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Regionalism and the Global City, Essay Example

Pages: 11

Words: 2900

Essay

Introduction

Often controversial, architects and their art are often in the news. As I was considering this paper’s topic, Michael Graves, described by the Los Angeles Times as an “Architect, designer, and exemplar of postmodernism”[1] died. His obituary gave me some timely food for thought, because as the designer of the controversial (and disliked) Portland Municipal Services Building and a member first of the New York Five and later the Memphis Group, I wondered if his work — the Portland building in particular — represented a kind of compact traveling regionalism. (It does not.) As I mulled that over, National Public Radio’s Sunday Weekend Edition carried a story[2] about Joseph Eichler, the progressive East Coast architect who built artistic and useable homes for midcentury Californians. Was this a kind of transplanted regionalism? (Sort of.) Then, while I was at an actual library for a bit of preliminary research, I found by chance a magazine advertising-supplement selling readers on its bold, high-tech, and eco-friendly future vision of the two historic world cities of Singapore and Amsterdam. [3]

Good books on architecture are easy to find too. I found an excellent one containing a reference to the Prince of Wales’ comment in 1987 to the Corporation of the City of London that “post-war planners and developers had done more damage to our cities than war-time bombing by the Luftwaffe.” [4] I thought of a stray fact that had lodged in my mind for years: after that war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that the bomb-destroyed House of Commons be rebuilt exactly as it had been before, as its relatively small size had encouraged face-to-face interactions between members. Was this a case of form following function — or vice versa? I quickly learned that for Modernists, form follows function, and that Global City interest in Modernist design reflected the fact that throughout the 60s’ and ‘70s “it was virtually impossible to receive any commissions without conforming to it.”[5]

Form, Function, Modernism

Stewart Brand said that Form Follows Function is “a beautiful lie. Form froze function” but then added “It didn’t matter. Life charges on and pushes mere material out of the way . . .” [6] That is bound to happen differently in different regions, especially among home- and business-owning amateur architects. Still at the library, I judged one book by its title and opened it at random and found a chapter subheading entitled Bioregionalism and the locally distinctive.[7] Clearly, an area’s ecology depends on its natural climate as well as the people in it, past, present, and future. So there will always be a pull towards regionalism that Modernism cannot snuff out with its faceless internationalist single-purpose towers, about which Jane Jacobs’, writing in 1961, commented: “North is the same as south, or east as west. Sometimes north, south, east and west are all alike, as they are when you stand within the grounds of a large project.” [8]

To be a regionalist is, at least to a certain extent, to be seen to fight the Leviathan known as Modernism, akaFunctionalism (form following function) and International Style. As one critic states, “In the twentieth century, from Lewis Mumford to Kenneth Frampton, resistance has occupied the center of regionalist discourse.”[9] And so, armed with my very preliminary survey of the arena of architectural combat, I selected Canizaro’s book and Saskia Sassen’s The Global City: Introducing a Concept  to develop my thesis, which is that both Regionalism and its perceived opposite Modernism are mainly about money, power, and diversity of use.

Regionalism

The first point to address is architectural regionalism itself: exactly what is it? First, Canizaro offers the most obvious one basis for the ism:  “A region is, first, a large area with boundaries determined by a range of cultural and natural criteria.”[10] And then the ism itself: “Regionalism is variously a concept, strategy, tool, technique, attitude, ideology, or habit of thought . . . collectively it is a theory that supports resistance [again] to various forms of hegemonic, universal, or otherwise standardizing structures that would diminish local differentiation”[11] — presumably meaning anti-local Modernism, Functionalism, International Style, etc. He goes on to distinguish between regionalism in architecture and its country cousin, provincialism, as well as regionalism in design. It is a wordy, theory-laden field.

Canizaro proposes two primary objections to Regionalism: historicity and authenticity, which is to say, regionalists impose falsity by using styles from an area’s past; or they may impose one region’s heritage on another region that resembles it, like the way the Spanish red-tile roof in California became such a standard element of its regional style that people assumed it to be native to the area when it was really an invented tradition. [12] To use an analogy,[13] what would music critics think of a singer who uncreatively mimicked the styles of songs from an area’s past, like bluegrass or any other distinctly styled music from the  region of the American South? It would basically be a novelty. If someone made a successful of it, what would it say about the musical tastes of those who listed to such songs? On the other hand, if someone could use such local history creatively — as many musicians have done  — that would be another matter altogether. But the success would have to be more than local to be a success.

But we can come up with at least two genuinely different definitions of architectural regionalism, based less (or not at all) on theory, but in actuality — how regionalism — or a certain kind of regionalism — really manifests itself, and why. To do this, we must first acknowledge that architecture includes more than monumental buildings by star architects costing millions — it also includes houses and the complete range of more humble and utilitarian buildings. This kind of regionalism involves what happens to buildings that are no longer owned or occupied by whoever originally designed them. Such buildings and their spaces are almost invariably put to different uses: they adapt (or “learn” in Brand’s view). Those uses clearly depend on the ecology and economy of the region, be that region a city of state or several of both. It is common for new uses to change a building’s exterior — except for the changeless  Modernist skyscrapers housing now one company and then another, for which only the name at the top changes. The entire range of processes is detailed in Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, mentioned earlier. He has an entire chapter dedicated to the Modernist credo that Form Follows Function. It is entitled “Function Melts Form.” We can informally summarize this form of regionalism as Adaptionism. One striking manifestation of Adaptionism would be (and is)  access to a building’s services — pipes and wiring — to enable occupants and their contractors to make whatever changes to such services are needed, without having to rip the walls, floors, and ceilings to pieces. Here form is reshaped continually to accommodate a range of functions. Brand cites the Main Building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a kind of exemplar. Designed in 1916 by John R. Freeman, a hydraulic engineer, he specified:

An abundance of window light and a flood of controlled ventilation  with tempered and filtered air; Maximum economy in energy and time of students and instructors; Maximum economy in cost of efficient service in heating; ventilating, janitor service, and general maintenance; Maximum resistance to fire, decay, and wear; Maximum economy of cost of building per square foot of useful floor space . . . [14]

What is “regional” about such principles? On the face of it, nothing. But how they were implemented is necessarily regional. For one thing, it was built as a result of MIT’s “fifty years of exasperation with having been widely separated in buildings scattered around Boston”, a city known for its curving, confused, and unplanned streets and layout. Possibly in reaction (or defiance) to that chaos, one of the features of the Main Building is its 600-foot “Infinite Corridor,” so straight that once a year the setting sun shines straight through it. In addition to that feature, in the building “Flexibility is all-important because departmental space is reassigned constantly by the university . . . This is possible because, unlike at other campuses, departments to not have their own buildings . . . there are no boundaries, no locked doors, no signs that say this is mine and that is yours. You can wander unfettered from one discipline to another . . .”

This is adaption in progress and by design. And because it is adaption, it is necessarily regionalist because it is part of a definite local mentality. By contrast, consider another locality also a part of the same campus, the Media Lab: “It is isolated from the campus-wide warren of corridors, drastically inefficient in usable space, and inflexible in layout,” which is a pretty good description of many a Global City Modernist skyscraper that can be found anywhere now.

There is (at least) one more definition of regionalism in practice: landscape architecture. First, landscape architecture is more than glorified gardening: “Landscape Architects conduct research and advise on planning, design and stewardship of the outdoor environment and spaces, both within and beyond the built environment, and its conservation and sustainability of development.”[15] It should be clear that something like that would necessarily be regionalist in its fundamentals. To be outdoors is to experience a given region. But even here a kind of Modernist/Global City frame of mind on the part of the architect has been felt. Thompson tells of the case of Martha Schwartz, a leading American landscape architect. She took on a project to design a village green outside of Castleford, a former mining town in England: “She did not see eye-to-eye with local residents, but her scheme was built anyway. According to an article published later in Horticulture Week, the locals nicknamed the sculpture which the American placed in the centre of the green ‘Martha’s Finger’, reflecting their feelings about her way of working.” [16] That statement introduces something about architecture and certain architects: power. And power is perfectly comfortable building big projects with big ambitions.[17]

The architecture critic Rowan Moore has written “Architecture is intimate with power. It requires authority, money, and ownership. To build is to exert power, over materials, building workers, land, neighbours and future inhabitants.”[18] At some point, some architects can overcome their own customers.[19] Power is what Modernist architecture is all about. By contrast:

“. . . bioregions are not defined by political or administrative boundaries. For some environmentalists, humanity can seem to be the enemy, but bioregionalists see humans as residents of bioregions, and the work to reinforce the connections between human societies and place. Needless to say, this ideology stands in blunt opposition to those globalizing trends in advanced capitalism that tend to make everywhere more like everywhere else.”[20]

Global Cities, Global Uses, Global Power

Global cities are specific places. Skipping around the world from east to west we can easily think of such leading examples as New York, London, Paris, Mumbai, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. We are familiar with their growing internationalization at a distance if not at first hand. But global cities are also a state of mind, kind of like the phrase “the West” with its associations of free enterprise and political liberties unavailable in much of “the East.” In the conclusion to his article on global cities, Sassen writes: “Global cities around the world are the terrain where a multiplicity of globalization processes assume concrete, localized forms.”[21] But earlier, in building up to that conclusion, he wrote:

The global city particularly has emerged as a site for new claims: by global capital,

which uses the global city as an “organizational commodity,” but also by disadvantaged

sectors of the urban population, frequently as internationalized a presence in global

cities as capital. The “de-nationalizing” of urban space and the formation of new claims

by transnational actors, raise the question: Whose city is it?[22]

It is a good question, and one that goes back to at least the 1950s with the growth of what was then called “urban renewal,” and with it the popularization of Modernist architecture. With that era came at least four kinds of primarily government-financed building projects: freeways, public housing, parks, and stadiums, all of them Modernist totems where mixed use and adaptability is either impossible (freeways) or illegal (public housing), highly regimented (stadiums) or unwise (many parks). Jane Jacobs, in her battle with New York City planner Robert Moses, wrote: “Mr. Moses conceded that some new housing might be ‘ugly, regimented, institutional, identical, conformed, faceless.’ But he suggested such housing could be surrounded by parks.” She then adds: “But for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings?”[23]

All such big, government-sponsored projects require a lot of land. How is it obtained? By sheer governmental power enacted through eminent domain. Eminent domain abuse and controversy has long been common around the world, most recently (or most notoriously) in 2005 in what became the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision. But since this subject is global cities, consider that global-city institution known as the Olympics. Here is what sociologist Mike Davis wrote about it and similar governmental-subsidized world events:

The modern Olympics has an especially dark but little-known history. In preparation for the 1936 Olympics, the Nazis ruthlessly purged homeless people and slum-dwellers from areas of Berlin likely to be seen by international visitors . . . [for] the 1988 Seoul games . . . 720,000 people were relocated in Seoul and Injon. . . . Beijing seems to be following the Seoul precedent in its preparation for the 2008 Games: 350,000 people will be resettled to make way for stadium construction alone.[24]

As Davis makes clear, the Olympics are just the tip of the iceberg. So whose city is it? That may be what the whole matter of Regionalism vs. the Global City is about. True Regionalism is less about evictions than World City Modernism is. Where eviction happens in the First World, owners of condemned areas get some kind of eminent domain payoff, if only for the building.[25] In the non–First World they do not. The disenfranchised are pushed aside, usually to make way for big commerce. Such commerce is at least partially if not largely Western-based commerce. Perhaps the West, which outsourced Marxism to the Third World, now outsources a form of design- and use-totalitarianism to all Worlds, including its own, which is where it started.

In conclusion, we may offer the summarizing theory that under true Regionalism, a practical, actual function — reuse — imposes its own form; while in Global City architecture, an unchanging function is assumed from the outset — an office building in an office park — and no other uses will be tolerated, either by design or by zoning law. Without adaption, Regionalism may be just another name for local-looking architecture, whether bad for its users or just bad to critics — or just harmless and even pleasing bits of design fraud, like the red-tile roofs found throughout any region that wants to live its Spanish Colonial dream.

Bibliography

Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Orion Books, 1997.

Canizaro, Vincent. Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. Brooklyn: Verso, 2006.

Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. Brooklyn: Verso, 2006.

Hawthorne, Christopher. Obituaries. March 12, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-michael-graves-20150313-story.html#page=1 (accessed March 10, 2015).

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Sassen, Saskia. “The Global City: Introducing a Concept.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 2005: 27-43.

Shell Oil Company. “The New Cycle of Future Cities.” Atlantic, December 2014w: 70-71.

Stamberg, Susan. NPR- Architecture. March 16, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/03/16/392561864/with-sunny-modern-homes-joseph-eichler-built-the-suburbs-in-style (accessed March 10, 2015).

Thompson, Ian H. Landscape Architecture: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Watkins, David. Morality and Architecture Revisited. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

[1] Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Obituaries.

[2] Stambert, NPR-Architecture.

[3] Shell, New Cycle of Future Cities.

[4] Watkin, Morality and Architecture Revisited, vii. Prince Charles himself published A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture two years later.

[5] Ibid., ix.

[6] Brand, How Buildings Learn, 157.

[7] Thompson, Landscape Architecture, 55. “Bioregionalism” is also discussed in Canizaro’s The Promise of Regionalism. See footnote 9.

[8] Jacobs, Great American Cities, 224.

[9] Canizaro, Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings, 22.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Ibid., 20.

[12] Davis, City of Quartz, 30.

[13] Watkin’s himself compared architecture to costume to make the point that both need not be practical.

[14] Brand, How Buildings Learn, 176. MIT still has another beloved building in the same mode, Building 20. It was designed as a Main Building copy one afternoon in 1943 by a grad student. It was supposed be a wartime temporary building. It quickly became a favorite and survived.  (The rest of the quotes on this page are from the same book and page-range.)

[15] Thompson, Landscape Architecture, xiii.

[16] Ibid., 75.

[17] The top of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill was entirely chopped off to make a platform for single-use Modernist office towers, most of which stand nearly empty at night and increasingly so in the day due to competition from the nearby revitalizing and very mixed-use Old Bank District.

[18] Ibid., 76.

[19] The preferred word is client. The customer is always right.

[20] Thompson, Landscape Architecture, 55.

[21]  Sassen, The Global City, 40

[22] Ibid., 39.

[23] Jacobs, Great American Cities, 90.

[24] Davis, Planet of Slums, 106.

[25] California allows for the value of the business a building may contain — but results may vary.

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