An ideological critique
Image: Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo
town hall in Finland (1952)
Frampton’s appropriation of Frankfurt School critical theory in his writings on architectural history is fairly typical of its reception by liberals in the Anglophone West. Still, this is often to be preferred to the uses that have been made of it by many so-called “radicals” within contemporary continental philosophy. Even then, Frampton is exceptionally skilled at identifying some of the central issues and thematics that concerned the critical theorists, and conveys them with remarkable accuracy and lucidity. In the introduction to his landmark Modern Architecture: A Critical History, he writes:
Like many others of my generation I have been influenced by a Marxist interpretation of history, although even the most cursory reading of this text will reveal that none of the established methods of Marxist analysis have been applied. On the other hand, my affinity for the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has no doubt colored my view of the whole period and made me acutely aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment which, in the name of an unreasonable reason, has brought man to a situation where he begins to be as alienated from his own production has from the natural world.
Nevertheless, despite Frampton’s adept deployment of these concepts in his historical inquiries, a number of critics have found his own, positive architectural program — “critical regionalism” — rather problematic. Beginning in the 1980s, Frampton began speaking of critical regionalist models as furnishing “an architecture of resistance.” This he defined as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself…”
While the main political signifier for Frampton was in this case clearly “resistance,” critical regionalists such as Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre (who originally coined the phrase) stressed “identity” as the center around which a counterweight to globalization could be organized. To be sure, though, “identity” carried connotations of political resistance as well.
The object of resistance for the three theorists named is not identical, however. All refer, either consciously or not, to the dynamics of capitalist universality. For Frampton, the dynamic that must be resisted is “the relentless onslaught of global modernization,” i.e. capitalism’s temporal register. By contrast, for Lefaivre and Tzonis the dynamic that must be resisted is instead the modern “age of globalization,” i.e., capitalism’s spatial register.
Of critical regionalism’s critics, Fredric Jameson is probably the most incisive. In his Wellek Lecture Series of 1991, he examined critical regionalism at length:
[A]n architectural form of Critical Regionalism would lack all political and allegorical efficacy unless it were coordinated with a variety of other local, social, and culturaI movements that aimed at securing national autonomy. It was one of the signal errors of the artistic activism of the 1960s to suppose that there existed, in advance, forms that were in and of themselves endowed with a political, and even revolutionary, potential by virtue of their own intrinsic properties. On the other hand, there remains 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. But it is precisely economic autonomy that has been everywhere called back into question in the postmodernity of a genuinely global late capitalism.
Jameson located Frampton’s critical regionalism as occupying an uncomfortable space between modernist and postmodernist architecture. It rejected the amoralism and empty consumerism of late capitalist society, but also the modernist faith in the optimism of technological progress. The “rear-guard” status Frampton championed was meant to indicate that history was still heading somewhere, whatever the postmodernists might have said, but unlike the modernists critical regionalists don’t always like where it’s going. Another strange subtext Jameson picks up on is the “regional” scope of critical regionalism.
This intermediate aspect did not escape his criticism:
Frampton’s conceptual proposal, however, is not an internal but rather a geopolitical one: it seeks to mobilize a pluralism of “regional” styles (a term selected, no doubt, in order to forestall the unwanted connotations of the terms national and international alike), with a view toward resisting the standardizations of a henceforth global late capitalism and corporatism, whose “vernacular” is as omnipresent as its power over local decisions (and indeed, after the end of the Cold War, over local governments and individual nation states as well).
 Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. (Thames & Hudson Ltd. London, England: 1982). Pg. 9.
 Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a critical regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. (Bay Press. Seattle, WA: 1987). Pg. 25.
 Lefaivre, Liane and Tzonis, Alexander. Critical Regionalism: Architecture and Identity in a Globalized World. (Prestel Publishers. New York, NY: 2003).
 Frampton, “Towards a critical regionalism.” Pg. 29.
 Lefaivre, Liane and Tzonis, Alexander. The Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2012).
 Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 202.