When I meet Kenneth Frampton in New York City, it is the week after the opening of Venice Architecture Biennale, where the historian has just been awarded by Yvonne Farrell & Shelley McNamara, curators of the XVI edition of the exhibition, a Career Golden Lion.
It’s a rainy day in the Big Apple, and the GSAPP building of Columbia University is a bit more crowded with students than I thought it would be. We hold our conversation in his office, a small room with a view on the backyard. I cannot see any empty spot on the walls, all are covered with posters, awards and memories of a lifetime. We start off with light conversation in front of a cup of tea, as I should have expected from a British gentleman, followed by a discussion focused on the topic of Critical Regionalism.
AC. Critical Regionalism(1) is a theory released for the first time at the beginning of the 1980’s. Few decades later, is it still meaningful to talk about this theory? Could it still be important, for the current architectural panorama?
KF. Of course you know it was in the 80’s when Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre coined the term. Following that I developed my own theory. Today I think about the global political situation. One of the things that are happening politically, in the United States in particular but elsewhere as well, is the idea that parliamentary democracy at the state level is becoming more and more problematic. Not everywhere, of course, but it is for sure a problem here, and also in the United Kingdom. First of all because they have this bipolar system, and the margin of percentage one party wins over the other party is too little in order to form a government and gain actual power. It’s relevant to notice how in the evolution of the parliamentary democracies, those two parties became very similar: the differences between democrats and republicans in the States, labour and conservative in the UK, has become a bit marginal, even if there are aspects that should be fundamentally different. The reason why I’m indulging in this argument is to point out the resistance of regions and cities to a central power, which is, especially in the US, enormously influenced by money. There are problems with some individual states and even cities, especially in southern countries. I think for instance about the resistance of California to Trump and Washington.
The European situation is similar, in Spain, for example, city-states are very strong, and of course in Italy too. There is a request for direct democracy. So I think there is an aspect of Critical Regionalism which has a kind of political dimension, it has a lot to do with local identity, the effort of decision making and the local domain on the territory, which some people are over-concerned about. This is the context in which the theory can still be considered effective today. I think this aspect of my theory is still, in a very generalized sense, valid.
It sounds like the necessity of a connection between the political dimension of a community and the architectural production is a precondition to make your theory still valid in the western part of the world. What about elsewhere? Are there other parts of the world where you think we can still find a Critical Regionalistic approach?
I think it is still very present in certain parts of the world, in Latin America for example, or in south east Asia, in India and Bangladesh, and in China in a certain way. I think the interesting thing that is happening in China is that quite young architects, like 35-40 yo, have been commissioned with small-medium size buildings, institutions, museums, schools, some housings, etc.. In southern China we can see some city-states, in a way. Chinese architects are inspiring, because the quality of their work, and the kind of work that they do, is impressive, and in many cases they are working for developers who are focused on local situations, who are willing to go beyond what they initially asked the architects to do. There is this firm, called Vector Architects, who built this library on the edge of the sea, do you know it?
I do know it.
It is built by a developer. This is unthinkable in the US. In that sense I think critical regionalism is still relevant and active.
You mentioned before the influence of the political situation in the effectiveness of Critical Regionalism. All over the world a lot of countries areveering towards a separatist direction, from both the cultural and social point of view. I think about some recent events, like Brexit for example, or the events in Catalonia, or other European countries that have recentlyexpressed the idea of detaching themselves from the European Union, maybe the next one will be Italy, who knows…
Yeah, I’m scared about it (2). I also think of the new protectionist strategy the USA is implementing towards other continents, etc.. So basically the necessity to be detached from a wider cultural group, the need to define perimeters, it is a kind of new political trend these years. Is this direction making people aware again of the specificity of their places, is this trend a new way to valorize once more a local cultural system within a global context? What will the consequences be, in terms of architecture?
It’s a very good question.
It’s a provocation, in a certain way.
It’s very real. I think about the crisis in the Middle-East, for example, and how it created this enormous refugee migration in Europe: it put pressure on European society and this pressure, which is primarily economic and cultural, is very disturbing for some. I also think about certain parts of the world greatly affected by climate change, for example Karachi recently recorded a temperature of 104° and people were literally dying on the streets from the heat, if this problem continues we will also have people escaping from that part of the world where is too hot to live in, and that state of affairs is so apocalyptical that can we talk about culture anymore at all? This kind of pressure I think is moving people towards right wing governments, and therefore there is a very difficult conjunction between right wing governments and globalized late capitalist high speed economy, and the maldistribution of wealth that goes along with all of this. Here in the US it is quite clear that the maldistribution of wealth has just skyrocketed. The poverty in this country, 40 million people on the borderline of starvation, is so intense, in the so called richest country in the world. From this point of view, perhaps the Chinese are the emerging new power, who also have a greater capacity to control things, because of totalitarianism. A phrase that has been used recently is “economic totalitarianism”, we consider the maldistribution of wealth as directly related to the form of government; even though we are totally negative about the undemocratic totalitarian Chinese government, maybe exactly the Chinese government, because of the way it has evolved, is in a better position to deal with these kinds of problems. In the end I think architecture is irrelevant in this phase and that there is no evolution connected to this phenomena, in particular we can’t talk about Critical Regionalism for those countries within the European context.
Aside from the political influence of the theory, in terms of historical strategy, I’ve always read in Critical Regionalism the aim to defendspecificity. Is it still possible to keep cultivating a culture of diversity withinthe current architectural panorama of the globalized world?
Yes. I think specificity mostly relates to actual sites. The very negative thing about the modern world is the proliferation of an infinite number of free standing objects, which have no relationship to each other, nor to the site in which they are located. Specificity of the ground itself, the relationship between the building and the ground, is the most important topic in the culture of diversity. And of course other specificities, along with that, the consciousness of the building in regard to climate and light. These factors are really important and unique in a specific time and place.
In the first essay of Critical Regionalism you encourage schools to educate students about local identities (3). Today this sounds quite hard to do. So what’s the role of schools nowadays? Should they still promote a local architecture education?
I think they should encourage specificity. I’d rather put it like that, than say they should teach a kind of local architecture. I think in general that they do not do that. This school doesn’t. Of course they try to give real sites in studio assignments, but in many cases those sites are very difficult, full of problematic issues and usually too big. I’d rather teach how to resolve the project in a specific way, with regard to the landscape again, to do work which is really sensitive to light and climate, materials and especially constructions.
You pointed out this concept in “Studies in Tectonic Culture” (4).
One of the reasons why I produced the “Studies in Tectonic Culture” is because I felt the concept of region was too fragile, I wanted to find a ground for architecture today. That idea of poetic of construction was an important issue. All the book is about figures from the modern movement, those who could easily discern that the question of the modern construction and the material was a crucial topic; figures like Auguste Perret, Louis Kahn, FL Wright, Mies, are all featured in that book because they cared about the specificity of the poetic of construction. And I think that today, many architecture schools underestimate this issue. Did you have a look at the students’ models inside this University?
We used to have a housing studio in the first semester of the second year of the Master degree. If you look at those models, they are very large sites and the models are white plywood, they do have special concepts, but it’s difficult to come to a specific residence because they are just too big. They are too ostentatious, too concerned with making some kind of spectacular show. I don’t feel the actual substance of architecture.
Today, information and communication are two important pillars of the modern globalized society. These two phenomena made a remarkable portion of the world capable of accessing any kind of visual information. I think about the internet, where you can find images of almost every architectural work, but I also think about the accessibility of affordable transportation, like low cost flights, that can bring you everywhere in the world in just a few hours. This easy access to distant information allows people to have a different and wider awareness of themselves and the territory that they belong to. Here is my question: is it still possible, in the age of communication, to define a perimeter within the territory, that has a specific cultural identity, let’s say a raum in the Heiddeger terminology (5), inside which architecture can express place specific features?
I think there is an interesting issue here, which is that the old relationship between center and periphery has disappeared. And a lot of that has to do with the age of information. I think that people living in what we previously thought to be remote places, now have access to a discourse which is global and rather sophisticated, and that enables, in that particular place, to create works that are specific to that place but informed by a larger world picture. The old definition of perimeter is gone, but at the same time I’m thinking about a Mosque built in Dhacka, very recently designed by a female architect, Marina Tabassum, it’s a very ingenious building, very ingeniously thought out. Do you know it?
I love that project.
It’s a beautiful thing. It’s made with bricks and concrete, and there is a very beautiful consideration of the penetration of light in the space. It is clear that the building has a certain influences, Louis Kahn for example, but it’s not him. Obviously, to some extent, it belongs to the local brick construction tradition. For that matter, Kashef Chowdhury, who is also from Dhacka, is remarkable. Both are very sophisticated architects. They benefit from this world wide information but they also work in a very specific way where they are. So there is still the possibility to decline locally the global culture.
The most frequent criticism on your theory was to consider it exclusively asa historical reaction to the postmodern movement. When the postmodern movement disappeared, they say your theory lost its effectiveness. Is it true?
It was certainly a reaction to the postmodern movement. The real question is, was it simply a reaction to postmodern style or a reaction to something deeper than it? What I was reacting against was the mutation of architecture into scenography. In a way this scenographic architecture is still around, in a larger scale than ever perhaps. In terms of the relative autonomy of architecture as a poetic of construction, the scenographic is somehow problematic, there have always been of course.
I would also like to emphasize that I don’t think the ‘poetic of construction’ means to answer the question of spatial organization or, in a way, the issue of image.
The poetic of construction is deeply related to the issue of tectonics. We frequently see projects where the structure is just a skeleton meant to be hidden within an external technological skin. Is the role of tectonics disappearing?
There is this drive, which is particularly evident in speculative development. In high rise buildings for example, where the curtain wall is the beginning and the end of the whole thing. Curtain wall is the cheapest thing to wrap a construction with. The tendency of choosing the cheapest way to finish is obviously there. But we can have this problem at many scales.
We can make a similar consideration for materials, and what you called the “tactile experience” of architecture. We are going in the direction of artificial and synthetic materials, new ones are efficiently produced in laboratories, but most of the times they don’t have a tactile dimension. I think, for example, about the 3d printing process, which basically uses plastic, for sure this process will become very important for the building industry in the future. What do you think about this argument?
The tendency of techno-scientific late modern society is a very reductive aspect of it. The question of the experience of the subject is repressed, it’s not an issue. You can see it at many levels. My first essay on Critical Regionalism has the subtitles “an architecture of resistance”, and I think that’s it. If it still alive, it’s a critical resistant culture which also means to resist the tendency of the economy to reduce the human experience to some kind of mood, exploited abstraction. It only has meaning as a resistance. It’s not dominant.
So what’s the social mission of architecture nowadays? In a contemporary context where property speculation and the global market have as theirprincipal goal the profit, what role can architects play to have a critical architectural production?
It’s an equally difficult question to answer. It’s not clear whether the market is going to be able to answer all the needs of society, the market is not interested in them, just as you pointed out, it is only interested in profit, and the well being of the species cannot be assured by the market and in fact, you could say that it is literally the market that will destroy the species. It is evident as such in climate change, no one can do anything about it because the corporate power of the global economy doesn’t intend to do anything about it. Its logic is based on the market and profit, and there is no other aim. Architecture can’t answer to this predicament because it is not the role of architecture, for instance you can be careful about the energetic aspect of the building, but it’s useless if there is not a general direction in which way society is moving towards. There is an example of resistance, Scandinavia, which is also a part of the world under the capitalist system, but is able to manage the society in such a way that the question of health and education is still provided for the society. We can see the consequences of this in terms of architecture, there is a very good production of buildings that are very specific in terms of light, materials and construction. The US is the opposite, there is supposed to be free education, but there never was and there never will be, unless a fundamental revolution happens. Of all the developed countries, this is a country barbaric beyond belief, because we cannot provide neither health nor education. The present American administration will be happy if they can make Europe and the Scandinavian countries similar to them, bringing them into the same chaos. That’s the aim, I guess.
English revision by Giovanna Zuliani
1) Critical Regionalism is an approach to architecture that strives to counter the placelessness and lack of identity of the International Style, but also rejects the whimsical individualism and ornamentation of Postmodern architecture. The stylings of critical regionalism seek to provide an architecture rooted in the modern tradition, but tied to geographical and cultural context. Critical regionalism is not simply regionalism in the sense of vernacular architecture. It is a progressive approach to design that seeks to mediate between the global and the local languages of architecture.
2) The interview took place at the end of May 2018, while there is the attempt to form the XVIII government of the Italian Republic and there is a public discussion about the permanence of the country inside the European Union.
3) In the first essay, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”, Frampton pointed out how Critical Regionalism intends to “identify those recent regional ‘schools’ whose aim has been to represent and serve, in a critical sense, the limited constituencies in which they are grounded”, like the Portuguese school of Alvaro Siza or the Swiss one by Mario Botta.
4) “Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture” . Composed of ten essays and an epilogue that trace the history of contemporary form as an evolving poetic of structure and construction, the book’s analytical framework rests on Frampton’s close readings of key French and German, and English sources from the eighteenth century to the present.
5) Martin Heidegger in his seminal work of “Building Dwelling Thinking” introduces the German word for space and place (Raum), contrary to the Latin or antique abstract understanding of space (extensio, spatium) as an endless continuum of evenly subdivided spatial components or integers. Raum designates a place that is freed for settlement. It means a space for which room has been made, a boundary. But ‘[a] boundary’ Heidegger remarks, ‘is not that at which something stops, but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presence’.