Critical regionalism is defined as “the deliberate use of region as a way to envision and critique relationships among people and places and envision better alternatives.”1 They focus on showing us more about our relations with each other and how we interact with our surroundings, often by emphasizing the natural aspects of the region and often contrasting it neatly. In this essay, we will explore some of the basic tenets of critical regionalism, as well as look at a few examples of regionalist works, so that we may understand more fully this concept as a response to modernism.
The idea behind critical regionalism is designing and creating buildings and structures that appeal to the original geographical context of the area. Instead of going for strict modernism, or moving to strict regionalism, critical regionalism emphasizes the tactile sense of the building instead of how it looks. While modernism is useful in this practice for providing a sense of progression and forward movement, it cannot completely abandon the look and sensation of the surrounding area, as well as the history of the place. Critical regionalism “distances itself equally from the Enlightenment myth of progress and from a reactionary, unrealistic impulse to return to the architectonic forms of the preindustrial past.”2
Critical regionalism came about in the beginnings of the 1980s, as the world experienced the advent of postmodern architecture. Postmodernism in architecture is avant-garde, new, innovative and clinical. It seeks to simplify form and make it more functional, as opposed to the ornate, romantic aesthetic styles that came before it. 3 In a way, critical regionalism is even more modern that that, as the styles are still uniquely original and not an attempt to replicate what happened in the past; however, it tries to tie the aspects of the building with the organic, natural elements that are found around it. It is believed that something is lost when something is modernized, as it is taken further away from its source; therefore, this context must be kept in mind when creating a new building, which is where critical regionalism comes in.
As more and more structures cropped up that focused on being slick, modern, and sleek, there was a reaction to this postmodernism, bringing about a desire to keep the original geography of the location, and thus tie it closer to the surrounding area. Kenneth Frampton is a writer who is very closely tied with the idea of critical regionalism, and he wrote his initial treatise “Towards a Critical Regionalism” in order to respond to the growing trend of postmodernism. It is meant to prevent a homogenizing of cultures and aesthetics, instead allowing there to be distinct looks and tactile responses to a building in a particular area, maintaining the individualism that is craved in most areas.
Architects find the idea interesting because of the way it gets to blend the progressive nature of modernism with the sense of individualism and regional culture that is often thought to be so innovative within the world of architecture. It allows the building to stand on its own merits and asks the admirer of the building to accept it as part of the world it inhabits, existing in both the present and the past at the same time. Ever since the 60s, the concept of the city has been threatening to swallow whole any concept of individualism and regionalism that a community can offer in its architecture, especially as these megalopolises get more homogenized and modernized.
With critical regionalism, architects strive to create boundaries in an increasingly fluid megalopolis, forming architecture of resistance against the aesthetics of the surrounding buildings. It brings the building closer in touch with nature, especially when compared to the rather heartless, idiosyncratic and contradictory styles of modern architecture. There is a conscious effort to bring back nature and fight off culture; in modern architecture, one can find the need to bulldoze the land the building is created on in order to form a flat surface upon which to build. However, with critical regionalism, the architecture is brought closer to nature by leaving that land intact. Artificial light is the norm in modernism; however, natural light is very much favored in regionalism, as it keeps the ‘aura’ of the area that is badly needed to achieve that organic effect. 4
In order to understand the basics of critical regionalism, it is important to compare some buildings that were created with the principle in mind. The Bagsvaerd Church, built in 1976 by Jorn Utzon in Copenhagen, is a perfect example of critical regionalism. While it is a church and is designed like one, it carries a distinctly Oriental and secular flavor to it that provides a much-needed idiosyncrasy that pleases the eye and prevents it from falling into kitsch.5 There are distinctly organic elements to it, including the reinforced concrete shell and the confluence of cultural aspects to it, which are indicative of Asian building aesthetics. This sort of regional stance allows the building to shine through and resist the other, more modern buildings that surround it.
Alvar Aalto, on the other hand, created the Saynatsalo Town Hall in 1952, which really worked with the tactile nature of critical regionalism in detail. Vision is eschewed for sensation and feeling, as there is an interesting contrast and shift in textures and feelings that are found in the building. The stairs carry a brick surface that is rough and cold, but then its council chamber contains a wooden floor with a lot of spring to it. There are grass steps on the outside that also contribute to this textural experience of the building. That exact type of aesthetic is what drives the critical regionalism in the work, and offers a wonderful alternative to cold, homogenized modernist architecture. 6
With all these factors in mind, it is easy to see just how critical regionalism can be incorporated into the world of architecture. Because modernism has sought to alienate and combine all culture into one force, critical regionalism as a response wants to emphasize the local and the tactile. This results in buildings that are reminiscent of their original purpose, as well as their context in their immediate surroundings. They use the original lighting, topography, and culture of the area to give the audience something to think about in terms of what it means to be a part of this area, as compared to the slick modernism of other buildings.
Docherty, Thomas. Postmodernism: a reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Print.
Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism.” The Anti-aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture. Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983. 16-30. Print.
Powell, Douglas. Critical regionalism: connecting politics and culture in the American landscape. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.