critical regionalism – a post-fire possibility?

In the wake of the Fourmile fire we don’t have a sense of how many homeowners may choose to rebuild of the 166 homes that were lost.  Each of those individual decisions is fraught with a lot of unknowns balanced against the prospect of reinvigorating the mountain lifestyle that was so attractive to so many.  What is clear is that there will be quite a number of houses rebuilt in a relatively discrete area.  What may evolve is some expression of the zeitgeist of residential custom home design.  Most likely that will be varied and reflective of recent past styles of “mountain ranch” and “vernacular Tuscan”.  But it could be much more.

I have written quite a lot over the last few years about Critical Regionalism, Colorado vernaculars, and the lack of a regional aesthetic here in Colorado as opposed to other areas of the United States.  These regional styles can be terrible mashups of tired tropes but that they exist at all is usually due to the use of a select group of materials deployed in a similar climate and topography.  So I would like to make a pitch to my fellow local architects to read (again, I hope) Kenneth Frampton’s essay Critical Regionalism and look to it for some thoughts about making buildings both in a specific place – Sunshine and Fourmile canyons and time, 21st century America.  Think global, design local.

The seven salient characteristics of Critical Regionalism from the 1984 (?) essay ‘Critical Regionalism: Modern Architecture and Cultural Identity’ (the emphasis is mine as are the photos)

by Kenneth Frampton:

“(1)    Critical Regionalism has to be understood as a marginal practice, on which, while it is critical of modernization, nonetheless still refuses to abandon the emancipatory and progressive aspects of the modern architectural legacy.  At the same time, Critical Regionalism’s fragmentary and marginal nature serves to distance it both from normative optimization and from the naive utopianism of the early Modern Movement.  In contrast to the line that runs from Haussmann to Le Corbusier, if favors the small rather than the big plan.

Glen Murcutt, in Australia

(2)    In this regard Critical Regionalism manifests itself as a consciously bounded architecture, one which rather than emphasizing the building as a free-standing object places the stress on the territory to be established by the structure erected on the site.  This ‘place-form’ means that the architect must recognize the physical boundary of his work as a kind of temporal limit – the point at which the present act of building stops.

Antoine Predock, in Arizona

(3)    Critical Regionalism favors the realization of architecture as a tectonic fact rather than the reduction of the built environment to a series of ill-assorted scenographic  episodes.

Mockbee Coker, in Alabama

(4)    It may be claimed that Critical Regionalism is regional to the degree that it invariably stresses certain site-specific factors, ranging from the topography, considered as a three-dimensional matrix into which the structure is fitted, to the varying play of local light across the structure.  Light is invariably understood as the primary agent by which the volume and the tectonic value of the work are revealed.  An articulate response to climatic conditions is a necessary corollary to this.  Hence Critical Regionalism is opposed to the tendency of ‘universal civilization’ to optimize the use of air-conditioning, etc.  It tends to treat all openings as delicate transitional zones with a capacity to respond to the specific conditions imposed by the site, the climate and the light.

Peter Rose, in New England

(5)    Critical Regionalism emphasizes the tactile as much as the visual.  It is aware that the environment can be experienced in terms other than sight alone.  It is sensitive to such complementary perceptions as varying levels of illumination, ambient sensations of heat, cold, humidity and air movement, varying aromas and sounds given off by different materials in different volumes, and even the varying sensations induced by floor finishes, which cause the body to experience involuntary changes in posture, gait, etc.  It is opposed to the tendency in an age dominated by media to the replacement of experience by information.

Rick Joy, in Arizona

(6)    While opposed to the sentimental simulation of local vernacular, Critical Regionalism will, on occasion, insert reinterpreted vernacular elements as disjunctive episodes within the whole.  It will moreover occasionally derive such elements from foreign sources.  In other words it will endeavor to cultivate a contemporary place-oriented culture without becoming unduly hermetic, either at the level of formal reference of at the level of technology.  In this regard, it tends towards the paradoxical creation of a regionally based ‘world culture’, almost as though this were a precondition of achieving a relevant form of contemporary practice.

Brian McKay Lyons, in Nova Scotia

(7) Critical Regionalism tends to flourish in those cultural interstices which in one way of another are able to escape the optimizing thrust of universal civilization.  Its appearance suggests that the received notion of the dominant cultural center surrounded by dependent, dominated satellites is ultimately an inadequate model by which to assess the present state of modern architecture.

Peter Zumthor, in Switzerland
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One thought on “critical regionalism – a post-fire possibility?

  1. Like your regionalist pitch for a regionalist architecture for Colorado. Any takers? Here in Alabama I’ve seen no signs of a regional school either, other than the Auburn Rural Studio’s work, whose influence has remained within its own circle. The rural landscape of the state (off-road) is an incredible learning lab full of inspiring (usually) abandoned vernacular buildings.

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