December 28, 2020

Architecture is an inherently political act, which is precisely why it is so contested. It is the grandest and most permanent marker of a civilisation, and the clearest and most dramatic expression of a society’s relationship to power. Consider, on the one hand, Trump’s executive order, one of the last of his administration, mandating neoclassicism as the house architectural style of the US federal government; on the other hand, see the New Statesman’s neurotic fear of classical architecture as a form of fascism wrought in stone. Architecture is not just the expression of our positive political values, but also of the pathologies and debilitating culture wars enfeebling our civilisation.

A recent episode at the birthplace of classical architecture, and of a self-consciously Western aesthetic tradition, the Parthenon, is instructive of where we find ourselves today, in politics as well as architecture. Taking advantage of the COVID epidemic, the Greek government recently installed a ramp for wheelchair access on the top of the sacred hill of the Acropolis, leading directly to the Parthenon.

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Built in the archetypal material of modernity, concrete, it is a work of breathtaking ugliness. Being impermeable, unlike the stones and earth it replaced, as soon as the winter rains hit Athens the runoff flooded the sacred site for the first time ever recorded: the ideologically-asserted practicality of industrial modernity has once again shown itself impractical in reality, unsuited to both place and climate.

Yet leading up to the Acropolis, winding its way around the ancient hills of Athens, was an alternative vision of modernity, neglected, under-appreciated but far better suited to our current political moment. In the middle of the 20th century, the Greek architect Dimitris Pikionis was tasked with replacing the ugly asphalt road that led to the Acropolis. Hiring provincial stonemasons, accustomed to working in a vernacular style, and using as his materials marble blocks from 19th century buildings recently levelled to create the concrete cityscape of modern Athens, Pikionis fused his aesthetic interest in Modernist art with his appreciation of the old, the worn and characterful.

Irregular blocks of worn marble are held together with mortar ground down from the limestone hills of Attica; playful patterns radiate outwards, leading the eye here and there in a network of paths that look ancient, but are younger than the city’s modernist Hilton hotel, the first architectural expression of Greece’s headlong leap into postwar modernity. 

Directly inspired by Pikionis’s paths, and his construction of timeless beauty from the literal wreckage of the near-past, the later architects Liane Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis coined the phrase Critical Regionalism to describe what they saw as the route out for architecture from the impasse created by the modernist International Style. This was not purely an aesthetic choice, but an intentionally political one, characterising many of the arguments made by critics of capitalist liberalism. As Tzonis writes, “Globalisation has been ‘creative’ in the short term but in the long term it proved to be most ‘destructive’.”

He argues that in past three decades, and “fuelled by the mindless growth of cities, senseless gigantic construction of buildings, and disregard of ‘local knowledge’ of the natural, social, and cultural uniqueness and diversity of the regions — what we called ‘peaks and valleys’ — has been reduced to flatland by imposing ‘global’ design stereotypes”. This has spread today with “increasingly negative consequences in the ecology, economy, social ties, and quality of life, not only regional but global”. This is a clearly post-liberal argument applied to architecture, and the political implications of Critical Regionalism are surely worth teasing out.

In 1984, the British architectural critic Kenneth Frampton, citing Lefaivre and Tzonis, wrote the influential essay Towards a Critical Regionalism as a manifesto against the failures of the International Style, and an attempt to define its successor ideology. Frampton’s essay opens with a long quote from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in which Ricoeur remarks that the “single world civilisation,” that of liberal capitalism, “exerts a sort of attrition or wearing away at the expense of the cultural resources which have made the great civilisations of the past.” The result is a universal “mediocre civilisation,”which presents developing nations with a great and essential problem: “is it necessary to jettison the old cultural past which has been the raison d’être of a nation?” Here is the paradox, for Ricoeur and for Frampton: “how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old dormant civilisation and take part in universal civilisation?”

It is perhaps worth remarking here that Ricoeur, struggling to reconcile the opposing forces of tradition and universalism, was PhD supervisor to a young philosophy student called Emmanuel Macron, now the sole civilisational thinker among Western political leaders. Fusing Marxism and critical theory, Frampton develops Ricoeur’s thoughts to observe that the technological optimism of high Modernism crashed against the rocks of the Second World War, and the different, darker fusion of tradition and modernity that drove it.

Even as it conquered the world — and we can note here, as Frampton does not, that the International Style is more or less the architectural style of the American empire, spewing out identical embassies and Hiltons in every capital city on earth as America’s global reach expanded — high Modernism was already intellectually and aesthetically dead, its fusion of the political and the aesthetic already lifeless, even as it conquered the earth.

Yet Critical Regionalism, as outlined by Frampton, is not a retreat into the vernacular, which he expressly warns against as lazily reactionary, and carrying within it the incipient threat of totalitarianism. Frampton cautions against the “demagogic tendencies of Populism” in architecture, “the simple-minded attempts to revive the hypothetical forms of a lost vernacular.” Instead, he argues, the task for architects is to achieve a “self-conscious synthesis between universal civilisation and world culture.”

In practice, this means marrying the best of the vernacular tradition — a sensitive appreciation of place, climate and culture, the tactility and warmth of natural materials, a rootedness in the specifics of the local and a suspicion of the bland totalitarianism of modernism — with an awareness that we cannot undo the Modernist moment; we are moderns, and any attempt to undo this basic fact will result only in a feeble and debilitating pastiche.

At its worst, architectural post-modernism suffers from the baneful consequences of slapping a few vulgar tropes of the old world aesthetic onto a modernist worldview. The results are sometimes playful, always archly knowing, generally hideous. Yet the other Western attempt to go beyond high Modernism, the offerings of the celebrity architects, suffers from its own failings. Think of the hideous architecture of Dubai and other petrostates, or the ugly apartment buildings now disfiguring London, the expression in reinforced concrete, glass and plastic cladding of the values of the New Labour and Cameron years: the vainglorious self-indulgence of the celebrity architects like Libeskind or Foster. They are a curdled form of modernism that already looks like a relic of a past era, an expression of lust for money and status that will stand, for our descendants, as the architectural relics of financialised late capitalism. 

The political implications are obvious. In architecture as well as politics, the self-conscious challengers to both Western political liberalism and the International Style tend towards a certain pseudo-Völkisch totalitarianism, impressive at its best if cold and oppressive. Think of Putin’s grand military cathedral, or of the anti-Western architectural experiments of Erdogan’s Turkey or Xi’s China. Even if we reject the dead ideology of the International Style and its attendant political philosophy of liberalism, these challengers are equally alien and hostile: Mongolia’s colossal Genghis Khan monument may be impressive, but we would not want it looming over Russell Square. 

As an architectural trend, Critical Regionalism is, with a few exceptions, most alive in South India and South America, each fusing tradition and modernity in their own, culturally-specific ways. Among the best and most instructive of exceptions is the incredible work of the architect Peter Barber, busy building beautiful and practical social housing in London, traditional brick London terraces that are simultaneously playful, innovative and open to the stylings of the wider world. 

There is surely a political lesson for us here, being displayed for us in brick and stone, mud and even concrete. The danger for political post-liberalism is that, like architectural post-modernism, it cannot ever truly escape modernity and the worldview it created. In seeking to escape modernity, the temptations of totalitarianism always lie, just over the horizon, as a warning. The challenge, in politics as well as architecture, is to avoid the twin pitfalls of empty, traditionalist kitsch and overreactive anti-liberalism.

Critical Regionalism is inherently post-liberal in its vision of the good; it is open to the world, not narrow and exclusive, yet rooted in the specifics of place and culture. Instead of defining itself by what it is not, and locking itself into a futile and mutually destructive cycle of opposition to liberalism, perhaps post-liberalism can be profitably reimagined as a form of political Critical Regionalism: alive and responsive to the values of community, tradition and localism, yet at the same time willing to take what is good from liberalism, what is genuinely superior to what came before it, and to reshape it to its own ends. 

Citing the Polish philosopher Zygmant Bauman, Frampton observes that “tradition and innovation are mutually interdependent and while one cannot have a living tradition without innovation, one also cannot have significant innovation without tradition,” a political message buried within an aesthetic claim. Instead of seeking to revive Western civilisation from the spectacular and contested monuments of the distant past, perhaps we can take inspiration from the humble, homely paths that link then and now, smoothed and hallowed by use and time, and the undemonstrative love and appreciation of place and people that crafted them.