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No occident: Architecture in non-western geographies

A new type of Modernism based on local materials and techniques could provide a solution for sustainable expansion outside Europe, writes Gökhan Karakuş

Despite the common ground provided by today’s worldwide monoculture, stark differences in material and economic conditions have created new strains of architectural practice. In non-western geographies, where industrial and traditional systems co-exist, new combinations of materials and techniques are developing. Architecture driven by modern industry and urbanism but built using the materials and techniques of local and native traditions based on skill, communal activity and more affordable labour is becoming the touchstone of a new type of formal practice by architects in non-western countries.

Architects working largely in the east and south are creating the basis for a new Modernism aligned to the material and social reality of the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in these quickly transforming geographies. The growth of an urban vernacular with its origins in tradition but applied using universally available industrial materials is opening the way for a type of architecture originating at grassroots level through direct engagement with local building cultures.

The work of architects such as Wang Shu in China, Kevin Low in Malaysia, Nevzat Sayın in Turkey and Elemental in Chile in the early 90s paved the way for this new Modernism. Their work was in tune with the urban vernacular and its potential for application in huge swaths of the developing world. In a period where the methods, imported materials, and unsustainable urbanisation of the west were dominant in developing economies, their model for a regional, contextual approach created an architecture that was more accessible and easier to apply for a much larger proportion of the world’s inhabitants.

While the majority of western practitioners still obsess over their own urban vernaculars, the last two Venice Biennales have featured western architects awarded for their detailed scrutiny of non-western urbanism. Justin McGuirk and Urban Think Tank’s Torre David settlement in 2012 and Harry Gugger’s fisherman shacks in the 2010 Bahrain pavilion looked at practices that had directly engaged local materiality and techniques to achieve sustainable, communal results.

Chinese architect Wang Shu’s announcement as the winner of the 2012 Pritzker Prize represented the arrival of non-western Modernism on the world stage. His work looks at the hyper-urbanisation of China and shows how a combination of indigenous techniques and materials can merge with a modern sensibility to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding society.
This focus on material resource and local expression can be seen in buildings such as his Ningbo Museum, 2008, which uses stone, brick and tile scavenged from the remains of farmers’ homes on the site to clad a reinforced concrete and bamboo structure.

The resulting angular and textured surfaces strike an uneasy yet distinct balance between the bland urbanism of the city and the hilly topography in the distance. Explaining his method, Wang has said, ‘I once thought that, if the combination of traditional crafts and modern technique couldn’t be applied commonly in massive construction in China, traditional Chinese architecture would be throttled in the empty talk and chicanery of architects and museums.’ Wang’s success has been to apply these crafts to larger scale projects to serve as an example to China and the world.

Turkish architect Nevzat Sayın has used a similar strategy of adaptation and integration in his Istanbul work from the 1990s. Turkey’s ongoing mass-migration and urbanisation dating from the 1960s had an important influence onSayın’s architecture. Squatter housing built by rural migrants had spread over the periphery of the city encrusting its rolling hills with an irregular geometry of concrete, brick and steel. While much of the architecture of Turkey ignored these developments, Sayın engaged with it both formally and tectonically.

He built his Gön Leather Factory, 1996 in a district of squatter homes and industrial warehouses. The building responds to its context with a robust, fair-faced concrete facade punctuated by a syncopated modularity that is in a dialogue with the surrounding irregular urbanism of Istanbul. In its spacious interiors and sweeping surfaces, the Modernism of the factory is clear. But Sayın’s raw techniques are also an attempt to reflect the material reality of the site.

This approach was adopted in a similar fashion by the Chilean practice Elemental in a housing project for Quinta Monroy, 2005, in Chile. Charged with providing new housing to replace illegal squatter settlements in Iquique, a city in the Chilean desert, the practice proposed a seemingly unfinished structure of exposed reinforced concrete. In a variant of the conventional row house, each unit consists of one built segment paired with an empty area of equal size; a building that can be inhabited right away after construction and be changed over time by its residents.

Looking towards Asia, we can see a number of architects that have applied similar methods. One of the most thoughtful is Kevin Low of Kuala Lumpurian practice Small Projects. He has identified a concern with methods of urban construction ‘with relevant design, architectural economy and spatial technology as related to specific context’ in Malaysia. He describes his architecture as a product of the multifaceted relationship between man and nature, in ‘the space that can neither be called landscape nor architecture but sits somewhere in between’.

Low’s work explores the notion of the ‘under-constructed’. This is an aesthetic of economy that feeds off the local building and material industry in Malaysia, which is homegrown and locally sourced, and has been applied from furniture to whole buildings. His gardenshell house, 2007, covers its private inner and transparent spaces with an enclosure of unplastered brick set into the frame of a similarly unfinished concrete structure. It is a raw shell designed to receive protection from the elements and a finish of natural weathering. Low’s approach is at once material and technical but profoundly attuned to the longterm reciprocal relations between building, dwelling and nature.

The engagement with the urban vernacular seen in the work of these architects in the past 20 years has been an important strain of Modernism markedly different from that seen in the west. Their model forms a sustainable relationship with the material surroundings by holistically factoring in nature and time. Aligned towards a progressive modernisation of our environment, these architects understand that they cannot possibly be the only producer of modern architecture, and that it has to be performed reciprocally and in co-operation with local inhabitants.

Self-organising, informal systems have been responsible for building for thousands of years. This approach engages with now-mutated local systems found in the urban vernacular to create a new type of Modernism for the 21st century and beyond.

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