Articulated through a multiplicity of architectural expressions, our transition into modernity has been unreservedly marked by rapid fluidity and pluralistic built environments. In particular, this has given rise to the fervent conflict between regionalism and globalism. Whilst there are certainly benefits to globalism’s ‘universal’ design values, it can also have a deeply negative impact if ignorant to critical considerations.

Aerial View of the Datai
Aerial view of The Datai. ©The Datai

Conversely, as a “restorative philosophy”, regionalism responds to a particular place, culture, and climate. The inherent specificity attached to this movement is identified through context-specific architecture, historical knowledge, climate responsiveness, materiality, ecology and landscape, social and cultural appropriateness, and technology. Although it may be unfair, even misleading, to generalize modern architecture as “rootless”, modernization has undoubtedly shifted our architectural legacy to one of homogenization and superficial arbitrariness; to one that is insufficiently addressing local climatic and socio-cultural conditions.

Exterior view of the dining room at The Datai
Exterior view of the dining room at The Datai. ©The Datai

The haziness surrounding our understanding of a ‘region’ immediately poses a number of difficulties in how we address architecture. As a human construct, ‘regions’ are a product of our inherently biased beliefs and perceptions. This leaves the nebulous and elusive term to be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, whether it is through racial or ethnic groups; through shared geography or climate; or through political boundaries. Ultimately, however, the regionalist program should seek to emancipate itself from national and cultural stereotypes, instead, striving for a more profound understanding of human interconnection and identity.

Pavilion at the Datai
Pavilion at The Datai. ©The Datai

At the same time, this has proven difficult moving into a global culture concerned with “authenticity”. Over the past century, intra-regional and international travel has fostered an anthropologic interest in ‘exotic’ cultures – an interest that has directly translated into significant economic growth, particularly in Southeast Asia. In parallel to this increased tourism, a new commercial, regionalist architecture has evolved; a simulacra of places. This aestheticization- an illusion in itself- of a particular region typically objectifies a climate, such as the tropics, and thereby ignores the social aspects of the architecture. That is, it is the differences that often define the regionalist architecture, as opposed to the similar human needs across cultures.

This notion of a “unique life-style” is idealized through the material symbolism often ascribed to resorts, a typology precisely tailored for touristic consumption. Although the universal beauty of these buildings remains indisputable, it is their exclusivity which is to be contested. For not only do they perpetuate past colonial practices, but employ ‘regionalist’ ideals, such as local materials and craftsmanship, to promote a particular interpretation of a region. Usually a reincarnation of the vernacular, merely on a more sophisticated and polished level, such architecture is an attempt to market an “illusory transcendence of class”. These buildings are then hailed for an ‘authentic’ architectural language. And yet, ultimately, this form of superficial mimicry alludes to luxury, a notion founded on exclusivity; a material symbol of wealth and social stratification.

One example of these “luxurious architectural stage sets” is The Datai resort, designed by the Singapore-based firm Kerry Hill Architects, in Langkawi Island. Conceived as a “jungle retreat”, the resort remains immersed in much of the original rainforest, whilst the individual villas clearly draw inspiration from the traditional, raised Malay house. However, this vernacular tradition ironically juxtaposes the exclusivity of the location – whilst The Datai is situated to the north of the island, many of the other hotels and villages are instead located in the south. Although the familiarity of this architectural language may have been intended to establish an ‘authenticity’ through a “perceived historical continuity”, as Eddy Koh highlights, there is instead an almost unnerving eclecticism within the resort:

“A lama from Tibet will find a familiar sight in the profile of The Datai’s west wing with its long uninterrupted corridors and patchwork of doors, windows, and sloping eaves that jut out precariously from a cliff. The lost peoples of Maya will enjoy the staggered flights of stone steps…The Japanese will delight in the shoji screen effect of the door and window designs”.

With a blatant fixation on appearances within contemporary culture, architects, particularly those practicing in regions with rich local heritage, have become deeply concerned with this idea of ‘authenticity’. However, it is here that we see that whilst a design can share regionalist ideas, – and it should be noted that The Datai is comparatively more sensitive than the majority of resort architecture- the notion of authenticity continues to be primarily realized through formal idealizations.

Although at its worst, ersatz stereotypes may degenerate regionalism into “regressive sentimentalism”, at its best, this approach transforms the principles of the past into architecture suitable for the current social climate. If not approached correctly, this accepted ‘need’ to respond to locale and climate can simply present itself as historicist nostalgia. Local traditions offer architects an abundance of fundamental bits of knowledge, learning that should be combined with rigorous modernity in the hopes of producing unique and timeless architecture.

Not all modern architecture is rootless- Exterior view of Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House
Not all modern architecture is rootless- Exterior view of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House. ©The MLS

References

Curtis, J.R William. “Towards an Authentic Regionalism”. In Mimar 19: Architecture in Development. Singapore: Concept Media Ltd. (1986): 24-31.

Tan, Hock-Beng. “(Re)Presenting the Vernacular/(Re)Inventing Authenticity: Resort Architecture In Southeast Asia”. In Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review6, No. 2 (1995): 25-36. Https://Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/41757182.

Tzonis,Alexander, Liane Lefaivre And Bruno Stagno. Tropical Architecture: Critical Regionalism in The Age OfGlobalisation. Chichester: Wiley Academy, 2001.

Architectural Journalist

Rethinking The Future

Melbourne

Jessica Richardson is an architecture student from the University of Melbourne, with a passion for design histories. She believes that, now more than ever, critical thinking and meaningful discussion is crucial for architecture to be at the forefront of change.

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