Issue 37A Revived Critical Regionalism

The balance between local and global agendas has been brought sharply into focus by recent global politics. FCBStudios partner, Simon Doody reflects on how we, as architects, can bridge the two agendas.

The balance between local and global agendas has been brought sharply into focus by recent global politics. FCBStudios partner, Simon Doody reflects on how we, as architects, can bridge the two agendas.

2016 was an unsettling year in the sphere of global politics, which has brought into focus the challenges of balancing localism and globalism.

Challenges are presented by insular localist agendas, as well as the effects of globalism on identity and belonging. There are great benefits to both agendas, and we must ask, how can the two be bridged in architecture?

The positive and negative effects of globalisation v localism have been with us for many decades. Cultural dilution was the focus of Paul Ricoeur's 1965 book ‘History and Truth’ where he described the dichotomy: ‘How to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilisation and take part in universal civilisation.’

In 1983, Kenneth Frampton observed how architecture was reacting to these global shifts in his paper ‘Critical Regionalism’. At its heart, it describes an architecture that is rooted in its place: its topography, climate, light and tectonic form, rather than scenography, and the tactile sense rather than the visual - the genius loci. This is his ‘regionalism’. The ‘critical’ describes an architecture that is a continuation of the modern movement, an architecture that is promoting technological, social and cultural progression. It is also an architecture that takes a stance against the worst of global identikit architecture as well as crass, and misappropriated, symbolism as a means for landing buildings in their contexts.

Why think about critical regionalism again?

For me it is thinking about an agenda for working in different countries and how we can design buildings that make people reflect on issues that affect them – not just the building users, but also our local clients and collaborators.

The critical part should be a given. We should be trying to push boundaries and innovate with construction technologies and environmental solutions. But I believe the social and cultural progression element is very difficult to deliver on from afar. How can we really understand the complexities of foreign cultures, their sympathies and traditions, and create buildings that challenge norms. What should, or can we be critical of? Our points of criticism are not necessarily aligned with local desires. 

I give an example: The early work of Tadao Ando was critical, pre-occupied with reconnecting man with nature. The completely inward looking Azuma House critically rejected its generic urban context and forced its occupiers to use open circulation so as to re-connect people with the climate. It also reconnects with nature in its crafted, softly undulating concrete which plays with varying light conditions. This building was utterly modern in its technique. I think it would have been extraordinary for an overseas architect to have made this building and this statement.

I think some of the best exponents of post-modern critical regionalist practice did their best and most potent work in their own countries. These include Utzon's Bagsvaerd Church, Bawa’s Kandalama Hotel, and Kahn's Salk Institute. What fascinates me most about these buildings is that they promote an architecture that is revolutionary, yet softened by their sensitivity to their place and environment. They all avoid any crass symbolism or scenography to root them in the locale. Whilst attacking global ‘wallpaper architecture’, they address a loss of the local.

More recently, the critical regionalist agenda has been picked up in newly developing countries as they face the swift and generic development that countries like Japan saw in the 60’s. Wang Shu in China has taken a particular position that is hard not to sympathise with. His earthen buildings sit in stark contrast to their glass-clad cityscape context. 

Coming back to the ‘critical’. We are about to see countries reneging on climate deals. Unbelievably the incoming head of the US Environmental Protection agency, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change sceptic. It is clear we can be very critical of overseas approaches to the environment and in the main this can be concerned with energy, but it is also about the environments we create for people.  

One of the challenges is that while it is easy to build an experimental house, for instance, to build anything of scale is far more challenging. In the making of an ‘agenda changing’ building, they often become overt caricatures of their voice, at the expense of humane space.  

Instead, I am personally drawn to buildings with quieter voices, buildings that have genuine tectonics as a result of their local passive solutions and sensibilities to craft, light and space rather than technological showmanship. More work should be delivered on this more holistic,  scalable, regional approach.

It is clear to me that a real challenge is building in cities characterised by very dense development - particularly building vertically. There is a demand for these buildings, but I find them uncomfortable, generic and placeless. There are a few successful answers - Charles Correa’s Mumbai Apartments and Gordon Bunshaft’s Jeddah Bank - but they remain the exception.

Today, WOHA in Singapore are developing an interesting body of theoretical and built work based on bioclimatic principles coupled with super-dense urban development. Interestingly they have chosen just one city and climate to work in.

Returning to Japan, as a nation I massively admire their ability to be at the forefront of technology yet hold their distinct character and traditions. They have a developed respect for the environment and personal wellbeing.

They do not need us. It is in the countries facing much faster development than Japan ever did that we find ourselves being able to contribute more positively. What is clear is we need to think really hard about what can shape critical and regional architecture in these places as often they have become less distinct and with patterns of life we are not very understanding of or often sympathetic to.

Simon Doody

This essay is part of the St Catherine’s Papers, and was originally presented as a short talk at the Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios 2017 Awayday.  

A full programme of talks can be seen here.

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Forest City © Teikoku Shounen