William Turnbull, Jr.: A Regional Perspective

Originally published in , 1992

When Turnbull’s colleagues commented on their well known design effort at Sea Ranch a decade after its completion, they noted the group’s intention to create “a controlling image that gives people a chance to know where they are – in space, in time and in the order of things.” They claimed “the fundamental principle of architecture is territorial. The architect assembles physical materials from which the observer creates, not just an image of a building, but of ‘place’.”[i]

This seems to me a good example of the attitudes appropriately embodied in the elusive term, “Regionalism”. Regionalism reveres the making of a place. It acknowledges the rich and particular confluence of landscape, weather, language, food, social customs, values and ways of building/ living by which mankind creates a place – a culture. Regionalism views architecture as a means to an end of cultural identity and expression.

Identification of culture is a fundamental issue in any era, but I would suggest that it is an especially important issue in our own time. Knowing who we are and where we are “in space, in time and in the order of things” is an inescapable element of any real self actualization. There is a grounding, a stability and often an inspiration that comes from a meaningful identification with the cultures in which we participate.

I would argue that, at this point in the world’s complicated cycles, we need to be working on the development of particular cultures. We are coming out of an era dominated by the assumption that broad-based and universal twentieth century technological culture might suffice. Political trends emphasized the presence of world superpowers with dominance over global empires. Economic forces encouraged the development of multinational corporations and international banking and monetary systems. There was talk of world capitals, with New York being the most frequent candidate, where trends in economics, technology, theater, cinema, art and music would all emanate to the provinces around the globe.

But, in the last ten years, the myth of a meaningful, dominant world culture has waned significantly. Many Third World countries – Iran being an early and prominent example – have overtly rejected superpower dominance. In the face of the Shah’s well-financed, carefully orchestrated transformation of local culture into a more universal Western culture, a reactionary revolution in 1978 re-established radically traditional values.

Western economics, Western dress, Western architecture, Western morality were all tossed out in favor of an ancient religious order. While the extremist political developments and nationalistic fervor that has followed seems astounding to most of the world, it is, I think, indicative of the need for and reliance on traditional local culture which exists in many parts of the world in the late twentieth century.

Recent political developments in Eastern Europe have emphasized the fragility of even long standing alliances which obviate local culture. Even after 45 years of Eastern Bloc dominance during which two generations have passed, the Czechs, the Poles, the Hungarians, the Germans and others have bounded at a chance to re-establish their own independent identities. The long-standing Soviet Union shows signs of impending dissolution as the Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia seek to jump ship and return to former and traditional cultural identities. These urges cannot be laid totally at the feet of political mismanagement. There is, it seems, within human experience, a powerful urge to understand ourselves as a part of an identifiable culture which is authentic and particular.

In much the same manner as global politics, global economics have suffered some disturbing defeats in recent years. Enormous loans from Western banks to Third World countries, which are now in great jeopardy, demonstrate a naivete and lack of real understanding of local economic forces on the part of global economic powers. Conventional economic wisdom, as defined by global standards, has not proven operative in local circumstances and economists have begun to speak more frequently of regional economic systems.

When traveling in India several years ago, I was struck by an economic parable I was told by a local university guide. He recalled how the Ford Foundation had come to his village in the early 1960′s with modem Western agricultural technology and grand stories of mechanization, increased productivity and efficiency in farming methods. The primitive village, which was still dependent on water buffalo and crude plows, nature’s cycles of rain and sun, and very few staple crops, was given tractors, irrigation systems and new seeds and plant hybrids through the well meaning generosity of the Ford Foundation.

Agricultural advisors supervised the rapid transitions to new methods and genuinely endeared themselves to the local population. Within a few years the transformation was complete and the advisors left the village capable of operating within the new system. Gradually, the old plows rusted; the water buffalo were sold; the old seed strains were neglected. The new tractors, pumps and hybrids had made them obsolete.

Then, in 1972, the energy crisis came and fuel prices escalated rapidly for a few years. The villagers, with no monetary resources apart from each year’s meager crops, simply could not afford gasoline. Without gasoline, of course, the tractors and irrigation pumps wouldn’t run and without the more sophisticated cultivation and irrigation methods the new plant hybrids wouldn’t grow. Within a single year the village, which had been modestly operational and self-sustaining for centuries, was destroyed. The sophisticated global technologies failed a local culture that might have been better off with a greater respect for their customary local technologies.

The emphasis on valuing particular culture in Third World countries is growing and, indeed, in architecture there seems to be an increasing awareness of the issue, as evidenced by the emergence of publications such as Mimar and a number of new journals in Pakistan, India and Latin America. The issue of local culture is not, however, restricted to global versus national values, but also has a very powerful application within a single national context. Certainly, the presence of local forces should be an important factor in a nation as geographically and culturally diverse as the United States.

Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and one of the few political figures of our era with academic credentials in urban planning, wrote an article recently in which he described two trends in American society today which seem to him positive and optimistic for the future.[ii] Both are based on a heightened consciousness of regional forces.

The first is a trend toward an ideology of local-over-federal political and economic identification. Cisneros noted the disillusionment of the American constituency with the ability of the federal government to address many real political issues. He noted the increase of decision-making at local levels and the increased role of many cities across the country as focal points for economic transactions. He noted the very real political enfranchisement of minorities which has first occurred in local government – with Black mayors in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, and Cincinnati – Hispanic mayors in Denver, San Antonio and Miami – and mayors who are women in San Francisco, Dallas and Houston.

Cisneros spoke of a “new democratic energy” at local levels, where breadth of public participation in government has never been higher. He spoke of the explosion of local business entrepreneurship which has dispersed economic clout in the country away from Wall Street, whose crash several years ago did not, in fact, bring with it the faltering of the whole economic system. San Francisco’s Silicon Valley and the Boston/ New England powerhouse of the 1980′s are examples of economic regionalism.

The second trend Cisneros described was toward an ideology of the pragmatic over the abstract – an interest in making things work, rather than making them follow preconceived models or formulas. He noted a local or regional implication here as well. What works in Kansas may not fly in Virginia. What is good for Atlanta may not be good for Phoenix. There is a pragmatic realization here that decision-making must follow local and particular conditions and values.

Cisneros claimed that the new crucible of culture in our society is the city, and he pointed with pride to the way a number of cities, over the last decade or two, have transformed themselves from weak, deteriorated victims of neglect, to vital and lively centers. Pittsburgh and Seattle, he observed, have risen from physical and economic doomsday to become strong, liveable centers of their regions. He noted Indianapolis, which even locals called “India-no-place” a few years ago, and its emergence as a city with identity and presence through its concentration on amateur sports and physical redesign.

In America, we are no longer a singular political entity dominated by Washington. Judicial, legislative and administrative decisions are being spread more broadly. We are no longer an economic entity dominated by New York and Chicago. Corporate and entrepreneurial power have moved to Houston, Phoenix, Miami, Minneapolis and every other urban center in the country. We are no longer an artistic entity dominated by New York and Los Angeles.

When I was a child, we took trips to New York because one could see cultural events there that simply didn’t exist elsewhere. Movies could be viewed that wouldn’t come to local theaters for another six months. Exotic food could be eaten in restaurants, food completely unavailable and unheard of in the hinterlands. The “real” museums, opera, ballet and symphonies existed only in a few “great” cities.

But now the cultural and artistic growth of America is everywhere. Cleveland, St. Louis, and Cincinnati have first class symphonies, while Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center regularly shames the New York museums with the creativity and innovation of their traveling exhibitions. Houston’s young opera is one of the finest in the country. Nashville and Austin, as well as Detroit and New Orleans, have set a pace for live music and films are made everywhere, reveling in the small town flavor of Waxahachie, Texas or the startling preservation of 19th century buildings in Cincinnati’s neighborhoods.

There is a recognition today, I think, of a kind of inherent emptiness in universal culture. There is a loss of reality, authenticity and poignancy in mass culture which we have tried, but have not found fully satisfying. Without seeking to escape the universals in culture, which are themselves real and appropriate, it seems time to return again to what is not common to all places – what is particular, distinguishing and potentially inspiring about our own local cultures. Herein, I think, lies a real potential for invention and progress in our own time.

In this context it is important to view architecture as a means to the end of a greater, more satisfying cultural identity, rather than just as an end in itself. As Kenneth Frampton has advocated a dedication “to place creation and to the sustenance of an intimate and continuous relationship between the architecture and the local society it serves.”[iii] Architecture has, too often in the late 20th century, become inwardly oriented as a discipline. We have been frequently speaking only to ourselves, a professional coterie, demonstrating an aloofness and arrogance toward the cultures of which we are a part. We need to accept a more humble but more profound role as participants in larger cultural goals.

Certainly in these efforts it is instructive to examine those regions and cultures which have tenaciously held onto their distinctive identities through the onslought of several decades of universalizing tendencies. It is illuminating as well, to inspect the work of architects who have reinforced regional identities conscientiously through their design work. The subject matter of this exhibition offers one such opportunity.

Northern California has long been fertile ground for spawning architects with a strong allegiance to place-making. At the turn of the century, architects like Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk, A.C. Schweinfurth and Bernard Maybeck sought, as Donlyn Lyndon has noted, “to create buildings that would suit their place especially – not by inventing de novo, but by studying, absorbing, adapting, modifying, bringing into new relationships, distorting as pragmatics required, and giving alternative vision to all they had learned and experienced in buildings of the past.”[iv]

The seminal work of these architects became an important model for subsequent building in their region. Indeed, in the case of Maybeck, in particular, the work itself has influenced many architects in Northern California up to the present day. But it is, perhaps, the ethos of original thinking and creative place-making that provides an even greater contribution on the part of designers like Maybeck. The inspiration to design independently according to forces at hand and break away from extraneous stylistic trends is at the heart of any authentic regionalism. It is this independence that has allowed several generations of architects in Northern California to create, over time, an evolving, vital sense of their place.

This is certainly the contribution offered by William Turnbull, Jr. and his partners, Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon and Richard Whitaker in the Sea Ranch condominium and other seminal projects of their early careers. The condominium, in particular, offers an extraordinary encapsulation of its place. It is as one with the sea, the coastline, the nearby redwood forest, the rural building vernacular of the area and the retreat lifestyle of its inhabitants. The building responds symbiotically to the mist, the sun, the wind and the vegetation of this memorable place.

The design of the condominium is powerfully generated by regional forces. “The chapel of the Russian settlement at Fort Ross,” a local vernacular building of the early nineteenth century had, according to the architects, “a strong hold on us when the Sea Ranch was the starting.”[v] Further, the architects note that, “People recognized similarities between the condominiums and the old buildings on mining and timbering sites. Since we have been enthusiasts for barns and country industrial structures we were pleased, though the resemblance was not intentional.”[vi]

Building traditions of the region are only one source of “fit” at Sea Ranch. The building is as comfortable an extension of the regional landscape forms as it is an extension of regional built forms. Its muscular, craggy profile matches the toughness of the dramatic, rugged coastline. The long, low slope of its roof bows to the ocean’s winds. The building’s scale is robust enough to hold its own against the barrenness and splendid desolation of the site, and yet in color and texture the building merges with the coastal terrain. It is a great “wooden rock” perched on the edge of the world.

Even the interiors of the condominium units maintain the grand sense of space, the massive strength and the rugged informality of their place. Every issue of design, from construction to spatial organization, to choice of finish materials reinforces the sense of inhabitants knowing where they are.

The individual building inspired by regional forces, like the Sea Ranch condominium, often exhibits beautiful and admirable formal invention. Indeed, the fresh shapes and original arrangement of elements at Sea Ranch won extraordinary recognition around the world. Powerful and salient form creation, it seems, often emanates from a deep and trenchant perception of the particulars of a place.

And yet it is not formal invention that is the ultimate goal of a generative regional sensibility. This is only a by-product. The real goal is participation in a broader cultural dialogue about what life is to be in a given place. The magic of being at the Sea Ranch condominium and feeling its contribution to the power of that memorable place is proof of its success in this regard.

Architects can, through their buildings, contribute to the growing dialogue in the communities and regions around the country and around the world where local cultural identities are evolving and being redefined. The physical environment can be a very powerful tool in such a dialogue, materializing and making visible the presence and identity of a place. As such, a regional architecture becomes, as William Curtis has noted, a means by which we might “penetrate to what is of lasting worth in the present culture and in tradition.”[vii]


[i] Charles Moore, Gerald Allen, Donlyn Lyndon, The Place of Houses, New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1974, p.32.

[ii] Henry G. Cisneros, “Architecture, Planning and Public Poliry”; CENTER: A Journal for Architecture in America, Vol. 6, 1990, pp. 8-20.

[iii] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism”; Perspecta 20, pp. 147-162.

[iv] Richard Longstreth, On the Edge of the World, New York: The Architectural History Foundation, 1983, p. xiii

[v] Moore, Ibid., p.41.

[vi] Moore, Ibid., p.34.

[vii] William J. R. Curtis, “ Towards an Authentic Regionalism”, Mimar 19, January-March, 1986, p. 24.

Thinking about Cultural Identity
Architect: ,
Originally published in , 1992