When Did “Context” Become a Dirty Word in Architecture?

Everybody loves Fallingwater, even though most people have never owned it, lived in it, or even visited. Its universal appeal has been largely generated by photographs and this suggests it exists independent of physical experience. This could just be the nature of architectural renown, or it could be that forces greater than architecture are at work despite being evoked by it.

That universal appeal has been variously analyzed in terms of Wright’s theories of organic architecture, as a picturesque juxtaposition of building and landscape, as metaphor for mankind’s relationship to nature and, by extension, our place in the world. These are all ways of understanding things and each is as true as anything else. All share the notion of appropriateness for a context, and nature is a usually a very accommodating context for buildings.

It’s more difficult when there’s nothing but other buildings. Places like Venice are coherent built environments but, for all the set pieces, there’s surprisingly little grandstanding going on. Italian architects long ago decided how to best deal with it, and took their clues from what was already there. This was a sensible way of dealing with a context containing different buildings of various eras.

Milanese architects Asnago & Vender provide a mid-20th century Italian example of this “what’s already there” approach to context. Sixty years on, their buildings still don’t appear to be of any particular age or style. Their building on the corner at 43 Via Albricci in Milan is between two buildings that are also theirs. The ones across the streets at each end could easily be theirs but aren’t.



Mixed-use building, Asnago & Vendor, 1958, Via Albricci, Milan
Mixed-use building, Asnago & Vendor, 1958, Via Albricci, Milan


Such sensitivity and good manners may not be so instinctive anymore but, by and large, our built environment is guided, shaped and judged according to rules based on concern for the immediate physical context.

The esoteric world of Architecture moves differently, however, and, sometime around the late 1950s, subjectivities were added and context began to get complicated. Buildings started to “relate,” “respond,” “resonate,” and “reflect” contexts other than the immediate physical one. Celebrated architect Gio Ponti was a contemporary of Asnago & Vender and his notion of ambiente made context into a mood, a feeling, a certain something in the air. In 1950s Italy, however, that mood or feeling was still likely to be something basically okay.

When Postmodern architects eventually decided our lives lacked meaning in the form of arches and pilasters, the history of (Italian) architecture replaced good manners and the exigencies of Modernist construction as the new universal context for buildings. Unsurprisingly, this found little audience in Italy where it had already been attempted fifty years earlier, or in China and the Middle East, where it was viewed with understandable suspicion.



Pre-Modern Postmodern: Ca'Brutta, Giovanni Muzio & Pier Fausto Berelli, 1922, Via della Moscova, Milan
Pre-Modern Postmodern: Ca’Brutta, Giovanni Muzio & Pier Fausto Berelli, 1922, Via della Moscova, Milan


There were several Postmodern buildings in 1980s-boom Japan but few in yet-to-boom markets of China and the Middle East. An architecture about something other than the history of Italian architecture was needed and Deconstructivism was first to come along. Although popular in America, its unanticipated shifts and shatterings were not something Chinese and Arab client states were keen on.

Frank Gehry’s 1997 Bilbao Guggenheim proposed a cuddlier alternative but its many writhings were difficult and expensive to fabricate. The notion that a building could mean anything one wanted to led to the iconic building that could be shaped and patterned according to what a local audience supposedly held dear. Chinese could have buildings evoking bamboo or dragons and Arabs could have buildings evoking notions of sand dunes or falcons. The universal context was whatever people might be receptive to at any given place. This resulted in an uncritical regionalism where everybody was treated with the same condescension. Architects’ abilities to satisfy local populations with loosely associative imagery were admired and rewarded. Foster + Partners’ gigantic yurt in Khazakstan (2010) is typical of this type of contextualism that’s local monument and social palliative and global media event all at once.

Even that is now on the way out as the only context that matters in the practice of media architecture is a building’s contribution to the universal context of media churn and its place in the architect’s oeuvre. I mention in passing that none of this requires the presence of actual buildings—it can all be established by imagery alone.

“I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings,” Zaha Hadid told Simon Richards in Architect Knows Best.  “I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it.”

If one believes this, it means that context is no more than whatever the architect says it is. This is the hoary old notion of genius loci re-invoked. The ancient Romans believed genius loci was the protective spirit of a place, but we have the poet, Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) to blame for its revival as an all-purpose artistic justification. Pope wrote his Epistle IV to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, in the hope of securing the commission to design the gardens for Chiswick House.


Consult the genius of the place in all;

That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;

Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,

Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;

Calls in the country, catches opening glades,

Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,

Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;

Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.


It wasn’t the greatest piece of poetry (and didn’t land Pope the job), but it did make the concept of genius loci a staple in fields of landscape and garden design prior to it making its way into architecture via placemaking and phenomenology.

The philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness is now relevant because the definition of context has now expanded beyond mere site, country and culture to become the supra-contextual concept of affect, the implications of which are described by Douglas Spencer in his recent book The Architecture of Neoliberalism. “Affect” is claimed to be a physical sensation directly transmitted to the recipient, but unless the entire global construct of architectural media is to be rendered obsolete (and I don’t see that happening anytime soon), this direct physical sensation must be something also conveyable by imagery. This is contradictory but acceptable if people can appreciate Fallingwater from photographs. What’s worrying about the notion of affect is the claim it exists outside of interpretation, thereby justifying an architecture beyond taste, reflection, and criticism. A concept of affect therefore validates an architecture in which ideas of appropriateness—or any ideas for that matter—are irrelevant. If this were possible or if we were to believe those who claim it is, it would mean a single architecture for all people and all places.



Shibam Wadi Hadhramaut Yemen, by Jialiang Gao, via
Shibam Wadi Hadhramaut Yemen, by Jialiang Gao, via


Although it was never their primary task, vernacular buildings never stopped offering a direct physical experience without any of the cerebral baggage of “architecture.” What we’re in for isn’t a return to vernacular and things being no more or less than what they are, since that would negate the notion of Architecture itself. I fear we might be in for another round of Postmodernism, only this time with implications more serious. The first time around, we were encouraged to believe things meant more than what they did and it led to the commodification of imagery. Now that we’re being encouraged to believe buildings mean less than what they do, it can only mean the commodification of sensation itself. Resist.


Featured image: Piazza D’Italia, New Orleans, 1978, Charles Moore and Perez Architects.


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