At the time of this writing, there is a temporary art installation in the desert just outside of Palm Springs. The structure itself is of a 1950’s style ranch house, the prototypical American home at the time. What makes it unique is that every surface is covered by mirrors. It is called Mirage House, part of the DesertX art exhibition series. Covering all faces of the building in mirrors truly absorbs and reflects the surrounding environment, rendering the structure itself is virtually invisible. Although temporary, Mirage House is an indelible part of the desert; it literally vanishes into the landscape. The genius behind this piece is twofold. It not only is the perfect illustration of contextualism but also reveals how context and style are fundamentally different architectural conceits.
In short, an architectural style consists of all the physical components of a single form (building materials, spatial orientation, etc) that allow a structure to be identifiable to a specific point in time. Contextualism is different from a particular style of architecture because it does not align with a standard era or design technique or a historical pose. Instead, contextualism is concerned with how a structure fits in with its surrounding environment. In other words, a structure is always built with the outside in mind, whether it consists of geographic, cultural, local or regional specifications, these elements are aggregated when designing a form.
These social and regional constraints can be taken into consideration as guidelines rather than limitations. More specifically, it is a conscious decision to operate within or outside these constraints. Notable structures can work outside of these conventions but they do so to a point. Think of it as the reason brick homes aren’t built on a faultline. This is not to say that creativity and convention are mutually exclusive – one can still be creative while working within this criteria.
To an extent, home design is a form of self-expression. Everyone wants their home to be an extension of themselves, else we would all live in matching cubes. This desire can even be found within a row of nearly identical surburban track homes. In other words, uniformity and contextualism are not the same thing. Contextualism ascribes the parameters of the surrounding environment, while also allowing for creative expression.
Contextualism can also be used to pay homage to local building materials and culture. One can build a house with local building materials and keep it in the current style. Examples can include ranch homes in the desert, bungalows at the beach, colonial homes in New England, etc. It is a way of paying tribute to the landscape which surrounds you and those people and communities that support you as well. It takes a village, after all.
There are many considerations to take into account when designing your ideal next home. Aside from residential and commercial zoning restrictions, there are geographic, spacial and other similar aspects as well. It may seem overwhelming, but one of the most appealing (and aesthetic) qualities of contextualism is that it enables harmony between forms.