Transcultural Architecture: The limits and opportunities of critical regionalism

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein,
Transcultural Architecture: The limits and opportunities of critical regionalism
Ashgate, 2015

ISBN 9781472463418 (hbk)
ISBN 9781315550220 (ebk)

book cover

Reviewed by Gevork Hartoonian

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 interests Frampton. At issue is how architecture could or should define the periphery in contrast to the hegemonic architecture unfolding in the centre that is also occasionally appropriated by the rest of the world. Frampton’s take is focused on the ways that technological apparatus, under the auspices of capitalism, transform the landscape one-dimensionally. From China to Dubai and 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.”1 For a better understanding of Frampton’s position we need to give attention to the radical connotation of the title of his text while re-addressing an important topic, which he has been pondering for three decades. His recent take also suggests that Critical Regionalism is not a fixed prescription, but a political agenda that should be revisited as capitalism moves from one set of internal contradictions to another.

The globalization of capital and information industries coupled with the politics of global trade has left its mark on architecture as well. Star architects are commissioned to design projects wherever capital accumulation in this so to speak global village reaches a certain point, regardless of any genuine local demand for the building types erected one after another. This un-wanted  over-development is indeed the tale of most cosmopolitan cities sprouting around the world, and particularly in countries that for historical reasons should be considered as latecomers to the scene of modernization. Thanks to global corporatization of systems that organize the production and distribution of commodities, these same countries now have the opportunity to close the historical gap, and catch up with certain aspects, but not every aspect, of modernization that a century ago did drastically transform the landscape of Europe and America. Particular to the modernization that is taking place in non-western countries is this; the technical that was once operating in association with scientific discoveries is now merged with the realm of culture. To recall Walter Benjamin, the differences between architecture in the age of mechanical reproducibility and that of the age of digital reproducibility is that the technical apparatus of the digital is mostly experienced in the everyday life of its citizens regardless of issues such as place and origin, to mention two concepts central for making homologies between architecture and national identity and/or with style. If once the architecture of non-western countries was discussed in terms of centre/periphery, thanks to the globalization of the production and consumption system of capitalism, not only is the line demarcating centre/periphery blurred, but in some cases the centre has duplicated itself here and there like a clone. This structural transformation has necessarily enticed academics to search for new ways of theorizing architecture.

This much is evident from the contents of Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s book entitled, Transcultural Architecture: The Limits of Critical Regionalism, Ashgate, 2015. Subduing the political dimension of Frampton’s discourse on Critical Regionalism, the author introduces transculturalism as a concept that can transcend “all particular cultures and invents a new common culture that is not meant to be a new universalism.” To further subdue the western origin of the notion of critical, we are told that transculturalism as such has the potentiality to unleash architecture wherein the “critique” is “able to adopt local circumstances.” The author of these lines is, interestingly enough, not an architect. He is a philosopher by education with an interest in Russian formalism, which makes the reader recall Lian Lefaivre’s and Alexander Tzonis’s discourse on critical regionalism, the first edition of which was centred on the concept of de-familiarization drawn from the Russian formalist movement. Still similar to most intellectuals of the bygone post-structuralist era, the author presents his take on architecture from an interdisciplinary viewpoint with an inclination for  Wittgenstein’s “architectural approaches.” He has also a long-term familiarity with the cultural and built environment of Kuwait, and this in itself is a good reason to dedicate the longest chapter of the book to the architecture of the Gulf. This biographical note might be one reason why the author’s introductory remarks are thin, seven pages in total, half of which is dedicated to a concise description of the content of each chapter.

The missing point in the complex rapport the author tries to establish between “transcultural” architecture and Critical Regionalism is the historicity of architecture in late sixties. This is important for two reasons; firstly, within or without the post-colonial period, the western architectural discourse of the time was attractive to most architects and academics teaching at schools of architecture regardless of their nationality. Blame it on the Enlightenment; there is however a sense of universalism in Modernity exemplified in Le Corbusier’s Dom-ino frame – the formal and spatial aspects of which are used and abused by modern, postmodern, and digital architecture to simplify a complex discourse on autonomy and heteronomy addressed by Kant, M. Foucault, and the Frankfurt School of critical theory, the latter still emulated by Marxian approaches to contemporary architecture. Secondly, the author dismisses the opportunity to make a distinction between issues such as identity and communication that are appropriated by postmodern architecture, and how differently the same topos is addressed in the discourse of Critical Regionalism. Limiting the reader’s understanding of the quality of building discussed in the first chapter of the book to the provided images, the so to speak “the skin technique” are nothing less than collage strategies used by most sophisticated postmodernist architects. These images also brings to mind Hassan Fathy’s famous book, Architecture for the Poor (1968), advocating a sort of vernacularism that was welcomed during the postmodern milieu and was even included in the reading list of history/theory taught in a number of “Grey” oriented schools of architecture in America.

There is also a difference between, say, L. Kahn and Robert Venturi’s approach to the cultural semiology of architecture. Whereas in the tradition of the French Revolutionary architects and in reference to his own interest in civic architecture and monumentality, Kahn turned to basic geometric forms, Venturi, instead, used the technique of collage if only to articulate exciting “skin” out of the de-familiarization of the architectonic elements of classical and modern that are held together by the Dom-ino frame. The distinction between postmodernism and Critical Regionalism is essential because the latter was primarily formulated in opposition to two major western architectural tendencies; postmodern architecture and a high-modernism that had already given up on the socio-political adventures of the project of modernity. This much is clear from Frampton’s attention and engagement with the work of Alvar Aalto, the early architecture of Mario Botta and Tadao Ando. The architecture of this Japanese architect is of further interest in reference to the historical complexities involved in the modernization of Japan, which is drastically different from the importation of modernization to the Gulf countries and even to China. 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.” Without addressing national identity through historical lenses, Botz-Bornstein seemingly is aware of the shortcomings of the literal use of tradition by some Kuwaiti architects, and how even contemporary Finish architects attempt to enliven their country’s national identity ends no where even when resorting to Christian Norberg-Schulz out-dated concept of genius loci. (p.46)

One of this book’s contributions to the discourse of Critical Regionalism is a short chapter that discusses the subject of aesthetics drawn from Wilhelm Worringer’s discourse on empathy and abstraction. However, most chapters are lean both in terms of quantity and quality of presented views. The author’s chapter on L. Kahn’s Dhaka project, for example, stops short of adding anything either to our understanding of this American architect’s work, or the discourse of Critical Regionalism. What is the point to include Kahn in the book and then conclude that; “It goes without saying that there is no place for Critical Regionalism in the proper sense in Kahn’s case.” (p.103) Or how helpful is it to discuss issues such as “style” in reference to Jean Cocteau, or in reference to the author’s association of Kahn’s metaphysical thinking with Rorty’s “liberal metaphysician.” (p.101) Understandably, Critical Regionalism is a complex subject, and to this reviewer it should be considered as an “open work.” This is one reason why its take on architecture today is both constructive and problematic when parametric design has stolen the “positive” aspects of the modernity of modern architecture. A few critics, however, 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.”2 This said, the word critical in the title of Frampton’s text says something about his theoretical affiliation with aspects of Marxism that is read in-between lines of M. Heidegger and Hana Arendt’s criticism of the technocratic machinery of capitalism. Or else, as this reviewer has discussed elsewhere, Critical Regionalism amounts to the architectonic implications of the historical understanding of the impossibility of associating architecture with “national identity.” 3 Beyond the problematic of local in reference to the ever-expanding totality fabricated by late capitalism, there remains, as Fredric Jameson reminds us, “a danger of idealism implicit in all forms of cultural nationalism as such, which tends to overestimate the effectivity of culture and consciousness and to neglect the concomitant requirement of economic autonomy.” 4 This I believe has different architectonic connotations than the author’s interest in the patchwork implied in the book’s central concept of “transcultural.”

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.

About the Author

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein was born in Germany and studied philosophy in Paris and Oxford. As a postdoctoral researcher based in Finland he undertook exten­sive research on Russian formalism and semiotics in Russia and the Baltic countries. He has also been researching in Japan, in particular on the Kyoto School and on the philosophy of Nishida Kitarô. At present he is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait.

  1.  Kenneth Frampton, “Towards an Agonistic Architecture,” Domus 972 (Sept. 2013).
  2.   Gabriel Bryant, “Projecting modern culture: ‘Aesthetic fundamentalism’ and modern architecture” in Tracing Modernity (London: Routledge Press, 2004), p. 69.
  3.  Gevork Hartoonian, “Critical Regionalism: Whatever happened to autonomy,” Fusion journal, issue 4, August 2014;
  4.  Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 203.
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