Postmodernism and Architecture

While motoring across the Californian desert, a young woman encounters a young male student engaged in the militant activities of May 1968. He is later shot by the police. Thanks to this encounter, her eyes are opened as to the capitalist materialism surrounding her; the prevalence of consumer culture; social inequality and the shady dealings of big business. She arrives at her destination in the middle of the desert, and enters her boss’s house – a splendid modernist oasis, a cantilevered steel frame with strip windows, which perches on the edge of an arid rocky outcrop. She can now see through its refined design to its impure preconditions: its slick form, cleverly unobtrusive as it, parasitically clings to the natural surrounding, sums up the exploitation rife in society at large. She exchanges knowing looks with the Native American servants in the house and appears to sense what natural values might be as she gives herself up to a waterfall in the grounds of the house. For her boss, by contrast, value is not something intrinsic in things or people but rather a product of commercial speculation. He reminds his business contact, hesitant about signing a deal with him for the development of a shoreside site, that ‘the price of anything is neither high nor low except in relation to its potential use’. Value isonly to be assessed in terms of what can be extracted financially. Water is not to be treasured for its natural properties but for the business opportunities it opens up, in this case, the construction of a marina, pier and airstrip, and perhaps hotel complexes, so as to turn the place into a marketable resort. Having understood the full significance of the house and its residents, the woman imagines it being blown up, being dramatically ripped apart by an explosive rejection. As the highly aesthetic modernist house bursts into flames, it is followed up by further iconoclastic demonstrations: fridges, clothes, all sorts of commodities are blasted into the air. These emblems of a materialistic culture epitomize a society gone astray, an instrumentalized world which 1960s’ youth refuses in the name of fundamental rights and natural values.

The film just described is Antonioni‘s Zabriskie Point (1969) and it provides a good starting point for a discussion of postmodern architecture. In this film, modernist architecture is no longer associated with the innovations of the avant-garde – as it was in the 1920s and 1930s – but with the establishment, the well-heeled, the older generation. Its pure, transparent style, the regime of living it offers to its residents, is equated with the arrogance of wealth and power. The sweeping away of its traces m the film marks the possibility of a radically new departure which is also a return to, or retrieval of, all too neglected values. This reinscription of the past conjoined with an enthusiasm for the variety of the actual world could serve as positive definition of postmodernism as understood by Charles Jencks, its most vocal of exponents on things architectural.

Jencks suggests that postmodern architecture at once continues the traditions of modernism and transcends them – his term for this process  is ‘double  coding’. Anxious to defend postmodernism against allegations that it is just an irresponsible free-for-all, whose lack of political commitment plays straight into the hands of those who want to maintain the status quo at any price, Jencks stakes out nobler aims. Postmodernism, he claims in What is Post-modernism? (1986), aims at a realization of ‘the great promise of a plural culture with its many freedoms’. Whereas modernism was a ‘univalent formal system’ which suffocated dissenting voices in an attempt to impose general principles of taste, Jencks associates postmodern architecture with eclecticism and openness. For us to understand the stakes of this debate between postmodernist and modernist architecture, it is necessary to trace the latter’s passage from the exciting and dynamic world of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier earlier on in the century through to the 1960s and 1970s where what used to be the avant-garde is now perceived as the enemy of change.

quote-modern-architecture-died-in-st-louis-missouri-on-july-15-1972-at-3-32-p-m-or-thereabouts-charles-jencks-80-36-38One of the most telling images of a modernist architect is given to us by Ayn Rand. In her bestselling novel, The Fountainhead (1947), the uncompromising architect, Howard Roark declares: ‘I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.’ Here, modernist architecture is represented byone who is unwilling to adapt his projects to the tastes of his public. Ahead of his time he will not pander to the retrograde mass demands for mock-classical buildings with their tacked-on pilasters, scrolls and leaves. His constructions are absolute in their demand for recognition: harsh, rigid glass skyscrapers and standardized mass housing which does away with individualized nooks and crannies, the idiosyncrasies of clutter, in the name of purity and clarity. Democracy, the negotiation of differences, is regarded by him as a levelling of genial creativity.

In Decorative Art Today Le Corbusier also announces a rejection of past standards. He kicks away the props and supports of conventional taste, castigating old-fashioned, artisanal values as redundant in the age of the machine aesthetic: ‘Hand-made work. The cult of failures. The apologia for daubing. The relaxed hour of the inexact. The triumph of the limp ego. The jubilation of the free will, the respect for the as-forme. The suppression ofcontrol.’ Handed down assumptions must be put to the test, not just absorbed unquestioningly. The architect is a virile superman, an affirmative nihilist boldly overturning today’s conventional values in an attempt to think and construct the future. In Towards an Architecture he explains that ‘culture is the final outcome of an effort o selection. Selection means to put to one side, to prune, clean up, to bring out the naked and clear essential.’

This tough selection process, this jettisoning of all that is presumed to be superfluous, weak, and impure in the name of discipline and hygiene, coupled with Le Corbusier’s personal admiration for technocrats and strong if not totalitarian states, brings together most of the worrying aspects of modernist architecture. A movement that started off with utopian visions of serving the masses, introducing standardization so as to set higher standards of living for all- not just the already privileged – seems to end up dictating to those same masses.

The same disquieting tendency can be detected with the Bauhaus. As The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (1994) makes clear, this school of thought saw in mass mechanical reproduction a solution to social injustice. Cheaply manufactured mass housing, rationalized into compact housing units, would not only reduce the difference between rich and poor by setting minimal standards for all, but would also, for example, emancipate the woman from household slavery by systematizing the ‘best and simplest way’ to keep the house in running order. Such Taylorist efficiency would mean that household chores would become so self-evident and easy to accomplish that even husbands and children could contribute to ‘making the beds, cleaning the washstand, etc. as necessary’! The final result would mean that the woman would save time and be freed up for other activities, intellectual or leisure pursuits as she wished. This liberating aspect of Bauhaus’ ethos has to be read alongside the other, more sinister, side of systematized rationalization. Consider this extract from Rudolf Arnheim‘s ‘The Bauhaus in Dessau’ (Sourcebook):

In a room hung with diagonal curtains, in which a sofa sits obliquely to the corner and ten different, fully loaded little tables are set up every which way, there is hardly any reason why a new floor lamp should be placed here rather than there. But the position of everything in a Bauhaus room can be decided with nearly lawlike precision. One will soon learn to understand theoretically that it is not a question here of subjective taste, but that such feelings are a very secure and generally valid psychological phenomenon that leads to very similar results from different people. That is why one can speak even in the case of such problems as those of ‘objectively determined solutions’.

Here more manipulative overtones creep in. Instead ofstandardization promoting individuation, a general programmatization of taste is fantasized. In a Bauhaus flat there would only be one destination for your newly acquired lamp. Your flat would be designed in such a way that that particular item would belong to it there as if it were conforming to some ineluctable natural law. Emancipation tips over into dictatorial prescription; egalitarian standardization becomes totalitarian uniformity; the iconoclastic break with the past cashes out as a smashing of people’s sense of place and rootedness; a disrespect for the all too human fondness for familiar localities.

For Jencks, the alienation felt by residents forced to fit into idealistic, overzealous modernist building schemes marks the failure of that movement (and the beginning of a more modest, postmodernist reorientation). He describes how ‘utopian’ housing schemes gradually fell into disrepair, being progressively vandalized as the inhabitants tried to register their sense of despair at being abandoned to soulless, concrete jungles. In The Language of Post-Modem Architecture he writes:

Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 a 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite … Pruitt-Igoe was constructed according to the most progressive ideals of ClAM and it won an award from the American Institute of Architects when it was designed in 1951. It consisted of elegant slab blocks fourteen storeys high with rational ‘streets in the air’ (which were safe from cars but as it turned out, not safe from crime); ‘sun, space and greenery’, which Le Corbusier called the ‘three essential joys of urbanism’ (instead of conventional streets, gardens and semiprivate space, which he banished). It had a separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the provision of play space, and local amenities such as laundries, creches and gossip centres – all rational substitutes for traditional patterns. Moreover, its Purist style, its clean, salubrious hospital metaphor, was meant to instil, by good example, corresponding virtues in the inhabitants.

Modernist architecture is regarded as having brutalized people in its attempt to rationalize, to impose a strict and systematic order on, their ways of living. Unfortunately for the idealist, humans are not entirely rational, ordered or disciplined. Their tastes are variable and mostly non-justifiable, and they are prone to fits of folly. For these reasons postmodern architecture, with its proclivity for crazy pastiche, its wacky blending of styles, its disrespect for monastic regularity and tolerance for historical referentiality is deemed more human than the rigours of modernist purism. As Jencks explains in What is Post-modernism? modernist architects were unsympathetic to human foibles: ‘Ornament, polychromy, metaphor, humour, symbolismand convention were put on the Index and all forms of decoration and historical reference were declared taboo.’

Postmodern architecture is also more cautious about the uses technology can be put to and more sceptical about the merits of industrialization. Whereas mechanization was jubilantly celebrated by the modernists for its exactitude – see Le Corbusier’s tirade against imperfect artisanal goods, cited above – its ability to dispel the stuffy aura of the past and to launch a fresh, disenchanted modern world, postmodernists are less optimistic. The world post-Auschwitz, postHiroshima, knows too much about the terrors of abstraction and instrumentalization. A dislocated, disembodied relation to the world results in people becoming figures to be ‘processed’ or materials to be ‘recycled’. (Alain Resnais’s documentary film, Night and Fog (1956), on the Nazi concentration camps, contains some of the most graphic evidence of the results of such abstraction. People are reduced to spare parts – divided up, sorted into piles: hair for stuffing cushions, skin for soap and lampshades.) Science should not be allowed to ‘progress’ according to its own self-generating laws, without due concern to its long-term impact on the world and its inhabitants. As a consequence, Jencks wants to suggest that postmodernist architecture draws on some of the ethical and ecological lessons the past has inadvertently taught us. As in Zabriskie Point, anyone who rejects the arrogant assumptions of the modernist elite, will rediscover the rights of the environment:

Perhaps in the future with the environmental crises and the increasing globalization of the economy, communications and virtually every specialization, we will be encouraged – even forced – to emphasise the things which interact, the connections between a growing economy, an ideology of constant change and waste. They who don’t realize the world is a whole are doomed to pollute it.

Reacting against the modernist disdain for personalized space and thereby reconsidering the artisanal respect for the local and the traditional, postmodern architecture reinscribes place while meeting the challenge of present-day globalization. It is this double articulation, the negotiation of place and that which threatens to erode it, the placelessness of global communication networks, which is a central concern for postmodern architects.

As architecture is the most down-to-earth art form, the most fixed in space, it has an intimate relation to questions of presence, origin, to rootedness and dwelling. All these concepts have taken a battering from postmodern thought. The virtual world of the Internet is one developmnet which poses a serious challenge to architects used to concretizing projects in the here and now. If liberation is now to be equated with exhilarating surfing forays on the net, which seems to promise another, virtual world, not tied down to earthly restrictions or prejudices, how is the architect supposed to carry on constructing the future? As we have seen, in the past the architect felt it was incumbent on him, as heroic demiurge, to take upon his shoulders the burden of responsibility for building the right, improving context for society. In the postmodern world, the restrictions of a particular place appear to have been circumvented. One might not have, or know, any neighbours but instead be in regular, even intimate contact with people all over the globe whom one has never met as such, according to traditional notions of encounter.

Faced with such developments there can be no nostalgic return to an antiquated idea of place. Indeed any such hankering after precise geographical fixity and any such celebration of rooted, unproblematic identity is regarded as reactionary by this mobile global culture which espouses decontextualized hybridity, the intersplicing of cultural differences. Architectural theorists have reacted to such challenges to their profession in different ways.

Kenneth Frampton, who is no friend of Jencks and his version of postmodernism, nevertheless agrees that the modernist project is at an end and that what comes after is to be radically rethought. In his Towards a Critical Regionalism (H. Foster, ed., Postmodern Culture (1982», he accepts the fact that modernization can no longer be celebrated, as it was by his modernist predecessors, as the key to progress. Such a blind faith in the power of technology, as well as a nostalgic return to a pre-industrial past, cannot be sustained. Frampton at once, recognizes the dangers inherent in an avant-garde movement which has an overbearing sense of its own importance and truth, yet he is not prepared to lapse into apolitical quietism. He is still searching for a critical purchase on society and advocates that this stance is best achieved by an ‘arriere-garde’, not tempted by the grand narratives of modernism, which is still invested in resisting dominant forms of ideology.

Frampton’s form of postmodernism focuses on architecture which can mediate between the ‘ubiquitous placelessness of our modem environment’ and a particular site. Frampton’s stance can best be understood by juxtaposing him with what he is reacting against: consider this ecstatic celebration of the American city- that antithesis of the well integrated environment, that enemy of the urban project – by the guru of postmodern euphoria, Baudrillard, in America (1988):

No, architecture should not be humanized. Anti-architecture, the true sort (not the kind you find in Arcosanti, Arizona, which gathers together all the ‘soft’ technologies in the heart of the desert), the wild inhuman type that is beyond the measure of man was made here – made itself here – in New York, without considerations of setting, well-being, or ideal ecology. It opted for hard technologies, exaggerated all dimensions, gambled on heaven and hell … Eco-architecture, eco-society … this is the gentle hell of the Roman Empire in decline.

Baudrillard disdains a ‘soft’ consideration for human scale and local setting. Postmodernism, with its exciting new technologies, is not to be shackled by the dead weight of the human with his pedestrian concerns. Instead he extols the intricacies of the freeways and that antithesis of the European urban experience, Los Angeles:

No elevator or subwayin Los Angeles. No verticality or underground, no intimacy or collectivity, no streets or facades, no centre or monuments: a fantastic space, a spectral and discontinuous succession of all the various functions, of all signs with no hierarchical ordering – an extravaganza of indifference, extravaganza of undifferentiated surfaces – the power of pure, open space, the kind you find in the deserts.

Frampton exactly pitches himself against this uncritical acceptance of the decline of the urban project. He seeks to puncture this rhetoric of simulation and the hyperreal with buildings which, interacting with the singularity of their sites, resonate with a certain ‘density’ of experience. Subverting the otherwise unquestioned superiority of the eye over the remaining senses, Frampton calls on architecture to appeal to the tactile: ‘The tactile resilience of the place-form and the capacity of the body to read the environment in terms other than those of sight alone suggest a potential strategy for resisting the domination of universal technology.’ Touch, smell, the ‘whole range of complementary sensory perceptions which are registered by the labile body’ are evoked by Frampton as a wayof reinscribing the human into an experience of place. Rejecting apocalyptic cries announcing the obsolescence of the body in this ‘post-human’ age, Frampton sees his variety of postmodernism as permitting the resurgence of what Jean-Francois Lyotard might call ‘little narratives’ or ‘local legitimacies’.

Another theorist who, like Frampton, takes a stand against the prevailing placelessness of postmodernist architecture, is Fredric Jameson. In Postmodernism and Consumer Society (A. Gray, ed., Studying Culture (1993», he too recognizes the ossifying institutionalization of modernism against which postmodernism reacts. He also is trying to reinvent artistic experimentation – a sign of oppositional, critical art which rudely disrupts conventionalized ways of seeing – while not falling into the trap of modernism, which all too quickly became equated -with elitism because of its uncompromising difficulty. For Jameson, the summation of postmodern despair, the total abandonment of any attempt to contribute positively to the urban environment, is encapsulated by the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles. This building frustrates the experience of place. Whereas the nineteenth-century city, the home of the nomadic flaneur, provided a forum for enriching, if brief, encounters, this hotel preempts exploration. It discourages independent mobility, obliging the unsuspecting visitors passively to give themselves up to its ‘transportation machines’ which conduct them from one isolated point to another. Instead of the rich ‘density of objecthood’ sought by Frampton, this hotel thins out space by disallowing any appreciation of volume. No general impression of the building can be snatched, no transitory vantage point can be seized from which to gather some sense of place. However, this is not to say that, by contrast, modernist space provided the visitor with static, solid viewing platforms with nicely set up perspectival privileges from which to dominate the surroundings. Far from it. The modernists delighted in spaces which were dynamic, even vertiginous but which could be experienced as such. (Siegfried Giedion‘s book Buildings in France: Building in Iron, Building in Ferro-Concrete (1928) is packed full of exhilarating descriptions of buildings such as the Eiffel Tower and the Transporter Bridge in Marseilles, the precursors of modernist architecture, which orchestrate dizzy and destabilizing – yet enriching experiences of space.) It is this paucity of experience which is lamented by Jameson. This building with its opaque reflecting surfaces, is seen to be repelling the fractured city outside, refusing any communication with it, and thereby to have self-destructively turned in on itself. It cannot generate any meaning from within itself and the result is a ‘milling confusion’.

Jencks begs to differ. He reads postmodernism (in What is Postmodernism?) not as a destructive emptying out, or as a sceptical rejection of value, but rather as a paradoxical ’embracing of absolute relativism, or fragmental holism’, a challenge to attempts to categorize postmodernism as anyone thing. Robert Venturi, the other architectural theorist most associated with the fate of postmodernism, also equates it with a medley of different styles and approaches:

Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure’, compromising rather than ‘clean’, distorted rather than ‘straightforward’, ambiguous rather than ‘articulated’, perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as ‘interesting’… I’m for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality (Contradiction and Complexity in Architecture (1988).

Mocking the rigid and minimalist purity of modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe, who had proclaimed earlier on in the century ‘Less is more’ – Venturi’s response is ‘less is a bore’ – he celebrates the ‘messy vitality’ of places like Las Vegas. The casinos, diners, hotels and bars of Las Vegas are often mainly composed of enormous signs designed to catch the eye of touring motorists prowling the strip for somewhere to spend their money. As Venturi remarks in another of his books, Learning from Las Vegas, ‘The sign is more important than the architecture … The sign at the front is a vulgar extravaganza, the building at the back, a modest necessity.’ The signs are not just words but pictures, shapes and figures illustrating the enticing nature of the place. Venturi goes on to explain how Las Vegas would be blasphemous for modernist architects who strictly adhere to the biblical injunction against ‘graven images’ in the name of pure spatial expression:

During the last 40 years, theorists of Modernist architecture … have focused on space as the essential ingredient that separates architecture from painting, sculpture and literature. Their definitions glory in the uniqueness of the medium; although sculpture and painting may sometimes be allowed spatial characteristics, sculptural or pictorial architecture is unacceptable – because Space is sacred.

The example Venturi uses to illustrate his argument is a most convincing one: Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion in Barcelona, described by Peter Behrens in Le Style international (Peter Joly, 1987) as ‘the edifice which will be remembered as the most beautiful of all those constructed in the twentieth century’. Mies’s ‘universal grammar of steel I-beams’ filled in with glass and brick is interrupted, but by no means disrupted, by the inclusion of a single statue, the Kolbe sculpture of a naked woman. As Venturi points out: ‘Objects of art were used to reinforce architectural space at the expense of their own content. The Kolbe in the Barcelona Pavilion was a foil to the directed spaces: The Message was mainly architectural.’

Rather like the Bauhaus lamp mentioned above, the Kolbe statue is fitted into an overall design, not for its own sake but as the ornament that is required to adorn the building at that point, in that previously determined and circumscribed place. The statue;’ far from producing a dissonant note which upsets the harmony of the building actually effaces itself, symbolically communicating nothing boldly. In celebrating the language of signs, Venturi is praising the merits of ‘an architecture of bold communication’ over ‘one of subtle expression’. However, the question can be raised: how boldly can one communicate if the vehicle one is using isone that consists of pastiche, play, incongruity, eclecticism and ‘disjunctive variety’?

Returning to our initial point of departure: can we be so certain about the statement being made at the end of Antonioni’s film, Zabriskie Point when the modernist house is. blasted away? In the film there is a shift which can be registered between the dynamiting of the house and the ensuing images of exploding consumer items. The house itself is an example of the work of an architect such as Frank Lloyd Wright. He was hardly a purist, producing a textualized form of modernism, which made great use ofbuilding materials such as timber and stone. These blended gracefully into the natural surroundings in a eco-friendly sort of way. When the scene changes to the consumer items, the colours become artificially pastel and the music surges underscoring the release of tension as these symbols of materialist culture are jubilantly jettisoned. Whereas the woman appeared hesitant about doing away with the villa, the other objects are relinquished without delay. Is the woman actually rejecting modernism and embracing what comes after – that is, postmodernism? She is presumably putting into practice her newly found radical politics. Can this be equated with the postmodernist theories of Jencks and Venturi who have no scores to settle with capitalism and consumer culture? Indeed, the former goes so far as to declare that today’s society showers us with a superabundance of choice; according to him we are overwhelmed with an ‘embarras de richesses‘ and bathed in an atmosphere of ‘widespread pluralism’. He adds: ‘With no recognised authority and centre of power many professional groups (and even whole countries) feel victimised by a world culture and market-place that jumps, sporadically, in different directions’ (What is Post-modernism?).

These ‘groups’ and ‘countries’ who anxiously sit at the margins of an unpredictably expanding and contracting postmodern universe suffering as they do from ‘mild paranoia’ – just cannot see the pleasures Jencks is trying to point out to them. They see mockery written into Ricardo Bofill‘s pastiche classical ‘Versailles for the masses’ and lament the fact that Venturi thinks they ‘feel uncomfortable sitting in a square’. Maybe the postmodernist architectural theorists who would have most in common with the woman’s reluctant destruction of the utopian modernist project turned elitist, and her unhesitating blasting of the symbols of consumer culture, would be Jameson and Frampton. At least they are still holding on to the notion of postmodern critique which is also a postmodern counter-culture. However, to cite Jameson’s concluding words in Postmodernism and Consumer Society, this idea might have to remain elusive. It does not give us much solid to build on:

We have seen that there is a way in which postmodernism replicates or reproduces – reinforces – the logic of consumer capitalism; the more significant question is whether there is also a way in which it resists that logic. But that is a question we must leave open.



Reference: The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Edited by Stuart Sim, Routledge London, 2001.

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