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Regionalism in Architecture: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

Instructor: Graig Delany

Graig teaches Architecture, Construction and Engineering Courses and has a Master of Architecture Degree

Regionalism in architecture is about the context and customs of making buildings in a particular region. These buildings had to be very performative, relying on specific knowledge of the climate, geology, geography, and topography.

Regionalism

Why are buildings different all over the world? Well, one reason has to do with the availability of building materials, the weather and cultural influences.

House in Nepal using available materials
House in Nepal

Regionalism in architecture is about the context and customs of making buildings in a particular region. These buildings, mainly houses, rely on specific knowledge of the climate, geology, geography and topography of the region. Regionalism is also a fascinating topic for those interested in sustainable architecture.

Different societies used what they had available and invented ingenious ways to build their accommodations. What they built had to keep them warm in the cold, cool in the heat, and dry in the rain. This may not seem like a challenge, but the techniques employed did so passively, meaning without electricity.

Regionalism in architecture often has a cultural aspect built in, and you can see political structures, family dynamics and societal organization reflected in some buildings. For example, in Malaysia, houses grow somewhat organically as the family members are added, whereas in tribal parts of Africa new structures are built in the community as the family dynamic changes.

Regionalism differs from critical regionalism in that critical regionalism was an intellectual construct to counter the modernist and post modernist's lack of identity and disregard of context.

A house on stilts prevents damage from flooding
House on Stilts

Vernacular Architecture

To understand regional architecture, it's help to know about vernacular architecture, which refers to building made by local tradesmen. Often called 'architecture without architects', this type of building develops over time, and changes to become more efficient and more performative in its context.

Vernacular architecture is inherently green and follows many sustainable design principles; such as using local building materials and designing passive systems for heating and cooling a building. Each region has developed its own vernacular architecture, specific to the climate, available materials, and culture of the space.

Loft vernacular architecture of a house design from Norway
House in Norway

Characteristics

Regional architecture closely follows the developments of vernacular architecture, but it incorporates modern building materials and technologies. The main characteristics effecting design are climate and available building materials.

Climate

The climate plays a big role in regional architecture. Hot climates employ a few strategies that vary by region. In Southeast Asia, cross ventilation helps cool the interior of structures, whereas in the Middle East, courtyards with fountains are preferred. The cool, moving water from the fountains actually cools the surrounding air, a process called evaporative cooling.

In cold climates, thick walls with high thermal mass (ability to absorb and store heat) are used. Walls can be made of adobe, mud and straw, even snow, really anything that might be in nearby abundance. In areas with both extremes, structures were designed to adapt seasonally to the weather.

Icelandic house
Icelandic House

Building Materials

Before the standardization of the construction industry, each region had historical precedents of building materials and techniques.

The American Southwest relies heavily on adobe structures. These buildings are made of large mud blocks that have a high thermal mass. The walls have the ability to absorb heat during the day, and disperse that heat during the cool nights. This advantageous, passive solution is still used today in the southwest as well as in the colder climates of Iceland and Norway.

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