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Death of high Modernism; Escaping from the grey: Regionalism and the pursuit of roots; High-Tech; PoMo and neo Neo-Classicism.

The early '80s were both extremely boring and very exciting. By then, the intense passions of the immediate postwar years were spent, the dreams of building a world fit for social democracy were already beginning to fade as it became clear that system building and prefabrication (as then practised) were not the panaceas that they promised to be. Many of what were supposed to be the proud products of increasingly prosperous Western economies turned out to leak, (1) generate condensation, and be insufficiently resistant to even moderate usage. Housing estates built for heroes and their families had begun to show the seeds of social problems that in many cases worsened in the next two decades. Almost all planning followed the doctrines of the absurd Charte d'Athenes and it was clear that virtually the only beneficiaries of the rigid separation of functions were crude developers and clumsy highway engineers. Quantity was everything, quality rarely spoken of except in quantifiable terms. Architecture and city making had largely become instruments of big bureaucracy and big business (perhaps they still are, but in different ways).


Almost all was grey (usually literally so). But there were signs of hope. For years, Team X had been arguing for human values against the arid dictates of CIAM and the Charte d'Athenes. Aldo van Eyck's rallying cry to make 'places, not spaces' had already resounded throughout the world, and Ralph Erskine had shown (in most idiosyncratic ways) how Modernism could be given a human face. In Britain, where there was in those days still a social housing pro-gramme, low-rise high-density geometries seemed promising as a means of generating estates that offered notions of home rather than bureaucratic storage for the poor. In the United States, Louis Kahn had reminded the world that architecture was still capable of generating senses of dignity and even awe.

One of the first and most persuasive of the movements against prevailing grim greyness was Regionalism. Initially largely articulated by Kenneth Frampton, Regionalism was seen as resistance to universalizing bureaucratic/business pressures by particular strong local cultures, for instance those of Finland, and parts of Spain and Switzerland. The proposal promised many attractions, primarily perhaps that it offered continuity between past and future, hence possibilities of generating places that could have meaning and even familiarity for their users. Further, by being influenced by traditional typologies generated in response to local climate and topography, and drawing at least to some extent on local building methods, Regionalist work could be expected to be less exploitative of the planet than out and out Modernism. Clearly, Regionalism was flourishing in places as far apart as Australia (where for instance there were very strong differences between laid-back, elegant Sydney and wackier larrikin Melbourne) and Austria (where Peter Blundell Jones explored the extraordinarily varied and original work of the Grazerschule).






The AR became a strongly Regionalist magazine but, though the movement has never entirely lost its force, and its present state has only recently been examined in these pages (AR January), experience has shown that there are some severe problems with Regionalism. Cynical developers and their cringing hack designers have embraced the notion, which has led to vast explosions of neo-vernacular housing, supermarkets and even offices. Their coarse superficialities besmear Europe from Scotland to southern Spain with tiled roofs, applique half timbering and crude approximations of traditional details translated into cheap modern materials and craftsmanship.

Another difficulty with Regionalism became obvious towards the end of the 1980s in the horrendous ethnic cleansing of the African and Balkan wars. Those of us who supported Regionalism had recognized its relationship to, for instance, the oversweet Heimatstil extensively manipulated by the Nazis to generate happy housing estates rooted in German blood and soil. But we happily pointed out that the Nazi housing programme was one of the better results of fascist rule, that no regime could be entirely vile, and that, of course, all such evil was long since conquered. Yet suddenly, and almost unexpectedly, atavistic and heartless conflicts in even well educated, moderately prosperous Eastern Europe showed that the evil was far from dead, that resistance to globalization and bureaucracy could also mean resistance to civilized standards.


Regionalism had to be reconsidered, but it was clear that at its best, it could be very fine. For instance, in the work of the architects identified by the AR as Romantic Pragmatists (AR September 1983) who had created an impressive and considerable body of work that without compromise or kitsch drew simultaneously on both traditional architecture and the Modern Movement to create buildings catering for modern functions, while being more specific to place and environmentally aware than almost anything else produced in the '70s and '80s.

Aga intervenes

Support for regional thinking came from quite diverse sources, some not directly influenced by Western academic and professional discussion. Perhaps the most important of these was, to everyone's surprise, initiated by the Aga Khan. In the late '70s, the Aga founded his triennial award scheme for architecture in Muslim countries or for Islamic communities anywhere in the world. The award system is perhaps the most rigorous in the world, but the first award winning schemes (published in AR November 1980) were a strange mixture of hotels, restoration projects, villas and Islamicized water towers.

Over the years (though the judgements of the Aga's juries still seem a bit odd sometimes), the scheme has consistently discovered previously unknown or little recognized talent and new initiatives. It has made us all aware of the immense variety of architecture throughout the Muslim world. And it has demonstrated how architects can serve the very poor--and how lessons can be learned in the richer countries from work for the poorest, for instance, the Grameen Bank housing programme (AR November 1989), the Kampong Kali Cho-De by Yousef B. Mangunwijaya (AR October 1992), and Balkrishna V. Doshi's Aranya community housing in Indore, India (AR November 1995). The immense inheritance of Muslim architecture has been explored, and traditional examples of appropriate building and climate control investigated. However strange some of the awards for new building types like office blocks or airports may have been, they have raised many important questions about the nature of building in different climates and societies, and about relationships of faith to practice. At the same time as the rise of Regionalism, other architects were developing High-Tech, a radically different response to the over-whelming greyness of the general scene. No one knows where the High-Tech label was first coined, and no one can define it, but everyone knows what it means. A group of mainly British architects, led initially by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, had evolved a form of Modernism based on that movement's romance with machine technology. By the 1970s, they were able to draw on a repertory of materials and techniques that allowed them to make forms and spaces that could only be imagined by the theorists of the '20s and '30s (or faked-up in conventional materials and craftsmanship pretending to be machine-created). New methods of glass and metal production and of jointing allowed creation of buildings that initially seemed miraculously lightweight, full of light and spatially fluid.



High-Tech enriched

At first, High-Tech buildings were limited to small pavilions, houses, warehouses and small factories in the suburbs and countryside. It did not seem possible that such crystalline objects could be part of a coherent city. The movement's first major urban statement was by Rogers in partnership with Renzo Piano. Their Pompidou Centre (finished 1977) ignored the scale of the surrounding city, but turned out to be a major addition to Paris. Foster's Willis Faber headquarters at Ipswich in Suffolk (1975) evaded the problem of scale by being clad in a sinuous reflective glass skin that reflected the dense grain of the surrounding predominantly Victorian town. But by the mid '80s, Foster with the headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank and Rogers with his Lloyd's of London building showed how very large High-Tech works could become part of a coherent cityscape.


Without a group of exceptionally brilliant engineers including Frank Newby, Peter Rice and Anthony Hunt who emerged from the Samuely and Arup offices, High-Tech would have been impossible. Its continuation into the present has been enriched by contributions by architects like Michael Hopkins and Nicholas Grimshaw, who have shown how the basic spatial and constructional disciplines can be adapted to a wide range of locations and building types. Yet while High-Tech remains an important and often enriching part of today's architectural scene, it has led to proliferation of a vast amount of second-rate building. The materials which made High-Tech possible are now easily and relatively cheaply available, and they can be seen, assembled by clumsy hands to coarse designs, in the car and furniture showrooms on any road to any airport in the world. A generation earlier, the exquisite elegance of Mies had inspired swathes of absurd and grotesquely reductive copies. As a movement, High-Tech has suffered the same fate.

PoMo born

One of the aims of the opposing movement, Post-Modern Classicism (PoMo), was precisely to generate an architecture that could readily be copied without descending into absurdity. PoMo re-introduced traditional Classical elements (pilasters, pediments and so on) as decoration to essentially Modernist buildings. It was to be the new Palladianism. The admirable aim was to make architecture richer and more approachable and responsive to human life.

Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture appeared in 1966, to be followed by Learning from Las Vegas in 1972 (written with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour). These books argued that architecture is fundamentally about communication rather than space or structure, and that iconography produced by pop artists and by commerce to appeal to a mass society could be a model for architectural communication. Many of the tenets of post modernist architecture were forged in Complexity and Contradiction: 'Both-And', double coding, duck and decorated shed, the 'difficult whole'. Architecture was to be enriched and made available to everyone. Initially, the AR was moderately enthusiastic about the idea of popular architecture--or at least not violently opposed to it. (2)

Unfortunately, things did not quite work out so simply. Venturi and Scott Brown's architecture was largely limited to houses and quite small collegiate works, perky and often fun in their way, but scarcely very remarkable. Adoption of PoMo by Philip Johnson, up to then largely a disciple of Mies, seemed at the time to be a huge cultural shift but, looking back, the AT & T tower in New York (AR August 1984) does not seem particularly remarkable, though at the time its abstracted triumphal arch front elevation topped by the Chippendale pediment seemed very important. The work of Michael Graves is much more explicitly historical in inspiration, and particularly in his hotels for the Disney corporation in Florida and near Paris, he incorporated many Classical quotations, an approach adopted by many contemporaries. PoMo rapidly became a style in which Classical motifs became more and more stretched over essentially dull and reductive Modernist buildings that occasionally grin through their decorative skins, like the skull emerging through the face of a beauty in a George Grosz portrait. PoMo was increasingly influential in the '80s and early '90s, supported by numerous magazines and promoted by influential critics, it seemed as if it was likely to become a universal international style. But after its first appearance, it ran out of energy and never answered the obvious question: if architecture is about communication, what is it supposed to communicate? The only messages given out by most PoMo buildings are about the power of the corporations that created them--the very business/bureaucratic grimness that the style was initially invented to combat. The style lingers on in culturally deficient parts of the world like Dubai.




Prince of Classicism

In parallel to the PoMo explosion was a not entirely unrelated Classical revival that emerged mainly, but not entirely, in Britain. It was (and is) to be seen mainly in houses for the rich. Here is Palladianism rechauffe for people who have made their money in the modern world but want to pretend that they are living as lords of the manor in a feudal society. As such, Neo-Classicism doesn't do anyone much harm (except that it adds to the dreadful British tendency to worship the past at the cost of present and future). The inappropriateness of Neo-Classicism to the contemporary world was dramatically demonstrated by Quinlan Terry's Riverside development at Richmond on Thames (AR November 1988), where a band of vaguely Palladian exteriors clad some of the dullest modern corporate interiors that could possibly be imagined, spaces made worse because of meanness necessitated by the expense and fenestration of the facades.

Prince Charles was another historicist force in Britain during the '80s. His belated discovery that much was wrong with postwar reconstruction and the physical state of the country led to sustained attacks from the Palace on many of the very architects who were creatively trying to escape from the traps of the previous generation. Initially, Prince Charles declared himself to be a Romantic Pragmatist, but he quickly fell under the influence of the Neo-Classicists, and echoes of his strident denunciations of Modernism were to be heard in every planning committee in Britain, with the result that there is a rash of 1990s half-cock, second-rate Palladian travesties all over the country.

The Prince's own, rather brave, attempt to demonstrate what should happen was at Poundbury in Dorset on land of which he was feudal owner. Much study was put into generating neo-vernacular house types that could be combined to making a dormitory suburb for Dorchester. Visually, results are laughable, though buildings are put together with more care than in normal suburban developments. But in planning terms, Poundbury has much to reflect on. Instead of largely unusable traditional front gardens, houses are brought close to the pavement and they are clustered so that they enclose quite large back gardens surrounding car courts. The proposal is new--at least for Britain--it densifies suburban layout and does much to control cars. Unfortunately, the Prince's stylistic predilections are the ones that are copied by speculative builders, rather than his planning precepts.

1 As a student in the '60s, I was told that flat roofs as then detailed for schools, health buildings and much housing would inevitably leak--and probably sooner than later. But perverted aesthetics and short-term economies kept us building them by the square mile.

2 Kenneth Frampton opposed the movement from the first. Quoting T. Maldonado, he denounced Las Vegas as being the culmination of more than half a century of masked manipulatory violence directed towards the formation of an apparently free and playful urban environment in which men are completely devoid of innovative will (Modern Architecture, A Critical History, Thames and Hudson, London, 1980, p290).



Jonathan Glancey

December 1981

Group Pecs are a pioneering band of architects struggling to reimbue Hungarian architecture with a national identity, its elements selected from past models, cults, traditions, but fused into a contemporary synthesis. Their methods are not those of the Post-Modernists; they are not selecting elements of past architectural styles and applying them randomly; their architecture is not an architectural game for the design cognoscenti to amuse themselves with ... It is not, like Post-Modernism, an architecture designed almost specifically for publication, but an architecture of social purpose and quiet contemplation ...

For architects trying to do something different, a Post-Modern riposte to the grim sermons of 'Sovietstyle' concrete might well be glib and irrelevant, despite the high sales of Charles Jencks' book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture among Hungarian architectural students. There is nothing wrong with humour, but when life is serious, and opportunities for sustained bursts of individual creativity limited, opportunities to design outside the canons of 'Sovietstyle' can hardly be taken lightly.

So the pattern of change in Hungarian architecture has had to come from within because current developments in the West--at least, those seen in the architectural 'glossies'--seem essentially irrelevant. But, in any event, a Post-Modern response would be inherently difficult in a state where traditional styles can be labelled 'bourgeois' or 'decadent' and therefore politically or morally inappropriate. Post-war socialist states have it seems tried to live in a cultural vacuum where the past is reinterpreted and a blinkered belief in technological progress--whatever that means--replaces pre-Marxist historical values.


Peter Davey, March 1990


In Finland, there is a profound understanding of how to bring the fleeting but often intense northern sunlight into the heart of buildings with great subtlety and variety: this has been a characteristic of Finnish architecture since Aalto's '30s work.

Juhani Pallasmaa has drawn attention to the Finnish 'innate sensitivity to nature with mystical and pantheistic overtones' (AR May 1988), a sensibility that is often expressed in wonderfully appropriate sighting and response to topography, as well as in a tendency (in some architects) to layer into their work abstractions of their extraordinary landscape.

Pallasmaa suggests that this mysticism goes hand in hand with 'a rational and constructive tradition' which has been strong in all the Finnish visual arts. The best Finnish architecture emerges when both elements of national sensibility are at work.



A certain reticence is usually essential to Regionalism. This does not preclude ambitious communal aspirations nor does it mean sharing the Neo-Rationalist distaste for explicit iconography. Every region has its myths and emblems that are proper to representation and sometimes, as in the Sri Lankan Parliament Chamber, it may even be appropriate that this is done with celebratory exuberance. Instead, what today needs curbing is any hectoring dominance of autocratic or oligarchic power; of arrogantly flaunted Technology or blandly expedient Economics; or of the architect's selfish ego. Once the wide range of the world's cultures is treated with respect and humility and the earth is treasured for more than its commercial value then the dangers of a form of global destruction, as real and as threatening as that of the Bomb, will be averted. Any Regionalism informed by this sense of love, and with a determination to do the best for local culture and global civilization is a powerful step in the right direction.



In today's neurotic architectural climate, the intellectual construction seems to be often more important and more central than a sensory and emotional encounter and the architectural work. The fierce quasi-theorizing and intellectualization accelerates alienation and separation from social reality, instead of supporting the integration of architecture and culture, artefact and mankind ...

Although it probably sounds like an empty word, I believe that there is a 'natural philosophy of architecture' that ties together theory, practice and experience. I believe that such a natural philosophy is the silent message of the Nordic tradition. Is there a shared Nordic consciousness that could have given rise to a shared Nordic tradition in architecture?

In our obsessive consumerist culture which gradually detaches objects and buildings from their use value and turns everything into marketable signs, the traditional Nordic functionalist morality, restraint and asceticism acquire a wider cultural value. In a culture that tends to turn into a Sargasso Sea of too many goods, too much of everything, the ideal and aesthetics of noble poverty have a new moral value. As our materialist culture hysterically produces new marketable images and turns even crime, violence and decadence into profit, the Nordic tradition represents a philosophy of common sense and a poetry of the commonplace.

Regionalism in the industrial world cannot any longer be founded on a set of isolated and perfectly integrated conditions. Perhaps the most meaningful form of cultural survival that remains is a regionalism of the mind, the strategy of resistance, the subculture that believes in and searches for authenticity ...

The mission of Nordic architecture lies in the continuous development of the tradition of socially concerned, responsive and assimilative Modernity.


Peter Davey, November 1989

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture is the degree to which the judgments are based on social issues as much as aesthetic ones. The careful process by which buildings are selected should ensure that Awards are not given to buildings that look impressive but do not work or have any relationship to the society that created them ... The horrors of art historians' criticism (which only looks at forms) should be avoided, as should those of sociologists' criticism (which cannot see the buildings for the issues). The Awards are architectural in the fullest and best sense.

The Awards cover the whole of the enormously varied world of Islam, ranging geographically from Yugoslavia to Java and socially from the republics of Soviet Central Asia to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Gillian Darley & Peter Davey, September 1983

But order is essential. As Cullinan says, 'if you want to make free-style architecture work, you have to be more disciplined, not less'. The planning and sectional organization of MacCormac's Worcester College demonstrate a rigorous, if witty and imaginative, development of a basic generative diagram, itself arising pragmatically from brief and site. Without this rigour, the buildings would simply degenerate into slushiness. Yet the discipline is never allowed to dominate as it does in High-Tech and Structural-Rationalist buildings: the rigour is not exclusive and reductive, but inclusive. Order in exterior planning and in approach to landscape is similarly a legacy of that turn-of-the-century marriage between freedom and discipline.

Romantic Pragmatism is concerned to generate places using well known and easily understood ingredients, but it is not an architectural approach buttressed by the past, always looking backwards for support. Tradition is used as a discipline: not a literal one, in the sense of the Classical canon, in which departure from the Orders spells wilfulness or an abstruse joke, but an intimation of limits. The British have never, save in their most antiquarian moments, been very happy with a rigidly formulated architecture. Post-Modern Classicists play wilful games with the kit of parts with a degree of abstraction that can rival the Modern Movement at its most arcane ... Post-Modern Classicists limit their interest to the spectacle rather than the experience of buildings. In contrast, the Romantic Pragmatists continue the Modern Movement (or, more precisely, the Puginian Gothic Revival) belief that structure should inform space, construction inform detail, and that the interior should inform the exterior--that inside and out must be intimately related in an organic way which does not need an elaborate and imposed signposting system. Romantic Pragmatists quietly generate a responsive and approachable architecture--one with the freedom to accept inputs from sources as varied as Modernism, local building tradition and even Classicism. To handle such freedom well needs great skill and sensitivity.



Peter Davey, January 1983

With very few exceptions, export architecture is junk. In the last two decades, Western architects have covered the newly rich oil nations with a taffy tide of crude commercial kitsch. Local forms are endlessly trivialized, bastardized and wedded to the worst aspects of Western speculative 'architecture'.

Henning Larsen's Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry, which is now building in Riyadh, is a splendid exception to this ghastly rule. It succeeds largely because Larsen has concentrated on trying to reinterpret the Islamic traditions of space and has eschewed temptations to become a pasticheur of form ... Larsen says: 'The exterior of traditional Islamic houses rarely gives any indication of the inner organization or purpose of the building. The facade is without any decoration, and tells very little about what happens behind the door or the few openings towards the outside world. 'Inside these introverted structures, the austerity opens into courtyards and patios where delicate gardens reflect the Islamic dream of paradise ... The secrecy and privacy inside the Islamic patio-house contrast sharply with the busy and noisy community life outside. 'The Islamic tradition of "hidden architecture" with stern exteriors and richly detailed interiors has been the main inspiration for this project. The exterior of the building is rather anonymous.'

THIRD WORLD, Peter Davey, August 1985

The issue suggests, mostly by implication, that the First World has much to learn from the Third. The lessons of the real primitive hut are that architecture is not just form and space, but an interactive relationship between building, the individual and society. That the reality of regionalism must be rooted in a dynamic between local culture and circumstances and international culture and technology. That architects and urbanists must never forget their role as facilitators of aspirations. And that feeling for real needs can only be achieved by the most intimate understanding of the users and makers of buildings, within whatever culture and economy they are produced.

KRIER ON SPEER, Leon Krier, February 1983

The rule of architecture is today irreconcilable with the rule of money. The first is real, the second is abstract. Architecture constructs human reality, builds and maintains its institutions, whereas money is accumulated at the expense and the destruction of both nature and human culture. Classical architecture constructs a beautiful, genuine common world. Modern 'architecture' can create only an ugly unreal and abstract world. The discussion in Germany and elsewhere about authoritarian architecture and what a democratic architecture can be is only a diversion from the real problems of human work, which builds and must always rebuild and maintain the town and its architecture.

Those engaged in these discussions seem to accept, without exception and almost as a matter of fate, the cultural vacuum of their own profession as an inevitable fact of nature and history. This is why architects remain powerless in the face of protests by all sections of the population against Modern architecture. This also explains why Modern 'architects' are the only ones to be afraid of Classical architecture, for there is no authoritarian or democratic architecture, just as there are not authoritarian or democratic Wiener schnitzels.

It is childish to look for a political colour in a row of Classical columns, and it is equally ridiculous to claim that a concrete wall or kidney-shaped table expresses the projects of a libertarian, democratic regime. On the other hand there is good and bad architecture. Above all there are human and inhuman ways of producing or exploiting or simply using it. Thus, basilicas were transformed into churches, palaces into schools, and thus cities were turned into prisons and council flats into penitentiaries. Architecture is not political, it is only an instrument of policy.


THE POST POST DECO SKYSCRAPER, Reyner Banham, August 1984

All New York knows the building has a 'Chippendale Top', and has accepted it as a classic New York skyscraper already. For the building is, above all, a commentary or product of the specifically Manhattan history of architecture, a monument (or tombstone) to the whole period since Johnson, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Alfred H. Barr, devised the exhibition with which the Museum of Modern Art opened in 1932 and gave the world the phrase, 'The International Style'.

If AT & T is the most publicized defection from that style so far, it is appropriately so. Johnson has, so to speak, killed off his own most famous offspring and in the process has, with perfect irony, produced a text-book example of that 'Critical Regionalism' by which Kenneth Frampton has proposed (in The Anti Aesthetic) that a living architecture should defend itself against the dead hand of the International Style. AT & T is so intensely regional as to be almost parochial, an insider's Manhattan one-line jest--or would be if Manhattan were not a world city and Johnson a world figure.


The history of modern architecture is in urgent need of reconstruction. The mythology of Pevsner and Giedion which dominated it for more than half a century has gone sour on us, and remains a real impediment to deeper understanding. In recent years Modernism has been damned on precisely the same grounds that it was once praised: for its pursuit of Functionalism, for exploiting modern technology and for breaking completely with the past. There is a clear basis for this attitude, as almost every city has buildings constructed in the post-war period which exhibit these characteristics in a negative way. They reflect an obsession with the most banal design criteria at the expense of those which are unquantifiable, subservience to the processes of construction, and an autistic indifference both to architectural history and to the local context. This is Modernism at its worst, and it deserved to die, though unfortunately it lives on in different clothes. It should be clearly understood, though, that this is not the architecture which inspired the mythology of Pevsner and Giedion, rather that which resulted from it. The architecture of the 1920s was neither so simpleminded nor so shallow-rooted.

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Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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