What does the pendulum swing between expressions of new technology and traditional symbols suggest about culture and architecture’s response to it?
Within the general backlash against the muteness, chill, inhumane and illegible qualities of mid-century Modernist architecture in some quarters, Postmodernism emerged as a particular response to reinvest architecture with symbolic meaning, color, contextualism, even whimsy. While sometimes a matter of freewheeling ornament (see Venturi's "decorated shed"), Postmodernism could sometimes drip with concepts of multi-valency, arcane historiography, obtuse literary theory, and insider jokes. As with most movements (perhaps especially in the twentieth century), Postmodernism produced some great buildings, and some moments of great shame; likewise, critics fall along spectrums defined by aesthetic curiosity, theoretical conceptualizations, and sometimes frustrated anger. Whatever your particular assessment of Postmodernism in general, and critique of particular projects in specific, there is no denying that Postmodernism is one of the signature eras within the twentieth century: so much so, it is now under critical scrutiny and re-evaluation in the profession and academy.
At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify main Postmodern monuments by name, date, designer/client and location (KNOWLEDGE)
- Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure (KNOWLEDGE)
- Describe integration of technology (material and non-material) in individual monuments (KNOWLEDGE)
- Explain stylistic changes as they relate to cultural context (COMPREHENSION)
- Summarize the main concepts in important works of theory by key writers (COMPREHENSION)
- Visually analyze buildings from this period to suggest date, place, and designer (ANALYSIS)
- Critique the agency of people and technology w/in the process of design (EVALUATE)
The post in Postmodernism requires a passage of time or, in most histories of the movement, the collapse or demise of Modernism itself: that Modernism defined by mid-century "orthodoxy" (as Venturi would put it) and maybe best characterized by the ubiquitous glass towers that sprouted all over American cities (for this is primarily--although not entirely--an American development) in the middle part of the twentieth century, usually replacing historic cores, always in the name of progress (which sometimes took the moniker "slum clearance").
For critics of the time, and lazy historians of ensuring decades, the crucial moment was captured in the photograph below, taken during the 1972 demolition of Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis. Designed fewer than twenty years earlier by Minoru Yamasaki, the project stood for all that was deemed bad by critics of Modernism. Although actually a response to extraordinarily poor management that led to spikes in crime, racial segregation, and terrible maintenance of the facility, the demolition of all thirty-three buildings was recast as the final blow to the Modernist ideal for simple, unadorned architecture, especially as built as part of social programming. So, while Pruitt-Igoe was truly a policy disaster rather than an architectural one, the photo below--easily one of the ten most influential architectural images of all time--is routinely used to illustrate the collapse of Modernism itself.
Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe (3pm March 16, 1972)
The Titanic (Stanley Tigerman, photomontage 1978)
A gleeful community of practitioners embraced tale of Pruitt-Igoe, as well as legitimate public dissatisfaction with the character of mid-century cities with sweeping, empty plazas and dull office blocks (let's be honest: not everyone can design like Mies). Perhaps none were as chipper as Stanley Tigerman, whose photomontage above, featuring Crown Hall in the unenviable position of the Titanic, sends a clear message both about the status of Mies (especially in Chicago, where Tigerman has always worked) and his view that Modernism had met its disastrous end.
Tigerman's impudent critique did not, however, suggest just what was the ice berg. One might look to a small group of architects who fomented discord within the professional community (most articulately, the argument of "the Whites and the Grays") or a few projects that started to emerge in the late 1960s and '70s that dared to return symbolism and scale to architectural design. One might also seek a book, since Postmodernism is no different from several architectural developments that were kick-started by a robust round of architectural theory. Read on:
- Read: Gelernter, chap. 9 (from pp. 281 to the end) and chap. 10
- Read: "Postmodern Architecture" (Saylor Creative Commons)
- Scan: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (Venturi, 1966)
- Read: "Why Postmodernism is Making a Comeback" (CNN, 7 May 2018)
Watch this fine little video, from the British perspective:
“less is a bore”
Not so different from the Renaissance, a period from which its adherents drew inspiration, Postmodernism was developed through theory and practice that grappled with the proper role of historic precedents from long-ago times in architecture built for new circumstances. To write the history of Postmodernism then (as several have done), requires a search into works of theory as well of works of practice.
- Due: Wednesday, 1 PM
- Schedule for Thurs., April 18: coming soon