Critical Regionalism: Whatever Happened to Autonomy

Author: Gevork Hartoonian
This is an updated and revised paper originally published as “Critical Regionalism Reloaded” in “Fabrications”, 16:2, December 2006, pp122-139


In his most recent take on “critical regionalism,” Kenneth Frampton revisits the dichotomy between centre and periphery. It is not the implied territorial divide that interest Frampton. At issue is how architecture could or should define the periphery in contrast to the hegemonic architecture unfolding in the centre. Frampton’s take is centred on the ways that technological apparatus, under the auspices of capitalism, transform the cities one-dimensionally. From China to wherever else that capital today finds a home for fast accumulation, we witness “the mediagenic impact of spectacular form which is,” Frampton observes, “as much due to the capacity of ‘superstar architects’ to come up with sensational, novel images as to their organizational competence and technical abilities.”[i] For a better understanding of Frampton’s position we need to give attention to the change in the title of his text.

Since the rise of postmodernism, Frampton has constantly searched for alternative(s) in the work of architects who sidetrack the post-sixties turn to historical eclecticism and the drive for formal autonomy, to mention two dominant tendencies of the time. As early as the 1980s, Frampton mapped the thematic of “critical regionalism” with phenomenological aspiration for the duality between “national culture” and civilization. [ii]  Exploring the early work of architects such as Mario Botta, Alvaro Siza, and Tadao Ando, Frampton highlighted architecture that “aims to provide deeper meaning not by returning to older systems of belief, but through the creation of new values in and through art.” A few critics place the roots of such architecture “in the literary debates of romanticism and the philosophy of German idealism, which exerted a profound influence on art and architectural theory from 1800 onward.”[iii] This said, the word critical in the title of Frampton’s text says something about his theoretical affiliation with Marxism. It also separates his discourse from any form of vernacular, sentimental or otherwise. To avoid other mis-readings, Frampton tried to discuss the subject in more systematic terms. If the Perspecta essay was exploratory and in search of what was coined the “prospect” for critical regionalism, in his next turn to the subject, he took a definite position. From “prospect for,” to “towards” a critical regionalism, Frampton outlined six themes reflecting on both historical and contemporary issues.[iv] If the first three binary opposites articulate critical reflections on positivistic readings of the Enlightenment, the remaining three points are exclusively focused on themes that are architectural through and  through. Discussing opposites such as “culture and civilization,” “the rise and fall of the Avant-grade,” and “regionalism and world culture” Frampton attempts to formulate the implications of Paul Ricoeur’s discourse on civilization and national identity for contemporary architecture. Still, in a text written during 2005, Frampton introduced two additional tropes important for his discourse on critical regionalism: we are reminded of the ever-anachronistic character of the process of building, and the present situation that, according to him, is marked by the line separating the rural from the cosmopolitan. On this horizon, architecture is not perceived as a single object or for that matter a sister to the fine arts, but the art of the construction of the life-world with the capacity to promote a critical relationship with the technological beyond the nostalgia implied in the German word heimat and the spectacle permeating the culture of the megalopolis.[v]

To put together these hasty readings of Frampton’s drive for critical regionalism, two issues need further attention. The first one concerns periodization: the historicity of the project of Modernity and the way that certain thematic of Enlightenment had to adjust itself–if they had already not lost their socio-political and cultural relevance– as late capitalism takes over what we can now call the period of early modernism. Frampton is well aware of the essentiality of the notion of identity for the formation of bourgeois society. Even though national identity has lost its historical relevance, particular to architecture is the identity it could evoke. Therefore, Frampton is interested in architects whose work is focused on the projection of identity as such, rather than merely mirroring its time, technically and/or aesthetically. This brings me to the second issue; the inevitability of architecture’s rapport with the production and consumption systems of capitalism. What differentiates architecture from most other artwork is its capacity to be both temporal and historical. The longevity of  architecture is because it is a constructed object, and its use and appropriation is inseparable from the modalities of everyday-life. Architecture is both history and is historical. I wish to explore this aspect of the building art in terms of the culture of building, called autonomy and discussed in the last part of this essay. For now, I would like to turn to the genealogies of the idea of critical regionalism.

Liane Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis’s formulation of the subject demands attention. For the third time, in a book entitled Critical Regionalism: Architecture and Identity in a Globalized World (2003), they re-define  critical regionalism according to the situation of contemporary architectural praxis. It is important, at the outset, to note the dialogical relation permeating between the interpretation of contemporary architecture and the meaning ascribed to the word critical therein. Their 1981 essay,[vi] critical regionalism designates a group of architects whose work sought to formulate an alternative to the postmodernist simulation of historical forms. Their recent text, instead, attempts to present a critical regionalism thematic that is defined by the universalism deployed through globalization of information and western cultural values. Interestingly enough, in modernity, the discourse of regionalism was mostly understood in confrontation with one form of universalism or another. Instrumental to both the picturesque movement and Gothic revivalism unravelling in England and Germany, for example, was an understanding of national identity that, opposing modernity, sought to associate architecture with place. The aim was to underline those aspects of collectivity that endure in  particularities attributed to form and/or tactile sensibilities registered in the use of material, for example. The same can be said about the essentiality of the concept of opposition to the universal in Lewis Mumford and Sigfried Giedion’s discourse on regionalism. This subject will be discussed shortly. First, we need to address the problematic nature of the concept of the critical in Lefaivre and Tzonis’s book.

Between Lefaivre and Tzonis’s discussion of the idea of critical regionalism in 1990 and in the leading essay of their 2003 book, two changes are noteworthy.[vii] In the recent book, the word critical is not used to denote an opposition, or resistance against anything internal or external to architecture. They emphasize the particular, defining region in terms of “the value of the singular circumscribes projects within the physical, social, and cultural constraints of the particular, aiming at sustaining diversity while benefiting from universality.” [viii] As the title of the latter essay suggests, Tzonis’s rapprochement to critical regionalism intends to “design” an identity for the particular as mapped within the prevailing order of globalization. If the idea of critical regionalism, they write, was once sought in confrontation with a hegemonic architectural discourse – the international style architecture of the 1930s; postmodernism of the late 1970s – the word critical, according to the authors, should now be subdued by what is called Realism. One reason for this shift might be to avoid the issue of national identity. Realism as such suggests a postmodern paradigm where the universal dimension of technology is met outside of history. It is a move, according to Fredric Jameson, “to problematise the assumptions of critical regionalism itself.” This, Jameson continues, “has indeed been called postmodern marketing,” which respects the value and cultures of local population “by adopting its various goods to suit those vernacular languages and practices.” [ix] This means that regionalism is henceforth attainable only when architecture’s appropriation of the given global situation is so intense as to leave no room for the issue of identity, national or otherwise. This post-critical position, if you wish, underpins Lefaivre and Tzonis’s recent essay, even though they might not subscribe to its wider theoretical implications.

Thus, their early attempts pursue “critical” in Mumford’s discourse, and then in terms of the concept’s confrontational potentiality deployed in the discourse of the Frankfurt School. Also they tacitly adhere to the Kantian notion of autonomy. In their words, “critical works challenge not only the established actual world as confrontational works do, but the very legitimacy of the possible world views which interpret it in the mind.” They continue, “this occurs when a building is self-reflective, self-referential, when it contains, in addition to explicit statements, implicit metastatements that make the beholder aware of the artificiality of her or his way of looking at the world.”[x] Central to this understanding of critical is the strategy of defamiliarization borrowed from the Russian formalist school whose radical potentialities evaporate in the shift to Realism.[xi] In the context of globalization, therefore, critical regionalism designates an architecture whose architectonic elements are contextualized in the particularities central to an identifiable socio-cultural situation allocated by the present global order. In other words, Realism designates a state of objectivity, the architectonic of which is devoid of metastatement. The issue here is political in nature, with significant consequences that (for the brevity of this paper) deserves passing mention. [xii]

Consider this: if the turn to Realism defines critical regionalism according to a paradigm centred on differentiating modernity from capitalism, a distinction essential to Jameson’s reading of Frampton’s discourse on the same subject,[xiii] then one can claim that Tzonis’s text fails to accomplish this task. The differentiation of late capitalism and modernity is important: it allows one to see the relationship between region and late capitalism as parallax, meaning that those forms or tropes that have the potentiality to define the identity of a region are paradoxically by-products of late capitalism. Those values are not innate to a place or a phenomenon, but they are sought as such when an historical condition makes them tangible, or required. Therefore, as will be demonstrated later, there lies the merit of discussing critical regionalism in reference to the work’s capacity to direct one’s attention to a larger entity, i.e., globalization of capitalism.[xiv] Once this is established, the raison de’etre of the argument that supports the diversity of buildings selected to accompany Tzonis’s text collapses. One might go further and claim that their alleged linguistic diversity accomplishes one thing: to “design” a region’s identity based on a non-critical and totalized reception of late capitalism.

What is also taking place in the Lefaivre and Tzonis’s text is their position vis-a-vis Frampton’s discourse on critical regionalism. In their second text (1990) Frampton is discussed favourably; more recently (2003) his position is criticised in the following authoritative words.  Tzonis writes “despite our warning regarding the objective to employ the concept of regionalism, it was repeatedly misused.” He continues, “In reality, it came to mean the opposite. Rather than being used critically – even when it was used together with that term [critical] – it was transported back to its obsolete, chauvinistic outlook.” [xv] The statement refers to Frampton’s discourse in “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” and his reading of  Paul Ricouer that is quoted at length in the conclusion of the text of Tzonis’s second version of critical regionalism. This is not a vote of support for Frampton’s position, but rather a demonstration of the problematic involved in Lefaivre and Tzonis’s attempt to make a case for their ideological shift that paradoxically, finds no outlet except through a critique of Frampton. The case is one of ideological doubling: accepting their own departure from critical theory in dismay, Lefaivre and Tzonis had no choice but to pick on Frampton. Their text also fails to address whether it is necessary to differentiate the project of modernity from late capitalism.

From this rather dense reading of Lefaivre and Tzonis’s discourse on the subject, it is possible to formulate a different reading of Frampton’s position on critical regionalism. Following Frampton, I wish to underscore those aspects of his argument that are useful for the critique of architecture in the present situation when commodification takes command. To this end, two imperatives suggest themselves: Firstly, to discuss the import of technology for any critical understanding of the complexities involved in architecture’s confrontation with the project of modernity; and secondly, to underline the significance of tectonics for a semi-autonomous architecture, that, paradoxically, presents the disciplinary history of architecture as the subject matter of that which Hal Foster would call “strategic autonomy.” In criticism of the present culture of the visual, Foster underlines the usefulness of what he calls “strategic autonomy” for critical practise. His argument is based on the historicity of the modernism of the 20s when the situation was foggy enough for the subject to claim
autonomy from the fetishism of the past, and thus jump into the machine of progress.[xvi]

Regionalism in Architecture

What is involved in qualifying modern architecture with regional characteristics? In the first place, the discussion should concern the two problematic themes: the idea of zeitgeist and the question concerning technology. In different ways both issues were central to the discourse of Romanticists and art historians.[xvii] Romanticism sought to re-establish a harmonious integrity between techniques and the ethics of craftsmanship attributed to the Gothic guild system. A. W. N. Pugin, for example, made an association between the spiritual wellbeing of a society and the quality of its artefacts.[xviii] If this view was in part motivated by the idea of the spirit of the time and the drive to fabricate a style appropriate to the nineteenth century bourgeois discourse on national identity, in the post-war era and under the influence of phenomenology, the scope of that which makes  architecture regional was reduced to the idea of genius loci. Briefly and without commencing a review of many available theorizations of the concept of place,[xix] it is enough to suggest the following: that the idea of genius loci charges the place with symbolic qualities—we would understand them as cultural—that predicate architecture’s attendance to that place.[xx] This involves dismissing the specifics involved in the dialogical relationship between place and building, but also the ways that spatiality of place slips out of view when attention is primarily given to transcendental issues. Space as such is, for example, central to Heidegger’s remark on the bridge, where the disconnectedness of separate riverbanks comes forward primarily through the construction of the bridge.[xxi] As will be demonstrated shortly, the spatiality suggested here denotes a critical  understanding of the project of modernity, a subject central to Frampton’s discourse on critical regionalism.

In the second place, architecture is regional by definition even though its universal characteristics were first won by the advent of industrial building techniques, and then by the “international style architecture.” This much is clear from the classificatory mode framing the text of any early historiography of modern architecture. To formulate the language of modern architecture, pre-war historians had no choice but to map the implications of regionalism in two vectors central to the development of modern architecture; the spatial implications of the new building techniques, and the aesthetics of abstract painting. The difference between these historians, however, has to do with the strategy each chose to rationalize architecture’s transgression of its regional idiom. Consider Hitchcock’s Modern Architecture where the author’s main thesis, the “New Tradition,” is followed by a discussion that explores examples of modern architecture as it blossomed in different countries.[xxii] His strategy culminates in the final section of the book, entitled “The New Pioneers.” The point of this reference is not to recall Hitchcock’s linear vision of modern architecture. Rather, it is the particularity of his vision of modernity and the absence of art history traditions enabling him to write the history of modern architecture in different terms than Giedion, or other historians. Furthermore, the seeds of an early idea of regionalism are detectable in Hitchcock’s emphasis on the achievements taking place in America. Hitchcock was especially interested in H. Richardson’s late work where construction and expression unfolds an architectonic form that is endemic to the objectives of modern architecture. Hitchcock’s text suggests the centrality of the tectonic for the discourse of regionalism–a position we will explore shortly.

It is important at this point to remember that less than a decade after the 1932 exhibition of International Style architecture, Lewis Mumford charged Richardson’s Glessner House (Chicago 1885) with what he called a “new sense of modern form.”[xxiii] How did he qualify the claim? Like Hitchcock, Mumford underlined the year 1878 to mark a turning point in the American architect’s career. Mumford goes further, saying that the form of the Glessner House is in harmony with the landscape of New England, and yet the building improves the region’s “established wood tradition.”[xxiv] Mumford makes his observation in tandem with the following: that the “Romantic theorists” sought “an organic connection between the forms of an age and the rest of the culture…” Also: that “architectural forms, to be valid, must not merely be beautiful but timely.”[xxv] Here Mumford reiterates ideas fundamental to Romanticism, a subject that needs no further elaboration here. His statement also alludes to the ethos of the early modern German architects’ debate on the idea of Sachlichkeit. [xxvi] Both Mumford and Hitchcock conjugate modernity with the concept of necessity by which the culture of building submits itself to the forces of secularization. In the 1920s, the concept of necessity was instrumental for legitimizing modernization and the use of industrial techniques. By the time of World War II and after, the term lost its historicity and was used to urge modification needed to qualify modern architecture with regional and expressive qualities. What remains to be addressed here is the difference between Hitchcock and Mumford on issues that concern regionalism.

In February of 1948, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held a symposium called “What is Happening to Modern Architecture?” [xxvii] As the title suggests, the question concerned the future of architecture postulated under the rubric of international style architecture. At the time of the symposium, new directions in architecture were already questioning the linguistic monologue that haunted some sectors of modern architecture. Both British New Empiricism, and Mumford’s regionalism, discussed in his “Bay Region Style” article, underline the importance of “expression” for architecture. It was not the expressionism of Mendelsohn, but the ways architecture expresses its relation to the particularities of a given program, place, and monumentality. There are two major sources of expressionism: German Expressionism, and Romanticism. In general, expressionism can be defined as the expression of inner emotions; in art it could be defined in terms of the expression of the visual aspects or the structure of the form. Mumford seemed to use “expressionism” in terms of the discourse of
organicism at work since the nineteenth century. In a 1962 Symposium at Columbia University, “expressionism” was discussed as one important subject for historicizing modern architecture. In this gathering Hitchcock said: “Expressionism was intended to be a new architecture as Art Nouveau had been, with a certain ‘form will.’ Some forms delight, others do not. Expressionistic architecture is overtly emotional, and not Sachlich. It is aimed at an emotional response. It is not subjective, but it has some subjectivity in it.”[xxviii] Pleased by Alfred H. Barr’s praise for his contribution to the international style architecture, Hitchcock maintained a middle ground in the symposium. Acknowledging the new direction taken by Swedish, Swiss, and Dutch architects, he described the “problem of expression in architecture” as a major issue that architects had to face.  Interestingly enough, Frank L. Wright, who had hardly secured a major place in the exhibition of international style architecture, was pointed out by Hitchcock as the architect whose work demonstrates wealth and variety of expression “in modern architecture at the present time.”[xxix] In this light, two issues should be clarified: the difference between Mumford and Hitchcock on the issue of expression, and Hitchcock’s position on Wright.

Drawing from the work of John Gales Howard and Maybeck, Mumford characterized the “Bay Region Style” in the following words: “a free yet unobtrusive expression of the terrain, the climate, and the way of life on the coast.” He continues, the “style is truly universal since it permits regional adaptations and modifications.” [xxx] His position is not only in critique of Wright’s tendency for total design; in retrospect, it also challenges Giedion’s advocacy for symbolism, the new monumentality, and Giedion’s formulation of regionalism in 1954. [xxxi] From Mumford’s point of view, the relation between architecture and its terrain is organic. For Wright, architecture is an organic phenomenon whose relation to the place is determined by the building’s organicism. Needless to say that Wright was not an advocate of genius loci. The expressionism Hitchcock registered, on the other hand, had an operative nature. Similar to his discussion of Richardson’s architecture, Hitchcock saw expression as integral to the structure of a building. Hitchcock was seemingly unconcerned with distinguishing between organicism understood by Romanticism and organicism as a concept–the latter alluding to the dialectics of expression and technique, adheres to the Enlightenment view of natural products. As organism, a flower, for example, was seen as mechanical while expressing the laws governing its form as a work of classical art.[xxxii] This point of view had significant connotations for any future discussion of the tectonic that was dismissed by Romanticism for which nature is a living phenomenon. The distinction also discloses the genesis of Mumford and Hitchcock’s debate on the subject of expression in architecture.

Even though American architecture of the late 1920s does not occupy a major place in the third section of Hitchcock’s mentioned book, nevertheless, Wright’s architecture is nonetheless praised for its contribution to the formation of his country’s New Tradition. Criticizing the most prevailing languages of skyscrapers sprouting in American big cities, only Wright’s Larkin Soup factory received Hitchcock’s endorsement. The building,  according to him, “has an expression in design truly integral with the engineering.” The other tall buildings, he continues, “display the futility of attempting to leave aesthetic expression to the surface without truly affecting the economic and functional principles which determine the development of the whole.” [xxxiii] Again, while the work of Richardson and Wright are essential for the discourse of Mumford and Hitchcock, their difference involves two different systems of thought: one closed and other open, speaking relatively. This much is clear from Hitchcock’s remarks on Wright in the MoMA’s symposium mentioned earlier. As impressive as Wright’s expressionism was, the American historian did remind the audience that one can’t learn anything from Wright’s architecture.[xxxiv] Hitchcock gives away his interest in a body of work that would be instrumental in formulating a theory of expressionism. Central to any theory of expressionism, however, is the tectonic rapport between structure and the form: thus, Hitchcock’s distinction between the expressionism involved in Wright’s programmatic “destruction of the box” and his own interest in an architect’s attempt to express structure in the final form. Of course, Hitchcock had to revise his monologue on technique and expression in the post-war era. In the introduction written to his collected essays addressing the “decade 1929-1939,” Hitchcock acknowledges the multifarious nature of architecture practice since 1930. He mentions a tendency to reject the early internationalism, but also “regional nativism” flourishing in the California Bay Area and North of Europe. He concludes, “the extreme, or polar, topics do not seem to be the most important ones historically, but rather those national institutions or cases of individual architects that reflect several not necessarily closely related aspects of the contemporary scene in the 1930s.”[xxxv]

The discussion presented here thus far addresses a doubling that is essential to the discourse of regionalism. On the one hand, fundamental to the question of the American contribution to the formation of modern architecture is the dialectics of region and modernity. On the other, in criticizing the universalizing tendency of the body of work “compromising” the international style architecture, Mumford’s discussion of regionalism centres on understanding a discourse of the tectonic that is moulded to the idea of place making. Essential to his position is a non-formalistic understanding of the autonomy of architecture. Once established, one might argue that Mumford’s claim in Bay Region Style is critical, but to a limited extent. It belies the nihilism of a modernity whose operative scope remained hidden to both the advocates and critics of modernization respectively. This historicity is useful because it allows the fabrication of a discourse that begins with the extrapolation of two formative ideas from the debate running between Hitchcock and Mumford. Central to the debate is the late work of Richardson, the metropolitan significance of which was dismissed by Mumford’s esteem for regionalism and his attempt to establish a biological relationship between “human-artist and the environment.” According to Francesco Dal Co, the tradition Mumford sought to weave into American architecture “is a rooted anti-capitalist ideology which if exalting the epic era of commerce, does so because it finds in the age of laissez-faire the survival of that individualism that industrial capitalism wipes out by photographing its own silent face in the indifference of the masses and in the apparent chaos of the metropolis.” Recalling Mumford’s book The Brown Decades (1931), Dal Co contends that the book “reveals a contradiction characteristic of Mumford’s thought. The contradiction consists in the impossibility of finding a correct synthesis between the consequences of technical and scientific conquest and the values of tradition.”[xxxvi] Nothing short of Dal Co’s criticism unfolds the problematic of the oppositional nature of Mumford’s discourse. The same could be said about the early modernists’ image of modernity, a totalized entity devoid of internal contradictions. Wishing to formulate the modernity of architecture in the light of technique and
the achievements of abstract painting, Hitchcock stopped short of seeing the tectonic potentiality he read into Richardson’s late work where form is argued expressing nothing but construction.

In this light, then, of the present sharpening of the difference between modernity and capitalism, this essay wishes to advance the following argument. It is the critical potentiality immanent in coupling the tectonic with the concept of critical that allows reloading of critical regionalism beyond Tzonis and Lefaivre’s recent revisitation of the subject. Though the idea is implicit in Frampton’s “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” his discussion, nevertheless, is unsympathetic to interrogating the tectonic as that which is internal to architecture (autonomy), and to the possibility of securing for architecture a significant place in the technological world of late capitalism. Interestingly enough, in a recent interview in Australia, Frampton said; “this visit to Australia has been interesting because participating in a sequence of public presentations has provoked me into thinking about how critical regionalism might be related in a more specific way to the issue of the tectonic or the ‘poetics of construction’.” [xxxvii]


The Tectonic Case for Autonomy

Clement Greenberg formulated a critique of art centred on the concepts of autonomy and abstraction. These concepts were overshadowed by the 50s preoccupation with civic architecture and monumentality, but soon returned to the main stream of architectural theory. Without the infusion of the concept of autonomy into architectural theory and history/criticism it would have made no sense for some to claim the end of history, or to formulate a critical approach to history. Hal Foster recently appropriated autonomy as a strategic position critically addressing, if not resisting, the commodification permeating everyday life and design.[xxxviii] Any further discussion of these issues should, in the first place, address the significance of the concept of autonomy for modernity, from which point one can explore the import of autonomy for a different understanding of critical regionalism that is centred on the tectonic. To this end, it is necessary to recall the Kantian idea of parallax and to give a new twist to the tectonic discourse.[xxxix] One could argue that, the very logic of construction that informs the tectonic can potentially undermine the positivistic interpretation of the impact of technology on architecture. Only in this way can we differentiate Frampton’s interest in the “poetics of construction” from Romanticism, but also avoid qualifying “critical” with Realism.

Writing in the late 1930s, Greenberg suggested that in order to isolate itself from the imperatives of market economy and the revolution losing its tide in the Soviet Union, the avant-garde had to navigate in a realm presumably devoid of any contradiction. In search of the absolute, Greenberg wrote, the avant-garde “arrived at abstract or non-objective art.”[xl] What should be underlined here is the aesthetic implication of the concept of abstract art, which as Greenberg reminds his reader, alludes to the tendency for autonomy, and to turn to the “disciplines and crafts, absolutely autonomous, entitled to respect for their own sakes, and not merely as vessels of communication.”[xli] In arguing that diverse artistic tendencies operate simultaneously in any given situation, Greenberg adheres to the Kantian concept of autonomy and its aesthetic implications, suggesting that each art has its own specific medium, the opacity of which should be emphasized. He continues that, “the history of avant-garde painting is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium, which resistance consists chiefly in the flat picture plane’s denial of efforts to ‘hole through’ it for realistic perspectival space.” This is a provocative statement even though the author’s understanding of “functionalism” as the medium of architecture is short sighted.[xlii] While Greenberg was concerned with the state of modern painting, the only way to retain architecture’s “opacity” was to highlight its rapport with technique. This is important because in modernity the main intention of technology is precisely to break into architecture’s opacity. Only in this paradigm can the criticality of the idea of critical regionalism transgress the historicity of “resistance” and the contextualization that is implied in Tzonis’s discourse. Furthermore, it unfolds a point of view that suspends Jameson’s attempt to characterise critical regionalism “as a kind of postmodernism of global system.” [xliii]

The chapter “Place, Production and Architecture”—which importantly attends to Frampton’s objectives in the third section of his Critical History (1980)—demonstrates the historicity of the concept of autonomy in his writing.[xliv] The essay not only embodies themes formative to Frampton’s oeuvre; it also presents the framework for what, in two years time, would be titled “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism,” discussed earlier in this essay. Frampton’s position concerns the complexities involved in conjugating architecture with the existential situation of humanity, and thus the significance of underlining architecture’s engagement with the construction of the conditions of life–to allude to Hanna Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), a book that influenced Frampton’s discourse more than any other. [xlv] And yet—it ought to be asked– what is involved in discussing architecture in relation to human conditions in modern times?

Firstly, facing the mechanization of the production process, the craft based traditions of architecture were disintegrated. The drive for modernization also dematerialized the homologies that were once sustainable between the body, language and landscape. Central to any discourse of regionalism are  dichotomies such as tradition and innovation, metier and technology, but also site and material. Frampton reads these dichotomies through Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the loss of aura and Martin Heidegger’s text on dwelling.[xlvi] These readings entail the loss of unity between architecture and place, and the historical impossibility of retaining such a unity even through the mechanical reproduction of the object. If, for Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction of the work destroys the unity that once existed between architecture and the place, for Heidegger, recollection of the thematic of that bygone unity provides a strategy to problematize the myth of progress. While for Heidegger the metaphysical content of technology should be utilized to critique the instrumental logic of modern technology, Benjamin was instead interested in the ways technology induces images (lingering in a person’s unconsciousness) that allude to some aspects of a mythical prehistory. Still, whereas Benjamin highlights the potentialities of technology to cleanse architecture from any metaphysics, the Heidegger of Building Dwelling and Thinking is interested in recalling the archaic task of architecture; to set up “spectacles” exhibiting the many phenomenological aspects of the body’s engagement with the place. What makes the association between Heidegger and Benjamin interesting is the following: that the bridge, discussed in Heidegger’s 1954 essay, is presented as an analogue to amalgamate technique, material, and purpose. At the same time Heidegger presents the bridge as an artifice having the capacity to evoke the sense of “nearness” while keeping the two banks of the river apart. Thus Frampton’s quest for modern architecture where the “inflection of a chosen tectonic penetrates into the inner- most recesses of the structure, not as a totalizing force but as declension of an articulate sensibility.” [xlvii] Notable in the statement are the seeds of “critical regionalism,” a theory that engages the process of commodification of the life-world without resorting to any kind of sentimental or nostalgic rejection of modern technology. It is the distinction between Benjamin and Heidegger’s interpretation of the loss of aura and Frampton’s inclination for Heidegger’s reflections on Raum and the loss of “nearness” which makes him maintain the following: that different regions should retain their identity independent of the contradictions underpinning the dialogical relation of modernity with capitalism. Nothing less than this expresses the paradox involved in Frampton’s position: that in order to exert its autonomy, architecture has to stand in opposition to the hegemonic aspects of the culture of modernism, in general, and in particular, to distance the art of building from the simulacra permeating postmodern historicism of the 1980s.

Secondly, in modernity, every human product is at the state of “standing reserve” (to recall another Heideggerian term) that has to be incorporated into the production and consumption cycle of capitalism. While the nihilistic dimension of modernity is assessed in the work of negative thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, the subject became more tangible after World War II, and through Peter Burger’s argument concerning the failure of the project of the historical avant-garde.[xlviii] It is in this background that Frampton deserves credit for revitalizing aspects of modernism that were formative for the architecture of the 1920s, the historicity of which is formulated in Jurgen Habermas’s discussion of the incompleteness of the project of modernity.[xlix] Needless to say that as a theory that periodizes the main developmental path of capitalism, the import of Habermas’s observation did not go unnoticed by Frampton. What is implied in “critical regionalism,” though not addressed explicitly, is the following: the very idea of “modernity an incomplete project” is indeed suggestive of a change whose theoretical implications is a legible distinction one should make between the project of modernity and the phenomenon of “the cultural logic of capitalism” formulated by Jameson. Discussing the rise of neo-traditionalism in the Third World context, Jameson argues that in these countries “nothing but the modern henceforth exists.” He continues, “with the qualifications that under such circumstances, where only the modern exists, ‘modern’ now be babtised postmodernity … here to then, but on a social and historical levels, the temporality that modernization promised has been eclipsed to the benefit of a new condition in which that older temporality no longer exists, leaving an appearance of modern changes that are more stasis, a disorder after the end of history.”[l] On the other hand, and in the context of postmodern discourse, we could say that Frampton tries to reconcile the Neues Bauen with some aspects of the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement. This much is clear from Frampton’s reading of the early history of modern architecture, in general, and the specificity of his views about the work of architects like Alvar Aalto, Alvaro Siza, and others. Nevertheless, Frampton’s ideas as discussed in the “Prospect for a Critical Regionalism,” did not draw the attention they deserved for a number of reasons, including the attractiveness of the formalism theorized by Colin Rowe, and put into practise by some members of the New York Five architects. [li] Furthermore, Frampton presented his case for critical regionalism within a reading of Heidegger that was already radicalized by post-structuralist discourse, and by Gianni Vattimo.[lii] Still, in overstating Paul Ricoeur’s paradoxical juxtaposition of culture with civilization, the import of addressing the historicity implied in Habermas’s position was dismissed. That such architects as Aalto, Siza, and to some extent those of Australia, Catalan and Ticino regions, were able to  reinvent their local culture of building had indeed to do with the “distance” these regions happened to maintain from the velocity of modernization unravelling in central Europe and America. By “culture of building,” I mean tropes accumulated through the history of architectural theory and practice. I am thinking of “ideas concerning inside/outside relations, the dialogical rapport between column and wall, the tectonic achieved by symbolic embellishment of a constructed form, and that of the earth-work and the frame-work discussed by the nineteenth century German architect Gottfried Semper.”[liii] Perhaps the time was not ripe for architects to formulate the historicity of modernization in different regions whilst underlining the singularity of modernity.

Even though the issues raised here are not addressed as such, Frampton scored two significant points: Firstly, in critical regionalism he underlined some aspects of the dream of the national bourgeois concerning a democratic and just society, not fully realised for many reasons including the historical and autonomous development of capitalism, the destination of which remained inaccessible even to the bourgeois class of the 1920s. Secondly, in the spirit of Adolf Loos, Frampton subscribed to a paradoxical position of modernity. He wanted to establish a dialogical understanding of architecture in which the tactile and tectonic dimensions of the work “exhibit” the impact of modernization on the culture of building of a given region. [liv] This is not to lament the ethnographic origin of architecture; it rather underscores the poetics involved in architecture’s  confrontation with the nihilism of modernity. Dwelling on the dialectics of locality and universality, Frampton is indeed indirectly reiterating the lessons one might learn from the experience of Hannes Meyer, Hans Schmidt, Mart Stam and others. Migrating to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, these self-exiled architects attempted to synthesize the symbolic (vernacular) dimension of architecture with the forces of industrialization.[lv] Even though Frampton does not explicitly address this “reconciliation,” he has been successful in drawing architects’ attention to the task of criticality recoding the culture of building for contemporary architecture. Regardless of what his critics say, the fact remains that Frampton’s esteem for the culture of building and the need to transform nature into landscape (architecture), are important subjects for critical practise even today. As he puts it succinctly, “this evocation of the earthwork returns us to the issue of global urbanization and to the fact that the reintegration of land-form into built-fabric is crucial today if we are to be able to mediate in any way the consequences of metropolitan developments.” [lvi]

In “Place, Production and Architecture,” for example, Frampton ties architecture simultaneously to modern technology and the existential dimension of the body experienced through the everyday life of capitalism. This is a crucial subject for any theorization of architecture as semi-autonomy, the thematic of which is, paradoxically, defined and redefined by the unpredictable path capitalism takes to smooth its own internal  contradictions. While the homology between the body, place, and technique is central to Frampton’s critical regionalism, his recent emphasis on the tectonic is useful for highlighting that which is essential to Greenberg’s conception of autonomy: how to address the idea of autonomy, and at the same time, underline the necessity of formulating a semi-autonomous architecture.  To subdue the instrumental reason, Frampton sess, following Benjamin’s “angel of history,” a redemptive hope in the debris of the past as registered through the backward looking eye of the angel. [lvii]

This involves the recognition of two themes central to any rapprochement to critical regionalism today. The first: that the tectonic remains the sole factor in designating that moment in the history of architecture when architecture is sought and judged by tropes constructive to the art of building. Rationalization of construction remains endemic to the project of modernity even when it had to justify demolition. And secondly, critical regionalism is paradoxical by definition; it suggests a tendency in contemporary architecture that is innovative aesthetically and yet resilient to accept the culture of modernity in its entirety. This is true if one considers architects such as the early Mario Botta, Alvaro Siza, and Tadao Ando whose works were informative to Frampton’s formulation of critical regionalism. One might go further and associate Frampton with that school of architecture that “aims to provide deeper meaning not by returning to older systems of belief, but through the creation of new values in and through art.” It has, according to Gabriele Bryant, “its roots in the literary debates of romanticism and the philosophy of German idealism, which exerted a profound influence on art and architectural theory from 1800 onward.”[lviii] To understand the full connotation of the theoretical premises presented here, the discussion should turn to the historicity of architecture’s confrontation with modern techniques, and Semper’s discourse on the tectonic.[lix]

Briefly, the transgression of the Vitruvian triad, where the Greek word techne is not rationalized on its own grounds, is central to Semper’s theorization of architecture. His theory maps the subject matter of construction in fields that until then were considered peripheral. This essay claims that Semper’s theory has two crucial consequences for reiterating the significance of critical regionalism for the present situation. In the first instance, Semper’s tectonic reference to four industries of textile, carpentry, masonry, and ceramic, sets a constructive paradigm where skills and material central to diverse production activities are transformed to  architecture.[lx] The spatiality implied in Semper’s genealogy of architecture paradoxically maps the vicissitudes of architecture’s autonomy. Therefore, the transformational nature of the element of wall (an element of architecture’s autonomy), for example, should be re-formulated when a particular technique demands changing the structural modalities of construction (the semi-autonomy dimension of architecture). On that basis, in projecting the autonomy of architecture into the tectonic of the core-form and the art-form, Semper’s theory retains that which is immanent to architecture, meaning that, architecture is not a direct product of construction, and yet the core-form, the physical material of building, inevitably puts architecture on the track of technological transformation and scientific innovations. The same might be said about the art-form: in suspending the Romantic idea of genius, the art-form remains the sole venue by which architecture is charged with aesthetic sensibilities that are, interestingly enough, informed by perceptual horizons offered by the world of technology, and tactile and spatial sensibilities deeply rooted in the disciplinary history of architecture. Therefore, while the core-form assures architecture’s rapport with the many changes taking place in the structure of construction, the art-form remains the sole domain where the architect might choose to impinge on the core-form with those aspects of the culture of building that might side-track the formal and aesthetic consequences of commodification essential to the cultural production of late capitalism. In the dialectics of autonomy and semi-autonomy, the tectonic facilitates architecture’s entanglement with the constructive structures of capitalism. [lxi]

What, then, amounts to the word critical in critical regionalism today? In the first place, it is not identity-stupid, understood either through postmodern multiculturalism, or the nation/state formula of the 1930s. In the present commodified world, where the subject, in any region, is inflicted by an everydayness that is saturated by visual images, the predicament of architecture still centres on the fact that architecture by definition is a collective and constructive art. Here both “collective” and “constructive” are not identifiable with the local anymore. Whilst construction still is internal to architecture’s autonomy, the “collective” should be formulated in a state of hybridity. Thus, instead of a semiotic mode of regionalist discourse where the criticality of architecture was sought in its capacity to disclose the impact of modernization on architecture either through strategies of defamiliarization (Tzonis/Lefaivre), or resistance (Frampton), in the present situation, critical regionalism amounts to the tectonic as the subject matter of architecture’s autonomy that places the region in the prevailing globalization whose order is primarily based on conventions of identity that deny autonomy to architecture.


[i] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards an Agonistic Architecture,” Domus 972 (Sept. 2013).

[ii] Kenneth Frampton, “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism,” Perspecta 20 (1983): 147-161.

[iii] Gabriel Bryant, “Projecting modern culture: ‘Aesthetic fundamentalism’ and modern architecture” in Tracing Modernity (London: Routledge
Press, 2004), p. 69.

[iv] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism; Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” in Hal Foster, Anti-Aesthetic
(Washington: Bay Press, 1983), pp. 16-30.

[v] Kenneth Frampton, “Critical Regionalism Revisited: Reflections on the Mediatory Potential of Built-Form,” in M. Umbach and H. Huppauf, eds., Vernacular Modernism: Heimat, Globalization, and the Built  Environment (California: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 193.

[vi] A. Tzonis & D. Lefaivre, “The Grid and the Pathway,” Architecture in Greece 15 (1981): 121-134.

[vii] A version of the text, titled “Why Critical Regionalism Today?” is published in Architecture and Urbanism 236 (May 1990):

[viii] Alexander Tzonis, “Introducing an Architecture of the Present: Critical Regionalism and the Design of Identity” in Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis, Critical Regionalism: Architecture and Identity in a Globalized World (New York: Prestel, 2003), p. 20.

[ix] Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 204.

[x] Liane Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis, “Why Critical Regionalism Today?” Architecture and Urbanism 236 (May 1990).

[xi] Using the term“defamiliarization,” Russian literary theoretician Victor Shklovsky suggested that the power of art is to one attention and this is achieved when art discloses itself beyond the habitual way of digesting its form. See L. T. Lemon and M. J. Reis, trans. Russian Formalist Criticism Four Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1965). For the application of “defamiliarization” to architecture see A. Tzonis & L. Lefaivre, Classical Architecture: The Poetics of Order, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1986).

[xii] Salvoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999). The entire book is recommended to those who are interested in issues such as “identity,” “multiculturalism” and “nation/state.”

[xiii] Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[xiv] Gevork Hartoonian, Modernity and its Other (College Station: The A &M University Press, 1997).

[xv] Alexander Tzonis, 2003, p. 10.

[xvi] Hal Foster, Design and Crime (London: Verso, 2003), pp. 100-103.

[xvii] In analysing the art of past times, nineteenth century art historians tried to reconcile the concept of autonomy with social context. Their goal was to periodize the history of arts. See, for example, H. Wolfflin, The Principles of Art History, trans. M. D. Hottinger (New York: Dover, 1950): Margaret Iversen, Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).

[xviii] According to Robert MacLeod, one of the most significant contributions of A. W. N. Pugin’s Contrasts (1836) was to articulate a direct relationship between the function of a product and its society. MacLeod, Style and Society: Architectural Ideology in Britain 1835-1914 (London: Roba Publications Limited, 1971), p. 9.

[xix] For example, Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place (Berkeley: the University of California Press, 1998).

[xx] Christian Norberg-Schulze, Architecture: Meaning and Place (New York: Rizzoli International Publication, Inc, 1988), for example. Interestingly enough, discussing the work of Austrian historian Joseph August Lux, Mark Jarzombek suggests that one symptom of “the strong attachment among German bourgeois intellectuals to the age of romanticism” might be related to architects and historians’s “interest in the Romantic-era concept of genius loci.” Jarzombek, “Joseph August Lux: Werkbund Promoter, Historian of a Lost Modernity” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 63, 2 (June 2004): 203. Central to this view of the genius loci is the desire to make a balance between modernization and traditions of architecture seen through transcendental values of Catholicism.

[xxi] Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling and Thinking,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 149.

[xxii] Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration, 1929 (New York: DaCapo Press, 1993).

[xxiii] Lewis Mumford, The South in Architecture (New York: DaCapo Press, 1967), p. 106.

[xxiv] Lewis Mumford, 1967, p. 103.

[xxv] Lewis Mumford, 1967, p. 91. Mumford makes it clear that his sympathy with “romantic theorists” differs from those of Pugin in England, and in America. Similar to “the lovers of classics,” Upjohn, according to Mumford, made the same mistake of by “making out of the architecture of the Middle Ages a fixed ideal….” Mumford, 1967, p. 89.

[xxvi] Aspects of which is discussed in Harry F. Mallgrave, ed. Otto Wagner (Santa Monica: The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1993).

[xxvii] For a brief view of the lectures presentation on this occasion, see The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin (spring 1948): 4-21.

[xxviii] See the proceedings of the symposium titled “Architecture 1918-1928: From the November Group to the C.I.A.M. Functionalism and Expressionism,” May 4 and 5, 1962, Avery Architectural Library, Columbia University, 1963, p. 41.

[xxix] “Architecture 1918-1928: From the November Group to the C.I.A.M. Functionalism and Expressionism”, May 4 and 5, 1962, Avery Architectural Library, Columbia University, 1963, p. 10.

[xxx] Quoted in Joan Ockman, ed., Architecture Culture 1943-1968 (New York: Rizzoli International Publication Inc., 1993), p. 109. The article was first published in New Yorker, 11 October, 1947.

[xxxi] J. L. Sert, F. Leger, S. Giedion, “Nine Points on Monumentality,” in Joan Ockman, 1993, pp. 29-30. The article was originally published in a book by Paul Zucker, New Architecture and City Planning, 1944.

[xxxii] Andrew Bowie, Aesthetics and Subjectivity: from Kant to Nietzsche (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), p.24.

[xxxiii] Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Modern Architecture, 1929, p. 104.

[xxxiv] Quoted in a symposium held in Modern Museum of Art, titled “What is Happening to Modern Architecture.” For a summery of the presentations see The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, spring 1948, pp. 4-21.

[xxxv] Henry-Russell Hitchcock, “The Decade 1929-1939” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 1 (March 1965): 5.

[xxxvi] Francesco Dal Co, “Winners and Losers, Interpreting the Mumford of the Brown Decades, in R. E. Somol, ed. Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant-Garde in America (New York: The Monachelli Press, 1997), pp. 198-211.

[xxxvii] Kenneth Frampton in a conversation with Maryam Gusheh, Architecture Australia (Sept./Oct. 2004): 98-99.

[xxxviii] Hal Foster, Crime and Design (London: Verso, 2004).

[xxxix] Discussing “parallax” in Kant and Marx, Kojin Karatani says, “It’s something like one’s own face in the sense that it undoubtedly exists but cannot be seen except as an image.” Karatani, Transcritique: on Kant and Marx (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003).

[xl] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-garde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 5.

[xli] Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon”, in Collected Essays (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 28. The essay was originally written in 1940.

[xlii] Clement Greenberg, 1986, p. 32-34.

[xliii] Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time, p. 194.

[xliv] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: a critical history (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980).

[xlv] This subject is discussed in Kenneth Frampton, “The Status of Man and the Status of his Objects” in Frampton, ed.,Modern Architecture and the Critical Present (London: Academy Editions, 1982), pp. 7-19. This issue of Architectural Design Profile was published on the occasion of the publication of Frampton’s Critical History, 1980.

[xlvi] In Frampton’s Modern Architecture, Walter Benjamin occurs twice and Martin Heidegger once: Quotations from Benjamin’s famous essays “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), and “Paris Capital of the 19th Century” (1930) are chosen to make an opening for the introduction of the book, and the last chapter of the first part respectively. Heidegger, instead, is chosen for the final chapter of the 1980 edition of the book. The juxtaposition of these two thinkers for the opening and closing of the book is of significance in itself.

[xlvii] Kenneth Frampton, “Place, Production, and Sceneography” in Modern Architecture, p. 297.

[xlviii] Peter Burger, Theory of Avant-garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984). See also this author’s discussion in “Avant-Garde: Re-Thinking Architecture,” Modernity and its Other (College Station: Texas A & M University press, 1997), pp. 103-119.

[xlix] Published in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Washington: Bay Press, 1983).

[l] Fredric Jameson, Singular Modernity (London: Verso, 2002).

[li] The Five’s timely departure from the language of late modern architecture was at the time seen as a radical alternative to postmodern simulation of historical forms.

[lii] For Kenneth Frampton’s reading of Martin Heidegger see “On Reading Heidegger” Oppositions 2 (1976): 1-4. Also see Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity (Minneapolis: the University of Minneapolis, 1985). This  Italian thinker presents a fresh departure from the phenomenological reading of Heidegger, and his discourse was significant for this author’s approach to the tectonic. See Gevork Hartoonian, Ontology of Construction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[liii] Gevork Hartoonian, “Five Points: Unweaving the Old Cloth”, Architectural Theory Review 5, 1 (2000): 44-45.

[liv] I am paraphrasing myself in “Avant-Garde: Re-Thinking Architecture,” Modernity and its Other (Texas A & M University Press, 1997), pp. 103-119.

[lv] Ursula Suter, Daidalos 54 (1994): 49.

[lvi] Kenneth Frampton, “Introduction” in Technology, Place and Architecture (New York: Rizzoli International Publication, 1998), p.12.

[lvii] The idea of how to subdue “reason” is central to Kant, and critical theory. In thinking of Ledoux with Kant, Hubert Damisch concludes that architecture is an object of history and thought, “a thought that is itself bound by conditions”. And he continues, architecture “is constituted on this principle insofar as it is an object of desire, where the will – as Kant says – find its determination”. But as insofar as architecture “is a thing to construct – is subjected to constraints that attest, even in the constructive order, to the force of symbolic”. Damisch, “Ledoux with Kant”, Perspecta 33: Mining Autonomy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002), p. 15.

[lviii] Gabriel Bryant, “Projecting modern culture: ‘Aesthetic fundamentalism’ and modern architecture” in Tracing Modernity (London: Routledge Press, 2004), p. 69.

[lix] The following discussion profits this Gevork Hartoonian’s Ontology of Construction (1994), and Kenneth Frampton’s, Studies in Tectonic Culture (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995)

[lx] On Gottfried Semper’s notion of Stoffwechsel, see Harry F. Mallgrave, Gottfried Semper (New Haven: Yale University press, 1996), pp. 284-285.

[lxi] This has encouraged me to differentiate Gottfired Semper’s notion of theatricality from theatricalization, a visuality permeating contemporary neo-avant-garde architecture. Gevork Hartoonian, Architecture and Spectacle (London: Ashgate Publishers, 2013).


About the Author

Gevork Hartoonian is Professor and Head of Architecture Program at the University of Canberra,  Australia.  He is the author of numerous books and book chapters.  His most recent book is titled Architecture and Spectacle: A Critique (Ashgate, 2012).  He is the editor and a contributor to, Notes on Critical Architecture, Ashgate, forthcoming.

Designed by Chris Orchard