Critical Regionalism and Brutalism: Part 2

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In my last post I argued that the dissimilar architectural movements of Critical Regionalism and Brutalism shared several key principles:

  • Belief in the emancipatory potential of modern architecture
  • Rejection of the of the International Style (Critical Regionalists for its placelessness; Brutalists for its lack of tactile presence and devaluation by its postwar corporate clientele)
  • Emphasis on rough-hewn materiality of vernacular and indigenous buildings
  • Appreciation for the geometric simplicity of vernacular form combined with a commitment to transform rather than mimic this form

The following are 5 buildings which have features of both Critical Regionalism and Brutalism.


Saynatsalo Town Hall, Saynatsalo, Finland, 1949: Aalto, Alvar

Saynatsalo Town Hall

Saynatsalo Town Hall

Saynatsalo Town Hall (Photo: Galinksky)

Saynatsalo Town Hall (Photo: Galinksky)

Both Frampton and Banham cite Saynatsalo’s relevance to, respectively, Critical Regionalism and Brutalism.

Frampton uses the building’s promenading path, involving changes in elevation, as an example of architecture that brings kinesthetic and tactile experience together (Frampton 1983: 28). Banham states that Saynatsalo was a significant influence on early Brutalists (Banham: 47). This can be seen in its simple, sculptural, volumetric form. It’s influence can also be seen in the work of the “Brick Brutalists,” architects who branched off of the béton brut construction which dominated Brutalism (Banham: 125-126).


La Martella, Matera, Italy, 1951: Quaroni, Ludovico, et al

La-Martella (Photo:

La-Martella (Photo:

Along with Saynatsalo, Banham cites Ludovico Quaroni’s work at La Martella as an influence on early Brutalists. The use of heavy, rusticated walls and simple volumetric forms alludes to the preindustrial rural masonry vernacular appreciated by some early Brutalists.

These same characteristics qualify it as a critical regionalist building. The building appears to draw directly from the local indigenous architecture of “sassi (literally “stones”) cliff dwellings (Wolfe).” Wolfe points out the how these buildings were ”adapted” to regional climate, “cool, moist winter climate and hot and dry summers.”  The walls appear to be made of the local sandstone tuffa.

Maisons Jaoul, Paris, 1954: Le Corbusier

The later history of the New Brutalism has much less to do with the theoretical propositions of the Smithsons than it has to do with the progress and permutations of the style invented by Le Corbusier for these two-houses-on-one-podium at Neuilly. They ‘became’ Brutalism . . .

(Banham: 85)

Maisons-Jaoul (Photo:

Maisons-Jaoul (Photo:

Banham describes the houses’ Brutalist features:

Material ‘as found,’ their power as an ‘image,’ . . .  raw concrete and exposed brickwork . . . wall as a surface [texture] not a pattern . . . crude and primitivistic building techniques . . . the labor that built them ‘with ladders, hammers and nails’ was ‘Algerian.’

(Banham: 85-86)

Their tactile surfaces of local, roughly laid brick, combined with their modernist forms and cut-out openings qualify the Maisons Jaoul houses as examples of Critical Regionalism.


Sugden House, Hertfordshire, UK, 1956: Smithson, Alison and Peter   

Sugden House (Photo: Kalle Söderman

Sugden House (Photo: Kalle Söderman

Sugden House (Photo: Kalle Söderman

Sugden House (Photo: Kalle Söderman

The Sudgen House shows the Smithsons’ interest in “peasant dwelling forms” and materials. This was a strikingly original approach for architects whose Miesian Hunstanton School is considered one of the first exemplars of the New Brutalism.

It foreshadows early postmodernist architects’ technique of transforming a vernacular house form by punching openings in the skin as determined by light and views rather than by classical compositional principles. Its open plan expresses another modernist tenet.

The house is modern yet also regionalist:

  • English cottage form
  • Traditional brick loadbearing walls
  • Exposed heavy timber beams in the interior

This project actually shows the Smithsons more in line with the béton brut inspired, rough-hewn masonry Brutalism, than the Miesian-inspired Brutalism of Hunstanton. The dominant texture is rough:

  • Rough-face, rough-laid brick
  • Tile roofing, sloped and prominent
  • Rough-face timbers

The tactility of honest materials.


Biennale Sculpture Garden, Giardino delle Sculture, Venice, 1950-1952: Carlo Scarpa

Biennale Sculpture Garden (Photo: "SEIER+SEIER"

Biennale Sculpture Garden (Photo: “SEIER+SEIER”

Although not a Brutalist design, Scarpa’s use of rough-hewn textures and sculptural volumetric forms is right out of the Brutalist playbook.

The pavilion roof deftly frames the rich fabric of the brick wall of the adjacent historic building. It creates a dialectic of abstract and tangible. The circular opening orchestrates changing patterns of light, shade and shadow indexing diurnal and seasonal cycles of sunlight.

Scarpa’s Garden shows how Critical Regionalism can use bricolage to combine found elements – the historic wall – and new elements – canopy and planter/pillar. Scarpa was noteworthy for being a modernist architect who respected the past and wove contextual elements into his designs. Formally, it echoes Le Corbusier’s play of traditionalist rough-hewn masonry masses against modernist smooth-surfaced planes.


Sources Cited:

Banham, Reyner. The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1966.

Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.” The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983.

Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Frampton, Kenneth. “Ten Points on an Architecture of Regionalism: A Provisional Polemic. Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition. Ed. Vincent B. Canizaro. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.

Wolfe, Charles R. “Lessons From Italy’s Matera, the Sustainable City of Stone.”


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013


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