critical regionalism – an experiential approach, Part Two

As an extension of the thoughts in Part One, I would like to talk about some of the possible architectural responses to local geology and climate discussed in the previous post.  What is of interest here is how these responses may combine to create a body of work that expresses a kind of regionalism without regard to specific building form or style.  Below are descriptions of the types of architectural responses that might be found in the Rocky Mountains and when synthesized in various combinations, may describe a kind of regionalist architecture.  I have included some photos from a house I designed a couple of years ago to possibly demonstrate the architectural response to a given condition.

Soil Conditions

point loads on posts and lintels

The seasonal expansion and contraction of our local soils and the ability to point load on granite might drive a design to be more expressive of post-and-lintel type construction than continuous wall construction as is typical.  This is obviously very dependent on exact, specific soil conditions and may not express itself in all projects.

Solar gain

Because of the intensity of the sun and general aridity of the mountain West, the roof is often used more as a shading device than a rain protector.  This results in large overhangs which create a kind of interstitial space between the interiority of the building and the purely uncovered exterior space of the landscape.  This middle space of covered outdoor space may also become more formalized as covered terraces or balconies.

Another resultant of the intense solar gain is its effect on building materials.  Untreated wood, left exposed for even a short period, will quickly splinter and decay.  Even when treated, the UV rays of the sun quickly breakdown most stains and paints, making wood a relatively short-lived building material especially when compared to the centuries-old timbers and siding of East Coast houses.

exterior "room", partially roofed

Lastly, the infrequency of rain also coincides with an abundance of sunny days, around 300 or so per year.  Given the general altitude of much of the mountain west, that means that even on a freezing day, a pleasant afternoon can be spent on an outside terrace in direct sunlight.  So, like many California modernist houses, this creates the ability to live outside for much of the year, although this tends to be more for winter afternoons and summer mornings rather than purely seasonally determined.

Windy, dry conditions

very limited use of exposed wood (stone walls, metal roof)

The combination of occasionally fierce winds and frequently very low humidity creates many days of red-flag fire danger days.  These conditions, combined with the intense solar gain, quickly deteriorates wood, making it even more susceptible to even the smallest falling ember.  This may make a strong case for eliminating exposed wood from building exteriors and using much more fire-resistant materials like stone and metals.  Abundant native stone, both granites and sandstones, would reinforce this regional material usage preference.


xeriscaping right up to the face of the building

As a possible corollary to the windy, dry conditions listed above is the extreme aridity experienced on the east side of the Continental Divide.  Most of our streams and rivers are charged with snow melt, not rainfall, and the storage of water and its conservation has written much of the history of Western land use.  As differentiated from the damp Midwest or East Coast, the lawns of typical houses are irrigated and with growing awareness of the scarcity of water resources, xeriscaping has become the preferred method for treating the land in the spaces between buildings.  These xeriscaped areas are marked not by low, gound-hugging grasses like prototypical “lawns”, but are combinations of native bushes and tall grasses.  Because of this variety and size of plantings, a building in the mountain West does not sit on a generic, de-natured green tableau but is a built moment in a continuous landscape of native plants.  The building does not sit within its own domesticated space of green lawn, but either interfaces directly with “wilderness” or must use other architectural devices to establish this domesticated zone of semi-public, semi-private space.

I am sure there are a lot of other buildings in the mountain West that demonstrate the same or similar responses to these conditions.  In a future post I will try to find classes of other examples that span many different architectural styles but have in common these traits, including vernacular architectures.

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.

think global, design local – architecture

It seems that time and time again, as I get hit by images of new buildings in magazines, blogs, websites, etc., the finest architecture being built over the last ten years or so is what I would call critical regionalism.  Taking a cue from Kenneth Frampton’s essay of the same name from 1979 and the work of Tzonis and Lefaivre, these are buildings that allow the immediate topography, region and culture to influence the design more than a formal or theoretical premise.

house by Glen Murcutt, Australia

These buildings are undeniably Modern, but also local, celebrating the particulars of time and place.  They often partake of a kind of vernacular architecture (which hopefully, is also formed by a specific climate, availability of materials, etc), but, to use Frampton’s term, are also “disjunctive”, clearly demonstrating a connection with, a brief ancestry of, Modernism.

house by Lake Flato Architects, Texas, USA

For as thrilling and as exciting as some new tower in Dubai or Chicago might be, once you leave the confines of a large, cosmopolitan city, the influence of the land, people and place, should probably play an ever-increasing role in the making of a building.

house by James Cutler, Washington state, USA
house by Brian McKay Lyons, Nova Scotia, Canada

I think there are clients and patrons who don’t want to associate with their immediate locale, but rather are looking to say something about their connection and association with an international, cosmopolitan society, eschewing any regionalist influences.

Denver Art Museum, Daniel Libeskind, Denver, Colorado
house by Thomas Phifer, Boulder, Colorado, USA

It is an old adage in architecture that bad sites make for good architecture.  It may be that school-trained architects working in more remote areas, feel like their sites are already ‘challenged’, in that they are not in the glossy capitals of architecture.  However, the architects that I have met and worked with in smaller cities, towns and the country, have a remarkable interest in, and respect for, the local climate, traditions, materials and building history of their chosen place.  It is more likely, that in fact, the slightly generic nature of the buildings in the increasingly generic international cities drove those architects away and into the arms of places and people slightly more humble, certainly more interesting.

house by Antoine Predock, Arizona, USA
house by Sam Mockbee and Coleman Coker, Mississippi, USA
house by Rick Joy, Arizona, USA
house by Turner Brooks, New England, USA

so, when you hear about everyone buying local and supporting local farmers, think about why that is.  Think beyond the rationale of sustainability and the transport of goods and materials.

Think of what the the local farmer or artisan brings to their work, and the rejection of the generic goods produced faraway and distributed by Walmarts and McDonalds and SOM.

Critical Regionalism


One the founding anniversary of M. Gerwing Architects, I thought I would post if not a manifesto, then maybe the guiding thoughts behind most of my recent work.  Although a bit hesitant to venture into freely expressing some thoughts on architectural theory, here goes:

Critical Regionalism

From the 1984 (?) essay ‘Critical Regionalism: Modern Architecture and Cultural Identity’

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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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.”

In reference to that, we are getting close to completing construction on the Sunshine Canyon House about which I have been posting progress for some time now.



DesignBuild Challenge 2

Another image from the DesignBuild Challenge that took place Saturday, April 5th.

I have been thinking alot about critical regionalism as defined by Kenneth Frampton in the essay of the same name written in 1984. At the end of the essay, he posits seven summary points, with number two exerpted here:

(“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.”