La Strada Novissima: The 1980 Venice Biennale

A text by Charles Jencks on The Presence of the Past, the first Venice Architecture Biennale, directed by Paolo Portoghesi.

This article was originally published in Domus 610 / October 1980

The Presence of the Past
There are many misunderstandings concerning Post-Modernism no doubt caused by the success of the term, and its various, indeed erratic, usage. Possibly this ambiguity and the success are connected since the vagueness leads Modernists and anti-Modernists alike to read what they like into the labeI. The fashion can be liberating, and the vagueness and pluralism of the term equally so, especially as Modernism (and perhaps Late-Modernism?) becomes more doctrinaire and exclusivist. For such reason I used the term in 1975 to cover six departures from Modernism (The Rise of Post-Modern Architecture , Eindhoven 1975) — departures from a shared tradition not reaction against it. The six schools of post-modernism (lower case) - historicism, neo-vernacular, adhocism, contextualism, metaphorical and metaphysical architects, and those who develop an ambiguous space — are distinguishable from each other, but they also have a commonality: they "double-code" their buildings. They all are partly Modern (because of the tradition from which they depart) and partly Other. Hence Post-Modernism defined means this double-coding, a stricter definition I understood only after the first edition of my book in 1977. The definition opposes this heterogenous group with that which they are often confused — Late-Modernists.
Top: Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Above: <em>Strada Novissima</em> installation view
Top: Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Above: Strada Novissima installation view
Today one still finds that journalists, editors and the public at large confuse these two basic approaches. They imagine that anything that is playful, strange, more Modern than Modern, is Post-Modern — and hence Peter Eisenman becomes a Post-Modernist. Clearly the ambiguity and surprise of his spaces puts him in that category, but just as clearly his anticonventional and antisymbolic position are Late-Modern. We must conclude that the ambiguity in the term is then shared by public, journalists and practicing architects, sometimes to positive effect, but that, as I have defined it in a more limited way, it has a coherence and refers to a commonly shared approach (double-coding).
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Michael Graves' façade under construction
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Michael Graves' façade under construction
With these distinctions in mind several further points become clear: the main school of Post-Modernism (Venturi, Moore, Stern, and now Hollein, Stirling, Philip Johnson, Bofill) should be distinguished from the other departures just as a conscious movement is distinguished from a wider cultural shift.

Furthermore, Post-Modern Classicism, the new synthesis which now unites practitioners around the world as the International Style did in the twenties, is an identifiable style and philosophical approach (gathering fragments of contextualism, eclecticism, semiotics, and particular architectural traditions into its hybrid ideology). Leon Krier, even Aldo Rossi, has started to move towards this consensus (although they keep a suspicion of all things American). When an historian of the year 2000 looks at our period he might distinguish the Post-Modern Classicists from the post-modern practitioners — those in the other traditions such as Kroll and Erskine who have also left Modernism but not necessarily embraced the Free Style Classicism.
Post-Modern Classicism is the new synthesis which now unites practitioners around the world as the International Style did in the twenties
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Left, a drawing by Robert A.M. Stern; right, a drawing by Michael Graves
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Left, a drawing by Robert A.M. Stern; right, a drawing by Michael Graves
By the same token he might look at the entries to the 1980 Biennale and see them as comprising only one part of the post-modern movement — the historicist part. Naturally Paolo Portoghesi and the committee (Scully, Norberg-Schulz, myself etc.) favoured those who conformed with Portoghesi's Biennale title — The Presence of the Past — and his concerns (for a "lost language of architecture"). This meant that many post-modernists were excluded — the metaphysical school, some urbanists — and that the Post-Modern School was emphasized.
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Proposal by Rem Koolhaas (OMA)
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Proposal by Rem Koolhaas (OMA)
A preference for historicism overcame a preference for communication in general. Characteristically the term was co-opted into the subtitle of the exhibition to serve a partly sectarian polemic. Should one object? Does one object when Modernism is defined as "structural rationalism" (Viollet-le-Duc) or "social-responsibility" (William Morris) or any one of its twenty or thirty possible definers? Because of this ambiguity and pluralism of usage I have attempted, in Late-Modern Architecture , to disentangle the thirty main definers of Modern, Late-Modern and Post-Modern architecture and place them together in a comparative table. (I should add parenthetically that while the Biennale's selection is indeed limited to the historicist wing of Post-Modernism it shows a fairly acute application of standards, and a most welcome spread across different countries). Charles Jencks
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Oswald Mathias Ungers' façade
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Oswald Mathias Ungers' façade
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Left, façade by Thomas Gordon Smith; right, façade by Venturi, Rauch & Scott-Brown
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Left, façade by Thomas Gordon Smith; right, façade by Venturi, Rauch & Scott-Brown
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Hans Hollein's façade
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Hans Hollein's façade
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Left, the Arsenale's <em>Corderie</em> before renovation; right, a drawing by Stanley Tigerman
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Left, the Arsenale's Corderie before renovation; right, a drawing by Stanley Tigerman
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Left, a drawing by Franco Purini and Laura Thermes; right, a drawing by Massimo Scolari
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Left, a drawing by Franco Purini and Laura Thermes; right, a drawing by Massimo Scolari
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, <em>The Presence of the Past</em>. Left, a drawing by Arata Isokazi; right, drawing by Frank O. Gehry
Domus 605 / April 1980 page details. 1st International Architecture Exhibition, The Presence of the Past . Left, a drawing by Arata Isokazi; right, drawing by Frank O. Gehry

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