Notes on “critical regionalism”

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.[1]

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…”[2]

Alvar Aalto,  Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

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.[3] 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.[4]  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.[5]

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.

Alvar Aalto,  Säynätsalo town hall (1949-1952)

Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo town hall (1949-1952)

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).[6]

More later.


[1] Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. (Thames & Hudson Ltd. London, England: 1982). Pg. 9.
[2] 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.
[3] Lefaivre, Liane and Tzonis, Alexander. Critical Regionalism: Architecture and Identity in a Globalized World. (Prestel Publishers. New York, NY: 2003).
[4] Frampton, “Towards a critical regionalism.” Pg. 29.
[5] Lefaivre, Liane and Tzonis, Alexander. The Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2012).
[6] Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 202.

15 thoughts on “Notes on “critical regionalism”

  1. Pingback: Notes on “critical regionalism” | Research Material

  2. I’m much more inclined to defend ‘critical regionalism’, funnily enough – I don’t think Jameson was always as close a reader of architecture as we sometimes give him credit for…

    First, I think Jameson overlooks how much CR actually was and is very closely tied to movements for autonomy – Catalonia, most obviously, but we could also mention the Baltic states and the Caucasus in the USSR in the ’70s and ’80s, or indeed post-war Scandinavia, which genuinely did – and to a lesser extent still does – have an independent economic and foreign policy. That the Baltics or Catalonia obviously don’t have either suggests of course that the room for manoeuvre in neoliberalism has become much smaller – but, then, the obvious popularity of CR in Latin America would suggest otherwise if connected (again, as Baltics or Catalonia aren’t) to anti-neoliberal movements. I’m perenially depressed by the fact that Scotland and Wales never developed a critical regionalism after devolution, something I’d ascribe to the continued dominance of neoliberal modes of construction and procurement in those territories.

    Second, CR was not anti-technological as such, and was developed in an era with plenty of outright retrogressive solutions to choose from, whether ‘vernacular’ in the UK or the various kinds of ‘architecture without architects’ elsewhere. Frampton isn’t attempting that false analogy with ‘authentic’ rural or regional practice at all. Third, the resistance is not to technology or to modernism but to standardisation, and hence is also useful as a kind of post-Fordism of the left.

    • Fair enough. A few questions, though:

      1. To what extent can we speak of “critical regionalism” as an architectural practice prior to its theorization by Tzonis, Lefaivre, and Frampton in 1982-1983? Perhaps their essays appeared earlier, but as far as I’m aware Frampton’s debuted in Hal Foster’s Anti-Aesthetic collection. And while these theorists drew upon existing structures as examples of what a critical regionalist architecture might look like — these dating anywhere from the 1950s to the 1970s — it seems odd to credit a movement for their creation since it had not yet been conceptualized or properly (self-consciously) constituted. So I guess what I’m wondering is whether these buildings, which as you say were tied to autonomy movements, are just being claimed for critical regionalism after the fact?

      2. How does the “resistance” Frampton attributed to critical regionalist architecture manifest itself? That is to ask, is it a form of political resistance? Or is it simply conducive to the formation of such a political resistance? Latin American critical regionalism was, as you point out, often linked to oppositional currents resisting neoliberal globalization. But I guess what confuses me is whether this relationship is merely incidental, or if this architecture really contributed to the cultivation of a politics. If so, I’m not sure how it’d work, whether it would simply instill a sense of reflexive regional identity resisting outside influences, or if it would somehow operate at the level of consciousness, creating an awareness of the various forces at play. My fear is that the “resistance” Frampton wrote about is dangerously vague, and that it might be understood by its practitioners as “resisting” the temptation to include stylistic elements they associate with either modernist or postmodernist architecture. What do you think he’s talking about?

      3. Is “resistance” an adequate basis for a politics? This is something I’ve written on in the past, contrasting resistance to earlier leftist political strategies such as reform or revolution. I remember reading a passing remark you made in Militant Modernism that resonated deeply with me, since I’d long held a similar opinion:

      …[W]hat made leftist Modernisms so harsh [was] the need to assert a counter, to create another culture, something the left is at present utterly unwilling to do, endlessly harping on about “resistance,” without the slightest notion of victory, let alone what culture should exist afterwards.

      So I wonder: Is critical regionalism, insofar as Frampton conceived it as embodying an “architecture of resistance,” not already hamstrung by its purely defensive posture?

  3. I might be wrong but it seems odd that Frampton avoids any references to spatial qualities in his writing on CR, at least in the sense of the social or political organisation of space. Instead it’s mostly tectonic, to do with material and construction methods and qualities. These qualities are discussed in rather ethereal terms and issues of labour, procurement, cost etc glided over. SoI tend to agree with Jameson that without an engagement with the actual political and economic production of space it remains a pretty vague and curiously aesthetic form of resistance.

    • Frampton does address the question of spatiality in his writings on critical regionalism, but finds it problematically homogenizing and abstract (following Heidegger, he associates it with the Latin spatium, and offers in its stead the concept of Raum or “place”). This would seem to have certain design implications: site-specificity, sensitivity to regional climatic patterns, engagement with preexisting local forms that are still relatively pliant and haven’t rigidified into antimodern reaction, etc. So I would contend that Frampton has given these matters some thought. It’s not a simple oversight.

      However, I would agree with you that issues regarding the broader social and political organization of space remain somewhat beyond Frampton’s concern. They only enter in from outside, as invasive entities, which threaten to either incorporate it seamlessly into some kind of anonymous modernity or repackage its cultural peculiarities as the kind of superficial kitsch celebrated by postmodernity. Strangely, I don’t recall Frampton as ever having grappled with the Lefebvrian analysis of “the production of space,” which you allude to in your comment. Perhaps it’s just surprising to me because Lefebvre’s works are so vogue within “radical geography” and certain strains of architectural criticism, for better or worse.

      Anyway, that would appear to be what Jameson is driving at with his critique of Frampton’s critical regionalism, even though he never mentions Lefebvre by name. He accuses Frampton of quoting Vittorio Gregotti out of context, but acknowledges the brilliance of Frampton’s distinction between the tactile and the visual, and hence the “tectonic” and the merely “scenographic.” Jameson’s greatest strength, in my opinion at least, is his unwavering ambivalence toward developments within capitalist society. At times this might seem noncommittal, or the result of indecision, but I think his work benefits greatly from the fact that he never simply recoils in horror when faced with the latest phenomena to emerge out of capital’s ongoing historical dynamic.

      • Maybe then it’s truer to say that CR as formulated by Frampton is not attempt to resist neo-liberalism so much as its perceived annihilation of spatial or regional difference or identity (and a loss of craft etc). There’s no (?) attempt to link it to broader forms of political opposition or even to Lefebvrian ideas of spatial production (unfashionably or otherwise).

        IIRC the essay from Hal Foster’s collection or the end chapters of his history of modern architecture, the examples are mostly at the level of individual buildings (as opposed to urban formations) which avoids questions of the production of space to a large extent. I think there is an example of some urban planning by Snozzi/Botta……

        Also, the essay seems slightly dated in the sense that it fails to take account of (or anticipate) the ways in which neo-liberalism also attempts to cultivate local difference as commodify difference.

  4. Ross – I believe CR is not a mode of architectural practice, but a mode of architectural critique. Otero Pailos actually claims it as a mode of writing architectural history.
    Charles – KF doesn’t reference space, but place. And tectonics, as you rightly suggest.
    Anyone interested – He developed his “regionalist” ideas when teachnical editor of AD, 1962-65. On moving to the US in 65, he read Arendt and that added the critical – his “politicisation”.

  5. … seems important to note Alan Colquhoun’s critique of Frampton’s CR in two essays. The fifth section of ‘Regionalism 2’ is particularly devastating. Colquhoun presents the discussion as a dialectical relation between the possibility of creating a new universal global language out of processes of modernisation, and pre-modern forms, but notes that regional or premodern forms are NOT outside of capitalism, and cannot be a real source of resistance or alternative futures in any simple way, as they are always ‘reterritorialised’ by capital… indeed paradoxically CR would be one of those processes by which capital commodifies the premodern through the possibility of regionalism! Colquhoun states ‘universal technology and local custom are intimately connected, so that a change in one necessarily produces a change in the other…. In Western Europe manual rural economies coexisted for a long time with industrialisation and this gave some plausibility to the regionalist argument. But in late capitalism the arm of technology extends into the remotest regions, even in the so-called developing countries which have no choice but to modernise. The relationship between industrialisation and traditional cultures and techniques is not one in which they become organically fused with one another, as Le Corbusier implied, but one of hybridisation, where different cultural paradigms, detached from their original contexts, coexist in an impure and unstable form.’ He concludes:
    ‘a complex interlocking global economy creates new forms out of old cultures as it goes along – forms whose precise nature cannot be foretold with any accuracy. Architecture will certainly, when the economic conditions allow, continue to imagine ideal socio-cultural forms, but its influence over social reality will be limited.’

  6. Glad to see that this has spiralled off in this manner, but am chastened by being quoted against myself, so I should probably backtrack just a little. Frampton’s conception of Critical Regionalism strikes me as a very old-school-music-press move, very Paul Morley – take a bunch of seemingly disparate phenomena and then tell them what they’re about – and just as nobody ever said they were making New Pop or Trip-Hop, it’s an error to see Critical Regionalism as a coherent movement of people consciously making Critical Regionalist architecture.

    Frampton’s original Manifesto for Critical Regionalism is a combination of things that I find dubious – the invocation of Heidegger on ‘dwelling’ is almost always the hallmark of pseud or scoundrel, and it’s notable that he backtracks from it himself, then there’s the always dubious idea of little resistances, and so forth; and also, things that I find, as an architecture critic and as a person looking at buildings, immensely useful, on the question of whether there is a possibility of a modern architecture that is not either the international style, or architecture with fatuous ‘local reference’ ladled onto the international style, or the outright reactionary, false sublation of vernacular and craft traditions.

    This is why (and I’m surprised to see someone whose slogan was once ‘taste not space’ come in on the ‘space’ side here!), I don’t find the concentration on ‘place’ rather than ‘space’ completely problematic, assuming it means a less cowardly, less Prince Charlesy version of what is usually meant by ‘context’. Basically, I lack a term to describe what is happening with the specific engagement with highly specific urban or territorial problems that you can find in, eg, EMBT’s work, or Byker, or Melnikov’s workers’ clubs, etc, as much as in Frampton’s own more brown rice choices – so I find ‘critical regionalism’ a useful term here, albeit not necessarily in the way that Frampton uses it.

    But that leaves open the question of its political efficacy or otherwise. Again, the examples of Catalonia, Baltics*, etc were intended to make clear that they were genuinely part of local autonomy movements. Whether they were or are part of movements that are anti- or non- capitalist is a very different question.. It strikes me that various kinds of Critical Regionalism can propose qualitatively different ways of using space, which are potentially tied up with a non-capitalist future, as much as say the work of Neave Brown or whoever strikes me as a potential model for a non-capitalist future. I that potentially, in the Tronti line on Red Vienna that I think immensely useful for describing various kinds of modern architecture, it can be ‘within and against capitalism’. But it doesn’t necessarily derive that ability from mere tectonic or regional properities, but from that and the function, so it should obviously be part of something wider. IIRC, in Modern Architecture the ‘critical regionalist’ chapter is done through studies of 70s-90s architectural culture in particular countries -Greece, France, Mexico, Finland – which were not those where the steamroller of neoliberal procurement and financing techniques had advanced. That they are all capitalist is equally clear, though. You can have a critical regionalism under capitalism, that’s obvious – that you can have it under neoliberalism seems near-impossible, at least aside from odd little prestige projects here or there, not as a culture – cf again the fact that the vivid architectural culture of debate in Scotland doesn’t make most Scottish architecture any less grim and relentlessly cheap than English.

    When I criticised ‘resistance’ I was more-or-less referring to Occupy forbears like Climate Camp, or to the little social happenings of Relational Aesthetics. A social architecture in the ALBA countries, for instance, is not ‘resistance’ in the same way (at least if we’re agreed on the character of those regimes, which we may not be!). It has the potential for being qualitatively different, and permanent or semi-permanent; for not ‘resisting’ neoliberalism, but for not ‘being’ neoliberal at all. I think it’s telling that this happens in a part of the world with quite vigorous forms of ‘critical regionalism’.

    * (it’s worth noting here that architecture in, say, Latvia and Lithuania was far more ‘regionalist’ and site-specific when a part of the USSR seeking more autonomy than it is now in comprador capitalist periphery of the EU…)

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