From Critical Regionalism to Critical Realism

Challenging the Commodification of Tradition


  • Nelson Mota TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment


In 1990, Dutch architecture critic Hans van Dijk declared that the concept of ‘critical regionalism’ had become obsolete. This was stated in his review of the debates that occurred during the seminar ‘Context and Modernity. The Delft International Working Seminar on Critical Regionalism’, held at the Faculty of Architecture of Delft University of Technology. ‘After being used for ten years’, van Dijk argued, ‘too many negative and incorrect meanings have become attached to this pair of notions for it to serve as a trustworthy vehicle for an idea anymore, let alone an attitude, code of ethics or a source of hope and expectation.’ There is a precise moment when, according to van Dijk, the banner of critical regionalism was hauled down. It was when Alexander Tzonis, one of the inventors of the term, concluded his lecture at the seminar by crossing out some letters in ‘critical regionalism’, forming a new term: ‘critical realism’. Van Dijk reports that, for Tzonis, the word ‘region’ should be understood metaphorically and thus regionalism could be better expressed by realism.

Two decades after that seminar, although many times challenged and disputed, the notion of critical regionalism is still a significant player in the contemporary architectural debate. Now, as then, some people have lost their faith in the ‘miracle of progress’ brought by modernism’s ideology, and a populist appeal for a nostalgic return to a pre-industrial condition still appeals to many. The organizers of the 1990 Delft seminar stressed that they intended to discuss concepts such as context, modernity or identity in a time of cultural confusion where ‘one tries to find “hope” in the cultural fields which promise eternal stability, like fundamentalist religion, the peripherical [sic] ‘authentic’ and ‘proud’ nationalistic people’s movements’. They brought about the question: Can identity survive the tension between context and modernity?

Author Biography

Nelson Mota, TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment

Nelson Mota is Associate Professor of Architecture at Delft University of Technology. He holds a professional degree in Architecture (1998) and an advanced master in Architecture, Territory and Memory (2006) from the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a PhD (2014) from Delft University of Technology. Nelson is a founding partner of the architectural office comoco arquitectos. He is the author of the book A Arquitectura do Quotidiano (The Architecture of the Everyday) published in 2010, and co-editor of Footprint 17: “The ‘Bread & Butter’ of Architecture: Investigating Everyday Practices” ( 2015), Joelho 8: “Ideas and Practices for the European City” (2017), and Footprint 24: “The Architecture of Housing after the Neoliberal Turn” (2019). Nelson is the leader of the research group Global Housing and coordinator of the Global Housing educational program at the TU Delft. He is  member of the editorial board of the academic journal Footprint and DASH.