Contextualism: Architecture and Context

Contextual architecture, or Contexualism is the architecture that responds to the specific physical characteristics of its site. Unlike any specific architectural style, contextualism can be seen as a set of values, which help distinguish the architectura

Any site, location or a place includes number of natural features that characterize it and create the context of this place. In architectural design, all these features should be determined, analyzed as well as considered in the design process in order to integrate the building into its context. Context comes from the Latin contexere meaning to merge together. In an architectural sense, context can be perceived as the unified whole that gives meaning to the various parts of the building. However, contextual architecture, or Contexualism, can be defined as the architecture that responds to the specific physical characteristics of its site. Unlike any specific architectural style, contextualism can be seen as a set of values, which help distinguish the architectural work. Contextualism includes three distinct aspects:

1. Vernacularism or vernacular architecture

2. Regionalism or regional architecture

3. Critical Regionalism

1. Vernacularism (vernacular architecture)The term vernacular is derived from the Latin vernaculus, meaning "domestic, native, indigenous"; from verna, meaning "native slave" or "home-born slave". In this sense, vernacular architecture refers to buildings and villages, which were built by both the local inhabitants and the available local resources (building materials and method of construction). It also grows over time to reflect its environmental, cultural and historical context. There are several essential factors that affect the forms and shapes of vernacular architecture, including demographic, climatic, socio-economic, cultural, and building materials.

       Santorini Island, Greece                                               Nubian House, Egypt

          An Igloo, a winter dwelling                                         Traditional Nubian house, Egypt

        Decorated clay houses, Nigeria                                  Nivola House-Garden (Garden Wall)

    House, Ancestor carvings, Cameroon                                     Dogon architecture, Mali

European log cabin, Argentina                              Stone and clay houses, rural Nepal

A tipi of the Nez Perce tribe                                 A Southern African rondavel (or banda)

2. Regionalism (regional Architecture) Regionalism emerged within architectural discourse from the late 1960s onwards to pronounce that architecture should have reference to the physical, cultural and political contexts that envelop it. Unlike the International Style with its concrete structure and glass curtain walls, regionalism evokes responses to the essence of particular places, cultures and climates within a modern context. Certainly, architects’ visionary understanding of the importance of restoring the harmony between people, artefacts and nature played an essential role in articulating the basic theory of regionalism and bringing it under serious discussion in the late twentieth century.

          New Gourna near Luxor, Egypt.                  Akil Samy House, Dahshur, 1978 by Architect Hassan Fathy

There is always a tension between local culture and this internationalism trend that cannot be resolved in favor of one side or the other. The tendency of styles and forms to spread quickly from one area to another will increase and regional culture should adapt and cultivate itself to the new culture self-consciously. Therefore, regional architects struggled to combine the integration of international styles with the reinterpretation of local styles and settings, and this has paved the way to the emergence of the third aspect, ‘critical regionalism’.

3. Critical RegionalismCritical regionalism is an approach to architecture that tends to respond to the assumed lack of meaning in Modern Architecture by using contextual references to create meaning and sense of place. The term ‘Critical Regionalism’ was first used by Alex Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre, but it was brought to a serious discussion within the architectural profession by the writings of Kenneth Frampton. In his book, "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points of an architecture of resistance", Frampton has identified six critical points, which are oriented toward the shared features of architecture in which the processes of reinterpretation have succeeded in producing new and vital forms.

Frampton evoked Paul Ricouer's question of "how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization". According to Frampton, Critical Regionalism should adopt modern architecture critically for its universal progressive qualities but at the same time should consider and value responses particular to the context. However, emphasis should be put on topography, climate, and light, rather than the attractive visual appearance of the building.

                                              Tadao Ando, Japan

Critical Regionalism is different from Regionalism which tries to achieve a positive communication with vernacular architecture without a conscious involvement with the universal. Architects who have used such an approach in some of their works include, Jørn Utzon, Mario Botta, Charles Correa, Alvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo, Geoffrey Bawa, Raj Rewal, Tadao Ando, Ken Yeang.

                              Assembly Building, Chandigarh, Le Corbusier

However, the previous discussion illustrated the differences between vernacularism, regionalism, and critical regionalism. To clear the misunderstanding and ambiguity of the differences between these three aspects, vernacular is the architecture that was created by using local materials and built by its own inhabitants without the help of architects; regional architecture is built by architects integrating the local available resources with modern ones, while critical regionalism is a regional architecture approach seeking universality.

Sources:1. Chris Abel, Regional Transformations. Architectural Review, November 1986, pp. 37-43

2. Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago, 1973.

3. Kenneth Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance", in The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983) edited by Hal Foster, Bay Press, Seattle.

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