After reading a few of Pallasmaa’s articles, getting clarification through secondhand personal interactions, and researching a bit into the context that surrounds his writing, I understand his statements quite a bit more. However, previous to this understanding it was quite frustrating to read many of his articles because without this understanding it was easy see him as a regressive reactionary. The introduction of context to his writings makes it clear that Pallasmaa is actually quite progressive, but is careful in his support of scientific theories due to a fear (understandable) of rationalism via reduction or simplification. This new understanding causes me to examine Pallasmaa’s writings on critical regionalism in a new light, with depth that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. So for anyone who may have struggled with the same issues, I strongly urge you to learn more about the concepts and events surrounding the man; although he may be frustrating, I believe that with a proper understanding of his predispositions there is much value in what he writes.
In “Tradition and Modernity: The Feasibility of Regional Architecture in Post-Modern Society” Pallasmaa comes out strongly against the use of a unified style of standard architecture, saying “the techno-rationally biased and economy-obsessed buildings… accelerates estrangement and alienation”. Being from a tight-knit community and culture, he mourns the loss of comfort, closeness, and connection that is lost in the non-specific city. Having been raised in a similar position I can appreciate this sentiment, but think that there is somewhat of a divide that I think needs to be further emphasized to properly analyze this situation.
Later in the article Pallasmaa also writes that “Without continuity of an authentic tradition even a well-intentioned use of surface elements of regional character is doomed to sentimental scenography, to be a naively shallow architectural souvenir.” This is the area that requires emphasis for an accurate discussion of critical regionalism. Where cultural homogeneity exists to the extent that it can be applied for design, it is indeed ludicrous to think of designing without taking that aspect of the context into account. Common perceptions can drive the development of a singular notion of the desirable and functional with surprising continuity across a relatively homogeneous population.
However, where a large amount of cultural diversity exists in a single area it is irresponsible to try synthesize and impose a local cultural identity and resulting style of architecture. In attempting to identify and use this style it is likely that the result will be reflective of the dominant/wealthiest political and ethnic groups in the area. This identity will be imposed on all cultural groups in the diverse area and will result in similar existential crises and cultural entropy. If we take the opposite tack in the same environment and build specific architecture for the diverse cultures that make up the larger community, we run into a problem that is different but just as difficult. Through this approach communities are further isolated and visually separated from one another, creating friction between communities and emphasizing differences rather than a common geographic and cultural identity. As Pallasmaa states “regionalism has the evident danger of turning into sentimental provincialism”.
As usual the answer lies in the blending of multiple theories. Critical regionalism as exemplified by Alvar Aalto is an important starting point for the evolving nature of the architecture of today; just as important though, is a unified urban style for the diverse urban areas. This technical and economically based method of building can be transformed by regional and geographic characteristics to create a brand that is recognized as urban anywhere it is placed, but is specific to the area without emphasizing a single ethnic or cultural influence. Pallasmaa says that the most meaningful part of the new aspects of regionalism lies in a search for authenticity.
I have to wonder though, is authenticity something that can be created by the architect when it doesn’t exist in the culture the architect plays to? If people lack a culture, an identity, or a true connection to anything, there is little in the way of traditional artistic themes for the architect to reflect. This is why I believe that the best architecture of today lies in technically innovative spaces that allow for flexibility and customization for the individual, ultimately providing a canvas for new identities and authenticity to be found.
“Tradition and Modernity: The Feasibility of Regional Architecture in Post-Modern Society” Juhani Pallasmaa