Friday, June 23, 2006

Looking Back at Postmodernism

Thinking back on my recent trip to Houston, it was obvious to me that the city contained relatively little historic architecture (pre-World War historic styles of classical and gothic derivation). Instead, the city serves as a broad catalogue for post-War styles: there are fine examples of minimalist mid-century modern such as the Houston Museum of Art by Mies Van der Rohe, the high-tech pavillion of Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection, as well as some refined examples of 60’s Brutalism.

My most recent impressions of Houston revealed a city characterized particularly by the Postmodern. This architectural movement rose in popularity during the 1970’s and became the ascendant architectural mode for much of the 1980’s, particularly in the United States. The style is often identified by the revival of historic formal elements, the superficial use of ornament, a pastel color palette, all composed in a way to acknowledge the surrounding context. Knowing fully well that the term 'postmodern' can be used as a catch-all to the many concurrent and contradictory architectural trends since the Sixties, I am referring specifically to a mode design that showcases consistent design elements and characteristics just described.

As a broader phenomenon, Postmodernism is often treated as a blanket term describing all aspects of our contemporary culture from a point of view that evolved from the social turbulence of the 1960’s. It was a reaction to the prevailing Modernist worldview, which understood the world in terms of elegant systems, machine-precision, scientific logic, the universality of man and thus the possibility at an objective and undeniable truth. Progress moved along a narrow path that favored abstraction, uncovering the layers to reveal an ideal world governed by reason and constant perfectibility. Modernism got its start during the renaissance in Humanism, and given a more sober and secular character from the influences of the French enlightenment, the scientific revolutions of the nineteenth century (including the contributions of Charles Darwin), Marxist materialism and finally the nihilist works Friedrich Nietzsche. These ideas achieved an architectural synthesis near the turn of the twentieth century with the first examples of structures composed of primary forms, straight-forward modern structural systems (reinforced concrete, steel), and facades abstracted to such a degree so as to abandon traditional ornament completely. Abstraction contributed to a building’s ‘honesty’, by exposing the reality of its structure, opening the walls to the outside with large expansive windows. Form was the product of function and nothing more. Building was an important part of moving civilization towards an ideal with large expanses of cities being torn-down to make way for ‘urban renewal’.

This worldview began to collapse in the face of growing social disenchantment in reaction to Modernism's seemingly repressive universalism. In philosophy, a deconstruction of general assumptions about what is believed to be true was taking shape, resulting not only questioning the validity of scientific knowledge, but also in the actual structure of language itself. In architecture, minimalist glass and concrete cubes were subverted by a restoration of historic styles and traditional idioms. But as Postmodern philosophy had tried to deconstruct language and describe the codified meanings of signs and symbols (semiotics), the revival of old and familiar architectural forms no longer necessarily connected them to its original meanings or uses. ‘Classical’ forms such as the column, the keystone, the gable, the arch and profiles of moldings provided designers with countless opportunities to compose facades that deliberately evoked irony by exaggerating proportions and traditional architectural relationships between these elements. Modernist 'honesty' was replaced by Postmodern superficiality at first, which revealed multiple layers of meaning ressed in humor. Modernist architecture was devoid of such ‘complexity and contradiction’ since it was designed under a different, more sober, mindset that tended towards unity by abstraction.

The architect Robert Venturi with his wife Denise Scott Brown are largely credited as having provided the first major theoretical underpinnings for the postmodern movement. Their 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, was metaphorically the postmodern rebuttal to Modernism’s most influential manifesto, Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, published nearly forty years before.. The most memorable quip from the Venturis’ essay is that, far from Mies Van der Rohe’s axiom that ‘less is more’, the reality for most people is that ‘less is a bore.’ The authors cited countless architectural masterpieces throughout history that embodied formal complexity and were composed in such a way so as to suggest contradictory relationships between the elements. Mannerism and Baroque architecture are particular useful in describing his idea, in that designers were permitted tremendous flexibility to reinterpret traditional architectural motifs, subverting the tectonic and proportional relationships between column, arch and entablature. The period between the Renaissance’s (16th century) obsession for copying the ancients and the Neoclassical period’s (1750’s-1800) embrace of strict empiricism was one rich in architectural innovation, sensuous and passionate expression, and dramatic tension (here’s an interactive example).

Subsequent Postmodern architects gladly delved into creating a new Mannerist style, assembling together familiar classical elements in an eclectic purposefully inelegant way. Scale was often distorted, proportions exaggerated, and fine detailing neglected in favor enhancing a building’s symbolic effect from far away. Venturi’s house for his mother, Michael Graves' Portland office building, Philip Johnson’s ‘Chippendale’ building, Robert Stern’s projects for Disney and Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans are the most widely studied examples of the Postmodern practice of play and ambiguous symbolism.

Because of most of the public is rather fond traditional architectural modes, Postmodernism overtook its Modern predecessor as the preferred choice in most construction projects. Any recent building that evokes a traditional style or displays abstracted classical ornamental elements could be classified as Postmodern. If the look of the building appears to try to represent something else, whether a long-lost style, a familiar building typology, or even a symbol embodying meaning, it is Postmodern.

Older major American cities are blessed with beautiful beaux arts structures commonly built during the latter half of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries. Houston, a city heavily bankrolled by the fortunes of the petroleum industry, seems to have massively built its great civic and commercial monuments during the Seventies when oil prices were high. As a result, Houston has become home to a vast number of ‘authentic’ Postmodern (an oxymoron, I know) style buildings, a treasure trove of architectural idiosyncrasies popular during the seventies and eighties, from the flamboyant use of pastel colors to the pastiche stucco facades with their seemingly cartoonish scale an abstraction.

The Houston skyline is dotted with Philip Johnson’s postmodern experiments, the profiles of buildings appropriating familiar typologies and forms of the past into a new context of corporate office buildings. His design for the architecture school at the University of Houston is nothing but literal reproduction of an un-built scheme by the eighteenth century French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The opera house, especially its interior, is a vivid demonstration of the ability of ornament to emphasize festive pageantry, but is also a testament to postmodernism’s ephemeral nature. John Outram’s Duncan Hall at Rice University can be an overwhelming visual experience. Its bold color, elaborate ornamentation, and its Egyptian hypostyle hall stimulate the visitor to the extreme, while equally demonstrating the potential to activate a space by recycling past motifs. Venturi Scott Brown's design for Houston's Children's Museum is another excellent example of Postmodern flamboyance. The Federal Branch Bank of Houston by Robert Stern at first appears as an abstracted Greek temple from far away, but the highly contrasting colors, the broken façade planes, and the gigantic painted ‘brick’ mortar joints reveal a rather postmodern treatment. The front façade of the building resembles more a child’s drawing of house than a temple, and the gaps between the punched planes undermine the bank’s traditional image as being a strong fortress that protects wealth.

Rediscovering the examples above with other postmodern structures revealed to me how this style had a character and visual consistency that made it so identifiable. It is truly the product of its times, defining the built environment distinctively similar to fashions that defined social life during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Unlike its Modernist predecessor, postmodern architecture was less a radical rethinking of what built space could be. It gave little attention to the connection between outside and inside, the fluidity of open space, nor did it bring attention to new materials and technologies. Postmodernism in architecture was rather a restoration of what went on before the Modernist violent break of the past beginning after the First World War. Victorian, Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau (as well as Art Deco of the 1920’s & 30’s) were attempts at creating new surface styles to dress many new building types that emerged near the turn of the twentieth century. Postmodernism is mostly about the manipulation of surface similar to those earlier, more beloved styles. The difference is that Postmodernism was less about simple embellishment and systematic formal vocabulary than it was about using signifiers to make a statement. Also the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail is mostly lacking compared to the older styles.

Although ironic humor is often used to describe postmodernism’s architectural expression, the underlying meanings of these designs is quite profound. It was an architecture that tried to make a point, ‘speaking’ through signs, quotations from the past and subversive proportions. Modernist glass boxes aimed to say as little as possible, their meanings pared down to nothing more than simple fact of merely existing. Nowadays, postmodernism no longer stimulates the interests of the current architectural vanguard. Modernism experienced a revival during the 1990’s, while the digital revolution has ushered the rise of biomorphism or ‘blobitechture’ while also breathing life into deconstruction. Postmodernism is now looked on as a clumsy effort to respond the conceptual dead end of late Modernism, suffering from its lack of timelessness and its indifference to actually being beautiful. To young designers, seeing a postmodern masterpiece from the seventies and eighties often causes them to cringe.

Update: Sam Jacob over at "Strange Harvest" explains why he admires the contributions of Postmodern pioneers Venturi Scott Brown in this insightful post. Hattip: Progressive Reactionary

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