Revisiting Postmodernism


29 May 2018

A new book by Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman re-examines postmodernism in architecture. Royally reviled in its time and long thought passé, its tenets seem to have lingered. Did PoMo ever really go away?

When I was a child, I received a postcard from what appeared to be a fictional world. A relative was passing through Bavaria and sent back a picture of Neuschwanstein castle. The towers, high above the forests, defied reality. I didn’t know then that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle was based on this. If anything, it seemed the other way around; that a cartoon had suddenly impossibly become material. Neither did I know about the Swan King, Ludwig II, or anything about kitsch, pastiche, revivalism or fairy-tale set design. It was the first time, naive as I was, that I felt genuine awe about architecture. I wondered how such a thing could exist long before I got to the age, betraying my initial innocence, when I wondered, should such a thing exist?

It’s tempting to approach Revisiting Postmodernism, a new book by architects Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman, with a sense of hungover dread and clarity; to think of the style as the frivolous night-before the merciless morning-after. Except it’s not really over. The buildings featured are still very in much in use. Some retain the power to be contentious. Many are, however, under threat, given they don’t look the way architecture that should be preserved ought to look (the products of recent movements rarely do; that’s the danger in losing them forever). If PoMo teaches us anything, it’s that supposedly outdated architecture – buildings whose moment has passed – is not over, regardless of how many styles supplant it. It is merely our view of the architecture that changes.

With a topic as wilfully slippery as postmodernism, it’s worth asking what you’re actually reviewing. Is it the book, the spirit and legacy of the movement, the buildings or the contributors’ work? In Farrell, we have an architect who was once at the forefront of the movement, and in his co-author Furman, we have a talented young designer inspired by the style. Both have an enthusiasm that sweeps the reader along. The dynamic vibrancy fits the subject, but there is rigour here too, in the way the authors delve into a complex and mercurial subject.

Given its amorphous nature, asking what postmodernism is is an exercise in masochism. You know PoMo when you see it. You know it by what it’s not. It is playful rather than stern, diverse rather than uniform. It is colour in the face of dour concrete and glass. It is Robert Venturi’s “Less is a bore” as opposed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more”. There are many touchstones throughout Revisiting Postmodernism, but it is Venturi’s 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture that is, in the authors’ view, “the manifesto of these times and indeed our times today”. This is primarily because Venturi – and Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown – saw value in the devalued. They “looked at ordinariness and saw beauty in it as ‘great’ architecture, just as pop artists had seen artistic merit in comics and soup cans”. The authors’ contention is that PoMo was anti-snobbery, antimonumentality, anti-Messianic. Instead, they say, architecture could be anywhere, anything. It could even – heaven forbid – be fun.

Given the wide sweep of buildings discussed in the book, it’s clear PoMo was catholic in breadth as well as Catholic in kitsch. When it works, it is an expansive style that can bring surprise and delight. John Outram’s “Temple of Storms” pumping station (1988) on the Isle of Dogs turns something utilitarian into something glorious. So too, though on a much grander scale, Farrell’s Charing Cross station (1990). The magic realist chapel of A House for Essex (2015) by FAT and Grayson Perry makes curious sense. Even the initially horrific Inntel Hotel (2010) by WAM, an assemblage of Dutch houses slotted Tetris-like on top of one another, has a certain surreal charm, stirring up the long-buried childhood question of “how did they do that?” rather than “why?”

The authors make a compelling case that the “enablingly neutral” architecture of modernism could be slightly inhuman; a tendency unwittingly acknowledged by the largely anonymous modernist architects who enlivened their renderings with “endless people in bright clothing gambolling around with kites and balloons, surrounded by luscious planting, flags and banners and so on”. Farrell believes, by contrast, that “it is the architect’s job to be able to raid the dressing-up box when needed, like films, opera sets, musicals and pop concerts. Architecture itself is on occasion required to be the actual entertainment, particularly when on a giant scale.”

Again and again, we find the question of perception to be the key to postmodernism. It is self-reflexive, having the welcome or unwelcome effect of calling attention not just to the buildings, but the viewer. You ask yourself, “Why do I feel so intensely about this building?” And you may go further to consider why taste matters so much at all. You might even see taste not only as an overrated quality but, in some cases, a tyrannical one.

This personal questioning carries right through Revisiting Postmodernism. Farrell charts his work in relation to his peers’ and where he sees the various players. The hostility to his creations is revealed in asides: “British Puritanism was always there haunting me off-stage.” He rails against modernism “turning the world ever more one-dimensional. As a reaction against it, the ‘post’-age is a celebration of uncertainty, plurality, diversity and, above all, ‘choice’.”

This is admirable, but there is a case to be made that modernism was not as cyclopean, nor was postmodernism quite as diverse, as some like to imagine. In celebrating the “glorious period of pluralist taste” in Victorian times and lamenting “a purge towards Bauhaus modernist conformity”, the authors run the risk of espousing false dichotomies (Bauhaus, in its first incarnation at least, was a far weirder assortment than is often acknowledged). Pitching Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia against Gropius’s Bauhaus school is as intriguing but ultimately futile as asking, “Which is better – an octopus or an ant?” The question fails to recognise that each has contrasting strengths in relation to different environments. Travelling too far down this route ends in the dubious assertions we see of technology versus “the soul”; order versus freedom; machine versus human; as if all of these were not intricately linked.

Thankfully, the authors are as open as their declarations. “Flexibility, eclecticism and choice were all positive things,” Farrell writes, “and I saw in the Scandinavian architects, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Richard Neutra, all kinds of reinterpretations of modernism in an individual and regional way.” Likewise, many of his criticisms of the static nature of certain strains of modernism are well placed. ‘Form follows function’ cannot be entirely sacrosanct when change happens so frequently these days and it can be pretty difficult to create modular spaces from steel and concrete. “Modernism searched for and celebrated certainty,” the authors point out – but we are uncertain beings living in uncertain times.

Why then was there such opposition to postmodernism? One reason concerns the nature of architecture itself, which may be art but is also an imposition. Any building that demands attention on the skyline invites judgement. This is amplified by postmodernism’s extravagance and deliberate frivolity. Michael Graves’s Swan and Dolphin resorts might work in Orlando, but place a similar building elsewhere and the response might be incandescent. It goes beyond taste and aesthetics through into moralism. However unfairly, PoMo can easily be framed as decadent excess or a society in slow-motion nervous breakdown.

The book’s references to the Reformation are insightful; there is something of the puritan to its opponents (and the Counter-Reformation in the “exuberant excess”, as well as the power-play, of PoMo). The underlying assumption is that there should be something tragic or melancholic to great architecture. If PoMo was “modernism without anxiety”, as American novelist Jonathan Lethem put it, this was anathema to those who saw anxiety as a natural condition of being. Comedy, like fashion and entertainment, is cheap, disposable and demeaning in some eyes, while tragedians are taken seriously even when guilty of bathos.

PoMo’s argument that authenticity was overrated and could stifle creativity clashes with our innate fears that we are somehow inauthentic compared to the past. What is Aldo Rossi’s floating Teatro del Mundo compared to the fixed grandeur of the Venetian buildings behind it? Yet life is as real as it’s always been – if considerably less brutal. And these are no more or less buildings than any before; if anything, the very ephemerality of the Teatro del Mundo gave it a power other structures lack. There was continually a sense, even amongst scholars, that the childlike joy of PoMo might actually be a senile deterioration: “Is post-modernity the pastime of an old man who scrounges in the garbage-heap of finality looking for leftovers[…]?” Jean-François Lyotard asked in his 1983 book The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. The escape from the grand narratives of modernism and PoMo’s treatment of history as a scrapyard to be raided and re contextualised could be suggestive of the approach of someone who believes themselves to be free and healthy, but who is actually a compulsive hoarder or even a nihilist. What if the energy that postmodernism undoubtedly displays is a giddiness that comes from vertigo? What if its nerve is actually a collapse of nerve?

Some might take issue with the style’s tendency to derive “inspiration” from history, removing the original meanings and adding new ones. This trait, however, is crucial in placing it. PoMo didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There are precedents that appear postmodernist even before modernism – Yury Felten’s Ruin Tower (1773), Peter Behrens’s Crematorium in Hagen-Delstern (1907), John Nash’s Brighton Pavilion (1822), even entire movements like Moorish revival.

In the ‘Image Gallery’ section of Revisiting Postmodernism, you can spot certain features that have been appropriated and transformed. Rather than being ahistorical, the style plugs into tradition via curious routes. Hans Hollein’s Retti candle shop (1966) bears an almost keyhole arch. There is something of the Colosseo Quadrato of the Esposizione Universale Roma in Aldo Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery (1971), or even the exquisite eeriness of a De Chirico painting. Furman’s arches in his Gateways installation (2017) are architectural history made brilliantly new.

The critical difference seems to be sincerity. Modernists meant it, so we’re assured without ever really being told what ‘it’ is. Maybe PoMo means it too (if we take architecture to be the sculpting of space for people to exist in), but disguises this with a smirk. Occasionally, the otherwise commendable openness overreaches. Ricardo Bofill’s superlative Taller de Arquitectura renovation seems after-modernist rather than postmodernist, while Jean Nouvel’s innovative buildings, which the authors admit are “hard to place” (and the Torre Agbar is certainly borderline PoMo), feel too considered to be included. And yet one of the successes of the book is in demonstrating that postmodernism was genuine after all. That was perhaps its final joke.

Aided by a cavalcade of startling images, Farrell and Furman argue convincingly for the democratic – even revolutionary – aspect of postmodernism. It could be claimed however that there is a darker tone at work, that PoMo could be just as reactionary as any style, perhaps even more so by hiding in plain sight. Colour can be camouflage. Things can be hidden behind fun. Nothing is just a style, and nothing in the built environment is entirely apolitical, whatever it claims. It’s notable that the most iconic buildings presented in the book house the intelligence services (Farrell’s SIS Building) and a consumer showroom (BEST Store, Houston), or are owned by a Saudi conglomerate (the AT&T Building). Farrell puts the “loss of the style’s momentum” down to “the big commercial firms trying to appeal to planning officers and uninformed politicians with a nicer, friendlier, cuddlier architecture”. It became the wacky tie in the otherwise monochrome boardroom. Yet the authors are right in pointing out that for every monstrous postmodernist-influenced tower of insincerity that goes up in megacities, there are exceptional outlying heirs too, like the vibrant Andean buildings designed by Bolivia’s Freddy Mamani, which are a joy to behold.

If postmodernism was a revolution as the authors suggest, where has it left us? A cynic might say it added to the ‘Be different’ homogeneity we’re swimming in today, but cyberspace and advertising have much more to answer for in that regard. Instead, postmodernist architecture did escape “highly restricted formal elements” and the celebration of “restraint and
severity”, as the authors claim. It did “re-enrich the by-then stagnant language of modernity”. Revisiting Postmodernism is a testament to that spirit, threading a visually dazzling and erudite path through a complex history.

Questions of poetry, art, the vernacular, architecture as experience, and even romanticism have a vital place in architecture but so too do other needs. “Whereas Modernists always sought to
actively build solutions to society’s ills,” the authors write, “[postmodernist] architects were primarily inspirational artist-poets, using their work to highlight problems and tell stories about the contemporary world, without in any way proposing viable tools for achieving a better world.” As insecure narrative-fixated creatures, we certainly require stories and inspiration but we also need tools when facing the colossal challenges around us. These ambitions are not mutually exclusive. We might look back nostalgically at an era of indulgence and imagination, and a style that was, in the words of an earlier mad, doomed king, Shakespeare’s Lear, “more sinned against than sinning”. Whether such tales help us remains to be seen but, in a time of gathering nightmares, it may do no harm to dream.