Regionalism and Invention

Originally published in , No.3 1987

I have long been struck by a very earthy quotation from the Roman writer Persius, who proclaimed the stomach the “teacher of the arts and the dispenser of invention.”[i] The quotation acknowledges a source of art and invention outside the head, that is, outside the realm of abstract intellectual constructs. I like the notion of the stomach, the most everyday, common workhorse of the organs, being admitted as a driving force for the most elevated of cultural pursuits. I see some timeless, profound truth in the idea that what is nurturing to human existence, what is driven by necessity, what is tangible and physical, what is constant and customary, may also be truly inspirational.

Lewis Mumford, who is a spiritual father to much of what this publication addresses, noted half a century ago that invention springs from two independent yet related worlds – the world of science and the world of practice, or, more liberally, the world of the head and the world of the stomach. Mumford cites inventions arising from conjectural doctrines – like the dynamo (strongly reliant on Faraday’s work with magnetic fields) in contrast to mainly empirical inventions like Watt’s enormously influential steam engine. He observed that “from the geometry and astronomy of Egypt and Mesopotamia, both closely connected with the practice of agriculture, to the latest researchers in electro-physics, Leonardo’s dictum holds true: science is the captain and practice the soldiers. But sometimes the soldiers win the battle without leadership, and sometimes the captain, by intelligent strategy, obtains victory without actually engaging in battle.”[ii]

Despite Mumford’s cogent observations early on, society has in the 20th century, and particularly in 20th-century architecture, relied far too heavily on the captain, or the head, for art and invention and has neglected the potentially powerful contribution of the soldiers, or the stomach. Dependence on new dictums and abstract treatises has resulted in neglect of a world full of living, breathing physical environments that stand ready to deliver empirical inspiration for art and invention.

Regionalism is a facet of that pursuit which mines everyday life and perception for messages about a truly progressive future. Regionalism addresses the particulars of place and culture. It learns from experience. It tinkers, crafts, accepts, rejects, adjusts, and reacts. It is firmly rooted in the tangible realities of its situation – the history, the climate, the geography, the human values, the economy, the traditions, the technology, the cultural life of its place.

Attitudes akin to regionalism have a longstanding record of contributing fundamental innovations not only in architecture but in other artistic disciplines as well. Jazz, which is widely noted as the most fundamental and broadly influential creation of 20th-century music, was born as a regional expression. Its invention is inconceivable outside the particular milieu of New Orleans from which it sprang. Jazz is a musical form based strongly in tradition – not only the African traditions of its inventors’ ancestry, but also European traditions that were prevalent in Louisiana at the turn of the century. Jazz is part Congo tom-tom, part missionary revival hymn, part French folk song, part Spanish dancing music.[iii] It reflects the polyglot culture of its place. It is reliant on tradition, but is also a fresh new musical creation that potently expresses the emotional and social life of New Orleans – especially the sadness, anger, and vitality of Black culture there.

Fueled by an intensity and immediacy that would be difficult to derive from a more cerebral invention process, jazz became immediately popular and influential. Over the past 80 years it has spawned numerous other musical forms from Tin-Pan-Alley to Big Band to Pop and Rock. Its expression stretched far beyond the confines of New Orleans, contributing fundamentally to the worldwide musical scene. But it is important to note that the spark which ignited such an important movement was vividly place-and culture-specific.

Invention in 19th- and 20th-century painting is likewise marked by a striking reliance on regional inspiration. When Gustave Courbet became disillusioned with the romantic decadence of the international art world of the mid-19th century, he sought new inspiration from everyday surroundings. Proud of his rural roots and sensitive to political and economic upheavals in his culture, he produced the revolutionary Stone Breakers (1849), which depicted the plight of two common people of his place – one too old for the backbreaking work in which he is engaged, and one too young. The power of the painting, like the power of jazz music, is in its particularity and its reality.

It is the same kind of power that moved Paul Gauguin to leave Paris in 1883 for western France, where he drew inspiration from the common life of Brittany – a life unspoiled by the fashions and artifice of the capital. He studied folk art and medieval stained glass of the region, rediscovering new techniques from those traditions. His later journey to the South Pacific in search of a more fundamental expression in painting is indicative of his reliance on “place.” Gauguin’s art grew out of Brittany and Tahiti and is inseparable from its Sources.

The principles derived by Courbet and Gauguin from regional sources – principles ranging from subject matter to technique – had an enormous influence on the development of 20th-century painting. As in the case of jazz, regional impetus provoked international changes. Indeed, the development of Modern Art as a revolutionary phenomenon was significantly fueled by principles derived from intensive introspection based on particular events and places. Artists as diverse as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Edward Munch, and Diego Rivera all drew significant breath for their art from local culture. Even Picasso, perhaps the quintessential 20th century international painter, was at his best with rooted subject matter as in Guernica (1937), an intense essay on conflict firmly rooted in his own homeland.

Music and painting are portable media. Architecture, the most physically rooted of the arts, bears the capacity to draw even more potent inspiration from its place. It is easy, however, to ignore the degree to which architecture has been strongly place-inspired. The shift from Roman to Byzantine architecture in the 4th and 5th centuries reflected, quite simply, a shift of place. Constantine’s decision to move the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, henceforth Constantinople, provoked – almost necessitated – a fundamental change of architectural expression.

Nowhere is this transition so telling as in the history of St. Sophia in Constantinople. The first St. Sophia, built by the Romans and dedicated in 360 A.D., was a timber-roofed basilica modeled on the early Christian churches of the West, such as Old St. Peter’s in Rome. It was an import, rendered in the dominant international style of its day. It bore little imprint of its place. But by the time Justinian decided to build the great Hagia Sophia after its predecessor had been destroyed by fire, the conquering Romans had begun to gain a greater appreciation for the rich history and culture of the region surrounding Constantinople.

The result of this new regional awareness was a landmark set of architectural innovations that eventually altered building throughout much of the world and fundamentally affected the course of architectural history. Hagia Sophia fused Greek, Roman, Oriental, and Christian traditions into a new and powerful expression. Its two architects – appropriately, one from Asia Minor and one from Greece – merged the longitudinal axis of the Western basilica with dome and pendentives inspired by the East. They combined the vast scale of the Basilica of Constantine in Rome with the luminous and intricate ornament of Syria, Armenia, Cappadocia and Persia. The previously dominant classic orders- Doric, Ionian, Corinthian- gave way to the Oriental predilection for surface pattern and a delicate, inventive new capital was born.

A sensitivity to the history, traditions and cultural background of Asia Minor and the Near East combined with a realistic acknowledgment of the modern contribution of international Roman culture produced a truly new expression with new spatial possibilities, new technological challenges, new expressive potential. It breathed fresh life into architecture in its era. The new architecture inspired by Byzantium spread across the empire – to Ravenna, to Rome, to Venice, to Gaul – traveling, ironically, to cultures as distant and foreign as Charlemagne’s Aachen of the 9th century. It spawned a wide range of divergent expressions – but, again, the spark that provoked these watershed innovations in design was regionally inspired.

The birth of Byzantine architecture was seeded by a new fusion of cultures – a phenomenon that has strong parallels in America and in the 20th century. But regional impetus need not be precipitated only by such momentous cultural events. Innovation and progress may come simply from a renewed awareness of longstanding particulars of a place. It is this sort of regional reassessment that provoked, for example, the Renaissance in Italy in the 15th century.

Antonio Filarete complained in 1450, “Cursed be the man who invented this wretched Gothic architecture!… Only a barbarous people could have brought it to Italy.”[iv] Indeed, the internationally prevalent Gothicism was ill-suited to Italy. Those great walls of glass that welcomed the soft light of northern Europe hardly acknowledged the bright, sometimes harsh sun of southern climes. The Gothic had never really conquered Italy, but its burdensome dominance had stifled the creation of a truer Italian expression just as the dominance of the Germans in the powerful Milanese court and the French in the southern court had cramped the economic and political power of native trecento Italy. It was Florence that felt this dominance most keenly in the middle decades of the century suffering under the tyranny of ascendant Milan and Naples. Major segments of the Florentine population hated the foreign influence with a passion. An anti-Gothic movement developed that contained a variety of Guelph, Roman, and Humanist components. Sculpture, and architecture in particular, sought renewal of classic Roman forms as well as a reassertion of Italian Romanesque traditions.

Giorgio Vasari wrote of Filippo Brunelleschi, an early champion of the movement: “He was given by heaven to invest architecture with new forms, after it had wandered astray for many centuries.”[v] In order to formulate this new language, Brunelleschi sought “to rediscover the manner in which the ancients had built.”[vi] He traveled to Rome frequently in his early years. He measured the major buildings there himself, studying construction technique at least as much as form. He sought to reinvest his region with the clarity, majesty, stability, and power that its architecture once had. It is impossible to imagine the powerful reorientation of architecture that the Renaissance provoked beginning anywhere but Italy. It was a regionalist, place-inspired movement.

It was even a patriotic movement. Italy in the 15th century was regaining a consciousness of itself. The literature as well as the art of ancient Rome became a source of inspiration. Latin was revived as a medium of living literature. The humanists Latinized their names and Romanized the terms of Christian worship and life. They fashioned their prose style on Cicero and their poetry on Virgil and Horace. In the same spirit, they revived the use of barrel vaults and domes, renewing the techniques of Roman masonry work. They returned to a cool, static, orderly expression that long had served Italy so well.

Like the forms of jazz music, the forms of Gauguin’s art and the forms of Byzantine building, the forms of Renaissance architecture found varied applications around the globe over the centuries that followed. But, again, their original impetus was regional.

Even in 20th-century architecture, with its emphasis on international movements, much of the truest and most seminal invention has had regional roots. The extraordinary freshness and vitality of Antonio Gaudi’s work, for example, is deeply rooted in Catalonia. Like the culture of his place, Gaudi’s architecture is full of intensity, fantasy, and color. He acknowledges the building traditions of his region – its Moorish ancestry, its strong influences of Gothic and Baroque building. He revels in the longstanding crafts of his place – particularly the rich and capable ceramic, stonecutting and ironworking trades. But he also reaches deeper than building and craft precedents of Catalonia, drawing on the primal qualities of the region – its landscape, its vegetation, its connection to the sea. The Casa Mila is expressive of Moorish, Gothic and Baroque traditions, but it also incarnates the waves, the rocks and even the seaweed of the Mediterranean coast.

Gaudi’s architecture embodies the broadest sympathies of his region’s populace in an eloquent way. As Dickens captured the spirit of London of his day or Goya the war-torn Madrid, so Gaudi captured turn-of-the-century Barcelona. Through the architecture one can feel the exuberance and passion of the culture, while sensing, as well, its almost macabre infatuation with mystery.

In the period of Gaudi’s later career, Frank Lloyd Wright was drawing a similar kind of inventive inspiration from emergent midwestern America. The Prairie Style house grew from its native soil. Wrigh said, “I was born an American child of the ground and of space …. I loved the prairie by instinct.”[vii] Taliesin North has everything to do with rural life in the American midwest. As Thomas Beeby has pointed out in his elaborate analysis of the building, Taliesin is an extension of topographical and geological forms of the region.[viii] Its dominant horizontality ties it to the broad sweep of the prairie. Its modest tower reiterates the common stone outcroppings of the fields. And it is made of the local stone in combination with the ubiquitous midwestern wood frame.

This and other of Wright’s houses in the era were intended to address the best of contemporary Midwestern American life and values. They were to be free-standing, individual, democratic. They were to be honest, unaffected, and sincere. Emerson wrote essays on the ideals and values of his culture. Wright built essays on the ideals and values of his.

The degree to which Wright relied on the inspiration of place in stimulating his inventiveness is evident in the contrast between his home at Taliesin North in Wisconsin and his home at Taliesin West in Arizona. At Taliesin West he is provoked by the desert – its flatness, its ruggedness, its textures, its colors. Radically different in feeling from Taliesin North, the Arizona colony even brings to mind literal building traditions of the region. Wright’s stepped terraces, low, heavy walls made of stone collected from the site, and his flat roofs all recall Pueblo construction. The Taliesin West buildings are bermed into the ground at times like settlers’ dugouts. Elsewhere, they hover thin and light above the desert flatness like itinerate Indian tents. The complex is fresh and new and vigorous, but it is also timelessly bound to its place. It is related to tradition, but it is also a tour-de-force of invention.

Wright, at his best, was able to go into a place like Wisconsin or Phoenix and make magic of elements there – elements that had been undervalued and overlooked by other architects for generations. Whereas many designers would have written both regions off as having no substantial form-giving inspiration to relate to, Wright found the potential latent in even apparently unpromising’ contexts.

That ability is akin to something Alvar Aalto referred to as “the gift of seeing the beautiful in everything.”[ix] Aalto, like Wright, often built in places that were not blessed with a strong or cohesive architectural heritage. Yet he felt a deep-seated desire to draw on the best qualities of his place. In his earliest buildings this tendency took the form of strong reliance on both board and batten Finnish rural vernacular and the Leningrad-inspired Neo-Classical tradition established by C. L. Engel in Finland in the early 19th century.

By mid-career, however, Aalto was capable of a rich, appropriate regional expression that knit together more broadly “the beautiful in everything” about Finland. The Villa Mairea of 1939 is part Nordic sod-roofed hut, part vernacular log cabin with gutters hewn from tree trunks, part reinterpreted board-and-batten-clad volumes. But it is also part Scandinavian Functionalism that had developed quickly in the decade of the 1930s and part new industrial Finland, with its emerging ceramics and wood-products manufacturing.

The Villa Mairea is rugged and crafty and relaxed like Finland, but it also clean and orderly and precise like Finland. The regionalism here is not a one-liner. It draws on the shapes of local topography and the textures of the landscape as well as on building traditions and social customs. Aalto had invented a new regionalism – a regionalism that was not a style but a sensibility for building in his place.

Concurrent with Aalto’s development of this sensibility in Finland, Luis Barragan was searching for a similar poignancy of expression for a very different climate, landscape, and culture in Mexico. His success is comparable to Aalto’s. Barragan loved Mexico and was devotedly Mexican. He knew Mexican vernacular building from his childhood and felt its power deeply. He knew and appreciated Mexican painting, Mexican literature, Mexican religion. He drew on these deep-seated resources in creating his powerful architecture.

Barragan’s fountains evoke images of the wooden aqueducts that spanned the streets of the village of Mazamitla that Barragan knew as a child. His walls draw on ubiquitous Mexican traditions of masonry building as well as on common Mexican conventions of rigorous spatial distinction between public and private realms. His vibrant colors are not only rooted in the brilliant hues of the Mexican urban scene but are also sophisticated by the studious color experimentation of Mexican artists like Chucho Reyes and Rufino Tamayo. Even the technology of Barragan’s buildings often relies on traditional construction methods of the pueblo and the hacienda.

But Barragan’s work is also rooted in the 20th-century Mexican fervor for modernity. Like most of his contemporaries, Barragan had his own subsuming love affair with Corbusian forms in the 1930s. His later work acknowledges the legitimacy of Modernism’s influence but puts it in appropriate perspective.  Barragan is extending a tradition, not freezing a tradition, and he welcomes the evolution that comes from incorporating the interests of each new generation. His is a new regionalism – a product of his place and time.

The closest parallel to this fresh new regionalism in the United States lies in the late work of Louis Kahn. Two of the very last buildings he completed before his death make the point strongly. Kahn’s Exeter Library in New Hampshire is a quintessential New England building. It is subtle, chaste, and reserved on the outside. It is demure, even acquiescent, in its context. Its taut red brick skin, its simple stereometric volume, its regular repetitive pattern of wood windows – even its vertical hierarchy from heavy at the bottom to open and diminished at the top – all place it easily within longstanding New England building traditions.

Kahn’s Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth of the same period is as strikingly different from the library as, in fact, north central Texas is from southern New Hampshire. Here, again, Kahn relies heavily on regional inspiration. The broad horizontality of the Texas plains is reflected in the low, flat character of the building. On its front is the ubiquitous Texas porch that doubles as the introduction to and explication of the building’s spatial and structural system.

To anyone familiar with Fort Worth, the long grey concrete vaults that form the building draw an easy parallel to the cylindrical concrete grain elevators that dot the city and the surrounding countryside. Kay Kimbell, the benefactor of the museum, in fact, made his early fortune in grain. But, horizontal as these forms are, they draw an even closer parallel to the bow-topped stock sheds that stand in regular ranks near the museum and are typical of galvanized metal industrial vernacular of the region.

Kahn is not just dipping eclectically into forms he discovered along the highway en route from the airport. He demonstrates a deep and profound feeling for Texas – especially in his handling of color, texture and light. The tawny greys and tans of the building are like the colors of the native landscape with its parched grasses and limestone substrata. The tactile character of the building’s materials sing out when placed in deep relief by the hard Texas sun. And everywhere light and shade are modulated with great finesse and understanding. The building is truly resonant in its place.

These five architects – Gaudi, Wright, Aalto, Barragan and Kahn – stand among the greatest inventors and form-givers of 20th-century architecture. The inspiration of those forms is significantly a regional inspiration. Our perception of that origin is often clouded by the fact that their buildings are delivered to us severed from cultural ties. It is difficult to understand the rootedness of Gaudi, Wright, Aalto, Barragan or Kahn by a few closely cropped photographs with no real experience of Barcelona, Wisconsin, Arizona, Finland, Mexico, New England or Texas. The message is most clear when you are there, experiencing the building as a real artifact in and of its culture.

Our understanding of the origin of form and invention and its relation to context in these architects’ work is further clouded by the degree to which their forms have been usurped and exported around the world. The more Richard Meier uses those sensuous Aalto curves in a generic, universal way in Indiana or Hartford, the less we tend to remember their inspiration in Finnish rhythms. The more we see Barragan’s colors, textures, and forms inside lofts in New York’s Soho, the less we remember their brilliance and appropriateness in the Mexican sun.

The lesson in all of these examples – from jazz to Gauguin, to Byzantine architecture, to the Renaissance, to 20th-century masters – is that powerful and salient invention often emanates from a deep and trenchant perception of the particulars of a place. The lesson seems particularly cogent for architecture here and now. In its quest for invention, recent architecture has too frequently found itself chasing ephemeral novelty rather than courting real progress. Mumford warned that invention could “become a duty” and that, like a child delighted with a new toy, we may lose sight of the guidance that must come from “critical discernment.”[x]

Invention that comes from abstract models is particularly vulnerable to irrelevance or misdirection, whereas invention based in tangible realities is more likely to provide true service. Regionalism, as a source for invention, represents a return to basics in architecture – a return to what is primal and elemental. Because it is rooted in physical and cultural investigation, it is de facto a critical and responsive approach. It offers hope for a responsible and eloquent architecture, constantly renewing itself in service to society.


[i] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1934), p. 52.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] For discussion of these origins, see Robert Goffin, Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan (New York: De Capo Press, 1975).

[iv] Alfons Dopsch, Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization (New York: Gordon Press, 1985), p. 2.

[v] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Vol. 2 (New York: 1907), p. 270.

[vi] Antonio Manetti, Vita di Filippo Brunelleschi, Vol. 2 (Florence: c. 1485), p. 23.

[vii] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural Home (New York: Bramhall House, 1954), pp. 15, 17.

[viii] Thomas Beeby, Modulus, ([Charlottesville] Journal of the University of Virginia, Spring, 1981).

[ix] Goran, Schildt, Alvar Aalto, The Early Years (New York: Rizzoli, 1984), p. 102.

[x] Mumford, Technics and Civilization, p. 53.

Thinking about Cultural Identity
Originally published in , No.3 1987