What Is Postmodern Architecture?: An Introduction in Three Videos

Mod­ern archi­tec­ture died in St Louis, Mis­souri on July 15, 1972, at 3:32pm (or there­abouts).” This oft-quot­ed pro­nounce­ment by cul­tur­al and archi­tec­tur­al the­o­rist Charles Jencks refers to the demo­li­tion of the Wen­dell O. Pruitt Homes and William Igoe Apart­ments. The fate of that short-lived pub­lic hous­ing com­plex, bet­ter and more infa­mous­ly known as Pruitt-Igoe, still holds rhetor­i­cal val­ue in Amer­i­ca in argu­ments against the sup­posed social-engi­neer­ing ambi­tions made con­crete (often lit­er­al­ly) in large-scale post­war mod­ernist build­ings. Though the true sto­ry is more com­pli­cat­ed, the fact remains that, when­ev­er we pin­point it, mod­ern archi­tec­ture was wide­ly regard­ed as “dead.” What would come after it?

Why, post­mod­ernism, of course. Jencks did more than his part to define mod­ernism’s any­thing-goes suc­ces­sor move­ment with The Lan­guage of Post-Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture, in which he tells the tale of Pruitt-Igoe, which was then rel­a­tive­ly recent his­to­ry.

The first edi­tion came out in 1977, ear­ly days indeed in the life of post­mod­ernism, which in a video from His­toric Eng­land archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Elain Har­wood calls “the style of the nine­teen-eight­ies.” Its riots of delib­er­ate­ly incon­gru­ous shape and col­or, as well as its heaped-up unsub­tle cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, suit­ed that unbri­dled decade as per­fect­ly as did the ele­gant­ly gar­ish fur­ni­ture of the Mem­phis group.

In recent years, how­ev­er, the build­ings left behind by post­mod­ernism have got more than a few of us ask­ing ques­tions — ques­tions like, “Are they inten­tion­al­ly weird and tacky, or just designed with no taste?” That’s how Youtu­ber Bet­ty Chen puts it in the ARTic­u­la­tions video just above, before launch­ing into an inves­ti­ga­tion of post­mod­ern archi­tec­ture’s ori­gin, pur­pose, and place in the built envi­ron­ment today. In her telling, the style was born in the ear­ly nine­teen-six­ties, when archi­tect Robert Ven­turi designed a rule-break­ing house for his moth­er in Philadel­phia, decid­ing “to dis­tort the pure order of the mod­ernist box by rein­tro­duc­ing dis­pro­por­tion­al arrange­ments of clas­si­cal ele­ments such as four-pane win­dows, arch­es, the ped­i­ment, and the dec­o­ra­tive dado.”

An impor­tant the­o­rist of post­mod­ernism as well as a prac­ti­tion­er (usu­al­ly work­ing in both roles with his wife and col­lab­o­ra­tor Denise Scott Brown), Ven­turi con­vert­ed arch-mod­ernist Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe’s dec­la­ra­tion that “less is more” into what would become, in effect, post­mod­ernism’s brief man­i­festo: “Less is a bore.” Ven­turi described him­self as choos­ing “messy vital­i­ty over obvi­ous uni­ty,” and the same could be said of a range of his col­leagues in the eight­ies and nineties: Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, and Charles Moore in Amer­i­ca; Also Rossi, Ricar­do Bofill, and Bernard Tschu­mi in Europe; Minoru Takeya­ma, Ken­go Kuma, and Ara­ta Isoza­ki in Japan.

Post­mod­ern archi­tec­ture flow­ered espe­cial­ly in Britain: “The irrev­er­ence came from Amer­i­ca, the clas­si­cism from Europe,” says Har­wood. “What British archi­tects did was weave those two ele­ments togeth­er.” As one of those archi­tects, Sir Ter­ry Far­rell, tells His­toric Eng­land, “the pre­ced­ing era had been earnest and anony­mous”; after inter­na­tion­al mod­ernism, the time had come to re-intro­duce per­son­al­i­ty, and in a flam­boy­ant man­ner. His col­league Piers Gough remem­bers feel­ing, in the mid-six­ties, a cer­tain envy for pop art — “they were doing col­or, they were doing pop­u­lar imagery, they had pret­ti­er girl­friends” — that inspired them to “ran­sack pop­u­lar imagery in archi­tec­ture.” This project posed cer­tain prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of its own: “You can design a build­ing to look like a soup can, but the prob­lem real­ly comes when you put the win­dows in it.”

Ren­o­va­tions to many an aging post­mod­ern build­ing have proven dif­fi­cult to jus­ti­fy, giv­en that “irrev­er­ence and exag­ger­a­tion are out,” as Brock Keel­ing writes in a recent Bloomberg piece. “Sig­nif­i­cant post­mod­ern build­ings like the Abrams House in Pitts­burgh and the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art in San Diego have already been demol­ished,” and oth­ers are endan­gered: “Fans of the James R. Thomp­son Cen­ter — Hel­mut Jahn’s 1985 civic build­ing, not­ed for its sliced-off dome facade and 17-sto­ry atri­um with blue-and-salmon trim — fear it will deboned in prepa­ra­tion for Google’s new Chica­go head­quar­ters.” The true archi­tec­tur­al post­mod­ernism enthu­si­ast also appre­ci­ates much hum­bler works, such as Jef­frey Daniels’ Los Ange­les Ken­tucky Fried Chick­en fran­chise that unin­ten­tion­al­ly evokes of both a chick­en and a chick­en buck­et. Long may it stand.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

Meet the Mem­phis Group, the Bob Dylan-Inspired Design­ers of David Bowie’s Favorite Fur­ni­ture

Why Peo­ple Hate Bru­tal­ist Build­ings on Amer­i­can Col­lege Cam­pus­es

Every­thing You Ever Want­ed to Know About the Beau­ty of Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­ture: An Intro­duc­tion in Six Videos

How the Rad­i­cal Build­ings of the Bauhaus Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Archi­tec­ture: A Short Intro­duc­tion

An Intro­duc­tion to Post­mod­ernist Thinkers & Themes: Watch Primers on Fou­cault, Niet­zsche, Der­ri­da, Deleuze & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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