The Lure of the Local:

A few observations on the global branding of regional architectures

Irina Davidovici

«Place-specific art would be an art that reveals new depths of a place to engage the viewer or inhabitant, rather than abstracting that place into generalisations that apply just as well to any other place.» Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local, 1997
The notion of architectural imports and exports – understood as the traffic of formal ideas and design methods across regional or national borders – implies the specificity of place. Once in a while, a collective architectural production, determined by a regional concentration of architects and building opportunities, emerges in the global architectural discourse as a vehicle of formal or programmatic innovation. The finding prompts a familiar cycle of consumption by professionals, comprising both ‘exports’ – the repeated coverage of this local architecture in exhibitions and specialist publications with international circulation, invitations to lecture or teach abroad – and ‘imports’, primarily in the form of an architectural audience drawn to the region with the purpose of visiting its newest landmarks. In the last decades, this recurrent cultural phenomenon has been manifest in the architecture from the Ticino in the 70s and 80s, Graubünden and Basel in the 1980s and 90s, and more recently Zurich. These architectural concentrations are, thankfully, not limited to Switzerland. In the last two decades, the work of some Spanish and British architects, and the architecture in regions like Vorarlberg and Flanders, have attracted comparable levels of attention for similar reasons.
An understanding of such regional trends, however, runs into trouble as soon as we try to define a more precise relation between production and location. The architectures under discussion are never homogeneously distributed across their territory, and are often defined as minorities themselves. Whether critical reactions against mainstream construction, or contemporary interpretations of a local, older and presumably more innocent ‘vernacular’ (more later of that troubled word), these productions do not describe the normative but the exceptional. The family houses – to take a few predominant examples – built by Galfetti, Botta, Snozzi, Ruchat and Durisch in the Ticino, or those of Zumthor, Bearth and Deplazes, or Clavuot in the Grisons, are not random samples of the kind of houses built at the time in their region, but programmatic exemplars establishing an ambivalent, when necessary defensive, relation to their surrounds. This built production does not represent the emanation of a given place’s culture but its colonisation, often with elements imported from elsewhere.
Which leads to a self-evident observation: imports and exports are relative, with one locale’s export becoming another’s import. Seeing how the 1970s Ticinese architecture – itself borrowing conceptual and formal elements from the Italian Tendenza – influenced that of Graubünden and Basel a decade later, or how the Basel 1980s ‘school’ contributed to the London production in the 1990s and that of Flanders nowadays, one can see that behind the formal and technical vocabularies specific to each of these moments, similar theoretical approaches and design methods can be identified. Notwithstanding local cultural inflections, all these productions seek the legibility of architecture through the use of contextual or historical references, associations and analogies; exalt ordinary types, ubiquitous environments and humble materials to the status of high architecture (or art); give particular thought to the tectonic and material articulation of meaningful forms. Such common strategies suggest that these regional swells of architectural quality feed off each other in traceable chains of influences. Changing over time, these relations are subject to the transition of individual protagonists from a local to a global status. The increase in professional prestige is proportional with the increase in the scale and geographic scope of architectural operations. To be sure, Herzog & de Meuron’s confident early trajectory from small local commissions in the Basel region, through the articulation of a rigorous intellectual platform, to a series of strategic writings, exhibitions and publications, to winning the Tate competition in 1997 – a defining moment in their global career – was unique in its ambition, but it well illustrates this kind of expansion from a local to a global power base. The ‘export’ stories have ‘import’ counterparts, with several British, Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and German practices currently active in Switzerland, both in teaching and practice. In both directions, short study trips to visit the ‘local’ architecture first seen in a magazine or exhibition may become longer spells working for the local architects, lead to independent competition entries and commissions, teaching exchanges in the form of visiting or permanent positions, and so on, to the formation of multi-national offices. In time, the thickness of professional exchanges and interests becomes such that the linear vectors of export and import can barely do them justice.
It is a paradox that the local-specific design strategies of many practices, once developed and tested on a specific cultural ground, develop sufficient autonomy from it to survive being grafted onto different territories and cultures. What, then, of the vexed idea of a regional architecture? Under the rubric of import-export, the current issue of Werk, Bauen + Wohnen tests the paradoxical hypothesis that the local output in the career of architects often forms the early body of work, whose experimental and programmatic character allows them to gradually increase their range of activities and access an international, if not global, level of professional prestige. Thus, ‘local’ architecture becomes a vehicle to showcase architectural abilities that transcend the character of the original place, being able to fulfil their potential virtually anywhere. An oeuvre that relies heavily upon a formal vocabulary culturally embedded into, and identifiable with, the architecture of a region, can only transit to a different region or to a globally intelligible architecture (whatever this may be) through an act of active, transformative interpretation. On the other hand, there are projects that, while built in the remote / peripheral / alpine / rural locations normally associated with vernacular culture and modern “critical regionalist” interpretations thereof, are internally structured by universalist geometric or conceptual orders that already emancipate them from their immediate context. One cannot look at Valerio Olgiati’s work in Graubünden as regional or culturally mimetic, even though its relation to its context is carefully judged (or, at least, carefully subsumed under the greater attraction of conceptual coherence). As for Peter Zumthor’s masterly evocation of ‘authentic’ regional structures, for all the endless fascination it has caused in the last thirty years, it has long been known that its relation to place is a carefully staged construct, more distant to Haldenstein, Chur or Vals than to Zumthor’s native Basel, where he recently unveiled the Beyeler extension design. Conversely, architecture in the cities, like the works of Diener & Diener in Basel, or those of Gigon and Guyer in Zurich, engage with ideas of urban or metropolitan anonymity that reject regional connotations. The very notion of the ‘local’ becomes contested, if not impossible, in relation to the urban realm.
These observations make it necessary to distinguish not only between regions and cities, but also between regional productions and individual agendas. I’d like to advance an understanding of regional productions as intrinsically collective. Unlike singular landmarks that challenge the scale of their location, like Le Corbusier’s Unité or Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, the regional draw generally consists of spread-out collections of modest, mostly ordinary commissions, such as the collection of houses and infrastructural works with which Gion Caminada put his native Vrin in the architecture guides. Private houses, schools, bridges or fire stations, even small museums in remote parts are more likely to become architectural destinations when the nearness of other projects creates the critical mass that warrants the displacement. However, and here’s the rub, the variety of agencies and actors that gave rise to the built production tend to be ignored in the critical professional discourse. The focus on photogenic artefacts distracts the international architectural audience from examining the circumstances of their production, leading to an incomplete understanding of the phenomenon at hand. The projected population increase that causes a commune or canton to commission new schools, the funding freed up by an enlightened mayor for infrastructure improvement, the demand for tourist accommodation, the personality of a Baumeister, the middle-class values or cultural aspirations of a segment of the local population that allow their private homes turn into vehicles of architectural experimentation – these conditions, without whom the architecture would not happen, are often silenced in the professional discourse. Under the cover of privacy or irrelevance, they are furtively mentioned as dispensable props, rather than the political, economic and cultural armature that has made the formal production possible.
The collectivism of truly regional architectures extends to their architects. In a defined territory, even those intent on pursuing personal artistic experiments are eventually caught up in a wider professional network, or acquire sufficient followers to initiate their own. Much as architects like to put themselves forward as singular creative forces, in practice they interact in a restricted economy of opportunities and competitions, partnerships and rivalries. Nevertheless, architects that are more interested in defining their artistic individuality find it cumbersome to ackn
owledge the factors outside their own volition that have contributed at one time or another to their professional development. This renders the collective character of regional architectures contestable – as suggested by the difficulty of finding appropriate labels, besides the neutral soundbite of “recent architecture in… (insert location)”. 1Just as being resistant to the profusion of –isms in architectural history, architects are uncomfortable with the connection between their artistic or formal principles and national or regional characteristics. There is, rightly, the concern that such labels may act as a cover for insularity, local bias or nationalist leanings. Yet there is, also, the pull of individualism – the concern that a fictional grouping of buildings and names might obscure their personal contribution.
Which takes us to a final consideration, that of genealogies, or ‘schools’, within the private logic of regional architectures. In Switzerland, both ETH and Fachhochschulen education propagate their own professional networks into the various regions. This projection is doubled up by the formational pedigree bestowed upon younger practices, not only by individual teachers, but also former employers. The mark of the ‘master’ is a mixed blessing, instrumental in establishing a substantial body of work, while at the same time interfering with its credibility. The younger architectural generations currently practicing in Ticino, Graubünden, Geneva and Lausanne, Zurich and Basel have a full fight on their hands trying to emerge from the shadow of the famous elders who have taught them, or with whom they once worked. A difficult task, since the previous generations, through sometimes tenuous, sometimes direct connections to grandpapa Rossi and the analogue fathers at ETH, have articulated something that I believe eluded Bernard Hoesli in his own attempt to “make modern architecture teachable”: a design method with quasi-universal applicability. How can one transcend the perfect circularity of concept-led design, the appeal of tactile textures, the correctness of historical and typological quotations, the relativity of autobiographical references? The recent survey proposed by the exhibition Schweizweit at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel saw a great number of young practice attempting to negotiate personal approaches in relation to this expansive, apparently limitless, methodological corpus. While distancing themselves from the restrictions of both ‘concept’ and ‘context’, many participants betrayed the ballast of their formation by engaging, without questioning, with the notion of “vernacular” proposed by the curators. The willingness with which references were made either to rural situations or architectures, or to natural or quasi-natural formations like stacks of stone or wood, amounted to a visual “jargon of authenticity” that goes some way to explain the continuing appeal of the ‘local’ as a global brand. As Theodor Adorno warned in relation to language, the authenticity thus evoked has long been utterly inaccessible. Architects need to reconnect with the historical fact of its absence.

1Occasionally, critics find the right sonority of a term to denote the specificity of a production. Tendenza, coined by Massimo Scolari in 1973, encapsulated in a concise and resonant way the sophisticated body of ideas adopted by the postwar Italian network grouped around Casabella in Milan and IUAV in Venice, denoting at the same time its main protagonists, Rossi, Aymonino, Grassi. In the process, however, Scolari usurped a word out of its general useage. “Tendenza” was charged with cultural and historic particularity in an inspired but nevertheless instrumental manner, as if tendencies of other kinds were of a sudden no longer possible. Some claim of exclusivity was certainly implied. In the next few years, as the term tendenza was adopted, in translation or in original, to denote similar approaches in the architecture of the Ticino, France or Spain, Francesco Dal Co publicly bemoaned its “overuse”. Martin Steinmann used Tendenzen in 1975 in a more ambivalent way to denote the recent work of a (mostly, not exclusively) ETH-trained group of architects in the Ticino, acknowledging the theoretical influence of the Italian Tendenza but also, by using a plural form, the heterogeneity of their own outputs. (The distinction was too fine to catch on, and nowadays people still talk of a Ticino Tendenza.) Other collectivist terms, like Frampton’s description of ‘the Ticino school’, proved more confusing, suggesting that the architects in the region who adhered to the approach he singled out had been trained in the same institution.