Keeping up with . . .


Contextualism has three major variants; formal, informal, and holistic. Formal contextualism is seldom a popular topic with designers. Practised by most housing commissions, formal contextualism is often seen as overly restrictive and simplistic. It involves the legal restriction of window heights, building setbacks, overhangs, and acceptable colours or materials.

Informal contextualism is a volunteer effort by designers to respond to the physical character of their site. Lines and contours may or may not be controlled by surrounding elements. Colours may be complemented or contrasted. Land forms may be played with. The project attempts to engage the its surroundings in some way, to participate in the material culture of the site, to create an interaction between the building and its environment.

Holistic contextualism is also a volunteer effort by the designer. It is intellectual contextualism, the attempt to connect to the culture, community, history, or mythology of the site. Holistically contextual designs may bear no physical resemblance to their surroundings, and may not interact with those surroundings at all.

All forms of contextualism are difficult to sell to designers and clients, and easy to sell to governments and social groups. Contextualism is predicated on the idea that the needs of the many outweigh, to some extent, the desire for self expression of the individual. Contextualism is the antithesis of advertising, the search for easy fame, and most of the driving forces in architecture today. The idea that a design should "fade into the background," and support its neighbours and the whole at its own expense is seldom part of the commercial client's program for their building.

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Copyright (c) 1997 -- Mike Fletcher
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