critical regionalism – an experiential approach, Part One

I have written a number of times about critical regionalism and the surprising lack of a kind of regional identity in the architecture of the Rocky Mountains.  Most of this thought has focused on Kenneth Frampton’s seven points as expressed in his famous essay and a conception of regional architectures on largely formal and material terms.  I would like here to examine some thoughts on a different kind of regionalist expression, one based on a phenomenological or experiential response rather than the usual form-based or academic anthropological regionalism.

traditional Ticino house and Mario Botta house - formal response to vernacular

To be clear, there are some kinds of local vernacular architecture from which a form-based critical regionalism might take some clues.  In the southern Rockies there is the very clear and frankly painfully codified adobe typologies of “Southwest style” architectures.  Here in the central Rockies there are large collections of metal-clad mining buildings and some timber structures that can be identified as unique to this region in terms of both building form and material usage.  However, I think a phenomenological approach to thinking about a critical regionalism may have a more fruitful outcome than form-based approaches and the unique human responses to the characteristics of this region’s high desert climate have generated a stronger and more complete body of regionally unique architectural expressions than any collection of formal attributes from already existing buildings.

To that end, here are some thoughts and statistics on local climate and geology:

Earth – here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains we are blessed and cursed with two diametrically opposed subsoil conditions that greatly effect the modes of foundation construction.  On the one hand there are large expanses of granite above and immediately below the surface.  At some locations this allows buildings to be directly supported on the rock itself negating the necessity for standard concrete foundations and footings.  However, in opposition to this kind of immovable earth, we also have large areas of expansive soils.  These are clay-like subsurface soils that swell when wet, shrink when dry.  This kind of movement makes traditional concrete foundations on footings impossible, making drilled piers and associated grade beams the recommended practice in these areas.

Wind – even though we may be in the central United States, far from any ocean, gale force winds are not all uncommon along the Front Range.  Warm air sweeping up from the south rushes into low pressure zones along the mountains necessitating a standard wind pressure design assumption of 130 mile per hour.  These winds are relentless, tumbling outdoor furniture across the landscape, upending signs and anything else left outside during these Spring and Autumn wind seasons.

Fire – as has been made abundantly clear with the loss of 170 homes during the Fourmile Fire and evacuations of the recent Dome Fire here in Boulder, the extreme aridity of the Front Range makes ignition resistant construction an absolute necessity.  Daily humidity readings in the 20% range, coupled with the high winds as described above, creates the certainty for wildfire.  Human-sourced ignition is the most common cause of wildfires, but a significant number of conflagrations are also started from the dry lightning storms that afflict the region.

Water – what ties all of these climactic extremes may be the striking lack of water in the West once you move beyond the 100th meridian.  Boulder receives fourteen inches of precipitation per year, ten of that in form of snow falls.  From late April to some time in September the only rain that falls comes in brief afternoon storms that occassionally drop some rain.  Long, hot, dry days throughout the summer are marked by about 3o minutes of downpour which then dries as quickly as the clouds appeared and departed.  This pattern is most acute in late July and August but only contribute about 2.5 inches of rain total for a two month period.  By comparison, in my native Kentucky yearly precipitation runs to 44.5 inches and the two dry months of July and August combine for 7.7 inches of rain.

In an upcoming post I will talk about some of the architectural responses to these conditions and how those might combine to make a kind of regionalism that is not based on any notion of an architectural style.

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