CONTEXTUALISM

For many centuries architectural theory and practice have regarded the contextual
compromise of architecture with its urban, regional, and sociocultural setting as a basic
demand. Alberti’s definition of the logical and necessary connection between urban and
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 580
architectural design was long a guideline for integral city planning. Nevertheless, extreme
urban growth and concentration of rural masses in late 19th-century cities challenged
traditional models of urban contextuality, producing vast standardized speculative
housing units and industrial facilities. Defining new architectural and urban concepts to
guarantee identification of the city’s inhabitants became a central topic of 20th-century
architectural debates. Against the strict geometric patterns of new urban agglomerations,
Camillo Sitte in 1889 proposed a structural revitalization of traditional, picturesque
cityscapes. His proposal influenced the planning of new urban quarters in the early 20th
century as well as Postmodern debates of the 1980s. Avant-garde planners of the 1920s,
especially Le Corbusier and Ludwig Hilberseimer, rejected Sitte’s ideas and instead
proposed a radical new paradigm composed of semi-industrial, standardized architectural
elements in functionally separated and geometrically ordered spaces that dismissed all
relation to the city’s history. Only after the destruction of European cities during World
War II could these modernist planners realize their ideas on a scale beyond that of a few
prewar suburban housing developments (Siedlungen). Modernist postwar reconstruction in West
Germany, urban renewal in the United States, crude modernization programs in Latin
America (including Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil), and Soviet functionalism during the
Khrushchev administration in the 1960s fostered supposedly rational standards in
urbanism and architecture. Their prefabricated boxlike buildings in open, linear, and onedimensional
spaces virtually required the destruction of the city’s existing, contradictory,
but memorable structural contexts. Historical monuments and traditional city cores lost
their function as cultural orientation points and sites of social identification.
Nevertheless, with few exceptions (such as the ideal modernist city of Brasilia,
Brazil), urban reality confirmed the city’s capacity to adapt even contrasting urban
patterns. When modern urban elements were implanted in historic settings, the result was
a kind of collage with both isolated elements and other features that were integrated into
a new concept of spatial references. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City emphasized several
contemporary revisions of modern architecture and urbanism. These included late
modernist dissidents of Team X centered around Aldo van Eyck, Aldo Rossi’s treatise The Architecture o f the Ci ty
(1966), and later Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Archi tecture (1966). These theoretical approaches recognized
the city’s multidimensionality and rejected dogmatic and exclusive modernist concepts.
Contextualism as a method of architectural planning tended to respect the architectural
heritage and interpret its complex relation within the urbanistic frame. In Collage City aesthetic
fractures and structural conflicts were rehabilitated as creative forces in the contemporary
design process. Even the monuments of modern architecture and commercial vernacular
buildings formed part of a new, intricate, and vivid urban network that was meant to
inspire various processes of identification. Based on empirical and psychological studies
of the city form—elaborated mainly by Kevin Lynch and supported by Michel Foucault’s
philosophical idea of the “heterotopia”—contextualism since the 1960s became an
important paradigm in urban and architectural thinking.
The two most influential architectural tendencies of the last three decades of the 20th
century were Postmodernism and deconstructivism. Both used and transformed the idea
of contextualism. Postmodern architectural thought and ideology reduced the complexity
of the concept to a mere retrospective view of historically isolated forms and images of
the preindustrial city. Prince Charles’s Vis ion of Britain, with its anti-Modern tone, tried to revitalize
neoclassical harmony of architecture and the urban setting. The long-term effect of
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Postmodern contextualism can be seen in the “New Urbanism” of the 1990s, which
attempted to replicate and codify urban patterns of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as in
Celebration (Florida), built by the Disney Corporation.
By contrast, deconstructivist architectural thought interpreted contextualism within
less-obvious references and relations of the urban texture. Peter Eisenman’s designs—
such as the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (2000–
present)—demonstrate that deconstructivist contextualism tends to be self-referential,
nonintegrative, or even superficial.
At the end of the 20th century, fragmentation and dissolution of urban contexts were
caused mainly by megaprojects, such as shopping malls or spectacular museum buildings
sited in degenerated urban landscapes (such as the Bilbao port area in Spain that was
radically altered by Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum). These globalized
megaprojects often ignore the historical complexity and structural diversity of the sitespecific
contextualism and question subtle balances of the collage city.
Despite European trends of the 1990s—as in Berlin after the German reunification or
in the Olympic city of Barcelona—to reanimate the characteristic metropolitan urbanism
of 1900, fragmentation became the dominant mode of architectural theory and practice.
Contextualism at the beginning of the 21st century still bears symbolic importance for the
social constitution of city culture and, moreover, became a matter of urban ecology.
Faced with potential global hyperurbanization, ecology as a universal discipline
continues to stimulate reflection on contextualism.
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