How the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale Jumpstarted Postmodernism

Four decades on, it seems that a reliable definition of architectural Postmodernism still eludes us. A recent book, though flush with historical detail, does little to clarify the term.

Postmodernism in architecture has been plagued by problems of nomenclature ever since Charles Jencks first floated the term in the late 1970s. In part because the moniker does not articulate a position tout court—precisely the opposite, Jencks using it to corral all kinds of stylistic quirks—architects, historians, and critics have vacillated between competing definitions of the movement since its baptism as such. “Practically every text on Postmodernism starts by raising the difficult question of the exact meaning of the word,” observes Léa-Catherine Szacka nearly 200 pages into Exhibiting the Postmodern: The 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale (Marsilio, 2016), her book about the canonical architecture exhibition so closely associated with Pomo.

Szacka, too, skirts the open question of a comprehensive definition. She has instead written an impressively thorough historical account of the 1980 Biennale’s built manifestation and its elevation to the status of media spectacle through its reproduction in Italian and international news outlets. To that end, she devotes ample space to the postwar Italian socio-political context in which Postmodernism germinated, sensationalized the international architecture profession, and lapsed into quasi-remission in short order. It never really died, of course—the past couple of years have been witness to a revival of interest in Postmodern architecture such that the original movement’s reflective, backward-facing gaze has been turned in on itself, be it through material effects (the current vogue for terrazzo) or the efflorescence of articles in the professional press about postwar historicist architects (many of whom exhibited at the 1980 Architecture Biennale).

If a definition of Postmodernism remains a chimerical notion, Exhibiting the Postmodern elucidates a register of architectural characteristics—among them “pluralism, communication, disengagement and depolarization”—compiled through interviews with the original curators, advising critics, and participating architects, as well as through rigorous archival research. Szacka presents this plethora of information without deducing a new paradigm for understanding it. In writing a master narrative about an exhibition that explicitly denied the legitimacy of master narratives, she assembles an admirable array of facts and insights, but her prose never quite conveys the fleeting, anarchic ethos of the exhibition at hand.

1980 Venice Biennale Postmodernism book
The first Venice Architecture Biennale of 1980 is a turning point in the history of architecture. Although it featured several exhibits and installations, the Strada Novissima—a virtual street made up of “cardboard” facades, each designed by a different architect—was and remains the event’s watershed moment. Courtesy Marsilio Editori

The book, organized into three chronological sections, provides the factual basis for future reinterpretations of both the Postmodern architectural legacy and its abiding influence on architectural exhibition-making. Introductory chapters summarize the institutional crisis of the Venice Biennale in the aftermath of student protests in 1968, which skewered it as a reactionary institution driven to the point of elitism by market concerns—one that, cloistered in the Giardini, lacked a physical presence in or programmatic connection to the Venetian urban context. Architecture was introduced at the Biennale that same year, as an exhibition within the 34th Venice Art Biennale and featuring work by Louis Kahn, Franco Albini, Paul Rudolph, and Carlo Scarpa. In the ensuing ten years, as the Biennale cycled through a half decade of crisis followed by another half decade of institutional attempts to heed calls for inclusive and multidisciplinary exhibitions, architecture acquired ever more prominence as the most inherently social of the Biennale’s disciplinary charges (art, theater, film, and dance). Indeed, Szacka emphasizes that architecture was perceived by Biennale officials as a way out of the crisis.

Yet by the time an official Architecture Sector was established in 1979, the democratizing impetus that carried calls for reform to prominence in 1968 had waned. Italy, Szacka explains, experienced a decade of economic decline and domestic terrorism in the 1970s that transformed the earlier impetus for social movements and political demonstrations into pervasive disillusionment. Italian culture of the ensuing period (1978–82) emphasized private concerns over public or political affairs, nostalgia over idealistic utopian ideation, contempt for rules and collective constraints, and ephemerality epitomized by a series of pop-up exhibitions organized by young Roman architects in the city’s forgotten ancient sites. If this period was marked by the dawn of neoliberalism and a transition to commodity culture, it also refined the antiauthoritarian sympathies that conditioned the form and content of the First International Architecture Exhibition, as realized under the direction of architect Paolo Portoghesi. “In retrospect, I think of that period as being what I call a ‘Prague Spring,’” remarks exhibiting architect Thomas Gordon Smith later in the book, “a kind of moment of liberation, which very quickly came to an end.”

Scholars have only just started to write the history of architectural Postmodernism and the history of architectural exhibitions, so Exhibiting the Postmodern is something of a foundational document for both nascent fields of inquiry. That the study is so diligent in its methods is impressive. Szacka produces a reconstructive account of each of the facades on the Strada Novissima‚ the Biennale’s most memorable installation, noting formal features and recapitulating the international reputation of the participating architect or group. She accounts for the exhibition’s lesser-known components, including the display of 55 self-portraits by young architects on the Arsenale mezzanine, and a sardonic object design show conceived by Alessandro Mendini that displayed middle-class commodities as artworks.

1980 Venice Biennale Postmodernism book
A large-scale painting of the Vanna Venturi House was installed behind Robert Venturi, John Rauch, and Denise Scott Brown’s facade at the 1980 Biennale. Courtesy Marsilio Editori

Yet it is the anecdotes, lifted directly from interviews with Portoghesi and other leading protagonists, that are the most evocative and informative components of a narrative that hews too closely to the orthodoxies of academic writing for a subject matter so colored by informality. There was that time in 1979 when Portoghesi called in a favor with the Italian defense minister to secure access to the Arsenale, closed to the public since World War II, and thereby extended the key ideas of historical revivalism and exhibiting full-scale architecture in the immediate environs of the show. Or a telling incident related by Francesco Cellini (a curatorial assistant for the exhibition) about an impoverished fiberglass fabricator in the Roman countryside who produced one of the Strada’s facades; when approached about the job, this folksy man lectured the bemused curatorial team of cosmopolitan intellectuals about appropriation and classical orders, only to reveal that he knew the material better than they did after working with major Fascist architects decades prior.

These nuggets leaven Szacka’s text, but they are few and far between. It’s a shame, too, that the book’s more interpretive moments are buried under minutia, and as such, remain underdeveloped. Perhaps now that the archival slog has been done, a more engaging, interpretive account of the period can be undertaken. The subject matter deserves it.

You may also enjoy “Rediscovering Sottsass: A Q&A With Met Curator Christian Larsen.”

  • |||||||

Recent Viewpoints