Now available as paperback 

Critical Regionalism gained popularity in architectural debate as a synthesis of universal, “modern” elements and individualistic elements derived from local cultures. This book shifts the focus from Critical Regionalism towards a broader concept of “Transcultural Architecture” and defines Critical Regionalism as a subgroup of the latter. One of the benefits that this change of perspective brings about is that a large part of the political agenda of Critical Regionalism, which consists of resisting attitudes forged by typically Western experiences, is “softened” and negotiated according to premises provided by local circumstances. A further benefit is that several responses dependent on factors that initial definitions of Critical Regionalism never took into account can now be considered. At the book’s center is an analysis of Reima and Raili Pietilä’s Sief Palace Area project in Kuwait. Further cases of modern architecture in China, Korea, and Saudi Arabia show that the critique, which holds that Critical Regionalism is a typical “western” exercise, is not sound in all circumstances.  

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kuwait. Pietilä 1986.

The book is not trying to provide a complete overview of the international development of Critical Regionalism. Instead, it concentrates on the above theoretical problems and discusses its aspects in the light of carefully chosen examples. This is why not all the world’s areas have been covered. Studies from Africa, for example, are absent. The reason is that this book is not an exercise in architectural history but a systematical elaboration of certain philosophical questions about architecture.

 

Transcultural Architecture

I do not suggest to replace Critical Regionalism with Transcultural Architecture but to constantly view the former within the context of the latter. One of the benefits that this change of perspective can bring about is that a large part of the political agenda of Critical Regionalism, which consists of resisting attitudes forged by typically Western experiences, will be “softened” and negotiated according to premises provided by local circumstances. A further benefit is that several responses dependent on factors that initial definitions of Critical Regionalism never took into account can now be considered. The cases of modern architecture in Kuwait, China, Korea, and Saudi Arabia that are presented in this book show that the critique, which holds that Critical Regionalism is a typical “western” exercise, is not sound in all circumstances.

Transcultural Architecture:

The Limits and Opportunities of Critical Regionalism

Ashgate/Routledge 2015

ISBN 978-1-4724-6341-8

Paperback: $48

The book argues that there are different Critical Regionalisms and not all of them impose Western paradigms on non-Western cultures. Non-Western regionalists can also successfully participate in the Western enlightened discourse, even when they do not directly and consciously act against Western models. Furthermore, the book proposes that a certain “architectural rationality” can be contained in architecture itself—not imposed by outside parameters like aesthetics, comfort or even tradition, but flowing out of a social game of which architecture is part. The key concept is that of the “form of life,” as developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose thoughts are here linked to Critical Regionalism. Kenneth Frampton argues that Critical Regionalism offers something well beyond comfort and accommodation. What he has in mind are ethical prescripts closely linked to a culture of protest and resistance. This book shows that this is not a wrong assumption per se, but that Critical Regionalism can also go “beyond comfort and accommodation” by investing in the search for the “right way of living” or in a “form of life.”

Critical Regionalism

Critical Regionalism bears a strong link with “critical history,” a movement that developed within the realm of historical science as early as the eighteenth century. Normally, any critical approach requires a particular philosophical understanding of the relationship between history and the present as it has been developed within Western intellectual history. The problem is that such a historical understanding does not necessarily exist in an identical fashion in all cultures. This means that, paradoxically, though Critical Regionalism aims to establish local identities that would otherwise be erased by a Western-minded globalization, it is still actively exporting a Western concept of “Critical Regionalism.” This book examines the difficulties arising from such a constellation by looking at concrete cases of what can be understood as Critical Regionalism, but which evolved in exceptional circumstances.

National Assembly Dhaka (Louis Kahn)

Wenzheng Library of Suzhou (Wang Shu)

Contents

 

Chapter 1: Reima Pietilä’s Kuwait Buildings Revisited: About the Limits of Transcultural Architecture

                 

                   1. “City of Kuwait: A Future Concept”

                   2. The Sief Palace Buildings

                   3. Transcultural Architecture

                   4. The Ministry Transformed

                   5. Conclusions

 

 

Chapter 2 : Empathy, Alienation, Style, Non-Style: Reima Pietilä’s Philosophy

 

 

Chapter 3: “Magic Internationalism” or the Paradox of Globalization: Louis Kahn’s National Assembly

                   Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh

 

 

Chapter 4: Wang Shu and the Possibilities of Critical Regionalism in China

 

 

Chapter 5: When the Monumental Becomes Decorative: Thoughts on Contemporary Chinese Architecture

 

 

Chapter 6: Play, Dream, and the Search for the “Real” Form of Dwelling: From Aalto to Ando

 

 

Chapter 7: Wittgenstein’s Stonborough House and the Architecture of Tadao Ando

 

 

Chapter 8: Cardboard Houses with Wings: The Architecture of Samuel Mockbee

 

 

Chapter 9: H-Sang Seung: Design is not Design

 

 

Chapter 10: The Secularization of the Architectural Heritage through Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia

        

                                                   

Conclusion

The idea that regionalism is not always a response to the West but more often a consequence of local conditions can well be integrated into my concept of Critical Regionalism as a form of Transculturalism. My studies show that in some cases the ideological struggle of Critical Regionalism is indeed uncalled-for in the non-West or is simply not understood. But who is the guilty one? It is too simple to accuse only the Critical Regionalists. Both sides should view Critical Regionalism as a predominantly transcultural activity through which both sides can learn from each other.

 

There are different Critical Regionalisms and not all of them impose Western paradigms on non-Western cultures. In general, I hold that non-Western regionalists can also successfully participate in the Western enlightened discourse, even when they do not directly and consciously act against Western (capitalist, globalized, etc.) models.

 

At the center of the book is a 24,700 words-long analysis of Reima and Raili Pietilä’s Sief Palace Area project in Kuwait. I discuss the urban plan of the Finnish architects, explain the difference between “Transcultural Architecture” and Critical Regionalism, and show how the Sief Palace Area project is related to those differences. I revisit Pietilä’s Ministry of Foreign affairs in Kuwait, which no person with an interest in architecture has visited since 1986, and whose history and development I discuss in detail. The chapter’s length might seem disproportionate but it is justified by two reasons. First, the Kuwait project did consist of two different tasks that were interrelated: the establishment of an urban plan for Kuwait and the construction of three buildings in the central part of the city. Second, the Sief Palace Buildings are a school case permitting reflection on the possibilities and limits of Critical Regionalism. The project started with the best intentions but ran into problems that can be considered as paradigmatic. Only a thorough analysis of the planning history, the context, the reception of the building as well as the architect’s theoretical ideas can clarify the complications from which this project has suffered. The chapter also contains a 5000 words long subchapter providing theoretical explanations of the relationship between Critical Regionalism and Transculturalism.

 

Another aspect of the same problem is illustrated by examples coming from China. In China, regionalism has never been established as a critical architectural movement though several architects are engaging in activities that can easily be described as regionalist. I examine the case of Wang Shu (Pritzker Prize 2012), who insists that his architecture is simply “spontaneous” because for him “architecture is a matter of everyday life.” Wang puts forward his regionalist ambitions by insisting on the temporary and amateur-like character of his works. Though there is not necessarily a self-conscious “critical” stance in his regionalism, the results come close to that of Critical Regionalism. I also show that Critical Regionalism is difficult to establish in China because the architectural tradition was steeped in a “mythical vernacularism.”

 

Further cases examined are Louis Kahn’s National Assembly in Dhaka (Chapter 3) as well as the works of Alvar Aalto, Tadao Ando (Chapter 4), and The Rural Studio in Alabama (Chapter 8). The Korean architect H-Sang Seung (Chapter 9) has a different Critical Regionalist agenda. Seung’s anti-aestheticism tries to look for its own “architectural” logic. Seung attempts to redefine the meaning of design from scratch and derives this logic from observations of the former slums of Geumho-dong in Seoul.

 

Chapter 10 approaches Critical Regionalism in the unique cultural context provided by Saudi Arabia. At the root of the Wahhabi system is the radical separation of religion and culture. The remedy is Critical Regionalism: only a critical attitude towards history and religion is able to reunite culture and religion.

 

A further idea that holds the chapters of this book together is that a certain “architectural rationality” can be contained in architecture itself. The rationality in question is not imposed upon by outside parameter like aesthetics, comfort or even tradition, but flows out of a social game of which architecture is part. The key concept is that of the “form of life” and it has been developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose thoughts I link to Critical Regionalism. Kenneth Frampton argues that Critical Regionalism offers something well beyond comfort and accommodation. What he has in mind are ethical prescripts closely linked to a culture of protest and resistance. This book shows that this is not a wrong assumption per se, but that Critical Regionalism can also go “beyond comfort and accommodation” by investing in the search for the “right way of living” or in a “form of life.” 

Music Man House (Alabama Rural Studio)

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Kuwait (Raili and Reima Pietilä, 1986)

Koshino House (Tadao Ando)

Welcom Center Seoul (H-Sang Seung)

As planned and built in 1986

After renovation in the late 1990s

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