Skin rigorism

Traditionally, rigorists, including those of the 1970s, exposed what they thought to be the true essence of architecture by revealing the contents of a building's interior, making its structure and function manifest. Other recent descendants of Lodoli, paying particular attention to its covering, proclaimed that the true essence of architecture lies in its external envelope. To use an anatomical analogy, implied in the thinking of rigorists, theirs was not an architecture of the skeleton, or of the organs, or even of the intestines, but rather of the skin.

Vernacular buildings of all kinds have for centuries been designed in this manner. In the professional tradition of architecture, however, as opposed to the vernacular, there have only been a few cases of such skin architecture: 19th-century brick walls; walls covered in ceramics; and, more recently, curtain walls, like that of Prouvé-Niemeyer's French Communist Party Headquarters (Paris, 1965-80, pp. 106-09), which curves round to give the impression of fluttering in a truly curtain-like manner.

Contemporary precedents of skin rigorism include Buckminster Fuller's experiments with the Dymaxion Deployment Unit (1927). Resembling an onion dome sitting on the ground, it disguises behind its industrial bulbous skin its mysterious cupola structure. Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Streamlined Moderne' curved walls of the 1930s, undoubtedly inspired by the skin design of the American car, led to the glass-tubed, curved skin of the Johnson Wax Tower, a direct descendant of which is Francisco Javier Saenz de Oiza's Banco de Bilbao (Madrid, 1971-78).

Concrete too has had its use in skin rigorism. Structure and skin are combined in the curvaceous, biomorphic-streamlined walls by Oscar Niemeyer, particularly graceful in his Bobigny Bourse du Travail (1972-80) and in his Maison de la Culture in Le Havre (1972-82). Mario Bellini's Industrial and Office Complex on the Via Kuliscioff (Milan, 1982-88, pp. 218-19) and, certainly, Aurelio Galfetti's Public Tennis Club in Bellinzona (1982-85, pp. 142-43) also stand out as excellent examples of the exceptionally rigorous treatment of the building's skin.

The metaphor of a building's exterior as epidermis was carried further in the rippling profiles of the facades of Henri Gaudin's ceramic tile-covered housing project on the Rue Ménilmontant in Paris (1987). Rather than keeping the structure a complete unknown behind the skin, columns are permitted to emerge occasionally between sliced slots, giving the effect not of laceration but of playful hide-and-seek.

Mies van der Rohe's Glass Skyscraper of 1922, although only a paper project, had for decades been an unchallenged example of skin architecture whose effects could only be imagined through the suggestive power of the drawing. Quite possibly it was Foster's precedent for his Willis, Faber & Dumas Head Office (Ipswich, 1970-75, pp. 74-77), perhaps the most eminent example of this trend up to now. The suspended glass skin, with its puzzling geometry and equivocal effects, now reflective, now revealing, put forth the new poetics of the skin most forcefully, which become the overriding element in the design of the whole building. In the tight urban context of Ipswich, the mirroring effect was both sympathetic to the old fabric, indeed almost sentimental, as well as surrealistic. A similar mirroring effect, but used in an open space and applied to a spherical shape and to a spherical scheme, as in the Géode of Adrien Fainsilber (Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, Paris, 1980-86, pp. 172-73), achieved a symbolic quality. It became an icon of the potential of cognition to map vast amounts of information about the universe onto highly compressed capsules of representation.

If the rigorist poetics of function had to rely on the expressiveness of the shape of inhabited volumes and their location, and if the rigorist poetics of structure relied on the sculptural effects of the skeleton, or on the proportion and rhythm of its elements, where perfection was measured at the scale of the metre, or at most the centimetre, then the poetics of the mirror-glass curtain depended on seamless detailing and the millimetre.

Not all skin rigorism relied on the mirroring effect or on the translucency and transparency of the glass covering. In fact, signs of fatigue quickly appeared. This invited the use of a completely different skin material together with a different poetics. Repetitive, uneventful, occasionally dull and quiet, but still carrying the sensitivity of crafted detailing and the intensity that large, obsessively well-ordered surfaces can evoke, building skins made of wood or metal began to be used. These also concealed structure and internal divisions and avoided the use of openings which would interrupt the uniformity, regularity or smoothness of the protective covering. The resulting lack of scale, on the one hand, magnifies the slightest detail, while on the other, it emphasizes the overall profile of the building.

There is a tension between these two extremes, the exaggerated contrast of large-size volume and small-size detail, interacting through mutual estrangement and mutually reinforcing each other's identity. The fragmented, analytical nature of most non-skin rigorist buildings, with openings yawning between solids, with vertical elements contrasted with horizontals, appears excessively bombastic and brutal in relation to the subtleties and delicacies of skin architecture, the qualities of which are brought forth with mastery in the skin of the external walls of, for instance, Peter Zumthor's protection shed in Chur (1985-86, pp. 160-63), or in Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's Ricola Storage Building (Laufen, Switzerland, 1986-87).

In contrast to the meticulous standardization of elements of the external walls in these two projects, the fishscale-like tiles which cover Renzo Piano's Bercy II Shopping Centre (Paris, 1987-90, pp. 248-51) have great individuality; almost every scale is different in size and shape. The result appears organic, the fishscale-like tiles bizarrely appropriate to the fish-like shape of the building. The tiles are, however, only superficially mimetic or organic: the intricate geometric arrangement of the roof tiles emerges as a cognitive map of a highly abstract and subtle system of spatial ordering, not periodic but variant, and thus more exciting than the repetitive tile patterns in, say, a Roman mosaic. The tiling on the roof is a representation of a rule system, a game, through which a unit is moved along a surface, a curved surface, and, along the way, its figure is translated and modified to adapt to the changing constraints of the surface without leaving any gaps, any imperfections, as it continues. Contemplating this kind of conceptual game can have a sublime effect.

Oscar Niemeyer, Maison de la Culture, Le Havre (1972-82)

Henri Gaudin
Henri Gaudin, housing block on the Rue Menilmontant, Paris (1987)

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Ricola Storage Building, Laufen, Switzerland (1986-87)

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Ricola Storage Building, Laufen, Switzerland (1986-87)

Another type of skin rigorism, perceived especially if we look at the building from above, is that of Piano's teflon-coated fibreglass membrane used on the site of the old Schlumberger Industrial Plant on the periphery of Paris (pp. 120-23), as opposed to Frei Otto's tents of the 1960s, or Michael Hopkins' translucent, teflon-coated fibreglass membrane of the Schlumberger Laboratories in Cambridge (pp. 124-25), where the structure supportingthe tent is loudly proclaimed. In Piano's Schlumberger structure the supports of the protruding curves of the membrane remain a mystery, very much like the bones behind the taut skin of a young torso.

Piano is not only a poet and mathematician of the built skin, he is also a great experimentalist. In Bercy II, at IRCAM and in the housing project of the Ruede Meaux (Paris, 1988-91, pp. 264-67), he has investigated the possibilities of layers of skin that enjoy relative independence from the external wall of which it is a part. In contrast to previous ways of pressing and gluing the two together, this multi-layer approach, which exploits new developments in ceramics, plastics and metal, will without question revolutionize not only economic, technical and ecological aspects of architecture as they relate to the exterior of buildings, but also the quality of the man-made environment as a work of art.

Critical regionalism

After a long period of disrepute, regionalism once again emerged as a dominant architectural tendency during the 1970s and '80s. It had little to do, however, with the means and aims of the sentimental, scenographic, nationalist regionalism of the past, nor was it chauvinistic, as in the case of the various expressions of regionalism of the last two centuries. Yet there was a common thread linking the two versions: both aimed to create an architecture of 'place', in relation to which the individual does not feel alone or alien: regionalism tried to create an architecture of belonging, of 'community'.17

As in the past, the regionalism of the 1970s and '80s identified particular and local determinants of design in opposition to general and universal norms. In conceiving the Mazzorbo housing project (pp. 198-201), for example, Giancarlo De Carlo proceeded to find shapes of windows, entrances, fireplaces and chromatic structures from houses of the Venetian Lagoon from which to develop the equivalent elements of his new project. As in the past, the new regionalism used the existing architectural attributes of a region to achieve regionalist aims, that is, to tag onto a building its 'place' and 'social' identity. Finally, as in the past, regionalism was used to express aspirations of liberation from the brute force of a priori dogmas imposed by a power perceived as foreign and illegitimate.

In his essay on German architecture, Goethe had set out to identify architectural elements from the Gothic cathedral of Strasbourg, an 'astonishing ..barbaric ... mass of details', which he recognized, nevertheless, as 'German': 'our architecture'. He juxtaposed these elements with classical 'French' architecture which he considered to have been imposed from 'another region', producing a 'uniformity [which] presses upon the soul'.18 The alien oppressor that the new regionalism in the 1970s and '80s opposed was not an occupying authority, but the expanding realm of bureaucracy and technocracy as well as the centrifugal commercial forces liquidating the urban realm and its accompanying urban life. In this spirit, Luis Marin de Teran and Aurelio del Pozo's La Corza housing in Seville (1984-85) borrowed architectural elements from the local working-class district of Triana and the yellow ochre ground from the park of Maria Luisa in Seville, rather than applying the standard, official, technocratic housing types.

The sense of the longed-for 'place' and community, however, in the new regionalism was meant to be open and broad, not confined to ethnic constraints. The form of the court house in the Barrio del Canyeret by Amado and Domenech (Lerida, 1982-90, pp. 238-41) repeats elements from the fortification above the new building which correspond to the wave-like shape of the citadel and result in a form reminiscent of a wall enclosing a coherent old town. The new building, however, is not in the least suggestive of a new, fortified, closed society. What it provides, in addition to an 'image' of community, is in fact a promenade, a rambla just like the existing citadel wall offers. Consequently, it creates a generous and highly gratifying public space with wonderful views and good for strolling, an architectural/ urbanistic opportunity conducive to human encounters. Once again, the project contrasts with the technocratic, bureaucratic alternative of official public complexes, surrounded by its car park and efficiently aggregating services within a compact volume.

The roots of the regionalism of the past, which can be called romantic regionalism, can be traced back at least to 19th-century English picturesque and its search for a genius loci. Goethe's notion of an architecture 'true to the region', as opposed to a 'paternalistically' imposed one from 'another region', employed elements from the buildings of a nationalisti-cally defined area whose identity it wanted to preserve. Romantic regionalism was the cultural counterpart of the 19th-century political movements of emancipation from a declining, absolutist and aristocratic world order. And in its effort to hammer home a sense of unity, romantic regionalism developed what is in fact an architecture of nostalgia and memory. In this architecture the viewer was meant to feel an almost hallucinatory sense of participation in a common ethnic past.

Long after traditional 19th-century regionalism based on ethnicity had gone, romantic regionalist architecture of remarkable technical ingenuity continued to be produced. It coexisted harmoniously with an advanced technological and socio-economic infrastructure, in countries such as Finland, well into the 20th century. One can find, even today, such examples in the work of Imre Mackovecz and Beño Taba in Hungary.

The distinctive character of contemporary regionalism is not only 'adversary', as with romantic regionalism; it is 'critical' as well. This sounds like a contradiction in terms, since 'regionalism' connotes positive if not conservative values, while critical' implies negativism if not radicalism. Critical, in the sense we use this term, is closer to the Kantian critique, and also to the agitated writings of the Frankfurt School; it challenges not only the actual world, but also the legitimacy of possible world views. In other words, it challenges, it critiques, habits of thinking and the role of clichés. In terms of architecture, this critical viewpoint is based cognitively, and aesthetically, on 'defamiliarization'.

Defamiliarization, a concept closely related to Brecht's Verfremdung ('estranging'), but also to the Aristotelian xenicon, was coined by the literary critic Victor Schklovsky in the 1920s. He defined it as aiming to 'prick consciousness' and destroy the hypnotic effect of contemporary consumer culture.19 In the manzana patio of the Seville housing by Cruz and Ortiz (1974-76, pp. 82-83), the traditional regional rectilinear form is unexpectedly replaced by a kidney-shaped one. Consequently, while the spatial component remains the same, it reappears in an unexpected shape, thus precluding any sentimental and scenographic effects. By introducing such an architectural component traditionally associated with community, the intention of the architects is to remind its users of its meaning and warn of the potential loss of that community, which might occur in the process of technological advancement and the bureaucratic rationalization of the city. By using this element, the architects imply that they are trying to arrest this process. The same is the case with Luis Marin de Terán and Aurelio del Pozo's La Corza (Seville, 1985), where the regional elements are meshed with others reminiscent of Bruno Taut and Ernst May's social housing which create similar defamiliarization effects.

One of the most intricate uses of defamiliarization in the framework of critical regionalism is to be found in Rafael Moneo's Museo Nacional de Arte Romano in Merida (1980-86, pp. 148-51). The employment of regional elements is evident. The aura of romanidad is overpowering, created by the arched walls and naves which surround the visitor and which are constructed out of hand-crafted Seville bricks of the same dimensions as their Roman predecessors. But what is even more impressive is the deliberate conflict that is set up between the grid-system, on which these neo-Roman elements are laid, and the grid of the original Roman remains on which they rest. The two spatial schemata superimposed in confrontation not only prohibit a sentimental and scenographic identification with a chauvinistic past, as would have been the case in a romantic approach; they also elicit a chain of reflections about the continuity of urban life and community today.

In the first half of the 20th century, regionalism manifested itself, at times, in ways that were far from noble. This type of architecture was exploited by Nazis and Fascists with a view to neo-tribal, atavistic ends. Another exploitative form in which regionalism resurfaces in this century is tourism. While the ends of tourist-motivated regionalism are economic, as opposed to political, the means are the same - an architecture which is based on familiarization with the past. The products of tourist regionalism are ultimately as kitsch as those of political regionalism.

In the period after the Second World War, we encounter Stalinist neo-folkloristic regionalism, but also that of Lewis Mumford, which he proposed as an alternative to the creeping 'imperial order' of post-war 'technocracy' and 'despotism', to the 'mechanical order', indeed to the international style and modernism in general which, he thought, had lost by then much of its original emancipatory and rational character. Mumford also reflected an anxiety over the free-wheeling maximization of choice in the United States based on mobility, or rather automobility, and electronic communications, and the contempt of a new generation of planners for what was perceived as the 'deep seated doctrine that seeks order in simple, mappable patterns', as the prominent sociologist Melvin Webber put it. While very little was built in the United States, in Europe a regionalism following ideas close to Mumford's resulted in a few buildings which still stand today, such as the Torre Velasca in Milan by Ernesto Rogers, Lodovico Belgiojoso and Enrico Peressutti (1950-58), James Stirling's Preston Infill Housing (1957-59) and Giancarlo De Carlo's apartment house in Matera (mid-1950s). The critical regionalist tendency of the 1970s appears as a continuation and amplification of that brief moment of the 1950s, as expressed in Mumford's writings and in the buildings of Europe. Furthermore, the technique of estrangement practised by the critical regionalist architects, defamiliarizing familiar regional elements in order to represent on a higher cognitive level the idea of regionalism, parallels an approach suggested by Robert Venturi in his celebrated essay, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). In it, Venturi gave predominance to the desirability of using 'conventional element(s)', but in place of strangemaking, Venturi proposed the concept of vividness and the employment of 'convention unconventionally'.20

Critical regionalism did not result in an identifiable architectural style. That would have contradicted its very definition. The most deeply rooted way of expressing the identity of a place is by resorting to local myth and iconology. This is the case in Raili and Reima Pietilá's Tampere Main Library (1978-86, pp. 152-55) with its bird-like form. In this building, the very traditional regionalist design does not succumb to merely romantic folklorism. A primordial icon is married to contemporary technology and a contemporary, open way of life.

Oriol Bohigas
Josep Martorell, Oriol Bohigas and David Mackay, Thau School, Barcelona (1972-74)

Although the design strategy used by the Pietilâs and others makes use of a particular region's unique topographical characteristic, this is done by reincorporating it into the design of the project in the way the building relates to the site. Antonio Follina's Sports Club in Nervesa della Battaglia (Italy, 1971-75), Roberto Gabetti and Aimaro Isola's Conca Bianca residential complex outside Turin (1976-89), Luigi Snozzi's Casa Kalman in Locarno, Switzerland (1974-76, pp. 80-81), and Josep Martorell, Oriol Bohigas and David Mackay's Thau School in Barcelona (1972-74) are excellent demonstrations of this technique. In Mario Botta's house at Riva San Vitale in Ticino, Switzerland (1971-73, pp. 64-67), the three-dimensional scheme of the building is extracted from the region, then transferred back to the new structure by using rustic constructions to be found locally. Once again, the result is far from being a form of nationalist or touristic romanticism, or commercial, consumerist degradation. Similarly, Aldo van Eyck in Hubertus (1982-87, pp. 196-97) introduces a more abstract attribute, extracted from traditional Dutch domestic architecture, that of transparency and spatial depth, so frequently pictured in 17th-century Dutch painting.

In the case of Spanish architecture, one of the most fascinating cases of critical regionalism, we find volumes of prismatic purity constructed in impeccable brick, in a relatively broad area from Rafael Moneo's Bankinter (Madrid, 1973-76, pp. 78-79) and Antonio Velez's housing cooperative in Madrid (1979-82), to Clotet and Paricio's Banco de Espana in Gerona, near Barcelona (1982-85, pp. 132-33); this widespread occurrence reflects the fact that the regional element of the brick prism was broadly diffused through the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, the vivid colour of Antonio Barrionuevo's housing block in Pino Montano, Seville (1981-83, pp. 114-15), is unique, the product of a Sevillian regional architectural attribute. Equally unique are the granite panels used in the Galician projects of José Bar Boo's subsidized housing in Vigo (1977), as well as the intriguing configuration of a humble communal wash-house and meeting place by Pascuala Campos Michelena (1984) in the relatively isolated village of Comparo near Pontevedra, also in Galicia, which is related to the regional horreo, a stone granary on stilts wjth a pitched roof.

Regional elements originating in local architecture are identified, isolated, schematized and finally made new when used in a new context in the above mentioned projects, a process left most often to the architect's intuition. However, in the Mazzorbo housing project of Giancarlo De Carlo, who is committed to participatory architecture, the use of regional elements is not left to the architect's personal intuitions (pp. 198-201). De Carlo's historical exploration is not a one-way street; the users also have their say. It is here that his method which superficially resembles that of Aldo Rossi in its use of memory radically diverges from it. According to De Carlo, to identify the collective meaning of an architectural element one has to carry out a transaction, an interactive process requiring the participation of the place's inhabitants. It is only in this way that the resulting information can be put to an effective, emancipatory use, De Carlo believes. In this respect the Mazzorbo project might be considered part of - indeed at the forefront of - the populist as well as the critical regionalist movements. The work of Lucien Kroll, especially ZUP Perseigne (1978, pp. 92-95), also often combines populist and critical regionalist characteristics.

In its efforts to appeal to a wider public, or by succumbing to the pressures of commercialism, critical regionalism walked a tightrope during the 1970s and '80s. The danger it faced was often a reversion to earlier forms of regionalism - sentimental, scenographic, ethnocentric. There was as well the equally grave danger of deteriorating into an architecture of tourist commercialism. It must also be admitted that critical regionalism has appeared ineffectual in identifying a genius loci, in establishing 'placeness', and in sustaining community in the highly hostile conditions of the contemporary no-man's-land that exists on the periphery of the post-industrial, post-agrarian, post-urban landscape, conditions of a seemingly uncontrollable chaos of form, meaning, function and human ties.

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