Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance
The phenomenon of universalization, while being an advancement of mankind, at the same time constitutes a sort of subtle destruction, not only of traditional cultures, which might not be an irreparable wrong, but also of what I shall call for the time being the creative nucleus of great cultures, that nucleus on the basis of which we interpret life, what I shall call in advance the ethical and mythical nucleus of mankind. The conflict springs up from there. We have the feeling that this single world civilization at the same time exerts a sort of attrition or wearing away at the expense of the cultural resources which have made the great civilizations of the past. This threat is expressed, among other disturbing effects, by the spreading before our eyes of a mediocre civilization which is the absurd counterpart of what I was just calling elementary culture. Everywhere throughout the world, one finds the same bad movie, the same slot machines, the same plastic or aluminum atrocities, the same twisting of language by propaganda, etc. It seems as if mankind, by approaching en masse a basic consumer culture, were also stopped en masse at a subcultural level. Thus we come to the crucial problem confronting nations just rising from underdevelopment. In order to get on to the road toward modernization, is it necessary to jettison the old cultural past which has been the raison d’etre of a nation? … Whence the paradox: on the one hand, it has to root itself in the soil of its past, forge a national spirit, and unfurl this spiritual and cultural revindication before the colonialist’s personality. But in order to take part in modern civilization, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific, technical, and political rationality, something which very often requires the pure and simple abandon of a whole cultural past. It is a fact: every culture cannot sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilization. There is the paradox: how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization.1
Paul Ricoeur, History and Truth
1. CULTURE AND CIVILIZATION
Modern building is now so universally conditioned by optimized technology that the possibility of creating significant urban form has become extremely limited. The restrictions jointly imposed by automotive distribution and the volatile play of land speculation serve to limit the scope of urban design to such a degree that any intervention tends to be reduced either to the manipulation of elements predetermined by the imperatives of production, or to a kind of superficial masking which modern development requires for the facilitation of marketing and the maintenance of social control. Today the practice of architecture seems to be increasingly polarized between, on the one hand, a so-called “high-tech” approach predicated exclusively upon production and, on the other, the provision of a “compensatory facade” to cover up the harsh realities of this universal system.2
Twenty years ago the dialectical interplay between civilization and culture still afforded the possibility of maintaining some general control over the shape and significance of the urban fabric. The last two decades, however, have radically transformed the metropolitan centers of the developed world. What were still essentially 19th-century city fabrics in the early 1960s have since become progressively overlaid by the two symbiotic instruments of Megalopolitan development – the freestanding high-rise and the serpentine freeway. The former has finally come into its own as the prime device for realizing the increased land value brought into being by the latter. The typical downtown which, up to twenty years ago, still presented a mixture of residential stock with tertiary and secondary industry has now become little more than a burolandschaft city-scape: the victory of universal civilization over locally inflected culture. The predicament posed by Ricoeur – namely, “how to become modern and to return to sources”3 now seems to be circumvented by the apocalyptic thrust of modernization, while the ground in which the mytho-ethical nucleus of a society might take root has become eroded by the rapacity of development.4
Ever since the beginning of the Enlightenment, civilization has been primarily concerned with instrumental reason, while culture has addressed itself to the specifics of expression – to the realization of the being and the evolution of its collective psycho-social reality. Today civilization tends to be increasingly embroiled in a never-ending chain of “means and ends”, wherein, according to Hannah Arendt, “The ‘in order to’ has become the content of the ‘for the sake of;’ utility established as meaning generates meaninglessness.”5
2. THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AVANT-GARDE
The emergence of the avant-garde is inseparable from the modernization of both society and architecture. Over the past century-and-ahalf avant-garde culture has assumed different roles, at times facilitating the process of modernization and thereby acting, in part, as a progressive, liberative form, at times being virulently opposed to the positivism of bourgeois culture. By and large, avant-garde architecture has played a positive role with regard to the progressive trajectory of the Enlightenment. Exemplary of this is the role played by Neoclassicism: from the mid-18th century onwards it serves as both a symbol of and an instrument for the propagation of universal civilization. The mid-19th century, however, saw the historical avant-garde assume an adversary stance towards both industrial process and Neoclassical form. This is the first concerted reaction on the part of “tradition” to the process of modernization as the Gothic Revival and the Arts-and-Crafts movements take up a categorically negative attitude towards both utilitarianism and the division of labor. Despite this critique, modernization continues unabated, and throughout the last half of the 19th century bourgeois art distances itself progressively from the harsh realities of colonialism and paleo-technological exploitation. Thus at the end of the century the avantgardist Art Nouveau takes refuge in the compensatory thesis of” art for art’s sake,” retreating to nostalgic or phantasmagoric dream-worlds inspired by the cathartic hermeticism of Wagner’s music-drama.
The progressive avant-garde emerges in full force, however, soon after the turn of the century with the advent of Futurism. This unequivocal critique of the ancien régime gives rise to the primary positive cultural formations of the 1920s: to Purism, Neoplasticism and Constructivism. These movements are the last occasion on which radical avant-gardism is able to identify itself whole heartedly with the process of modernization. In the immediate aftermath of World War I – ”the war to end all wars” – the triumphs of science, medicine and industry seemed to confirm the liberative promise of the modern project. In the 1930s, however, the prevailing backwardness and chronic insecurity of the newly urbanized masses, the upheavals caused by war, revolution and economic depression, followed by a sudden and crucial need for psycho-social stability in the face of global political and economic crises, all induce a state of affairs in which the interests of both monopoly and state capitalism are, for the first time in modern history, divorced from the liberative drives of cultural modernization. Universal civilization and world culture cannot be drawn upon to sustain “the myth of the State,” and one reaction-formation succeeds another as the historical avant-garde founders on the rocks of the Spanish Civil War.
Not least among these reactions is the reassertion of Neo-Kantian aesthetics as a substitute for the culturally liberative modern project. Confused by the political and cultural politics of Stalinism, former left-wing protagonists of socio-cultural modernization now recommend a strategic withdrawal from the project of totally transforming the existing reality. This renunciation is predicated on the belief that as long as the struggle between socialism and capitalism persists (with the manipulative mass-culture politics that this conflict necessarily entails), the modern world cannot continue to entertain the prospect of evolving a marginal, liberative, avantgardist culture which would break (or speak of the break) with the history of bourgeois repression. Close to l’ art pour l’ art, this position was first advanced as a “holding pattern” in Clement Greenberg’s” Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939; this essay concludes somewhat ambiguously with the words: “Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.”6 Greenberg reformulated this position in specifically formalist terms in his essay “Modernist Painting” of 1965, wherein he wrote:
Having been denied by the Enlightenment of all tasks they could take seriously, they [the arts] looked as though they were going to be assimilated to entertainment pure and simple, and entertainment looked as though it was going to be assimilated, like religion, to therapy. The arts could save themselves from this leveling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity.7
Despite this defensive intellectual stance, the arts have nonetheless continued to gravitate, if not towards entertainment, then certainly towards commodity and – in the case of that which Charles Jencks has since classified as Post-Modern Architecture8 – towards pure technique or pure scenography. In the latter case, the so-called postmodern architects are merely feeding the media-society with gratuitous, quietistic images rather than proffering, as they claim, a creative rappel a l’ordre after the supposedly proven bankruptcy of the liberative modern project. In this regard, as Andreas Huyssens has written, “The American postmodernist avant-garde, therefore, is not only the end game of avant-gardism. It also represents the fragmentation and decline of critical adversary culture.”9
Nevertheless, it is true that modernization can no longer be simplistically identified as liberative in se, in part because of the domination of mass culture by the media-industry (above all television which, as Jerry Mander reminds us, expanded its persuasive power a thousandfold between 1945 and 197510) and in part because the trajectory of modernization has brought us to the threshold of nuclear war and the annihilation of the entire species. So too, avant-gardism can no longer be sustained as a liberative moment, in part because its initial utopian promise has been overrun by the internal rationality of instrumental reason. This “closure” was perhaps best formulated by Herbert Marcuse when he wrote:
The technological apriori is a political apriori in as much as the transformation of nature involves that of man, and inasmuch as the “man-made creations” issue from and re-enter the societal ensemble. One may still insist that the machinery of the technological universe is “as such” indifferent towards political ends – it can revolutionize or retard society… However, when technics becomes the universal form of material production, it circumscribes an entire culture, it projects a historical totality – a “world.” 11
3. CRITICAL REGIONALISM AND WORLD CULTURE
Architecture can only be sustained today as a critical practice if it assumes an arrière-garde position, that is to say, one which distances itself equally from the Enlightenment myth of progress and from a reactionary, unrealistic impulse to return to the architectonic forms of the preindustrial past. A critical arrière-garde has to remove itself from both the optimization of advanced technology and the ever-present tendency to regress into nostalgic historicism or the glibly decorative. It is my contention that only an arrière-garde has the capacity to cultivate a resistant, identity-giving culture while at the same time having discreet recourse to universal technique. It is necessary to qualify the term arrière-garde so as to diminish its critical scope from such conservative policies as Populism or sentimental Regionalism with which it has often been associated. In order to ground arrieregardism in a rooted yet critical strategy, it is helpful to appropriate the term Critical Regionalism as coined by Alex Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre in “The Grid and the Pathway” (1981); in this essay they caution against the ambiguity of regional reformism, as this has become occasionally manifest since the last quarter of the 19th century:
Regionalism has dominated architecture in almost all countries at some time during the past two centuries and a half. By way of general definition we can say that it upholds the individual and local architectonic features against more universal and abstract ones. In addition, however, regionalism bears the hallmark of ambiguity. On the one hand, it has been associated with movements of reform and liberation; …on the other, it has proved a powerful tool of repression and chauvinism… Certainly, critical regionalism has its limitations. The upheaval of the populist movement – a more developed form of regionalism – has brought to light these weak points. No new architecture can emerge without a new kind of relations between designer and user, with out new kinds of programs… Despite these limitations critical regionalism is a bridge over which any humanistic architecture of the future must pass.12
The fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place. It is clear from the above that Critical Regionalism depends upon maintaining a high level of critical self-consciousness. It may find its governing inspiration in such things as the range and quality of the local light, or in a tectonic derived from a peculiar structural mode, or in the topography of a given site.
But it is necessary, as I have already suggested, to distinguish between Critical Regionalism and simple-minded attempts to revive the hypothetical forms of a lost vernacular. In contradistinction to Critical Regionalism, the primary vehicle of Populism is the communicative or instrumental sign. Such a sign seeks to evoke not a critical perception of reality, but rather the sublimation of a desire for direct experience through the provision of information. Its tactical aim is to attain, as economically as possible, a preconceived level of gratification in behavioristic terms. In this respect, the strong affinity of Populism for the rhetorical techniques and imagery of advertising is hardly accidental. Unless one guards against such a convergence, one will confuse the resistant capacity of a critical practice with the demagogic tendencies of Populism.
The case can be made that Critical Regionalism as a cultural strategy is as much a bearer of world culture as it is a vehicle of universal civilization. And while it is obviously misleading to conceive of our inheriting world culture to the same degree as we are all heirs to universal civilization, it is nonetheless evident that since we are, in principle, subject to the impact of both, we have no choice but to take cognizance today of their interaction. In this regard the practice of Critical Regionalism is contingent upon a process of double mediation. In the first place, it has to “deconstruct” the overall spectrum of world culture which it inevitably inherits; in the second place, it has to achieve, through synthetic contradiction, a manifest critique of universal civilization. To deconstruct world culture is to remove oneself from that eclecticism of the fin de siècle which appropriated alien, exotic forms in order to revitalize the expressivity of an enervated society. (One thinks of the “formforce” aesthetics of Henri van de Velde or the “whiplash-Arabesques” of Victor Horta.) On the other hand, the mediation of universal technique involves imposing limits on the optimization of industrial and postindustrial technology. The future necessity for resynthesizing principles and elements drawn from diverse origins and quite different ideological sets seems to be alluded to by Ricoeur when he writes:
No one can say what will become of our civilization when it has really met different civilizations by means other than the shock of conquest and domination. But we have to admit that this encounter has not yet taken place at the level of an authentic dialogue. That is why we are in a kind of lull or interregnum in which we can no longer practice the dogmatism of a single truth and in which we are not yet capable of conquering the skepticism into which we have stepped.13
A parallel and complementary sentiment was expressed by the Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck who, quite coincidentally, wrote at the same time:
Western civilization habitually identifies itself with civilization as such on the pontificial assumption that what is not like it is a deviation, less advanced, primitive, or, at best, exotically interesting at a safe distance.14
That Critical Regionalism cannot be simply based on the autochthonous forms of a specific region alone was well put by the Californian architect Hamilton Harwell Harris when he wrote, now nearly thirty years ago:
Opposed to the Regionalism of Restriction is another type of regionalism, the Regionalism of Liberation. This is the manifestation of a region that is especially in tune with the emerging thought of the time. We call such a manifestation “regional” only because it has not yet emerged elsewhere… A region may develop ideas. A region may accept ideas. Imagination and intelligence are necessary for both. In California in the late Twenties and Thirties modern European ideas met a still-developing regionalism. In New England, on the other hand, European Modernism met a rigid and restrictive regionalism that at first resisted and then surrendered. New England accepted European Modernism whole because its own regionalism had been reduced to a collection of restrictions.15
The scope for achieving a self-conscious synthesis between universal civilization and world culture may be specifically illustrated by Jørn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church, built near Copenhagen in 1976, a work whose complex meaning sterns directly from a revealed conjunction between, on the one hand, the rationality of normative technique and, on the other, the arationality of idiosyncratic form. In as much as this building is organized around a regular grid and is comprised of repetitive, in-fill modules concrete blocks in the first instance and precast concrete wall units in the second – we may justly regard it as the outcome of universal civilization. Such a building system, comprising an in situ concrete frame with prefabricated concrete in-fill elements, has indeed been applied countless times all over the developed world. However, the universality of this productive method – which includes, in this instance, patent glazing on the roof – is abruptly mediated when one passes from the optimal modular skin of the exterior to the far less optimal reinforced concrete shell vault spanning the nave. This last is obviously a relatively uneconomic mode of construction, selected and manipul – that is to say, the vault signifies sacred space – and second for its multiple cross-cultural references. While the reinforced concrete shell vault has long since held an established place within the received tectonic canon of Western modern architecture, the highly configurated section adopted in this instance is hardly familiar, and the only precedent for such a form, in a sacred context, is Eastern rather than Western – namely, the Chinese pagoda roof, cited by Utzon in his seminal essay of 1963, “Platforms and Plateaus.”16 Although the main Bagsvaerd vault spontaneously signifies its religious nature, it does so in such a way as to preclude an exclusively Occidental or Oriental reading of the code by which the public and sacred space is constituted. The intent of this expression is, of course, to secularize the sacred form by precluding the usual set of semantic religious references and thereby the corresponding range of automatic responses that usually accompany them. This is arguably a more appropriate way of rendering a church in a highly secular age, where any symbolic allusion to the ecclesiastic usually degenerates immediately into the vagaries of kitsch. And yet paradoxically, this desacralization at Bagsvaerd subtly reconstitutes a renewed basis for the spiritual, one founded, I would argue, in a regional reaffirmation – grounds, at least, for some form of collective spirituality.
4. THE RESISTANCE OF THE PLACE-FORM
The Megalopolis recognized as such in 1961 by the geographer Jean Gottman17 continues to proliferate throughout the developed world to such an extent that, with the exception of cities which were laid in place before the turn of the century, we are no longer able to maintain defined urban forms. The last quarter of a century has seen the so-called field of urban design degenerate into a theoretical subject whose discourse bears little relation to the processal realities of modern development. Today even the supermanagerial discipline of urban planning has entered into a state of crisis. The ultimate fate of the plan which was officially promulgated for the rebuilding of Rotterdam after World War II is symptomatic in this regard, since it testifies, in terms of its own recently changed status, to the current tendency to reduce all planning to little more than the allocation of land use and the logistics of distribution. Until relatively recently, the Rotterdam master plan was revised and upgraded every decade in the light of buildings which had been realized in the interim. In 1975, however, this progressive urban cultural procedure was unexpectedly abandoned in favor of publishing a nonphysical, infrastructure plan conceived at a regional scale. Such a plan concerns itself almost exclusively with the logistical projection of changes in land use and with the augmentation of existing distribution systems.
In his essay of 1954, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” Martin Heidegger provides us with a critical vantage point from which to behold this phenomenon of universal placelessness. Against the Latin or, rather, the antique abstract concept of space as a more or less endless continuum of evenly subdivided spatial components or integers – what he terms spatium and extension – Heidegger opposes the German word for space (or, rather, place), which is the term Raum. Heidegger argues that the phenomenological essence of such a space/ place depends upon the concrete, clearly defined nature of its boundary, for, as he puts it, “A boundary is not that at which something stops, but, as-the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.”18 Apart from confirming that Western abstract reason has its origins in the antique culture of the Mediterranean, Heidegger shows that etymologically the German gerund building is closely linked with the archaic forms of being, cultivating and dwelling, and goes on to state that the condition of “dwelling” and hence ultimately of “being” can only take place in a domain that is clearly bounded.
While we may well remain skeptical as to the merit of grounding critical practice in a concept so hermetically metaphysical as Being, we are, when confronted with the ubiquitous placelessness of our modern environment, nonetheless brought to posit, after Heidegger, the absolute precondition of a bounded domain in order to create an architecture of resistance. Only such a defined boundary will permit the built form to stand against-and hence literally to withstand in an institutional sense-the endless processal flux of the Megalopolis.
The bounded place-form, in its public mode, is also essential to what Hannah Arendt has termed “the space of human appearance,” since the evolution of legitimate power has always been predicated upon the existence of the “polis” and upon comparable units of institutional and physical form. While the political life of the Greek polis did not stem directly from the physical presence and representation of the city-state, it displayed in contrast to the Megalopolis the cantonal attributes of urban density. Thus Arendt writes in The Human Condition:
The only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people. Only where men live so close together that the potentialities for action are always present will power remain with them and the foundation of cities, which as city states have remained paradigmatic for all Western political organization, is therefore the most important material prerequisite for power.19
Nothing could be more removed from the political essence of the citystate than the rationalizations of positivistic urban planners such as Melvin Webber, whose ideological concepts of community without propinquity and the nonplace urban realm are nothing if not slogans devised to rationalize the absence of any true public realm in the modern motopia.20 The manipulative bias of such ideologies has never been more openly expressed than in Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) wherein the author asserts that Americans do not need piazzas, since they should be at home watching television.21 Such reactionary attitudes emphasize the impotence of an urbanized populace which has paradoxically lost the object of its urbanization. While the strategy of Critical Regionalism as outlined above addresses itself mainly to the maintenance of an expressive density and resonance in an architecture of resistance (a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself since it opens the user to manifold experiences), the provision of a place-form is equally essential to critical practice, inasmuch as a resistant architecture, in an institutional sense, is necessarily dependent on a clearly defined domain. Perhaps the most generic example of such an urban form is the perimeter block, although other related, introspective types may be evoked, such as the galleria, the atrium, the forecourt and the labyrinth. And while these instances entirely discount the latent political and resistant potential of the place-form.
5. CULTURE VERSUS NATURE: TOPOGRAPHY, CONTEXT, CLIMATE, LIGHT AND TECTONIC FORM
Critical Regionalism necessarily involves a more directly dialectical relation with nature than the more abstract, formal traditions of modern avant-garde architecture allow. It is self-evident that the tabula rasa tendency of modernization favors the optimum use of earth-moving equipment inasmuch as a totally flat datum is regarded as the most economic matrix upon which to predicate the rationalization of construction. Here again, one touches in concrete terms this fundamental opposition between universal civilization and autochthonous culture. The bulldozing of an irregular topography into a flat site is clearly a technocratic gesture which aspires to condition of absolute placelessness, whereas the terracing of the same site to receive the stepped form of a building is an engagement in the act of “cultivating” the site.
Clearly such a mode of beholding and acting brings one close once again to Heidegger’s etymology; at the same time, it evokes the method alluded to by the Swiss architect Mario Botta as “building the site.” It is possible to argue that in this last instance the specific culture of the region-that is to say, its history in both a geological and agricultural sense-becomes inscribed into the form and realization of the work. This inscription, which arises out of “in-laying” the building into the site, has many levels of significance, for it has a capacity to embody, in built form, the prehistory of the place, its archeological past and its subsequent cultivation and transformation across time. Through this layering into the site the idiosyncrasies of place find their expression without falling into sentimentality.
What is evident in the case of topography applies to a similar degree in the case of an existing urban fabric, and the same can be claimed for the contingencies of climate and the temporally inflected qualities of local light. Once again, the sensitive modulation and incorporation of such factors must almost by definition be fundamentally opposed to the optimum use of universal technique. This is perhaps most clear in the case of light and climate control. The generic window is obviously the most delicate point at which these two natural forces impinge upon the outer membrane of the building, fenestration having an innate capacity to inscribe architecture with the character of a region and hence to express the place in which the work is situated.
Until recently, the received precepts of modern curatorial practice favored the exclusive use of artificial light in all art galleries. It has perhaps been insufficiently recognized how this encapsulation tends to reduce the artwork to a commodity, since such an environment must conspire to render the work placeless. This is because the local light spectrum is never permitted to play across its surface: here, then, we see how the loss of aura, attributed by Walter Benjamin to the processes of mechanical reproduction, also arises from a relatively static application of universal technology. The converse of this “placeless” practice would be to provide that art galleries be top-lit through carefully contrived monitors so that, while the injurious effects of direct sunlight are avoided, the ambient light of the exhibition volume changes under the impact of time, season, humidity, etc. Such conditions guarantee the appearance of a place-conscious poetic-a form of filtration compounded out of an interaction between culture and nature, between art and light. Clearly this principle applies to all fenestration, irrespective of size and location. A constant “regional inflection” of the form arises directly from the fact that in certain climates the glazed aperture is advanced, while in others it is recessed behind the masonry facade (or, alternatively, shielded by adjustable sun breakers).
The way in which such openings provide for appropriate ventilation also constitutes an unsentimental element reflecting the nature of local culture. Here, clearly, the main antagonist of rooted culture is the ubiquitous airconditioner, applied in all times and in all places, irrespective of the local climatic conditions which have a capacity to express the specific place and the seasonal variations of its climate. Wherever they occur, the fixed window and the remote-controlled air-conditioning system are mutually indicative of domination by universal technique. Despite the critical importance of topography and light, the primary principle of architectural autonomy resides in the tectonic rather than the scenographic: that is to say, this autonomy is embodied in the revealed ligaments of the construction and in the way in which the syntactical form of the structure explicitly resists the action of gravity. It is obvious that this discourse of the load borne (the beam) and the load-bearing (the column) cannot be brought into being where the structure is masked or otherwise concealed. On the other hand, the tectonic is not to be confused with the purely technical, for it is more than the simple revelation of stereotomy or the expression of skeletal framework. Its essence was first defined by the German aesthetician Karl Botticher in his book Die Tektonik der Hellenen (1852); and it was perhaps best summarized by the architectural historian Stanford Anderson when he wrote:
“Tektonik” referred not just to the activity of making the materially requisite construction … but rather to the activity that raises this construction to an art form… The functionally adequate form must be adapted so as to give expression to its function. The sense of bearing provided by the entasis of Greek columns became the touchstone of this concept of Tektonik. 22
The tectonic remains to us today as a potential means for distilling play between material, craftwork and gravity, so as to yield a component which is in fact a condensation of the entire structure. We may speak here of the presentation of a structural poetic rather than the re-presentation of a facade.
6. THE VISUAL VERSUS THE TACTILE
The tactile resilience of the place-form and the capacity of the body to read the environment in terms other than those of sight alone suggest a potential strategy for resisting the domination of universal technology. It is symptomatic of the priority given to sight that we find it necessary to remind ourselves that the tactile is an important dimension in the perception of built form. One has in mind a whole range of complementary sensory perceptions which are registered by the labile body: the intensity of light, darkness, heat and cold; the feeling of humidity; the aroma of material; the almost palpable presence of masonry as the body senses its own confinement; the momentum of an induced gait and the relative inertia of the body as it traverses the floor; the echoing resonance of our own footfall. Luchino Visconti was well aware of these factors when making the film The Damned, for he insisted that the main set of the Altona mansion should be paved in real wooden parquet. It was his belief that without a solid floor underfoot the actors would be incapable of assuming appropriate and convincing postures.
A similar tactile sensitivity is evident in the finishing of the public circulation in Alvar Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall of 1952. The main route leading to the second-floor council chamber is ultimately orchestrated in terms which are as much tactile as they are visual. Not only is the principal access stair lined in raked brickwork, but the treads and risers are also finished in brick. The kinetic impetus of the body in climbing the stair is thus checked by the friction of the steps, which are “read” soon after in ,contrast to the timber floor of the council chamber itself. This chamber asserts its honorific status through sound, smell and texture, not to mention the springy deflection of the floor underfoot (and a noticeable tendency to lose one’s balance on its polished surface). From this example it is clear that the liberative importance of the tactile resides in the fact that it can only be decoded in terms of experience itself: it cannot be reduced to mere information, to representation or to the simple evocation of a simulacrum substituting for absent presences.
In this way, Critical Regionalism seeks to complement our normative visual experience by readdressing the tactile range of human perceptions. In so doing, it endeavors to balance the priority accorded to the image and to counter the Western tendency to interpret the environment in exclusively perspectival terms. According to its etymology, perspective means rationalized sight or clear seeing, and as such it presupposes a conscious suppression of the senses of smell, hearing and taste, and a consequent distancing from a more direct experience of the environment. This self-imposed limitation relates to that which Heidegger has called a “loss of nearness.” In attempting to counter this loss, the tactile opposes itself to the scenographic and the drawing of veils over the surface of reality. Its capacity to arouse the impulse to touch returns the architect to the poetics of construction and to the erection of works in which the tectonic value of each component depends upon the density of its objecthood. The tactile and the tectonic jointly have the capacity to transcend the mere appearance of the technical in much the same way as the place-form has the potential to withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization.
Kenneth Frampton’s text was originally published in an anthology edited by Hal Foster: The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays in Postmodern Culture, issued by Bay Press in 1983. We would like to thank the Author for his permission to publish.
Translation from Polish: Dorota Wąsik
We asked Kenneth Frampton to answer the question of whether critical regionalism is still possible in 2017.
Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak, Michał Wiśniewski: A lot has changed since 1983 – especially the role of the computer in the design process, and the Internet has brought a massive change in architectural practice. Is the call for an architecture of resistance valid today? Your description of the architectural reality fits contemporary Poland very well. Architecture is a tool of capital, we are witnessing investments on plots of land that are devastating most cities. With the constant flux of money as a major force creating the urban structure, is the postulate of becoming arriere garde still valid?
Kenneth Frampton: In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, various intellectual figures are given the task of memorizing whole sections of world literature since it is feared that, in the near future, all printed material will be totally consumed by fire and hence lost forever. They wander around repeating the precious texts to themselves in order to reinforce their memory. I feel that this is a fitting analogy for the historical situation in which we are trapped.
Despite this, my 24 year old text still has a certain appeal to architects worldwide as a remaining viable parti pris for some kind of resistant cultural strategy. However, we are currently witnessing a universal globalizing Neo-Liberal onslaught, taking place on an unprecedented scale. Clearly the historic city will have a hard time surviving this brutal treatment. A case in point is the venerable city of Albi in France, even if it has so far been spared the random exploitation of highrise construction, its traditional shopping street in the centre has been totally emptied out due to the long-time presence of suburban supermarkets in the automotive territory surrounding the city. This ‘emptying out’ has been replicated countless times in the US and also elsewhere and it is clear that the growth of digital markets a la Amazon will have the same effect. Where the “city-state” still has a modicum of power there is just a chance that the city will be able to defend itself against the goals of late capitalist consumerism.
The fall of the Soviet Union (despite the paranoid deprivations imposed by the Stalinist State) was, in my view, a total disaster with long term historical consequences which are only now becoming fully evident. For without the socialist ‘other’ there is only the visionless rapacity of capitalist hyper-consumerism. In this regard Arnold Gehlen’s concept of post-histoire is instructive wherein he argues that once progress becomes routine (as in the consumerist culture of next) it empties itself out.
In a world such as this, architecture, let alone direct democracy (as also hinted at in “Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”) can only survive as a deliberately defended condition of ‘otherness” set against the techno-scientific maximization of everything. Where there is a will there is a way for an arriere-garde.