A survey of contemporary architects inspired by Critical Regionalism lacks the necessary political bite, finds Thomas Wensing.
Five North American Architects – An Anthology
Lars Müller Publishers, 160pp, £35
In late 2010, Kenneth Frampton celebrated his eightieth birthday with a one-day conference at the Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, where he continues to teach. The conference was, typically, an act of resistance against the prevalent culture of commodification and globalisation and focused on architecture as practice. To this end, five offices were endorsed by Frampton and invited to speak about their work and motivations: Stanley Saitowitz, Brigitte Shim & Howard Sutcliffe, Rick Joy, John & Patricia Patkau and Steven Holl. In addition to eschewing the prevalent tendency to perceive architecture as a fashionable and expendable consumer product, Frampton thus also decided to put the cult of personality into perspective and to present Canadian practice on an equal footing with that in the US. Frampton admits to a certain arbitrariness in coming to this selection, but is of the opinion that the tropes of landscape, material, structure, craft, space and light – the pre-eminent drivers of architectural form and culture – are exemplarily manifested in the work
of these offices.
For those familiar with Frampton’s writing, and specifically with his essay Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance (1982), the choice of architects and specific themes should not come as much of a surprise. It is worth recalling that Critical Regionalism was intended as a re-assessment of the validity of modern architecture in a world unable to come to terms with the deleterious effects of our asymmetrical political and economic systems. Frampton was of the opinion that architecture as a critical practice could only continue to be sustained by the adoption of a ‘arrière-garde’ position, which is to say that the modernist project could be revived by looking back in order to go forward.
In Critical Regionalism, it was acknowledged that the positivism and reductionism of Enlightenment ideals, in which modernism was steeped, should give way to a more pragmatic architecture rooted in site and craft, a tectonic expression of the so-called ‘space of human appearance’.
That one-day conference has now been reproduced in book form. The sample of architects are, by their own account, indebted to Frampton’s theoretical legacy, and as such the book could be seen as an opportunity to take stock of the effectiveness of the theory of Critical Regionalism in everyday practice. After an introductory essay by Frampton the five practices present their work, and it is refreshing to be confronted by such a body of rigorous and inspirational architecture. Although I subscribe to many of the viewpoints and concerns expressed here, however, this book is not substantial enough to shed light on the question of whether Critical Regionalism is sufficiently powerful to act as an antidote to the forces of globalisation and commodification. There is only so much one can cover in a one-day seminar, but both the architecture and the texts are too polite in comparison to the breadth and scope of Frampton’s message. What is perhaps overlooked by the participants is that there are important political implications in creating Critical Regionalist architecture. For instance, to posit architecture as craft implies thinking about labour relations, just as the attempt to create discursive space automatically addresses the distorted relationship between public and private interests. It is precisely in its political implications that the significance of Critical Regionalism can be most enduring, but this book leaves me yearning for some agit-prop and protest to whip it into shape as an inspiration for generations to come.
Thomas Wensing studied architecture at Delft and Columbia University, and is registered in the Netherlands and the UK.
First published in AT227, April 2012