As early as 1928, Lewis Mumford suggested in his essay The Theory and Practice of Regionalism that regionalism is crucially important for the meaning of a space. The concept of critical regionalism was first mentioned in 1981 by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre who used that notion in their article Architecture in Greece. Three years later, Kenneth Frampton gave critical regionalism the universal impetus and cosmopolitan momentum with his in-depth phenomenological, spatial and architectural reflections. Frampton touched upon the relation between culture and civilisation, and he explored the crisis of modernism as well as the rise and fall of avant-garde. Besides, he established the relation between critical regionalism and world culture, clarified the meaning of a place, and highlighted architecturally significant key layers of topography, context, climate, light and tectonic form in the counterpoint of culture and nature. At the end, in point 6, he turns his attention inwards, to perception itself, and by highlighting the relation between the visual and the tactile, the visible and the tangible, he opens up de novo the field of experiencing architecture which was extensively explored and developed in the following decades by a Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa in his book The Eyes of the Skin and in some of his other works.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the bipolar system collapsed, and then the Wall Street stock market crash of 2008, when the first “globalisation“ pursuit was seriously rocked, it is becoming increasingly clear that the time of critical regionalism is yet to come. “Cultural diversity” is of key importance for the survival of the entirety of this world, and similarly, “biological diversity” is essential for the dynamic balance of this planet. It is no coincidence then that natural scientists were the first to recognise this, as they explore various habitats – places that are not abstract, but real-life spaces. Without habitats we cannot be inhabitants.
Critical regionalism renders possible the creation of a turning point which shall modify the relations between the global and the local, a centre and an edge, the virtual and the physical. By applying phenomenology of senses, which is being delicately developed by Juhani Pallasmaa, and by understanding and applying spatial principles, it should be possible to steer architectural and urban development in such a way that it would link modernity and tradition, science and art, technique and nature. Such a form of urban development, which will be implicitly in tune with people in their cultural and natural environments, will not only be sustainable, but also able to sustain our future.
After the fall of modernist ideologies and postmodernist imagologies, our cities are losing not only their “aura“, as was first noticed in the 20th century by Walter Benjamin, but they are also losing their fundamental orientation: externally towards nature and internally towards culture. In today’s endless “suburbia”, industrial zones are being replaced by commercial mega centres and “giga” factories. On top of this, we are confronted with successive economic crises as well as an increasing global ecological crisis, and even those who are in favour of science, such as Hawking and Musk, point out that, due to the unregulated outbreak of the so called “artificial intelligence“, these problems may continue to escalate. On account of the economic and financial crisis of 2008 as well as the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the most recent global crisis that no one was nor could have been prepared for, we are forced to reflect upon the foundations of our civilisation. We should not only passively observe the crisis. The ancient Greeks considered “crisis” as the moment of decision, and accordingly, we should think carefully and act effectively in the moments of crisis. It is imperative that we find a new balance between the humane and the technical, the industrial and the post-industrial, production and market, the urban and the suburban. Additionally, we should also find a new, wider, deeper balance between people, culture, and nature.
The modern epoch was “utopian”, the postmodern times can even be considered “atopian” (non-spatial). The real space in both these cases was lost, forgotten, and therefore, it is crucial that in the current times of crisis we descend from “utopos” to the real “topos”. We need to break from various cults of postmodern virtual reality exemplified by reality shows as an extreme form of weakened reality, and we should make it to the culture of the real, thus reaching the freedom and simplicity of the real space. This should be rendered possible if, in accordance with the principles of sustainable development and critical regionalism, we agree to acknowledge the laws of this planet which are, just like DNA, already imprinted in our natural and cultural heritage. It is high time we recognized the actual value of the historic city centres, old squares and villages which are already in tune with natural conditions, historical endowments and human criteria. A historic city, with all its time and spatial dimensions, does not only represent an abstract palimpsest of both Bakhtin’s chronotope and Einstein’s space-time continuum, it also signifies the actual living space of the physical environment itself, a record of architectural language, and a selection of spatial principles as well as a stock of knowledge and models which can be universally applied to the local conditions. Nowadays, it should be possible to combine the most recent findings in art, science, architecture and urbanism with the most ancient building knowledge and architectural wisdom. Architecture is the most effective and the most ancient tool of sustainable development. “Firmitas”, the first element of Vitruvius’s triad, represents some kind of sustainability, doesn’t it? So far it has been poorly interpreted in its narrow sense, simply as hardness of construction or durability of materials. However, the word also denotes endurance and structural stability, therefore it signifies sustainability in a wider sense.
Architecture, which is based on the real space, can, by means of that very place, link micro and macro levels as well as the humane, the technical and the natural spheres. By applying the principles of “critical regionalism“ (Frampton), “phenomenology of senses“ (Pallasmaa), “spatial principles“ and “spatial insight”, it should be possible to achieve a fundamental turning point in the process of urban development. It is necessary to implement a thorough renovation in settlement centres and to revitalize historic city centres. Additionally, the inadequately urbanised suburbia and endless outskirts should be re-urbanised – as it was originally planned according to the schemes of industrialisation and the automobilization, both of which are presently considered to be outmoded. Renovation should by no means become a tool for emptying city centres under the guise of modern notions of gentrification and touristification, with each word resounding disagreeably in the ear, and echoing even more repulsively in the real, by conveying the aftertaste of the decline of the city’s authenticity and identity. Revitalization of real life and support to fellow human beings, neighbourhoods and communities in their cultural and natural environments may only be achieved through systematic and thorough renovation. It is in this way that urban can again become harmless and truly harmonious.
Instead of different postmodern “virtual realities“, and even “reality shows“, where people lose themselves like in ancient labyrinths, we need to rediscover authentic reality, to reveal the real. Any simple “review” between the objective and the subjective, the technical and the humane, the external and the internal cannot suffice. We need the INSIGHT IN SITE, HERE AND NOW.
Text by Janko Rožič, Odprti krog (Open Circle)