Finding identity and place today is becoming harder as theworld changes in what feels like the blink of an eye. It is mainly within theurban fabric that superlatives compete and, gauging change against what exists already, there nothing is more visualthan changes to our built environment. The question of context in architecturebrings with it many definitions, explanations and arguments. This essayattempts to gain an understanding of the definition, history and future of thissubject.
With designing, planning and re-building new spaces, it isconsidered important that sensitivity to existing surroundings is acknowledged.This is the basis of context, but there is much more to it than geography andhistory. Local planning codes and regulations often ensure that a glass boxcannot be erected in an historic street, but when we look around today thisrarely seems to be the case. What on one level can be suiting a building to itssurroundings can become wider discussions on territory, socio-political factors,object and place.
Originating from the Latin word ‘contextus’ meaning ‘joiningtogether’, or ‘contexere’ meaning ‘to interweave’, context as definedin 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 appliedto architecture?Looking in to context in terms of the built environment asbeing beyond just the physical features of a site, context is embedded in thenotion of genius loci, interpretedtoday as “spirit of place”, in old Roman architecture. Contextual architecturecan be defined as architecture that creates relationships with its specificsite or its broader physical or visual environment.
Contextualism in architectureis a concept that covers all its fields, from discourse and theory through topractice.The notion of context and wider discussions on the theory ofcontextualism were brought to the architectural vocabulary in the mid-20thcentury, with as many architects rejecting it as embracing it. Out of the WorldWars, the rise of the International Style gave rise to an architecture whichmoved away from re-creating classicism, bringing with it a universal lack ofidentity. This modernist paradigm, seen as some to play a role in the neglectof urban culture, brought with it the emergence of context as a global debate,along with movements such as Situationists International who embracedexperimental post-war culture.
From new buildings in ancient cities to whole new cities,should the reference point be to respect the preceding historical surroundingsor disregard the pre-existing with abstract ideas? From a practical standpoint,learning about context for a project may include gaining an insight into theregional history, looking at the local architecture, climate and landscape. Itis a combination of these ‘background’ factors that make the whole, or context.Many differing approaches on what is defined as context have been discussed.
Inthis technological age of rapid progress and instant gratification, thedefinition of context itself is constantly changing. The self-centred world ofsocial media, the rise of phenomenology and emphasis on narrative have come tothe forefront of a lot of design and theory, it can therefore seem as thoughcontext has been left out of consideration in some settings. Is context aboutcomparison and harmony? According to Heidegger, “spaces receive their beingfrom locations and not from ‘space'”. One could endlessly compare and contrastthe new with the old in urban spaces. Can Calatrava’s Oculus in New York beconsidered contextual, compared to say, the Flatiron Building? Venice, popularthe world over for its romantic canals and ornate architecture has beenconcentrated in one building in Las Vegas and diluted as a failed ‘quartier’ inQatar.
With no context except a desert to start with, huge blank canvases forthe imagination as well as architecture are created, with often horrifyingresults. Creating and building in our urban spaces should not need radical newsolutions and movements so much as new knowledge and interpretation of thegiven.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 architectureand setting trends is more important. Rem Koolhaas has spoken of urban planningand context as being a thing of the past. Given the lifespan of buildings, heproclaims among others, formal architectural relationships between spaces areobsolete, therefore so is context. Is there room for progressive and innovativearchitecture with relation to context? Many ‘starchitects’ today want to createthe superlative building, no matter where it is placed.Becoming an -ismThe theoretical debate on context is ever-changing and broughtup with all areas of modern architectural movements, with the ‘neo’ and ‘post’movements coming under scrutiny for their interpretations of the old. Tomention the views of all the major theoretical architects could take upvolumes, with no clear definition agreed by everyone.Initially considered a critique of the visual imbalance ofthe modernist movement and often referenced with postmodernism – Americanarchitect and theorist Robert Venturi was one of the first to bring up contextin his Masters thesis in the 1950’s, not completely rejecting modernism butpromoting traditional and historical approaches – closer what was to be defined as vernaculararchitecture. Upon discovering and applying Gestaltpsychology to architecture, Venturi proposed that ‘context gives a building expression, its meaning…a building is not aself-contained object but a part in a whole composition relative to other partsand the whole’.
Venturi’s Guild Hall retains both a modernist approach witha 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 the60’s such as Aldo Rossi (alluding to history, ‘surrounding pre-existences’ andthe passage of time) was quite different theconversations happening in the USA at the time by Colin Rowe (concerned morewith the formal properties of works of architecture), further discussed in hislater work ‘Collage City’ and againin the UK by Christopher Alexander where a more literal synonym to environmentwas introduced to the vocabulary of architecture.Rogers, a rationalist architect who dominated the post-warmovement for continuity, felt that his use of the word ‘ambiente’ was wrongly translated to ‘context’, therefore beingmisunderstood that his notion of context should be ‘historical continuitymanifested 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 ofattempting to produce architecture which responds to the cultural, physical andpsychological character of the local surroundings, without becoming repetitive,conservative and a blatant copy of the existing. Architecture can be describedas ‘the physical transformation of contexts’ ones perception of the word, butthis depends on. Successful contextual designs would contrast whatarchitectural theorist Robert Somol described as the ‘internationalist utopiaof nowhere’ with the ‘contextualist nostalgia for somewhere’. In a search foridentity, to me this somewhat resonates with the hipster culture of alleventually 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 beseen as a set of values which contain three aspects: Vernacular architecture,Regionalism and Critical Regionalism. This can help to make sense of this broadsubject and examples can fall somewhat more easily into these areas.VernacularArchitecture:This type of architecture comprises of traditional, localstructures made of local materials and construction methods, built fornecessity. 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 consideredvernacular, with other examples such as Malay Houses in timber, Alpine chaletsand mud brick buildings in Mali. Timeless and unchanging, is this the purestdefinition of context?Often described with ancient methods and traditions,vernacular architecture is undergoing somewhat of a resurgence in a morecontemporary form as we understand more about the importance of local skillsand materials and sustainability is increasingly prevalent. With the rapidityof technological innovation in our lives and ‘fashion-statement’ architecturewe are beginning to embrace a nostalgia for more simple, basic forms and waysof living.
Characteristics of the vernacular in contemporary contexts areechoed, but do not translate in a modern urban setting. Slums in large urban areas however, do followthis more primitive language, but out of economic forces. As Steven Holl hasstated, “Contemporary architecture oughtto take the vernacular model as a point of departure, and reinterpret it ortransform the original in a refined version”. Modern, architect designedvernacular approaches tend to be rural and individual spaces. RegionalismWith regional variations mentioned even by Vitruvius in his’ten books of architecture’ but emerging in the 1960’s within the widercontextualism discussion, regionalism is a response to aspects of vernaculararchitecture in a modern setting, showing the essence of local culture or place.
It therefore becomes a search for the balance between identity and modernitythat is essential to the context debate. Postmodernism comes under particular scrutiny with regardsto regionalism with its ‘pastiche scenography’ as a failure to address contextwith its often excessive angle on historicism. But as with modernism,postmodernism set a universal style of its own, tending to neglect localinfluences.Today, regionalism in architecture is more a sensibilitythan a movement. With no clear rules, regionalism now is less about creatingpure forms but more of hybrids, leading it to fuse with sustainability as itlends itself to the integrating the local available resources with innovative,efficient materials. Critical RegionalismSeen as an intellectual and progressive approach toregionalism, critical regionalism attempts to find a local-global balancewithout dismissing either the modernist or regionalist approach. Criticalregionalism becomes more universal and sociological question, originating fromthe likes of Lewis Mumford, Liane Lafaivre and later Kenneth Frampton, who statesthat ‘the fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impactof universal civilisation with elements derived indirectly from thepeculiarities of a particular place.’ His work ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points of anarchitecture of resistance’ produced critical points about finding a harmony ofbeing ‘place-conscious’ without producing ‘sentimental regionalism’.
He was keen that emphasis be placed not onaesthetic qualities alone but on topography, climate and light.Alvar Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall is an exemplary work ofcritical regionalism, showing a shift in away from the international style ofthe Finnish modernist architect. With three U-shaped levels of administrativeoffices for the regional government, chambers and small residential apartments,the U is enclosed by a library, also creating a partly private courtyard. Hisuse of red brick, copper and timber adds an organic quality, bringing a humanscale to a civic building. Understated and composed in its typical Finnish way,the building boasts a regional stance with universal qualities. Progressive architectureAny building looking back to classicism and palladio couldhave context, by layout.
Matching the needs of the building to its context. BibliographyFrampton, Kenneth, ModernArchitecture: A Critical History (World of Art), Thames and Hudson Ltd; (17Sept. 2007)Banham, Reyner, Theoryand Design in the First Machine Age, (MIT Press, 1990)Venturi, Robert, Complexityand Contradiction in Architecture, (The Museum of Modern Art, New York; 2ndRevised edition Jan. 1984)Warren, J, Worthington, J, Taylor, S, Context: New Buildings in Historic Settings (ArchitecturalPress Sep 1998)ODonnell, Caroline, NicheTactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site, (Routledge,April 2015)Gross, David, Säynätsalo Town Hall 2, Davidagrossarchitecture.com, http://davidagrossarchitecture.com/M-ARCH%20PORTFOLIO/Critique/saynatsalotownhb.html (visited 02 Jan 2018)Cizgen, Gultekin, Rethinking the Role of Context and Contextualism in Architecture andDesign, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/37fe/e8774fcc33213ad8c7d93e1c9ad21aa61988.pdf (Visited 04 Jan 2018)Lecture notes by Teresa Stoppani and Paul Davies,Cultural Context lectures.