Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page PRE-WEB ARCHIVES:
No. 28, Spring/Summer 1989
Desert Architecture

Critical Regionalism from a Desert Dweller's Perspective

By Fred S. Matter

"What makes a place unique is worth celebrating and protecting with architecture: finding and keeping the difference that makes a difference."

Historical and Literary Debate

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Broadly defined, critical regionalism is an attempt to synthesize the rooted aspects of a region, including physical and cultural characteristics, with appropriate current technology. It is the search for an architecture that is meaningful within its context and at the same time participates in the more universal aspects of a contemporary mobile society.

The articulation of these frequently conflicting needs is responsible for a dialogue that goes well back into the history of architecture. It is a dialogue that frequently has been influenced by attaching strong political and social implications to the concept of a regionalist architecture. It is also one that can be traced into the twentieth century as both a counterpart to the humanistic tendencies of the early modern movement in architecture and as a reaction to the International Style that symbolized its later phases. (1)

Its role in contemporary architecture has been discussed frequently in the architectural journals of the 1980s. Of particular interest is an article by the French geographer Paul Ricoeur titled "Universal Civilization and National Cultures," written in 1965. In this article, taken from the book History and Truth, a frequently quoted paradoxical basis for critical regionalism was first articulated, namely, "...How to become modern and return to sources; how to revive an old dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization." (2) A continuation of this dialogue is found in the writing of Kenneth Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance." In this article the author proclaims the metropolitan centers of the developed world as illustrations of "...the victory of universal civilization over locally inflected culture." (3) He goes on to say that "architecture can only be sustained today as a critical practice if it assumes an "arriere-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." (4) He concludes a discussion of critical regionalism in an article written for the Yale University architectural journal Perspecta by saying, "Its salient cultural precept is 'place' creation; the general model to be employed in all future development is the 'enclave'--that is to say the bounded fragment against which the ceaseless inundation of a placeless, alienating consumerism will find itself momentarily checked." (5)

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In a recent article titled "Towards an Architecture of Place," and published in Arcade, Douglas Kelbaugh gives us a set of criteria through which we can distinguish a critical regionalist way of looking at things. Kelbaugh describes five essential attitudes which he labels: "Love of Place, Love of Nature, Love of History, Love of Craft, and Love of Limits." (6) Each individual love he elaborates as follows. For Place, he writes: "What makes a place unique is worth celebrating and protecting with architecture: finding and keeping the difference that makes a difference." For Nature: "By working together, architects, landscape architects and urban planners can fulfill an ecological role, namely to protect and preserve ecosystems, natural cycles, loops and chains and the symbiosis between organisms and their environment." For History: "A building type that has stood the test of time for many generations must be doing something right in terms of responding to building materials and practices, to climate, to social and cultural needs, to tradition, and to economy." As For Craft: "The sheetrocking of America has brought a slow and subtle loss of precision and substantiality in construction--the interior design equivalent of soil erosion." "In the meantime, critical regionalists keep ripping off the fake plastic wood from their dashboards and refrigerator handles and insisting on real slate floors in their foyers." And for Limits: "...critical regionalists keep designing modest, bounded, resource-conserving buildings."

Having mentioned only briefly some of the theoretical components of critical regionalism, it is appropriate to ask why this current dialogue is particularly important to contemporary society. There are many ways to construct an answer to this question. Starting with the most general condition one can refer to the anxiety of spatial definition that Michel Foucault describes as a problem of contemporary society. "In any case I believe that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time." (7) "The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space." (8) Spatial anxiety in these terms is the result of a cultural disorientation that stems from a highly physically mobile and heterogeneous population. This shifting population is unable to maintain commonly understood, shared concepts about the symbolic meaning of architectural space. The words most frequently associated with this condition are alienation, disillusion (when in Rome go to the Kentucky Fried Chicken stand), and in the extreme even schizophrenia. This latter condition is described by Fredric Jameson as the product of a consumer society that has lost its sense of continuity, that has witnessed "...the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents." (9) These are crises terms in both a social and architectural context and indeed they are so conceived in the minds of many contemporary critics of society and of its various forms of artistic expression. An obvious caveat is needed to clarify this concept of contemporary society. The reference is to the so-called "developed world," more specifically to those cultures that fit the definition of a post-industrial society. (10) These same conditions are, however, also of concern to the developing world. There the question becomes one of critical selectivity. How to adopt those aspects of modern technology that are of benefit and yet still can be assimilated into the contextual framework of the regional culture.

Alternative Modes of Action

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If then, there exists a crisis of spatial and temporal relationships in both human and physical terms, what alternatives are available as modes of practical action for an architecture that is responsive to the needs of its time? By what guidelines does one create an architecture that is at once rooted in the characteristics of a specific region while still utilizing the technological advantages of modern building? How to create a meaningful architecture that does not impose artificial restraints on the ability of an "outsider" to adapt to a locally interpreted "sitegeist" that is functionally accessible to the frequently changing inhabitants of a mobile society?

The Character of the Site

cactus and adobe house

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The most obvious component of a critical regionalist approach requires a careful design response to a localized, physical sense of place. This suggests many elements for consideration including topography, lighting characteristics, orientation, vegetation and a number of other microclimatic conditions. Possibilities for natural daylighting, natural ventilation, and shading for passive solar heating and cooling are all important. The benefits are both economic and at the same time foster the creation of an architecture that can selectively be opened to its surroundings. This bounded framework also provides a good sense of orientation and suggests a sensitivity to nature through the interaction of inside and outside spaces.

Another recognizable aspect of this component is the use of a pallet of materials that is capable of withstanding local climatic extremes with low maintenance costs and high performance characteristics for proper heat transmission and storage.

The Qualities of Movement

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The careful consideration of physical place also requires a similar consideration of the localized characteristics of "path." (11) The understanding of place involves movement to and from the place. The conditions of that movement, movement alone, movement with others, movement in a container, open movement, high and low speed movement, movement in all of its possibilities reveals to us the various dimensions of place. The two conditions are totally intertwined and cannot be defined or designed separately. A major failing in the twentieth century is the lack of consideration for the regional and local aspects of movement. Movement in the western world has become synonymous with standardization and universal civilization. This concept is pervasive in its impact on the definition of place.

A Framework for Interpreting the Passage of Time

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Another consideration of the critical regionalist designer involves an interpretation of the passage of time in the building. For a building to be understood as an expression of the time of its creation, it must provide understandable ways of recording the passage of time. Only when a building shows evidence of the passage of time can it be understood in depth in the context of an historical evolution. The various means of this recording can also provide clues toward an understanding of the building in a future context. Attitudes toward permanence and durability or toward change as growth or decay are important expressions of a regionalist sensibility.

Clues to the Character of Human Interactions

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Having discussed some of the physical aspects of an architecture of place, path and time, the critical components of human interaction in all of their manifestations become a major consideration. Here we look for a domestic architecture that speaks of the organization of the family structure, as for example in the pattern of the courtyard house, or for both a domestic and a civic architecture that suggest the dimensions of the community, the political and the economic structures of the region. Is it an architecture of defense, or is it an aggressive display of power? Is it an architecture of invitation or is it one of exclusion? Is it an expression of bureaucracy, of hierarchy, or of an open democracy? These clues to the qualitative aspects of human interaction as seen through the lens of a regional interpretation are important to a temporal understanding of the meanings of spaces and places.

The Organization of Work and Expressions of Human Dignity

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In a similar vein but worthy of special consideration is the expression in architecture of an understanding of the organization of work in a region, and by extension, that of leisure time. In the twentieth century there are strong universalist tendencies in the separation of the means of production and that of consumption. These tendencies can be seen as more fundamental in their impact on society than basic differences in political ideologies. (12) Questions about the position and responsibility of the individual in the vast scale of the multinational corporations about the location of the workplace in relation to the place of dwelling, about the compartmentalization of activities in the process of production and the intervention of the machine in the realization of the product all have an impact on the architectural interpretation of these activities. The fragmentation and the physical separations, including the removal of the producer from the consumer, have a direct hearing on the immediate evidence of human care in the built environment. This evidence, or lack of evidence can be seen at all scales and in all types of buildings.

By correlation, all of the above questions can be applied to the structuring of leisure time in today's post-industrial society. The concept of production through a multinational corporation can be compared with the idea of entertainment through a universal mass media. Again, questions of evidence of direct participation and interaction in leisure-time activities can be equated with evidence of human care and the expression of individual human dignity in the formation of the immediate surroundings.

In spite of and in reaction to the universality of these new, large-scale forms of work and of leisure organization there still exist strong variations in the regional expression of some forms of work and of play. This is particularly tame in the building industry. One of the major concerns of a critical regionalist architecture, therefore, is that of a direct and tactile expression of the methods and materials chosen for construction. A natural material of the earth and of the site is easy to conceive in these terms. A synthetic, plastic material presents real problems in a regionalist vocabulary and must he seen as a floating reference within the containment of the structure of the place.

Summarizing through the Eyes of a Desert Dweller

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Few places in the United States express more clearly the vast gulf between the two worlds of architecture under discussion than the desert southwest region. Typical of urban areas in the western United States, the region's fast-growing cities are mainly products of a placeless universal expression. This "placelessness" is evident in much of the contemporary architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning in both civic and domestic settings. Witness the products of the consumer society the food, the clothing, and the modes of transportation -- that are more universal than regional. The natural outgrowth of a population largely composed of people transplanted from all other regions of the country, this universality belies the proud cultural heritages characteristic of southwestern deserts. Different expressions of the old and the new often sit side-by-side in sometimes startling juxtapositions. The contemporary results are interesting for their shock value, but they make little sense when evaluated as environments for a steadily growing population that needs to be sustained over a long period of time. (Clearly, the concept of "critical regionalism" can be usefully applied here.

The challenge is clear. The society is predominantly new and it is heterogeneous. The climate is both harsh and inviting. The landscape is open and vast. Water is scarce. The sun is penetrating and pervasive. The historical elements of a regional desert architecture still may be found and used as a guide in response to the climatic factors. However, we are missing a dialogue between these time-tested responses and the expectations of the new society for technological innovations and improvements. Few of the new inhabitants are familiar with the elements that characterize the regional responses of the past. Architectural traditions in the desert include massive enclosing walls, simple compact forms, small exterior openings with carefully filtered natural light, additive spatial compositions, and protected courtyards. The Southwest exhibits a tactile and protective architecture of the earth, occasionally splashed with accents of bright color and woven textures and generally informal in character. The architecture is not one of the open plan, the free-flowing space, the glass-enclosed box, and the separation of nonbearing skin from flexible structure that is associated with the "modern movement."

Where then is there a possibility for meaningful dialogue? Perhaps one area can be found in the nature of the structural systems employed. Available new materials with greater supporting capacities can be used in combination with traditional enclosing materials. Active mechanical systems can be balanced and bounded within the carefully designed, naturally protective layers of the building envelope. A number of other such opportunities exist to create a synthesis between innovation and tradition. The parameters for guiding such choices, however, are still to be found within the domain of the character of the specific place. At the same time, the rationality of the decision-making process, expressed clearly in the systematic ordering of the building and its use of materials, is an expression that encompasses more than a specific location in time and place. This expression tries to reconcile both the specific and the universal, the transitory and the enduring. In this, its ultimate aim, a rational critical regionalist architecture transcends any tendencies toward a frozen regionalism of the past and rejects the standardized answers of a universal civilization.


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  1. Christian Norberg-Schulz, "Where is Modern Architecture Going?," GA Document #2 (Tokyo: A.D.A. EDITA, Autumn 1980), p. 6. (Back to text)
  2. Paul Ricoeur, "Universal Civilization and National Cultures" (1961), History and Truth, trans. Charles A. Kelbley (Evanston: Northwestern University Press,1965), p. 277. (Back to text)
  3. Kenneth Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance," The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), p. 17. (Back to text)
  4. Ibid. (Back to text)
  5. Kenneth Frampton, "Prospects for a Critical Regionalism," Perspecta 20 (New Haven: Yale Architectural Journal, 1983), p. 162.(Back to text)
  6. All quotes in this paragraph are from Douglas Kelbaugh, "Towards an Architecture of Place," Arcade, Dec./San. 1986 (Seattle). {UNABLE to cite page, cannot obtain copy of periodical; photocopy has no page numbers.} (Back to text)
  7. Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces," Diacritics, Spring 1986, Vol. 16, No. 1, p. 23. (Back to text)
  8. Ibid., p. 23. (Back to text)
  9. Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), p. 125. (Back to text)
  10. See Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973). (Back to text)
  11. For a more complete discussion of the definitions of "Place and Path," see Christian Norberg-Schulz, Existence Space and Architecture, Chapter 2, "The Elements of Existential Space" (New York: Praeger, 1971). (Back to text)
  12. For a more complete discussion of this concept of the split between the producer and the consumer, see Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, Chapter 3, "The Invisible Wedge" (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1981) (Back to text)

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Author Information

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Fred S. Matter is a professor in the College of Architecture at The University of Arizona. He is also director of graduate programs for the College and director of the Architectural Research Laboratory with its Center for Desert Architecture. His major interests include climate-responsive architecture and urban planning.

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