Monday, March 2, 2009

--The Distinctive Elements of New Regionalist Architecture

The academic study of regional-specific architecture has been propelled largely as a response to growing global dissatisfaction with American economic and cultural dominance. Those who question a post-war American hegemony--particularly Europeans--have lamented the flowering of Golden Arches across their landscape. (see this conference, for instance).

The roots of the idea may spread deeper, however. One might argue that Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan participated in this movement through their quest to create an architectural style characterized by strong relationship to local environment and building materials. Their quest evolved from such movements as Bauhaus and Soviet Constructivism--each concerned with subverting the forms of architecture in favor of more pressing, functional concerns. The need for this realignment, according to its proponents, stemmed principally from dissatisfaction with cultural emphasis on form alone in such styles as Neo-Classical, Italianate, and Victorian.

Of course, New Regionalist architecture is in many ways a conscientious return to an earlier, unconscious model of construction. When Native Americans built long-houses in the Pacific Northwest and collapsible tee pees on the Great Plains, they were employing locally available resources to construct living spaces that met immediate needs.

When Puritan settlers in New England sided and roofed their houses with split-shakes, the decision was based not on appeal to abstract design, but rather to the abundant felled trees from land they were making arable.

When Spanish missionaries in the American Southwest sought to quickly construct churches and schools to convert the native population, they found adobe a ready material well-suited to the hot days and cold nights of desert climes.

When American sod busters traveled West and began to transform the Great Plains into the American Bread Basket, they constructed dugouts from stacked grasses until funds made possible more conventional buildings.

Certainly most of these architectural techniques lacked glamor; accounts of life in Kansas dugouts are abysmal, as are stories about cold night breezes slicing through the gaps between logs in frontier cabins. To suggest a return to a frontier mentality in architecture is absurd. Even so, Frank Lloyd Wright was on the right track when he sought to design homes and buildings that better interacted with their environment.

Why? The European academics have until recently suggested that a vigorous emphasis on regional distinction is the best means by which to oppose the homogenizing influence of globalization. The virtue of regional identity, then, is precisely that the identity is regional and not global. This same spirit insists only one locale can produce Champagne or Emmentaler or Koelsch. This spirit is reactionary and ultimately neither powerful nor profound outside the scope of its reaction. Globalization will continue, and maybe a few McDonald's in Bavaria will be half-timber, but the effect will be little else.

The rising price of energy, however, will move the emphasis on regional architecture from the reactionary to the norm. This is what makes New Regionalism, "new": not unconscious use of ready-to-hand materials, not reactionary opposition to another culture's dominance, but rather a measured and calculated understanding of how energy, climate, and the human built environment can and ultimately must interact.

In an ideal world, this relationship would be studied for its own sake. But history shows Wright's architectural novums remained mere novelties. "Falling Water" may be a tourist destination, but few architects of American tract houses are invoking that model in their contemporary, profit-driven designs. For better or worse, the market dictates what constraints must be considered by those who design the most numerous structures across the American, and indeed now the global, landscape.

That market-driven focus has left a built environment familiar to most Americans: identical restaurants, hotels, and gas stations at every interstate juncture across the nation. This is entirely logical from a business standpoint: uniformity not only cuts down on costs associated with design expenses, but also fosters a brand image that eventually translates into a feeling of comfort within those familiar with the constructed environment of the brand. (Cracker Barrel restaurants readily embrace this union; their locations are billed as spots Where Food Meets Comfort). Such emphasis on quick and simple construction spread also into other built dimensions of suburban America. The ranch houses inhabited by so many Americans were designed to be put together with a slab, four walls, a roof, and an HVAC system able to regulate the comfort within that little box. During the post-war boom, demand for housing so outstretched the available supply that such a rapid method for new home construction was precisely what the market required.

The next series of architectural innovations will also be driven by market concerns. The limiting factor will no longer be the speed with which houses can be thrown together, but rather, the costs of skyrocketing energy prices. Local building materials will increasingly be selected as a means to control the upfront price of transporting materials cross-country. Furthermore, the long-term costs of energy use will be mitigated through innovative, energy-saving techniques.

Truly, advances in technology will make existing homes more energy efficient. Sprayed insulation, double-glazed windows, energy-star appliances and such new technologies as geothermal heat pumps, solar water heaters, and home photovoltaics will cut down on the costs of heating and cooling homes in the coming years. But these technologies are costly and will not be readily affordable for some time; they remain largely a niche market.

Other technologies, however, are free. These are the systems developed through thousands of years of direct interaction with habitable environments. This blog will seek to explore how capitalizing on such technologies can drastically cut costs associated with new construction without sacrificing comfort or creating undesirable upfront costs. A happy by-product of New Regionalist architecture will be a greener, more sustainable way of life, built on design that is better suited to geography and climate.

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