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Reflections on Jameson’s analysis of Frampton’s Critical Regionalism

In his final chapter of The Seeds of Time, Jameson situates Critical Regionalism as the third
category – the other two being “dirty realism” (a term suggested by Lefaivre) and
“deconstructionism” – within the aesthetic system of the postmodern era. The underlying
assumption of his argument is that “at least at its beginnings, the negation, inversion, or
cancellation of high modernism was what [these] first postmoderns thought they were up to,
while in the process of generating something altogether different.” The schema is represented
in what he calls “the semiotic square” (based on the paradigmatic aspect of structural analysis
which involves a consideration of the positive or negative connotations of each signifier, and
the existence of ‘underlying’ thematic paradigms). His argument in its entirety is demonstrated
through this diagram: whereas the twin categories of High Modernism – totality and innovation
(Universal and New) stand in a contradictory tension with postmodernism’s two categories of
the fragment (“part/element/signifier”) and replication, combinations and permutations of all
four operations are witnessed in the era of late-capitalist culture.

The first camp led by Rem Koolhaas reacted against the totalitarianism by producing a new
category of large scale, where “floating organs” hang within enormous containers. Just when it
seems that Koolhaas’s work, characterized only in terms of the desire called totality, risks
being assimilated back into the modernist paradigm itself, the other operative feature of his
work (which Jameson saw as a resolutely antimodern one) is called upon: the engagement with
the issue and problem of replication encapsulated in his thesis for a generic city. Eisenman
represents the other side of the semiotic square, presumably projecting an aesthetic that wishes
to make a radical break, thus standing in opposition to “the complacencies of replication.”
Symmetrically, Eisenman’s “deconstructionism” encompasses the twin-operation of innovation
and fragment or architecture as signifier (best exemplified in his House I-X and recapitulated
in the Idea as Model exhibition).

So far Jameson has provided a sharp assessment of the so-called “critical” work of Koolhaas
and Eisenman but I must say that it is in the third “movement” associated with the final position
that his arugment came across strongest. First he positions Critical Regionalism (below but in the
same space as Stylistic Postmodernism – led by the proponents of the “duck” and the “shed,”
and neorationalism, to which the high-tech aesthetic of Rogers and Foster comes to mind) as a
directly opposing tendency to High Modernism. But that proves to be merely a surface-level
reading of this critical category which embodies several paradoxes that he would then clarify
in a second diagram. In the latter, the two operations of stylistic postmodernism are positioned
in symmetrical and tensional relationship with the two categories of Critical Regionalism,
namely the rearguard position (marginality, local, resistance) and the antiscenographic
(tectonic/tactile/telluric). Marginal practice is opposed to replication or intellectually as the
antiscenographic is opposed to the visual.

Three paradoxes are discussed. With regard to stylistic postmodernism, while CR “shares the
doxa of the postmodern with respect to the end of the avant-garde, the perniciousness of
Utopianism, and the fear of a universalizing homogeneity or identity,” its slogan of an arrière-
garde seems “incompatible with a postmodern ‘end of history’ and repudiation of historical
teleology, since CR continues to seek a certain deeper historical logic in the past of this system,
if not its future: a rearguard retains overtones of a collective resistance, and not the anarchy
of trans-avant-garde pluralism that characterizes many of the postmodern ideologies of
Difference as such.” (Seeds of Time, 190-91). At the same time it is also opposed to high
modernism for similar reasons: 1) in its post-Utopian disillusionment and its retreat from the
high modernist conception of the monument and the megastructure [of the neo-avant gardes of
the 1960s]; 2) it shares PoMo’s more general contextualism; 2) its valorization of the part or
fragment via the “synecdochic function whereby the individual building comes to stand for the
local spatial culture generally.” (This somewhat more contentious issue of a demonstrative
architecture of the CR as fragment has been addressed in Frampton’s recent lecture at the
Architectural League on Critical Sustainability where he proffered landscape-architecture as
the contemporary critical response to the question of gravity, to the tripartite values of the
tectonic, the tactile and the telluric, to borrow Jameson’s synthesis).

The third is the paradoxical role of technology and modernity in the aesthetic of CR. While
deliberately regressive and tradition-oriented – though it distinguishes itself from the populist
or cultural-nationalist Third World, and anti-Western or antimodern responses – it nevertheless
explicitly acknowledges the existence and the necessity of modern technology in ways whose
originality must now be shown. To substantiate this point, he identified two crucial illustrations –
Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church and Ando’s practice – as opposing procedures of the critical
analysis: on the dualistic nature of the opposition between technology and its other; the latter
the incorporation of the technological within the renewal of more authentic Japanese attention
and detail and the tectonic as a strategy of “enclosed modernity.”

This leads to the pertinent question of historical context. Jameson acknowledges the timeliness
of CR in that its concept and program came about when the possibility of radical alternatives
to late capitalist technologies had receded thus explaining the subsequent emphasis on the
‘residual’ rather than the ‘emergent’ (using Raymond William’s categories). In this sense, the
first semiotic square can be read in another way (from top to bottom): as a system of
permutations and overlapping paths of the historical retrogression from high modernism to
stylistic postmodernism and to critical regionalism. In this case, it appears critical regionalism is
placed in this category only conditionally, until the double-axis of contemporary geopolitics –
the persistence of the nation-state and globalization – is addressed. For critical regionalism as
tradition and nostalgia has now come under the catch-all of the nation and its problematic
relationship with conservation is yet resolved (both Frampton, and Colquhoun in “The Concept
of Regionalism,” has identified these tendencies to have been originated in the 18th century
somewhere between the application of Neo-classical elements and the emergence of the
primitive hut and the self-sufficient Man).

For Jameson, it is thus important to emphasize the degree to which the concept of Critical
Regionalism is necessarily allegorical: “In order for this kind of building to make a different
kind of statement, its decorations must also be grasped as recognizable elements in a cultural-
national discourse, and the building of the building must be grasped at one and the same time
as a physical structure and as a symbolic art that reaffirms the regional-national culture as a
collective possibility in its moment of besiegement and crisis. But perhaps it is with allegory as
with the mythical that its effects remain wanting unless the object has been sought after? This
interesting theoretical problem, however, becomes visible only when a ‘text’ is isolated from
the social ground in which its effects are generated: in the present instance, for example, it
should be clear enough that an architectural form of Critical Regionalism would lack all
political and allegorical efficacy unless it were coordinated with a variety of other local, social,
and cultural movements that aimed at securing national autonomy.” (Jameson, Seeds of Time,
203).

Finally, another thing that threatens Critical Regionalism as a “regionalism of liberation”: the
new strategies of Post-Fordism. With mass customization for individual markets inserting
corporations into the heart of local and regional cultures and the “regional” being subsumed
by the global corporation, Herbert Marcuse’s identification of the repressive desublimation of
the unhappy consciousness seems to have attained a new level. Jameson poses the somewhat
rhetorical final question: Is global difference the same as global identity today? The question
which appears to be a direct response to Critical Regionalism’s tendency “towards the
paradoxical creation of a regionally based ‘world culture’ (CR, 327), begs yet another
question – in light of this perpetuating totality, how then can Critical Regionalism maintain its
high level of critical self-consciousness?

Bruno Latour claims that modernism, in positing a clear divide between Nature and Society (or
the sciences and the humanities), does not take into account the pluralism that exist within
modernity. He identifies that the anthropological model is insufficient to describe “our world”
because it did not apply to science and technology. Thus within the modernist frame, it is
impossible to study (our own) culture. Modernism is conceived as a political arrangement – a
Constitution with checks and balances which allow modernists to separate Nature and Society
while surreptitiously joining them with hybrids. .But that Constitution is falling apart as the poles
are forced further farther from each other. He draws upon the complex of the ozone layer to
further illustrate this paradoxical relationship of the social and the natural: “The ozone hole is
too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of
state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the
ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the
networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like
society?” (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 6).

Where are we to put these hybrids? He asks, “Are they human? Human because they are our
work. Are they natural? Natural because they are not our doing. Are they local or global. Both.
As for the human masses that have been made to multiply as a result of the virtues and vices of
medicine and economics, they are no easier to situate. In what world are these multitudes to be
housed? Are we in the realm of biology, sociology, natural history, ethics, sociobiology? This is
our own doing, yet the laws of demography and economics are infinitely beyond us. Is the
demographic time bomb local or global? Both. Thus, the two constitutional guarantees of the
moderns – the universal laws of things, and the inalienable rights of subjects – can no longer
be recognized either on the side of Nature or on the side of the Social.” (Latour, We Have
Never Been Modern, 50). What Latour proposes instead is a new constitution modeled on the
modernist one but making up for its defects, one that he calls the “non-modern constitution.”

Perhaps it comes with no surprise then that the response would come from the anthropologists,
whom Latour credited as the primary protagonists of the structural split between nature and
culture. Arjun Appadurai, citing Simmel’s analysis of the reciprocal relationship between money
as commodity and culture, and Mauss’s analysis of the gift, imbued with the spirit of reciprocity,
sociability and spontaneity, attempts to approach commodities as things with social lives. He
proposes that ‘the commodity situation ini the social life of any ‘thing’ be defined as the
situation in which its exchangeability (past, present, or future) for some other thing is its socially
relevant feature.” He goes on to analyze the commodity as one would analyze community,
pointing out three key aspects of “commodity-hood”: 1) the commodity phase of the social life
of any thing; 2) the commodity candidacy of any thing; and 3) the commodity context in which
any thing may be placed.” (Appadurai, The Social Life of Things, 13)

This returns us then to the question of the maintenance of a critical self-consciousness and the
practice of CR which is contingent upon a process of double mediation: “to ‘deconstruct’ the
overall spectrum of world culture which it inevitably inherits, and to achieve, through synthetic
contradiction, a manifest critique of universal civilization.” (CR, 23) it would entail taking into
account first the deep interplay of nature-culture (Latour) which first and foremost necessitates
the serious consideration of architecture as commodity within the current coexisting framework
of the national and the global (Appadurai). Both considerations seem to be synthesized in
peter Buchanan’s exhibition Ten Shades of Green, at the Architectural League of New York in
2000. Buchanan’s insistence that there is no such thing as a green architecture or a green
aesthetic recalls Frampton’s assertion that CR is not a movement. Instead, as Frampton puts it,
his polemic lies in his belief that “sustainability in architecture arises out of a subtle, often
imperceptible interaction between built form and the ambient forces that impinge upon its
surface.” (Buchanan, Ten Shades of Green, 6).

Indeed, Buchanan’s ten shades of green can be seen as an update or elaboration of critical
practices which combines the tectonic, the tactile and the telluric (Jameson). The ten shades – 2)
low energy / high performance; 2) replenishable sources; 3) recycling; 4) embodied energy; 5)
long life, loose fit; 6) total life cycle costing; 7) embedded in place; 8) access and urban
context; 9) health and happiness; 10) community and connection – are posited as the same
elements that shape both community and give a sense of connection to nature, tending towards
a hybrid environmental approach that is latent in vernacular building (or what Latour termed
as “the premodern”). For many urban areas in advanced capitalist societies, which face the
obsolescence of local materials and of the labor provision which are able to work with greener
building materials such as wood and brick (4 times the amount of embodied energy in wood),
a comprehensive assessment which includes education and training is necessary. The emphasis is
thus on the need for a spectrum of design approaches which is matched by the recognition that
“nature also should have its rights, its health and interest protected, and these become
enshrined in law” so that building can be seamlessly embedded “in their place” and a varied
and active community life can be generated at multiple levels. Judging form the equally
comprehensive projects that are assembled here (of which Piano’s Beyeler Foundation Museum
in Switzerland, Clare Design’s Cotton Tree Pilot Housing in Australia and Neutelings’ Minnaert
Building in the Netherlands, are the three that resonate most with me), it seems that the
environments and communities proffered by international specialist groups like the CIAM, Team
10, Ekistics and even the United Nations publication Habitat, have been given a new synthesis.

I cannot help but conclude with this thought on Singapore. The search for a vernacular dwelling
synthesis which significantly impacted both the modes of practice and the curriculum of
architectural education for more than a decade since the publication of “Critical Regionalism”
had produced many theoretical and formal reductions of the otherwise complex operations
that Frampton had proposed (and still maintains). The relentless pursuit of economic progress
and of the middle-class ideal (in Singapore, this is summed up by the four C’s – condominium,
car, credit card, cash), and the perpetual need to maintain neighborliness with the other
nations in the region would seem at first to render the impossibility for marginal practices of
any sort. Yet I hold the belief that it is precisely these not-yet-deeply rooted and a still-
evolving governmental body that the critical, often under the guise of the postmodern artifice,
could emerge. Some recent works have demonstrated that and in another space I will give
them due attention.

(unpublished manuscript)

Eunice Seng
June 30, 2006

Bibliography

Appaduria, Arjun (ed.). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.
Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Buchanan, Peter. Ten Shades of Green: Architecture and the Natural World. New York: The
Architectural League of New York, 2005.
Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of
Resistance,” in Hal Foster, The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. New York:
The New Press, 1998. c1983. pp17-34.
Jameson, Frederic. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Tr. Catherine Porter. New York, London: Harvester
Wheatsheaf, 1993.