Regionalism in architecture eludes objective judgment. Like a chameleon, it glimmers with thousands of colours and shades, only to melt back into the background. Its agile, grasping limbs will cling to any old twig, dry stalk or leaf.
I. THE CHAMELEON’S LEGS
The first leg of the chameleon is the need to equip architecture with a local identity. The latter comes in a variety of colours: echoes of outmoded patriotism (as in: national styles of over a century ago) or an even more ancient fascination with the landscape and climate, resulting in “highland styles” created by our great-great-great-grandparents: Bavarian, Alpine, or the Zakopane Style; here and there you can see traces of the inspiration with the place, and sometimes with the local folklore. The need for an identity had been exemplified in the instillation of local architectural traditions, while in today’s “critical regionalism”, architecture instead seeks links with a place through allusions to its topography, its “tectonics”, or even its metaphysical “spirit” of genius loci. Nowadays it also dons shades of green, or “eco” colours, as seen in the justification for the Pritzker Prize awarded in 2002 to Glenn Murcutt for the ability to reconcile architectural modernism with environmentally sensitive modernist houses that respond to their surroundings and climate1.
The second leg of the chameleon is the need for an ideological identity – including the desire to allocate architecture content based on a system of meanings. It is a skilful, clever leg with a perfect grasp, practised in centuries-old intellectual acrobatics, supported by the genius of ancient minds (like Goethe, Proust, or Ruskin), those closer to our times (such as Lewis Mumford, or Paul Ricœur) and those quite modern (including an increasing number of architectural phenomenologists). This claw willingly grasps “the need to reach the peculiar character of things, their revitalizing creative power,” as John Ruskin wrote in 1849, quoted by Władysław Ekielski half a century later2 . Nevertheless, it changes its colours so quickly and so perfectly that the predators – that is, the critics – get confused and mistake it for postmodern stubble that grows around it. This is not surprising, since it also enjoys the soft offshoots of linguistics, the lush foliage of signs, symbols, messages, metaphors, cultural codes, sometimes differing from postmodernism only in the idiomatic nature of its semantics and syntax, and the reluctance to engage in extreme relativism.
The third leg of the chameleon is a hunger for inspiration, although it is not only specific to architects representing the regional trend. Most of today’s young architects were brought up in the tradition of American and Western European educational models that promote creative attitudes towards all forms of personal, professional and hobbyist endeavours alike. Be creative! Be inspiring and inspired! – advocate educators and teachers, starting from the kindergarten all the way to graduate studies, echoed by corporate employers as well. Against this polyphonic background, today’s academic architects-seniors, who had been leading the way in creative exploration, do not seem all that inventive. Their students are more creative than they used to be, already at the onset of their design careers, having absorbed certain patterns of thought even before their architectural studies – namely the previously acquired openness to be inspired. As a result, for nearly two or three decades, almost every open international architectural competition has been flooded with projects inspired by the QR code, Möbius ribbon, Led Zeppelin music, pop star Monika Brodka’s hair, the Italian Renaissance villa, bats’ ears, dissonance of a procrastinating personality, and so forth. The search for inspirational sources is stimulated by the very organizers of the ever multiplying, self-financing architectural competitions, held under such slogans as Camboo Bamboo Landmark Design, Mango Vinyl Hub, Design an Iconic Home of the Future, Post-Fossil City, Looking Back, Moving Forward – to name only some of those announced in early 2017.
The young participants of the hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of such competitions will thus follow everything and anything that smells of uniqueness, and brings refreshing inspiration, while also exploring exotic cultures, digging through ethnography textbooks, through volumes on cultural regionalism, on Sherpa construction, or the history of Mongolia, in search of architectural sources of creative power – and of idolatry, as they pay tribute to the mature apologists following the cult of the out-of-the-blue idea, the idols of “creative ad hoc”, including those wholly neo-modernist ones, such as Winy Maas and Nathalie de Vries of the MVRDV group. And while the classics themselves, as well as the recipients of this worship – the MVRDV, Mecanoo or Rem Koolhaas – formally distance themselves from architectural regionalism as unnecessary ballast, they actually work to its advantage by proclaiming the primacy of “design driven by consistent contextual thought” or even raising provocation that emerges from the context (geographic, situational, problematic) to the rank of the method. The fourth leg of the chameleon, parallel in relation to the third, and very similar to it, and also in line with the second (the identity), is the need for narrative in architecture3 . Architecture not so much arises from inspiration, but produces that inspiration: it tells, pontificates, persuades, proclaims, translates, explains, and even ironizes, as in the neo-modernist projects of the Spanish Subarquitectura group: 360 House and 73 Dwellings in a Cliff. It not so much grows out of the place as grows into it. The relationships between inspiration and narration are sometimes bidirectional, as in peculiarly and playfully pseudo-vernacular projects such as EUROPAN 11 (Subarquitectura) and Glass Farm (MVRDV). These examples, however, rather make fun of regionalism. The festival of truly regional architecture, seriously so, and based on official and pompous regional and national narration, is found in the subsequent editions of The World Expo: each one is an exhibition of instrumental architecture, architecture as a propaganda tool for the nations of the world (often also of smaller regions, organizations and companies), of neocolonial architecture – and yet they present creativity at the highest level. This (fourth) leg also supports the skeleton of critical regionalism as defined by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre over half a century ago, as interpreted by Kenneth Frampton and theoretically developed by Christian Norberg-Schulz and Thomas Thiis-Evensen. Narration, in this context, is a subtle medium between the place and the work of architecture.
II. THE CHAMELEON’S TAIL
The chameleon, nevertheless, has five legs. The fifth – that is, its tail – is the largest and strongest of all. The fifth leg of the chameleon is the element of opposition, of dissent.
Let us take a look at said limb. It boasts an exceptionally rich palette of colours. The bright, vibrant orange of neo-vernacularism and the deep blue of critical regionalism set the tone for a spectrum of reactions against architectural uniformism and universalism.
Are not the beautiful rainbow hues of this leg the “rust of criticism”, which, as Waldemar Łysiak once wrote, were going to devour the “golden handcuffs of [architectural] uniformity”4? Or perhaps “the development of technology, upon reaching a certain ceiling […] [by nature] presupposes the development of counter-uniformity tendencies”,5 necessary for reaching the technological and aesthetic climax? Perhaps architectural regionalism with its many currents expresses the fear of change? Maybe it provides a remedy for the passing of time and things, which happens all too quickly? Maybe – as Kenneth Frampton has stated – it is a natural, civilizational, immune response against the globalization-triggered “subtle destruction not only of traditional cultures… but also the creative nucleus of great cultures”6?
Is regionalism, therefore, an act of conscious opposition, of dissent, or is it a natural mechanism of resistance? Is the subject of that opposition simply civilization as such, or merely some of its degenerated mechanisms? Or maybe the protest only concerns a few rules of the game: the mechanical leveling of cultural subtleties, a cultural bulldozer? It is difficult to answer that, because the chameleon’s tail seems to have mysteriously unpredictable grasping preferences; the mechanisms of resistance have a multifaceted nature: different on a highly abstract level, different on the level of a subtle intellectual discourse, and different on a vulgarized, simplified level. In the last few years, a perfect candidate for the object of opposition has appeared, namely, the “mainstream” – the personification of an unspecified evil.
III. BIOTOPE OF THE CHAMAELEONIDAE
Most species of the Chamaeleonidae family inhabit Africa and Madagascar. The chameleon’s biotopes include wet tropics as well as dry savannahs and deserts.
The occurrence of regionalism is rather similar. It does not do well in the climate of the (conventionally understood) mainstream civilization, genetically Mediterranean and West European, and in reality, more North American, geographically designated roughly by the the zig-zagging axis of Rome-Berlin-Paris-London-Washington. It does not do well in great metropolises, giant port towns or business hubs.
And yet, outside of this civilizational core, it flourishes, nurtured by its patrons and aficionados, especially the benefactors of architectural competitions and sponsors of awards – for example, by the Aga Khan (as in the Aga Khan awards, granted on behalf of the Islamic world), The Asian Regional Council of Architect (the ARCASIA Awards for Architecture, granted on behalf of East Asia), editors of the World Architecture magazine (WA Chinese Architecture Awards, granted on behalf of the Chinese quarter of the population of our planet), or Japan Institute of Architects’ Architecture Awards (granted for architectural designs within Japan), and so on, and so forth. In its original non-European and non—(north)American biotopes, the average representative of Chamaeleonidae merges with the background and is not disturbed by anyone. Its existence in distant and exotic (from our point of view) territories is perceived as immutable, accepted as the eternal order of things.
Meanwhile, in our parts, Chamaeleonidae are found only in the zoo. Out of its bounds, they create consternation: perhaps they might bite? Prick? Spit venom? Cause an electric shock? And so, their European and North American lovers – just in case – put an array of collars, constraints and muzzles on their pets, with safety certificates glued to them. Therefore, any praise for architectural regionalism is scanty, and labelled with restraining adjectives (“critical regionalism”) or even reservations and disclaimers (‘but’, ‘anyway’, ‘including’, ‘except’, ‘though’, and so on). As a result, some of the comments on the subject, in the first reading, create the impression of crushing criticism of regionalism, and only after a deeper penetration into their true meaning does it turn out that the author was concerned with exactly the opposite – the text is supposed to be (or was intended to be) a joyful exhortation of the phenomenon. For example, in 2012, Vinzent B. Canizaro described the regionalism theory as “a misunderstood discourse of architecture, which, after all, is local by its very nature […] if not accidentally, then by conscious design”,7 and always by our natural sensitivity to the mystery of the place, which in essence, is also the basis for the feeling and experiencing of architecture. The quoted statement – which is actually quite a bit more extensive, going on for three pages – is a foreword to a nearly five-hundred-pagestrong book of essays by a multitude of authors, on the essence of architectural regionalism as a phenomenon that is perfectly obvious and justified. However, after the first cursory reading, it is hard to perceive immediately the correct view expressed therein, namely that architecture was, is, will be, and by its very nature must be regional, while the subject of discussion, at most, may be the scope, the degree, and the literality of its assignment to the triple context of place, time, and meaning.
IV. SPECIES DIVERSITY
Some 202 species of the Chamaeleonidae family exist. They vary in colour, size and shape. The smallest, Brookesia micra, is 2 centimetres long, and the largest, Furcifer oustaleti, can grow up to one metre.
Similarly, there are also many “architectural regionalisms”. Because “regionalism may be an intent, a strategy, a tool, a technique, a position, an ideology or a mental habit”8 – writes Canizaro. No wonder. After all, a chameleon may be yellow, green, brown, beige or iridescent blue, and the aversion to a given colour does not negate the fact of the chameleon’s existence.
Creative attitudes, which contain in their denomination the word “regionalism” are so varied today that they become not only alternatives, but mutual opposites, or antipodes. “Conservation regionalism” perceives creative freedom as a threat to the continuity of tradition, but “neo-vernacular regionalism” treats it as a tool working for the benefit of that same tradition; “regionalism” as Lewis Mumford would have it, is to be one of the components of the antidote to the venom of civilizational mechanisms; “critical regionalism” in Frampton’s definition is a natural mechanism of civilization, while in the definition of Tzonis and Lefaivre, instead, it is a plane of reflection and debate – actually, over the past thirty years or more, Lefaivre and Tzonis have claimed that various regionalisms existed, seeing that the prophets of present-day regionalisms reject their predecessors, and that “the only constant thing is the pursuit of the ideas of decentralization, autonomy and uniqueness, while the fashion for ethnic emancipation, nationalism, chauvinism and separatism is a thing of the past.”9 According to other authors, architectural regionalism is a way of allegorizing form, while according to Kenzo Tange (whose words I quote after Charles Jencks) “the so-called regionalism […] is no more than a decorative use of traditional elements. Such a kind of regionalism always looks back and the same must be said about tradition”10. Jencks then asks: “And why should […] the decorative use of traditional elements – or rather simple ornaments and traditional styles – be wrong?” In the 1960s, no one was prepared to ask such questions so brazenly.11
If “critical regionalism” in its assumptions takes into account – albeit at a high level of abstraction – the natural sensitivity towards the spirit of the place, and the need for a reference system, and the mysticism of the context, and background semantics, making them a complement to the sophisticated postmodernist discourse on the relativity of all things, putting the concept of ‘context’ on a pedestal of a nearly religious rank – then this “architectural regionalism” commonly understood by the general public exists at a completely different level of discourse, it has a different system of meanings, and wholly different purposes. Not to mention its need to refer to the term “region”.
V. SPECIES PROTECTION
The rainbow camouflage of the chameleon protects it from its predators. It confuses them and discourages them from attacking. Likewise, in the world of architecture and art the predators – that is, the critics – lurk and wait, ready to pounce on the careless representatives of hostile species. The smallest trace of architectural and aesthetic provincialism, scenography, separatism, enclaveism, ghettoisation, naive vernacularism, retrogression (“yesterday’s thing is worse than today’s” – as the members of the BLOK group used to say, a century ago), epigonism or imitation might provide the motive, an excuse to attack. Explanation does not really help the attacked victim: that imitation is supposed to counterbalance invention, because it prolongs the continuity of culture, while invention deepens it.12 It is also hardly helpful to refer to the public good and the necessity of lex rei sitae: local regulations, local plans, building codes, conservation requirements and any other circumstances that tie architecture to agiven region or place – after all, city planners, historians and monument conservators, who strive to maintain this continuity, constitute a hostile and competitive species from the point of view of the architects.
The critique of regional architecture, in fact, also reflects a far deeper breach, a gap in the ideological outlook, and it also encompasses non-ethical categories, including allegations of ethnocentrism, tribal thinking, nationalism, and racism (these are increasingly often associated with the architecture of the East).
In the face of such attacks, camouflage still remains the best defense. “Critical regionalism” is hiding behind the mask of ultra-modernism; it adapts modernism, broadcasts the value of authenticity, and claims for itself the prefix of ‘neo-’.
POSTSCRIPT. FROM THE “SEVEN LAMPS OF ARCHITECTURE” TO THE “FIVE LEGS OF THE CHAMELEON”
In the history of architecture, there is no shortage of turmoil and fluctuations. At such times, the auction of arguments has become the tradition of the discipline. The method proved to be successful, as evidenced by the career of auction sets such as Ruskin’s “seven lamps of architecture” or Frampton’s “six points for an architecture of resistance.” Following this trail, the arithmetic logic leads us to the “five legs of the chameleon”. This is a reductionist approach, and in the long run, a uniformizing one.
Translation from Polish: Dorota Wąsik