with the new. Scarpa employed modern manufacturing techniques to give traditional Venetian crafts a new lease of life in the era of industrialization. His masterful use of concrete and glass with classical materials like ivory, marble, brass, and copper encapsulates his distinct approach to modernism.
3. Marie Short House, Glenn Murcutt, 1975
This project was Glenn Murcutt’s first attempt at employing Australian vernacular practices to provide environmentally sustainable design solutions. Conceptually, it is inspired in part by Mies’ glass and steel box, and in part by Henry David Thoreau’s principle of permanently being in contact with nature.
Murcutt studied shelters were designed by Aborigine Australians and their shading and ventilation strategies in detail. He then adapted these to the contemporary needs of his clients. In the Short House, simple strategies like lifting the living space off the ground and providing open-ended ventilation through the roof are used alongside complex louver systems.
4. Bagsværd Church, Jørn Utzon, 1976
An exceptional work of contemporary church architecture, the Bagsværd Church exemplifies Kenneth Frampton’s writings on critical regionalism. Much of its popularity stems from its architectonic quality, a result of Utzon’s mastery of Danish construction combined with oriental precedents.
Frampton described the church as “a self-conscious synthesis between universal civilization and world culture”. The plan of the church, obtained from the Old Testament, is the universal aspect of the design which is transformed by its materiality and form. Another aspect of Frampton’s theory that is highlighted in this project is the supremacy of natural elements within the design, as opposed to artificial elements. The unique internal geometry of the space interacts with natural light to create a distinct atmosphere.
5. Azuma House, Tadao Ando, 1976
With this project, Tadao Ando attempted to resolve complex conundrums: that of regionalism and modernity, extravagance with a limited expense, and preservation of the natural world in a chaotic urban setting. One of the first projects of the revered architect, Azuma House resembles a long and narrow concrete box that is divided into three sections internally. The middle section takes the form of an uncovered patio that provides the occupant with a rare experience of the natural world, unperturbed by the busy city.
6. The Malagueira Housing Project, Alvaro Siza, 1977
Located in Evora, Portugal, the Malagueira housing project was conceived as a social housing scheme amid a housing crisis in 1973. Evora has a rich architectural heritage, with numerous monuments and temples dating back to the Roman era. This Roman influence on the city’s local vernacular deeply impacted Siza’s design. The ‘duct wall’ that transported all services at Malagueira was evidently inspired by the Roman aqueduct.
Another factor that contributed to the conception of this remarkable scheme is the undulating topography of the site, Siza never looked at a site as a white leveled plane. In this aspect, and in his ability to synthesize the past and the present, Alvaro Siza was a key proponent of critical regionalism.
7. Bharat Bhavan, Charles Correa, 1982
In describing Charles Correa’s work, David Adjaye said: “His vision sits at the nexus defining the contemporary Indian sensibility and it articulates a new Indian identity with a language that has a global resonance”. This is particularly highlighted in the Bharat Bhavan owing to its early period of conception. The design put forth an alternative to the European modernism brought to India by Le Corbusier.
The central idea of the scheme combined the Corbusian concept of the ‘architectural promenade’ with the religious idea of the ‘ritualistic pathway’, which is a traditional component of Hindu temples.
8. Kandalama Hotel, Geoffrey Bawa, 1991
Known as the predominant figure behind “Tropical Modernism”, Geoffrey Bawa redefined modernism within the South-East Asian context. Kandalama Hotel was one of his later works in Sri Lanka which exemplifies his design philosophy. The site of the hotel overlooks the ancient Kandalama Tank and was selected by Bawa himself. It is no surprise then, that the site plays an integral role in Bawa’s design. Rising from the edge of the rocky outcrop, the Kandalama Hotel blends into the landscape.