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Editorial View: Reframing Critical Regionalism for the Current Age

Sustained by the human factor, the networked world is creating a new sense of place

How can architecture truly ground itself in an age of increased cultural and social homogenisation? The modern era has been dominated by the systematic erosion of difference and plurality, and the commodification of culture. While representing obvious material advancement and social liberalisation, these globalising forces also invariably involve the marginalising of traditional cultures and a disengagement with the past.

In its quest for reinvention, architecture has often found itself chasing ephemeral novelty rather than engaging with tangible realities. Reacting against this was the notion of Critical Regionalism, as advanced by historians and theorists such as Kenneth Frampton, Christian Norberg-Schulz and William JR Curtis.

At its most relevant, Critical Regionalism addressed the particulars of place and culture, mining everyday life and perceptions for intimations about a truly progressive future. Drawing upon indigenous wisdom it penetrated beyond the superficial features of regional style to explore a more eloquent, authentic and resonant architecture rooted in responses to landscape, climate and context.

‘At its most relevant, Critical Regionalism addressed the particulars of place and culture, mining everyday life and perceptions for intimations about a truly progressive future.’

Critical Regionalism showed that investigation of the local is a fundamental step in the rehumanisation of architecture. But the world moves on. Most genuine vernacular traditions are now either extinct or under threat. And in any case, contemporary architects cannot simply reuse and appropriate such precedents without fatally devaluing them.

Paradoxically, while we are more connected than ever, we are also more atomised and dislocated. From Houston to Hanoi, you can be cosseted in the same experiential cocoon of global brands and lifestyle. This makes the humanising impetus behind Critical Regionalism even more relevant, but how can it be reframed for the current age?

One possible response, proposed in Broader View, is Network Specifism, which seeks to ground architecture in a particular network rather than a particular place. ‘The capacity of a network to connect and bring together people across a breadth of scales seems to provide a new way of mediating between the global and the local,’ write Carlo Ratti, Antoine Picon et al. ‘It is the fluid interface between the individual and the collective.

‘The capacity of a network to connect and bring together people across a breadth of scales seems to provide a new way of mediating between the global and the local’

‘Architecture has always been a collaborative enterprise involving many hands, and teams are now increasingly globally networked. But networks of human interaction are, crucially, locally grounded, which gives projects and initiatives their own authentic character. ‘In this sense Network Specifism could be considered a redefinition of Critical Regionalism’, say Ratti and Picon. ‘In the latter, local culture serves as a lens to inflect local architectural production.

According to Network Specifism, this very lens itself could change based not only on the building’s place but also on the networked community that contributes to it.’ In effect, ‘the local becomes relational’, impelled and sustained by the human factor.

Catherine Slessor, Editor

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