Pomo Returns (Or Maybe it Never Left)

Mocked, maligned, misunderstood, it’s the movement that no one wants to claim membership in—even retrospectively. And yet, might we still be in its grip?

A friend asks, “So what are you working on?” I respond, “An essay on postmodernism.” Now recoiling with a look of horrified bafflement, he says, “Good Lord, why?” I have had this exchange, or some variation on the theme, any number of times since I took this assignment. Postmodernism is not a subject, apparently, for polite company. Bring it up and you get uncomfortable looks, like you’ve asked for a loan to buy something illicit. The inescapable conclusion is that postmodernism is the closest thing architecture has to pornography: people know it when they see it, and when they see it they find it offensive.

The litany of pejoratives should be familiar: Postmodernism is kitsch. Postmodernism is pastiche. Postmodernism is dishonest. Postmodernism is fascistic. Postmodernism has disfigured our cities. Postmodernism stands for the cut-rate vulgarity of modern culture. Postmodernism is the architectural embodiment of our collective greed. What transgression has not been hurled at postmodernism’s pink-granite doorstep? Someone recently suggested to me that postmodernism bears responsibility for the current economic and environmental collapse. The theory goes like this: we, as a nation, have mortgaged ourselves beyond our means to satisfy a desperate obsession for faux-classical McMansions, each on its own plot of unsustainable land. Last Thanksgiving, when the New Urbanist city of Celebration recorded its first homicide—followed, two days later, by a suicide—it made national headlines, and there was an unseemly, I-told-you-so cant to the reporting.

To be associated with postmodernism today is to be branded an apostate and have one’s legacy irrevocably tarnished. Robert Venturi? James Stirling? Michael Graves? Inarguably, three of the most gifted architects of the postwar era. But now? It took a recent exhibition at Yale to remind us of Stirling’s genius. Venturi and his longtime partner, Denise Scott Brown, are hardly celebrated at a level commensurate with other starchitects. Graves is best known as a designer of teapots for a big-box retailer.

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Beyond the obvious fact that it is hopelessly and utterly passé, there is little consensus as to exactly what postmodernism is, when it began, or who is responsible for its dastardly emergence. (Here, again, it is like porn.) Charles Jencks has authored, over several decades, a veritable library of works on this subject. A major retrospective exhibition, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, will open later this year at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum—how brave of them!—its survey of the field beginning in the year 1970. There are authorities who will tell you it all started in 1966, with the publication of Venturi’s foundational text, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. (Don’t tell this to Venturi, however: he wants no part of the term whatsoever.)

Those who see all shifts in architectural fashion as the product of an evil cabal orchestrated by Philip Johnson might trace postmodernism’s origin to an earlier date. To be precise, they can look back to March 20, 1954. On that evening, Johnson gathered Gordon Bunshaft, John Johansen, I. M. Pei, Paul Rudolph, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Weese for a show-and-tell colloquium over dinner at his already iconic Glass House, in New Canaan. At Johnson’s suggestion, Johansen brought a model of a project then on the boards, presumably his Villa Ponte, a single-story residence that would bridge a nearby stream. Johansen had been trained as a Harvard functionalist, but now he presented a structure with three shallow vaults instead of a flat roof. (Johansen would describe this time as his “Neo-Palladian” period.) In 1994, speaking at a dinner in honor of Johnson, Pei remembered that earlier evening: “I said, ‘My gosh, what’s happening here?’ And the two of them were trying to say, ‘Well, this is the new thing. We don’t like flat-roof, we want to destroy flat-roof and we put things on top of it.’ And so I checked with John, in fact, before I came here. I wanted to make sure it was correct, and he said, ‘Yes, you’re right. You can say that. Philip said this is the beginning of New Classicism.’ I guess you know what happened after that.”

This makes for a convenient genesis story—certainly, it has the desired flavor of Masonic conspiracy—but it doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny. By that spring evening, Johnson had been incorporating historical forms into his own work for years, most notoriously in the guest house on his New Canaan compound, just steps from where Johansen had unveiled his model. Its bedchamber, with walls draped in a golden Fortuny fabric and dimmers to set a seductive mood, had a vaulted ceiling inspired by, Johnson claimed, John Soane. So one could reasonably argue that postmodernism sprang from Philip Johnson’s bedroom, with all that entails.

Johnson is a ftting progenitor of postmodernism for a variety of reasons. Surely there was no fgure who did more to ensure that 20th-century architecture would be codified as a series of styles, one passing to the next in a seamless progression. Johnson, by the late 1940s, had grown restless as an epigone of Mies van der Rohe. The introduction of classical elements into a Miesian idiom was his very literal (and very Oedipal) form of postmodernism. Johnson, charming gadfly that he was, could soon be found here, there, and everywhere inveigling against the failures of doctrinaire modern architecture and urban planning. This was the Johnson who would declare that he’d rather sleep in the nave of Chartres Cathedral than in a Harvard (read: functionalist) house.

It was in part this impulse to shock the profession that inspired Johnson’s design of the Chippendale-capped AT&T (now Sony) Tower, in New York, the postmodern icon par excellence. (No wonder, then, that the V&A dropped a whopping $71,000 on a vintage presentation drawing of the building, to be a cornerstone of its exhibition.) This later postmodernism could be identified as an architecture of exaggerated forms, usually of some classical origin, placed out of context in woozy arrangements and colors, a kind of baroque visual profligacy.

Here we are confronted with the hazards and limits of Johnson’s teleological progression of history. Just as he and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, in the 1930s, had stripped the modern movement of its social dimensions and reconstituted it as a style—the International Style—so postmodernism, its rejoinder, was now similarly branded in the popular consciousness as a style, and not a particularly coherent one.

Postmodernism, an expanding cultural meme, had become many things to many people, a convenient catchall at once describing a moment in history, a stance vis-à-vis modernism, an aesthetic, and a way of thinking in the world—or some combination thereof. For Venturi, it was a matter of “precedent, thoughtfully considered,” of “messy vitality over obvious unity,” of “complexity and contradiction.” For Aldo Rossi it was something more poetic, a conjuring of elemental form and collective memory. Jencks described it as a “double coding,” a conflation of modern orthodoxy with some other system to communicate in a new and more complex manner. These various definitions have proven elastic enough to encompass everyone from Robert A. M. Stern to Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman to Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry to Greg Lynn.

That there could be so many postmodernisms (and so many post-modernists) squares rather conveniently with the received wisdom of postmodern cultural theory, in which plurality and uncertainty are privileged over objectivity. But apart from this correspondence, there are benefits to be had in broadening the definition of postmodernism beyond Johnson’s stylistic yoke. For one thing, it liberates the likes of Venturi and Scott Brown, Stirling, and Graves from their confinement in the prison of outdated fashion, each now to be evaluated on individual merit. For another, it conforms to a more realistic way of thinking about historical progression: architecture is an ever-evolving amalgam of diverse practices and not a singular field advancing in discrete steps.

In this light, we just might see that postmodernism isn’t so passé after all; nor is it passed. Perhaps, in fact, it is alive and well in any number of guises. There is, of course, the historicist architecture that is endemic today—though it is often, as a matter of politesse, called “contextualism.” There is the formalist experimentation of the “starchitecture” class. Even our anointed avant-garde heroes of the moment might be added to the roster. Is not Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus, a stack of gabled house forms, a work of postmodernism?

A few years ago, in these very pages, I profiled the Russian architect Alexander Brodsky, who creates works of great imagination and sensitivity by mining the detritus of Moscow’s architectural memory. In this country, he is remembered—when he is remembered at all—for the “paper architecture” he created in the 1980s with his then partner, Ilya Utkin, who has since developed a practice building solid, neoclassical work in the Russian capital. Brodsky is building, too, but his work bears no trace of academicism and is free of kitsch. Formal experimentation for its own sake doesn’t interest him either. He is, of course, a unique talent practicing in a different culture, but his mode of working—in its modesty and sensitivity to history—is hardly exclusive. If it can be a model for a postmodern future, I think I’ll sign right up.

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