Considering ‘Reconsidering Postmodernism’

The Institute of Classical Art and Architecture convened Reconsidering Postmodernism, a conference to take a fresh look at the most notorious “ism” in architecture and reexamine its cultural impact. More than 400 well-known and well- respected architects, scholars, critics, and historians attended the two-day event, and its schedule was appropriately ambitious, structured around six panels addressing the relationship between postmodernism and pedagogy, the media, memory, urbanism, tradition, and finally, the ominously titled concluding panel “Postmodernism: The Aftermath.” Many of the panelists were the founders and early advocates of postmodernism, such as Robert A. M. Stern, Michael Graves, Charles Jencks, and (via video interview) Denise Scott Brown and Vincent Scully. Author Tom Wolfe was even on hand to comment on the 30th anniversary of From Bauhaus to Our House. It was inevitable then that conversations would lean toward nostalgia while more contemporary concerns were underrepresented and often misunderstood.

Panelists like Thomas Beeby and Jaquelin T. Robertson reminisced about their time as students and as educators, but were hard-pressed to reach a consensus on the nature of a postmodern education. They did, however, argue that precedent must be more consciously employed and expressed a shared concern over the teaching of history in today’s programs. They argued that buildings should function as historic critique or participate in a dialogue with the past. If indeed cities can’t be built without discussion, then it makes sense to embrace postmodernism, the most amenable architectural language, as the lingua franca—or perhaps, the Esperanto—of the built environment. Michael Graves and others attacked the purist singularity of the neo-modernist architecture that pervaded the 1990s as a detriment to both urbanism and the profession. The members of the panel “The Architect’s Eye: Postmodernism and Architectural Education”—Tom Beeby, Michael Lykoudis, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jaquelin Robertson—all suggested that the perceived failings of contemporary architecture were the result of a lack of focus on context and history in architecture schools. Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation disagreed, arguing that today’s students were no longer interested in creating a particular style, but in history, context, technology, and social content.

When architectural postmodernism was introduced to an international audience at the 1980 Venice Biennale as a street lined with outrageously historicist facades, the Strada Novissima, it fostered a perception of the movement that skewed toward history rather than its other intended goal: the reinstatement of communication as a primary function of architecture. This interest in communication was a rejection of the space- obsessed austerity of modernism in favor of an understanding of architecture as a shared language with a rich history. “In retrospect,” said Dan Solomon, “it was an outlet mall for postmodern stylistics.” This view was only reinforced by the title of the Biennale exhibit, “The Presence of the Past,” which was drawn from a 1919 essay by T. S. Eliot. Significantly, Robert Venturi had repeatedly quoted that same essay fourteen years earlier in his preface to the ur-text of Postmodernism, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). Venturi, via Eliot, describes historical tradition as “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”

More than forty years later, it is still evident that historicism dominates the perception of postmodernism. Classical revivalists Peter Pennoyer and Thomas Gordon Smith, who spoke on the panel “The Return of Tradition: Recovering Syntax and Craft,” described the evolution of their work from a radical expression of historic forms such as those found along the Strada Novissima to traditional expressions. Their explanation was relatively straightforward: they were more satisfied with the traditional engagement. It was a language with a clear syntax that could readily adapt to contemporary buildings. Traditional architectural expression became master-texts, serving as a barometer by which they could measure their own work. Andrés Duany passionately made a sincere case for drastically expanding that language by adding 105 new “classical” orders to reinforce the historic canon from which postmodernism draws and broaden the popular appeal of classicism. These orders, which include the work of architects such as Gunnar Asplund, August Perret, John Soane, and Frank Lloyd Wright, were drawn as formal plates and collected into a twenty-first century treatise Duany refers to as the Heterodoxia Architectonica.

Demetri Porphyrios agreed, in principle if not in execution, arguing that if architecture is going to re-engage with the public realm, as many attendees agreed it must, it cannot use a language with such a limiting vocabulary; it cannot use a language only understood by an elite. In this problem lies the critical duality of postmodernism: Is it about classicism or communication?

Although the event felt something like a postmodernist class reunion, there were a few (too few) newer voices with ideas suggesting that the concerns of the old guard may be misguided, and that the opposition of classicism and communication was unnecessary. Sam Jacob, of the London-based office F.A.T., was the only panelist representing the new generation of postmodern practitioners. Jacob argued that younger practices are less obsessed with developing formal resolutions, and are instead pursuing the creation of specific modes of engagement—be it contextual, personal, or programmatic. Throughout their career, F.A.T. has frequently made use of the figural section—an extruded architectural element flattened to become façade—to further develop the Venturian notion of architecture as sign. However, unlike the Strada Novissima, these façades are not derived from classical architectural forms, but from local iconography and vernacular architecture. Recently, F.A.T., together with Charles Jencks, have proposed a new “radical postmodernism’ that they associate with three key concepts: communication, formal tropes, and social content. Aside from the sublimation of historicism, radical postmodernism’ seems to reiterate the qualities of “original” postmodernism—it talks back, cultivates an audience, and generates interest (or, at the very least, controversy).

From the perspective of younger practitioners dogmatic historicism has eclipsed irony, which they view as a useful critical tool, as the most contentious trope of postmodernism. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for history in a reconsidered postmodernism. Indeed, Reinhold Martin and Martino Stierli both proposed alternative historiographies of postmodernism that more clearly fulfilled the promise of the symposium’s title. By rewriting the history of postmodernism, it becomes possible to create a past from which, as Martin says, “one would like to originate.” Martino Stierli argued against postmodernism as American in origin, suggesting instead that it was a direct result of Venturi’s travels through postwar Italy. Together, these presenters made a case against history as a limited resource to be plundered in favor of a dynamic process or discursive formation whose only certainty is change. It can’t be denied that postmodernism is intertwined with architectural history, but by adapting and expanding that history, by giving the same consideration to more recent architectural forms, it can become better suited for engaging a broader spectrum of society.

Despite the name of the conference, it wasn’t entirely clear that postmodernism had been given its proper consideration in the first place. It wasn’t even clear when “the first place” was. A critical distance of 30–60 years (depending on whom you ask) should provide some new insight into postmodernism, but over the course of the two-day symposium more questions were raised than answers given. Is postmodernism today an omnipresent condition? Or is it a historic movement with a specific beginning and end? Is the ultimate legacy of postmodernism found in the entry porticos of suburban homes, the formal tropes of classical revivalism, or the figural sections of F.A.T.? Or something else entirely? How should we presume? Barry Bergdoll summed up the conference best with a single question: “Am I at an event about the continuity of something that began 30 years ago or an event that’s looking back?” The answer of course, is yes. Or to borrow a bon mot from Venturi: both/and. Although such dualities are inherent in postmodernism, the question gave voice to an underlying anxiety that only surfaced a few times during the proceedings but was the driving force of conference backchannels: what were we really talking about?

Over the course of the weekend, the presenters, looking back on the movement, alternately referred to their work as eclecticism, neo-eclecticism, pluralism, post-modernism, pomo, PM, and mannerism. This multiplicity of identity and meaning in postmodern architecture has been present since the earliest uses of the term. Today, the popular perception of postmodernism has become, as ICAA president Paul Gunther described it in his opening remarks, “A story about multiple personality disorders.” But that’s not quite right. In fact, the story of postmodernism today is one of multiple disordered personalities. Perhaps the assembly of scholars and architects who have measured out their lives with column flutes were unwilling to let go of their postmodernism. Jencks has written that when he first employed the term “post-modern,” he intended it to describe where architecture left rather than where it was going. As evidenced by Reconsidering Postmodernism, a forward–retreat mentality still dominates the conversation. By looking backward we can certainly find timeless ideas of beauty and harmony that can be integrated into the modern built environment, but the expression of tradition must reflect current social and technological realities. If the symposium proved anything, it’s that defining a postmodern architecture is less important than the evolution of the discourse. So perhaps it’s time to reclaim postmodernism for a generation of architects for whom all of history is only a hyperlink away.

Originally published in the Journal of Architectural Education Vol.66, No.1 (Nov. 2012)