Reconsidering Postmodernism

The two-day conference in New York brought together major figures of the movement to debate its status, influence, and possible future.

 

Architecture / Matt Shaw

In timely fashion, it is back. The resurgence has come to a head, though the signs and symbols were there all along: Venturi Scott Brown and Stanley Tigerman exhibitions at Yale, the ongoing Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 at the V&A in London, the release of AD's "Radical Post-modernism" issue edited by Charles Jencks and FAT, and now a major conference with many of the original protagonists. Part all-star game, part Civil War reenactment, and part lecture series, Reconsidering Postmodernism was a two-day event hosted by the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in New York City on November 11 and 12.

The speakers included a canonical roster of the movement's lead proponents and detractors, from quintessential practitioners of the era (Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern, and Andres Duany), to a younger generation of theorists such as Sam Jacob, Emmanuel Petit, and Martino Stierli. Additionally, Jencks, Tom Wolfe, Mark Wigley, Robert Campbell, Witold Rybczynsky, David Schwarz, and others lent first-hand accounts of what happened: the good, the bad, the ugly, the ordinary. The appropriately eclectic list was assembled into a dynamic line-up, with spoilers, teasers, lead-ins, and cliffhangers that enhanced the discussion and kept the discussion moving.

Top: Reinhold Martin presenting at the Reconsidering Postmodernism conference, New York (November 11-12). Photo by Anne Barton. Above: Charles Jencks, Demetri Porphyrios, and Mark Wigley on the panel, "Postmodernism: The Aftermath". Photo by Sterne Slaven.

The debate has changed, as the enemy is no longer modernism, but instead the myths that surround the movement and its place in history. Was Postmodernism in architecture misunderstood as merely historicism? Was it something more than a fleeting 20-year-long stylistic period, something which retains relevance today? Over the course of two days, in the basement of the Graduate Center at City University of New York, Postmodernism was posited as less of a discrete moment than a broader phenomenon that has been around longer than we thought, and never really left.

Tom Wolfe at the Reconsidering Postmodernism conference, New York (November 11-12). Photo by Sterne Slaven.

The conference started with a retrospective look at what Postmodernism may have been both as an architectural and a historic phenomenon. Immediately the myth that the movement started with the end of canonical modernism and the destruction of St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe housing project was challenged. Michelangelo Sabatino, author of Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy, used the work of Ernesto Rogers, Carlo Scarpa, and Eero Saarinen to illustrate that historical reference in these Modernists' work existed long before the generally accepted "birth" of Post-modernism and argued the need to break from a tendency to group architecture into periods or styles. Ebbs and Flows, he posits, not cataclysmic ruptures, shape the history of building. This sentiment was echoed by Stierli—co-curator of the aforementioned Venturi exhibition, Las Vegas Studio at Yale, LA MoCA, and The Graham Foundation—in his talk about Robert Venturi's time in Rome as a bridge between Italian postwar proto-Pomo and the more widely recognized American works. Tom Wolfe, on the 30th anniversary of his seminal work From Bauhaus to Our House, treated the crowd to some man-on-the-street wisdom, including a few great sound bites. The highlights: "Modernism was the first slave rebellion in the history of architecture" and an observation that "dialogue" is architect's code for things that "clash".

 
Ironically, the generation gaps that Postmodernism first revealed decades ago were evident at this conference as well, and the lack of representation from the emerging generation of participants and scholars resulted in an event that remained mostly retrospective.
 

Hans Hollein, Haas Haus, Vienna, 1987-90. Image courtesy of Emmanuel Petit.

The night ended with a retrospective moderated by critic Paul Goldberger, in which Stern, Duany, and Graves talked about everything from building syntax to historicist polemic to Lady Gaga. Duany's comment that "Believe it or not, Bob Stern at one point was the most radical and avant-garde architect on earth." not only puts Postmodernism in historical context, but it invigorates the ethos of the movement as progressive, something which gets lost in stylistic readings. It was in a perverse way looking back to look forward, leaving behind "bleak and hostile" modernism for a new, enlightened kind of architecture both visually and politically. For the record, Graves brought up Lady Gaga, exemplifying a cultural awareness and open minded critical sensibility that characterizes the movement.

Paul Goldberger, Michael Graves, Barry Bergdoll, Robert A.M. Stern, and Andres Duany on the panel, "Postmodernism: Looking Back". Photo by Sterne Slaven.

The second day picked up with Reinhold Martin, author of MIT: The Organization Complex and former editor of Grey Room, made a fast paced case for Postmodernism as more than a merely stylistic phenomenon. By analyzing the work of Alvaro Siza, an architect not normally associated with Postmodernism , his talk framed architectural history as two-fold: a rich referential resource to be drawn upon, and a messy series of events whose only inevitability is change. He intended to rewrite a history in which "one would like to originate". Martin broke down the accepted idea that this period of architecture was simply ironic historicism and reframed it as something useful, a jumping off point. With the conventional history thoroughly destabilized, Duany took the stage and delivered an impassioned lecture in which he displayed his brilliantly drawn, masterfully detailed, and soon to be published project, "The 105 Orders of Architecture". (Though it is reported that Duany has nearly 200 orders up his sleeve.) Scrolling quickly through over 100 plates, he attempted to show that Corbusier, Loos, and Frank Lloyd Wright all tried their hands at Classicism through non-conventional, freestyle orders, and therefore should be embraced as historicists.

Carlo Scarpa, Olivetti Showroom, Venice (St. Mark’s Square), 1957-58. Image courtesy of Michelangelo Sabatino.

Emmanuel Petit, author of the forthcoming book Irony, or, The Self-Critical Opacity of Postmodern Architecture, continued the non-stylist theme with a highly analytical look at the work of Stanley Tigerman. Petit presented his case that Postmodernism is the dialectic of the ideas flowing through the labyrinth of architectural discourse. Citing theorists from Sigmund Freud to Peter Sloderdijk, he took a serious look at irony as a rhetorical device and displayed many beautiful images of Tigerman's Daisy House. The last panel was a group assembled to look forward and interpret the newly discovered legacy of Postmodernism and included Jencks and Wigley, curator of the landmark 1988 MoMA exhibition with Philip Johnson, Deconstructivist Architecture, which was intended in part to kill Postmodernism . With Robert Campbell, architecture critic for the Boston Globe, as moderator, Jencks made his case that Postmodernism still exists in over 40 other disciplines, and it is the only "ism" to avoid becoming a "wasm". He points to deconstructivism, modern classicism, and the iconographic buildings in the Middle East as the secret torch bearers of the Postmodern ethos. On a similar thread, Wigley spoke of our multivalent time, a time in which architecture doesn't need straw men any more and that younger architects are more concerned with the deeper issues of cities and building than with a particular style.

Andres Duany presenting at the Reconsidering Postmodernism conference, New York (November 11-12). Photo by Sterne Slaven.

Ironically, the generation gaps that Postmodernism first revealed decades ago were evident at this conference as well, and the lack of representation from the emerging generation of participants and scholars, both on the panels and in the audience, resulted in an event that remained mostly retrospective. There was an undercurrent of contemporaneity, such as mentions of rapid urbanization and current economic conditions, mixed in with the delicious historical morsels, but it was usually only token comments or fleeting thoughts from single panelists. Media and pop culture are intrinsic to Postmodernity and inform most of our contemporary visual culture. Unfortunately they were painfully absent from discussions and very few projects completed after 1990 were included. This conference was more about trying to pin down the elusive what happened, and in that it was glorious and successful, but Postmodernism is an attitude that lives on, not a style that simply died off. In a Jencksian historical condition, good buildings can be made in any style, from contemporary classicism to parametric expressionism. The conference reiterated this notion through a comprehensive retrospective in which history was rediscovered and reconsidered to set the stage for new theory such as Radical Postmodernism, of which Wolfe claimed, with an experienced sense of wonder, "If it catches on, its gonna be a riot".
Matt Shaw

Stanley Tigerman, Aristotle, et al., Architoon, 1982. Image courtesy of Emmanuel Petit.

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