In so many ways, the world has never been smaller than it is right now. From global trade and long-haul flights to Facebook and Google, systems operate across every continent with less friction than ever before.
This paradigm shift from local to global is also evident within architecture, where buildings influenced by the International style continue to rise at an incredible rate in metropolises around the globe.
As glass and steel towers proliferate and each city begins to look like the next, many in the profession are grappling with a fundamental question: Are vernacular construction methods, materials, and styles in danger of dying out?
“That’s a very important question, if not the most important of our time,” says architect Chris Precht, founding partner of international firm Penda. It’s an issue that Precht has had to consider ever since his studio was born in 2013. Despite its small size, the firm works at an international scale, with projects under way throughout China, Israel, and beyond. Precht is concerned by the increasing homogeneity of the urban landscape, pointing the finger squarely at capitalism as the key driver of this phenomenon. “It doesn’t matter if you look at New York, London, or Beijing; the buildings look and function the same way,” laments Precht. “They are composed of cores surrounded by expansive real estate. It is the age of capitalism; the money is in building, not in architecture. If all our buildings look the same, how can anyone be inspired by them?”
But Precht believes that it all is not lost. “It is up to a new generation of architects to question the status quo,” he said. Penda is leading the way in this respect – Precht and his team rigorously analyze the context of each new project, studying its cultural, social, and artistic influences before lifting a pencil or switching on a laptop to begin drawing. “We ask ourselves questions: What are the strengths of the local builders? What is the local material? What are traditional building methods?”
Top: the Tel Aviv Arcades by Penda. Above: Penda’s Snow Apartment features plaster by local artisans.
This considered approach leads to architecture that is grounded in local knowledge, with many examples developed in Penda’s home country, China. “Our Snow Apartment, located in the north of China, builds upon the skills of local craftsmen with plaster,” says Precht. “For the south of China, we developed bamboo systems that are easy to install for local builders.” One of Penda’s most ambitious projects to date is situated in a very different context, one that involved extensive research. “For a tower in Tel Aviv, we were inspired by the old town of Jaffa and its haptic stone materiality,” explains Precht. The proposed high-rise structure, named Tel Aviv Arcades, is a striking exemplar of contemporary vernacular design – its cascading arches and terraces provide shading that makes sense for the project’s environmental context, while also paying homage to the city’s legacy of Bauhaus architecture.
Across the Atlantic, another internationally renowned architect is intent on keeping localism alive in the profession. British architect Sir David Adjaye took to the stage to speak about the challenges of contextual design during the TimesTalks Art + Design Festival, where he and influential curator Thelma Golden talked about the development of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
A rendering of Sir David Adjaye’s design for the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Rendering: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates
“[Thelma Golden’s] primary brief to us was…to encapsulate her analysis of Harlem, and that was really powerful,” said Adjaye. “She talked about trying to see if we could make a building that captured the spirituality of Harlem, trying to capture its theatricality. In my work, I [try to] stop my automatic tendency to design things that I know, to design the familiar. I’m always trying to find…a way of really placing myself in that context and manifesting what I think the work is about. So, this brief was propulsion fuel – it [didn’t] allow me to be subversive in any way or have my own clandestine operations, to go and look at things and let them influence the way I was going to work. It allowed the team to go straight into the content that [Golden] provided.”
Taking inspiration from what he called “the residue of a place,” Adjaye proposed a stepped five-story building that takes cues from Harlem’s brownstone buildings, churches, and bustling sidewalks. One of the museum’s primary features will be an “inverted stoop,” a 200-seat, bleacher-style stair that forms an informal auditorium for screenings and performances. This social hub is influenced by the streets directly outside the museum’s doors. It is an indication that today’s definition of “vernacular” might extend beyond form and materiality to encompass program and functionality. Groundbreaking for the project is anticipated by late fall of 2018, with completion scheduled for 2021.
The “inverted stoop” at the Studio Museum.
Rendering: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates
Israeli architect Asaf Gottesman, founder of Gottesman Architecture, a new firm dedicated to architecture-led developments, also believes vernacular architecture is alive and well. “We work in many countries, the majority in Europe, and though architecture is a global language, there’s always an element of originality that gives a certain character to the work in each place,” he argues. “Some of it is driven by local regulations and others by building techniques.” The former of these influences can be seen on almost every block of midtown New York, where buildings like Jean Nouvel’s 53W53 – a contextual skyscraper shaped by the city’s zoning laws – echothe carved silhouettes of historic landmarks built in the 1920s.
Whether the primary driving force is regulation, materiality, or social context, there is a resilient desire among many architects to design buildings that speak to their surroundings. In their own unique ways, Precht, Adjaye, and Gottesman appear to channel Kenneth Frampton’s theories on critical regionalism, aiming to bridge the gap between international practice and the unique qualities of local environments. Paradoxically, the global exchange of information granted by the internet has given designers the ability to research both places and people with a rigor that was impossible in 1983, when Frampton wrote his seminal essay on the topic. How these ideas manifest themselves in the years to come remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain – rumors of the death of vernacular architecture have been greatly exaggerated.