Contextual architecture

Example of Contextual Architecture

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What is Contextual Architecture?

Contextual architecture, also known as contextualism, refers to architecture that reflects the shapes, features, and geographical characteristics of the surrounding landscape. Mostly, the structure is designed in response to the urban and natural environment. In contrast to modernist architecture, contextual architecture prioritizes the imposition of one’s features and values on the constructed environment. [1] The context in architecture adds significance to aspects of a structure by referencing its surroundings.

Stuart Cohen defined contextualism as the idea of including, by recognition or replication, the defining aspects of a local physical environment. [2]

History of Contextual Architecture?

In the 1920s, contextualism was first championed in architecture by the architect Colin Rowe as a reaction to modernist architecture. It says to give value to the site’s nature and surrounding environment. Rowe focused on the existing conditions, surrounding features, and built and natural environments. He supported the use of figure-ground diagrams to understand the existing features and surrounding conditions.

This philosophy was revived later in the 20th century with the advancement of the new urbanism movement, which supported “context-appropriate architecture” in urban planning in the context of environmentalism. [1]

Categories in Contextual architecture

Contextual architecture is divided into three categories: vernacular architecture, regional architecture, and critical regionalism:-

Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture is characterized by the dependency on local construction materials and specific traditions of a locality/area. It is a form of architectural style that is unique to a certain period and location and cannot be copied elsewhere. [3]

Regional Architecture

Regional architecture emerged in the late 1960s, implying that architecture should refer to its physical, cultural, and political surroundings. It entails combining traditional, local resources with new ones. It was motivated by the significance of restoring harmony between people, artifacts, and nature in a modern setting. [3]

Critical Regionalism

Kenneth Frampton defines critical regionalism as a regional architectural strategy that pursues universality. It accepts modern architecture critically for its universal, progressive aspects, while also evaluating and respecting contextual reactions. It attempts to address modernism’s lack of meaning by employing contextual allusions to create a feeling of location. [3]

Principles of Contextual architecture


Massing refers to the structure and size of a building in three dimensions (form), giving a clear image of the shape and size. The form composition should operate as a whole while also relating to the physical world around it.

The composition of massing refers to appropriately positioning structures to take advantage of natural factors such as sun and wind, which can impact a home’s comfort level.

Let’s understand this with an example.

If our house is situated in a hilly area, we will try to position the house in such a manner that we can get a maximum view of the surroundings and natural air inside the house. Avoiding direct sunlight and glare by placing windows in the southwest, southeast, or north. design is not possible if we don’t play with the massing. [4]


Contextual architecture involves selecting a wide range of materials and colour palettes that best reflect the context and surroundings of the construction location. This would entail using organic materials, colors, and textures such as stone and wood in a natural setting. This design would not necessarily function in an urban area. Due to the situation, a different palette might be more acceptable.

Working in sync with the surrounding terrain when constructing a mountain house results in attractive solutions that conserve and enhance the fundamental features that distinguish a location. [4]

Criteria for contextual analysis


A harmonious relationship between structures in terms of vertical order (relationship between height and width) and horizontal order (relationship between height and width).

Contextual Architecture
Beautiful view of surrounding

Scale and Proportions

 A relationship of elements within the same building (height, width, footprint).

Colors, textures, and material

The visual rendering of the buildings is determined by their colors and textures.     

Material: the substance from which the building is made.


Symmetry implies the existence of the axis of symmetry in respect of which the two parts within or around the building are in sync.


Repetition of elements in a harmonious way.


 A particular element of the design adds to the overall design.


During the 1988 exhibition on Deconstructivism at MoMA, famous architects Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley criticized this philosophy by stating, “Contextualism has been used as an excuse for mediocrity, for dumb servility to the familiar.“ [1]

Notable Examples of Contextual Architecture

  1. Olympic Archery Range, Barcelona (1992)
  2. Water (Honpuku) Temple, Awaji (1991)
  3. City Gate (Valletta), Malta (2015)
  4. Kingo Houses, Helsingør  (1958)
  5. Louvre Museum, Paris (1980)
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Ar. Raju Kumar
Ar. Raju Kumar

Ar. Raju Kumar, a proud graduate in architecture, is making strides in the professional world. With a deep love for both writing and architecture, Raju brings a unique view to his designs. His journey, enriched by a diploma in architecture, shows his commitment to learning and growth. As a dedicated professional, Raju always looks for ways to improve his skills, aiming to make a lasting impact in the architectural field.

Raju Kumar (Asst. Architect)
Raju Kumar (Asst. Architect)

Raju Kumar is a talented 5th-year undergraduate student currently pursuing adegree in architecture. With a strong passion for both writing and architecture,Raju brings a unique perspective to the field. Holding a diploma in architecture,he actively seeks opportunities to enhance his skills and broaden his expertise as an aspiring architect.

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