Topographic Architecture: Kenneth Frampton’s Interest in the Ground

Véronique Patteeuw

This essay is an excerpt of Being The Mountain by PRODUCTORA, published by Actar Publishers and the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture Press.

This book is the result of research PRODUCTORA initiated as winners of the Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize (MCHAP) for Emerging Practice at Illinois Institute of Technology.

“It is said that architects always design the same building. In a sense I have always rewritten the same essay.”[1]

In 1980, just a few months before the opening of the first International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, British architectural historian Kenneth Frampton resigned from the curatorial team. His co-curators, Paolo Portoghesi, Robert A. M. Stern, Charles Jencks, Christian Norberg-Schulz, and Vincent Scully, had settled on an approach that emphasized the glorification of the past and positioned postmodernism as an architectural style of historicist eclecticism, in fierce opposition to Frampton’s ideology.[2] Although Frampton was critical of the legacy of the modern movement, he shared Jurgen Habermas’s commitment to “the unfinished project of modernity”[3] and argued for an architecture that would resist the universalizing hegemony of the postmodern times he was witnessing.
Frampton’s “criticism from within,” as Léa-Catherine Szacka has suggested, prepared the field for alternative sensibilities in architecture through which his interest in the ground becomes apparent.[4] In reaction to impending universalization, the historian argued for the specificities of place. In reaction to the postmodern reduction of architecture to images, he reclaimed expressive forms of architectural structure and tectonics. In reaction to the modernist tabula rasa, he emphasized the importance of site and topography. Frampton elaborated his vision in a sequence of texts, articles, books, lectures, and teaching modules,[5] an exploration that had started a decade before his involvement in Venice and would climax in his seminal essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” published in 1983.[6]

In Frampton’s call for the tactile instead of the visual, the tectonic rather than the scenographic, and the hybrid over the homogeneous, one finds evidence that ground and topography were leading notions for the historian. In the first point of both his original text and the extended versions that followed, he argued for an embedded architecture, proposing a radical alternative to absolute placelessness, and in doing so, elevated the specifics of the ground to an essential aspect of the art of building. He argued that a certain form of resistance seemed to develop in a climate where culture became a global concept. As such, Frampton aimed to rescue architecture from the many manipulations of history by providing it with a solid rootedness. But how did Frampton apprehend this rootedness? Was it essential to the architecture he promoted, a mere provocation against the so-called “presence of the past,” or a mechanism in his attempt to reposition architecture ideologically?

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This text was written in parallel to the preparation of “Critical Regionalism Revisited,” OASE 103, ed. Tom Avermaete, Véronique Patteeuw, Léa-Catherine Szacka, and Hans Teerds (2019).
[1] Kenneth Frampton, “Critical Regionalism Revisited” (lecture, University of Washington, Seattle, May 15, 2013).
[2] It is no coincidence that Frampton published his seminal book Modern Architecture: A Critical History, a plea for a critical examination of modern architecture, the same year he resigned from the Biennale. See Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980).
[3] Frampton to Portoghesi, letter of resignation, April 25, 1980, Biennale di Venezia, Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee, fondo storico, b. 658. For a more thorough analysis of Frampton’s position, see Léa-Catherine Szacka, “Criticism from Within: Kenneth Frampton and the Retreat from Postmodernism,” OASE 98 (2016): 110–16; and Stylianos Giamarelos, “Intersecting Itineraries beyond the Strada Novissima: The Converging Authorship of Critical Regionalism,” Architectural Histories 4, no. 1 (2016): 1–18.
[4] See Szacka, “Criticism from Within.”
[5] One could argue this sequence started as early as December 1971 with the publication of “America 1960–1970” in “The City as an Artifact,” Casabella 359/360. See Marine Urbain, “Eclosion d’une pensée. Le régionalisme critique de Kenneth Frampton, 1983” (master’s thesis, Université libre de Bruxelles, 2017).
[6] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983).
[7] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards an Agonistic Architecture” (lecture, SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, December 4, 2013).
[8] See Kenneth Frampton, Agni Pikioni, and Hannele Grönland, eds., Dimitris Pikionis 1887–1968: A Greek Architect (Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture, 1993).
[9] See Nicholas Kehagias, “Paving a Greek Path to a Western Monument,” personal website, accessed January 8, 2019, http://www.nicholaskehagias.com/the-acropolis-pavement/; and Dimitris Pikionis, Dimitris Pikionis, Architect 1887–1968: A Sentimental Topography (London: Architectural Association, 1989).
[10] Frampton, “Towards an Agonistic Architecture.”
[11] Frampton discusses the work of Konstantinidis in Kenneth Frampton, “The Isms of Contemporary Architecture,” Architectural Design 52 (1982): 60–83.
[12] Konstantinidis elaborates on such connections in his 1975 book Elements of Self-Knowledge: Towards a True Architecture, using his own photographs to supply a series of examples.
[13] For further discussion of this dialectical tension, see Frampton, “Critical Regionalism Revisited.”
[14] Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” 26.
[15] Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” 26.
[16] Kenneth Frampton, “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism,”Perspecta 20 (1983): 151.
[17] Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” 26.
[18] Frampton, “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism,” 152–53.
[19] For more on Frampton’s interest in the periphery, see “Place, Production and Reality,” Architecture in Greece (1977); “Mario Botta and the School of the Ticino,” Oppositions 14 (1978); A New Wave of Japanese Architecture, exhibition catalogue (New York: Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, 1978); “Works or Panos Koulermos,” Architecture and Urbanism (May 1979); “Notes on the Architecture of Panos Koulermos,” Architecture in Greece 17 (1983); Kenneth Frampton, ed., Tadao Ando: Buildings Projects Writings (New York: Rizzoli, 1984); “Tre opere di Panos Koulermos: Una mostra allo studio Marconi a Milano,” Casabella (July–August 1984); “Entre el racionalismo y el regionalismo: la obra de Martorell, Bohigas y Mackay, 1954-1984,” in Martorell, Bohigas, Mackay (Barcelona: Xarait Ediciones / Electa, 1985); Kenneth Frampton, ed., The Architecture of Hiromi Fujii, exhibition catalogue (New York: Rizzoli, 1987); Kenneth Frampton, ed., Kengo Kuma: Complete Works (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013); “The Work of Rogelio Salmona,” A + U: Architecture and Urbanism (March 2008): 28–33; Kenneth Frampton, “Plan Form and Topography in the Work of Kashef Chowdhury,” in Kashef Chowdhury: The Friendship Centre, Gaibandha, Bangladesh (Zurich: Park Books, 2016); and Kenneth Frampton, “The Architect as Amateur: The Studio of Wang Shu and Lu Wengyu,” in Wang Shu Amateur Architecture Studio (Zurich: Lars Müller, 2017).
[20] Frampton, “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism,” 149.
[21] See Giamarelos, “Intersecting Itineraries,” 2.
[22] It is important to note that one critique of this aspect of critical regionalism is readily apparent: while Frampton made a case for an architecture of resistance to an imposed power from above, and situated architectural approaches outside the center, his Western concept was imposed upon the architecture he highlighted, often limiting the varied architectural production of the above-mentioned countries to singular practices.