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Finding identity and place today is becoming harder as the
world changes in what feels like the blink of an eye. It is mainly within the
urban fabric that superlatives compete and, 
gauging change against what exists already, there nothing is more visual
than changes to our built environment. The question of context in architecture
brings with it many definitions, explanations and arguments. This essay
attempts to gain an understanding of the definition, history and future of this

With designing, planning and re-building new spaces, it is
considered important that sensitivity to existing surroundings is acknowledged.
This is the basis of context, but there is much more to it than geography and
history. Local planning codes and regulations often ensure that a glass box
cannot be erected in an historic street, but when we look around today this
rarely seems to be the case. What on one level can be suiting a building to its
surroundings can become wider discussions on territory, socio-political factors,
object and place.

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Originating from the Latin word ‘contextus’ meaning ‘joining
together’, or ‘contexere’ meaning ‘to interweave’, context as defined
in the dictionary is “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement,
or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.” How is this applied
to architecture?

Looking in to context in terms of the built environment as
being beyond just the physical features of a site, context is embedded in the
notion of genius loci, interpreted
today as “spirit of place”, in old Roman architecture. Contextual architecture
can be defined as architecture that creates relationships with its specific
site or its broader physical or visual environment. Contextualism in architecture
is a concept that covers all its fields, from discourse and theory through to

The notion of context and wider discussions on the theory of
contextualism were brought to the architectural vocabulary in the mid-20th
century, with as many architects rejecting it as embracing it. Out of the World
Wars, the rise of the International Style gave rise to an architecture which
moved away from re-creating classicism, bringing with it a universal lack of
identity. This modernist paradigm, seen as some to play a role in the neglect
of urban culture, brought with it the emergence of context as a global debate,
along with movements such as Situationists International who embraced
experimental post-war culture.

From new buildings in ancient cities to whole new cities,
should the reference point be to respect the preceding historical surroundings
or disregard the pre-existing with abstract ideas? From a practical standpoint,
learning about context for a project may include gaining an insight into the
regional history, looking at the local architecture, climate and landscape. It
is a combination of these ‘background’ factors that make the whole, or context.
Many differing approaches on what is defined as context have been discussed. In
this technological age of rapid progress and instant gratification, the
definition of context itself is constantly changing. The self-centred world of
social media, the rise of phenomenology and emphasis on narrative have come to
the forefront of a lot of design and theory, it can therefore seem as though
context has been left out of consideration in some settings.

 Is context about
comparison and harmony? According to Heidegger, “spaces receive their being
from locations and not from ‘space'”. One could endlessly compare and contrast
the new with the old in urban spaces. Can Calatrava’s Oculus in New York be
considered contextual, compared to say, the Flatiron Building? Venice, popular
the world over for its romantic canals and ornate architecture has been
concentrated in one building in Las Vegas and diluted as a failed ‘quartier’ in
Qatar. With no context except a desert to start with, huge blank canvases for
the imagination as well as architecture are created, with often horrifying
results. Creating and building in our urban spaces should not need radical new
solutions and movements so much as new knowledge and interpretation of the

Among the philosophies of some architects, context,
especially in urban areas, is rejected. Choosing their own disconnectedness,
ignoring the genius loci in favour of innovation, creating iconic architecture
and setting trends is more important. Rem Koolhaas has spoken of urban planning
and context as being a thing of the past. Given the lifespan of buildings, he
proclaims among others, formal architectural relationships between spaces are
obsolete, therefore so is context. Is there room for progressive and innovative
architecture with relation to context? Many ‘starchitects’ today want to create
the superlative building, no matter where it is placed.

Becoming an -ism

The theoretical debate on context is ever-changing and brought
up with all areas of modern architectural movements, with the ‘neo’ and ‘post’
movements coming under scrutiny for their interpretations of the old. To
mention the views of all the major theoretical architects could take up
volumes, with no clear definition agreed by everyone.

Initially considered a critique of the visual imbalance of
the modernist movement and often referenced with postmodernism – American
architect and theorist Robert Venturi was one of the first to bring up context
in his Masters thesis in the 1950’s, not completely rejecting modernism but
promoting traditional and historical approaches –  closer what was to be defined as vernacular
architecture. Upon discovering and applying Gestalt
psychology to architecture, Venturi proposed that ‘context gives a building expression, its meaning…a building is not a
self-contained object but a part in a whole composition relative to other parts
and the whole’. Venturi’s Guild Hall retains both a modernist approach with
a respect for materials and the existing physical context to root itself.

The definition of context as used by Ernesto Rogers of Casabella and Milan architects in the
60’s such as Aldo Rossi (alluding to history, ‘surrounding pre-existences’ and
the passage of time) was quite different the
conversations happening in the USA at the time by Colin Rowe (concerned more
with the formal properties of works of architecture), further discussed in his
later work ‘Collage City’ and again
in the UK by Christopher Alexander where a more literal synonym to environment
was introduced to the vocabulary of architecture.

Rogers, a rationalist architect who dominated the post-war
movement for continuity, felt that his use of the word ‘ambiente’ was wrongly translated to ‘context’, therefore being
misunderstood that his notion of context should be ‘historical continuity
manifested by the city and in the minds of its occupants’. According to him,
things must visually relate proportionally in plan, section and elevation.

Defining contextualism has become a delicate dance of
attempting to produce architecture which responds to the cultural, physical and
psychological character of the local surroundings, without becoming repetitive,
conservative and a blatant copy of the existing. Architecture can be described
as ‘the physical transformation of contexts’ ones perception of the word, but
this depends on. Successful contextual designs would contrast what
architectural theorist Robert Somol described as the ‘internationalist utopia
of nowhere’ with the ‘contextualist nostalgia for somewhere’. In a search for
identity, to me this somewhat resonates with the hipster culture of all
eventually looking the same in their efforts to be non-conformist.


Breaking it down

With the complexity of attempting to define contextualism –
not being a specific style – and its ambiguous connotations, it can also be
seen as a set of values which contain three aspects: Vernacular architecture,
Regionalism and Critical Regionalism. This can help to make sense of this broad
subject and examples can fall somewhat more easily into these areas.


This type of architecture comprises of traditional, local
structures made of local materials and construction methods, built for
necessity. The relationship between the environment and the people is strong,
with local people building their own dwellings.  In its most basic form, an igloo would be considered
vernacular, with other examples such as Malay Houses in timber, Alpine chalets
and mud brick buildings in Mali. Timeless and unchanging, is this the purest
definition of context?

Often described with ancient methods and traditions,
vernacular architecture is undergoing somewhat of a resurgence in a more
contemporary form as we understand more about the importance of local skills
and materials and sustainability is increasingly prevalent. With the rapidity
of technological innovation in our lives and ‘fashion-statement’ architecture
we are beginning to embrace a nostalgia for more simple, basic forms and ways
of living.

Characteristics of the vernacular in contemporary contexts are
echoed, but do not translate in a modern urban setting.  Slums in large urban areas however, do follow
this more primitive language, but out of economic forces. As Steven Holl has
stated, “Contemporary architecture ought
to take the vernacular model as a point of departure, and reinterpret it or
transform the original in a refined version”. Modern, architect designed
vernacular approaches tend to be rural and individual spaces.



With regional variations mentioned even by Vitruvius in his
‘ten books of architecture’ but emerging in the 1960’s within the wider
contextualism discussion, regionalism is a response to aspects of vernacular
architecture in a modern setting, showing the essence of local culture or place.
It therefore becomes a search for the balance between identity and modernity
that is essential to the context debate.

Postmodernism comes under particular scrutiny with regards
to regionalism with its ‘pastiche scenography’ as a failure to address context
with its often excessive angle on historicism. But as with modernism,
postmodernism set a universal style of its own, tending to neglect local

Today, regionalism in architecture is more a sensibility
than a movement. With no clear rules, regionalism now is less about creating
pure forms but more of hybrids, leading it to fuse with sustainability as it
lends itself to the integrating the local available resources with innovative,
efficient materials.


Critical Regionalism

Seen as an intellectual and progressive approach to
regionalism, critical regionalism attempts to find a local-global balance
without dismissing either the modernist or regionalist approach. Critical
regionalism becomes more universal and sociological question, originating from
the likes of Lewis Mumford, Liane Lafaivre and later Kenneth Frampton, who states
that ‘the fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impact
of universal civilisation with elements derived indirectly from the
peculiarities of a particular place.’

His work ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points of an
architecture of resistance’ produced critical points about finding a harmony of
being ‘place-conscious’ without producing ‘sentimental regionalism’.  He was keen that emphasis be placed not on
aesthetic qualities alone but on topography, climate and light.

Alvar Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall is an exemplary work of
critical regionalism, showing a shift in away from the international style of
the Finnish modernist architect. With three U-shaped levels of administrative
offices for the regional government, chambers and small residential apartments,
the U is enclosed by a library, also creating a partly private courtyard. His
use of red brick, copper and timber adds an organic quality, bringing a human
scale to a civic building. Understated and composed in its typical Finnish way,
the building boasts a regional stance with universal qualities.








Progressive architecture

Any building looking back to classicism and palladio could
have context, by layout. Matching the needs of the building to its context.














Frampton, Kenneth, Modern
Architecture: A Critical History (World of Art), Thames and Hudson Ltd; (17
Sept. 2007)

Banham, Reyner, Theory
and Design in the First Machine Age, (MIT Press, 1990)

Venturi, Robert, Complexity
and Contradiction in Architecture, (The Museum of Modern Art, New York; 2nd
Revised edition Jan. 1984)

Warren, J, Worthington, J, Taylor, S, Context: New Buildings in Historic Settings (Architectural
Press Sep 1998)

ODonnell, Caroline, Niche
Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site, (Routledge,
April 2015)

Gross, David, Säynätsalo Town Hall 2,, (visited 02 Jan 2018)

Cizgen, Gultekin, Rethinking the Role of Context and Contextualism in Architecture and
Design, (Visited 04 Jan 2018)

Lecture notes by Teresa Stoppani and Paul Davies,
Cultural Context lectures.

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