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Reassessing Postmodernism

As a major exhibition opens at the V&A on the same subject, Charles Jencks has published an account of Postmodernism’s historic and unfolding story. While the author includes many recent architectural projects, these later examples emerge as antithetical to the movement’s original intent. But if the current crop of architecture is devoid of meaning, could Postmodernism find a future in the complexity of the city and a world of rapid scientific and technological transition?

Five decades after the birth of Postmodernism, this comprehensive biography of its life − the latest instalment in Charles Jencks’ long series of critical writings on the subject − leaves the reader in some uncertainty as to whether the fatally wounded central character is finally dead. While the current (but unrelated) exhibition at the V&A, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 (see Reviews section), is intended, somewhat prematurely, as a posthumous celebration, Jencks’s book, The Story of Post-Modernism (Wiley), although conceding that the movement may indeed have experienced some near-death moments, asserts that it is nevertheless still alive. However, its offspring, coerced into an arranged marriage with late Modernism, appears, like Molière’s Lucinde in The Doctor in Spite of Himself, to have turned mute.

Jencks makes a critical survey of what he considers to be contemporary manifestations of Postmodernism in architecture and seeks to ascertain whether its fundamental principles, its units of cultural information or ‘memes’, as Richard Dawkins would say, are still discernable. While highly convincing when evoking the life of Postmodernism in its infancy and adolescence − including some pioneering antenatal episodes in the days of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp − Dr Jencks’s diagnosis is ambivalent when it comes to examining more recent evidence. The buildings he has chosen to present in the book − and these include most of the ‘starchitecture’ of the last decade − appear to have little to do with Postmodernism, except in the broadest sense that they were built in the period after Modernism.

In every other respect, the design characteristics that the author correctly identifies as their major traits, such as the repetitive ‘seamless continuity’ of homogeneous surfaces, the curse of ‘delete button detailing’ and the posturing platitudes of iconic monuments, are antithetical to the principles of Postmodernism.

However, this is not because they differ in terms of style − the styles associated with Postmodernism were ephemeral and are not the issue − but because they do not follow the same design philosophy: they lead, on the whole, to simplistic, autonomous, diagrammatic one-liners that have been almost completely stripped of any trace of complexity, multiple coding, symbolic meaning, contradiction, radical juxtaposition, contextual counterpoint, irony and pluralism. In their place, the all too familiar traits of Modernism have been re-injected, in a form that is even more extreme than in the original specimens, and are now being cloned on a global scale.

This apparent morphing of Postmodernism into the tropes of Modernism raises a few uncomfortable questions: could it be that the spectre of Modernism is coming back to haunt us? That Steven Holl’s residential towers in Beijing, Linked Hybrid, might unwittingly become the Pruitt-Igoe of the 21st century in China, even if their playful ‘skywalks’ and irregular bracing diagonals introduce a modicum of light relief into the complex’s potentially disastrous monotony?

Is Toyo Ito’s proposed opera house in Taiwan, despite its curvatures, not an excessively rigid spatial typology imposed, as in the old days, on to a complex and highly differentiated programme? Is OMA’s CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, clever tour de force as it is, not an over-inflated diagram, impervious to urban considerations? Is Herzog & de Meuron’s university library in Cottbus, wrapped in a cryptic wall of incomprehensible words, anything more than a silent amoeba − which has prompted Jencks to ask: ‘With all these letters and words, could not a sentence or two be attempted?’

More generally, are the innumerable ‘iconic’ projects for museums, libraries, art centres and luxury car showrooms, the ‘cathedrals’ of post-industrial society and late capitalism, as Jencks puts it, anything but irrelevant monuments to anachronistic forms of communication, now superseded by digital media and new types of information transfer, inevitably on the road to extinction and therefore void of any meaning otherthan an ironic or effete celebration of their emptiness?Jencks observes that three promising factors − scientific, methodological and technical − have recently emerged, that could enrich the language of architecture. Unfortunately, all appear to have been partially aborted.

The scientific factor is that a greater awareness of research, related to complexity theory, non-linear programming, self-organisation, chaos theory, emergent systems, fractals and the like, has developed over the years and has eventually become part of architectural culture. From the Santa Fe Institute, the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman’s often quoted statement that complex systems (of which the built environment is one) must, in order to survive, maintain themselves ‘on the edge of chaos’ − neither so organised that they cannot evolve nor so disorganised that they cannot sustain themselves − has been hijacked by architects as a seductive metaphor, without deterring them from designing objects that have nothing to do with complexity.

The methodological factor is that computer algorithms have now penetrated architectural theory and practice, but they have been emasculated of their radical potential: far from allowing software programmes to tap into their artificial intelligence to generate unpredictable and surprising outcomes, they have predominantly been used, deliberately or unconsciously, in the service of deterministic design. The typological diversity resulting from the use of ‘parametric’ design methods is still limited and explores a tiny portion of the universe of possibilities.

No truly emergent design methods have been used yet, no self-organising systems allowed to fully unfold. The power of the computer has been misused to replicate ad infinitum, with minor superficial variations, what we already know. Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Brian Eno and other artists have, many years ago, explored the implications of such ‘autopoietic’ processes much more creatively than contemporary architects have.

The third factor lies in the revolutionary potential of post-Fordist industrial fabrication, using programmable, computer-driven robotic manufacturing tools, but this has hardly affected architectural production, except in isolated cases such as Frank Gehry’s practice. Ironically, this radical change in fabrication methods has been misdirected: rather than leading to more heterogeneity in architectural components as well as more discontinuity and flexibility in production runs, it appears to have led, paradoxically, to further standardisation and uniformity, in keeping with the reductive ideology of globalisation.

That a CAD/CAM machine can produce a bespoke double-curved panel or a standard one for the same price is not a guarantee that the resultant architecture will be any more sophisticated in terms of its ‘degree of variety’, as defined by information theory. So far, such variety has mostly been restricted to the outer envelope of buildings, to the skin-deep complexity of decorative effects.

The result of these shortcomings, which affect not just the continuing story of Postmodernism, but all contemporary design and construction, is that, regrettably, few of the more recent projects illustrated in the book match the sophistication and sheer wit of James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, or the pluralism and urban relevance of the collectively authored Strada Nuovissima installation at the 1980 Venice Biennale exhibition The Presence of the Past, which are both given in the book as archetypal examples of Postmodernism. They are not in the same league and don’t even share the same ambitions.

No one knows the weaknesses of contemporary architectural practice better than Jencks himself, although one has to read between the lines to realise the full extent of his discontent and to feel the full impact of his criticism. If I have any quarrel with this book, it is that Jencks has partially held back his wonderfully irreverent sense of polemic and provocation. In reviewing these projects, he is so keen to stand as a ‘loyal adversary’ of Modernism that he loses, at times, his proverbial bite and becomes disloyal to himself: parts of the text read
as apologias of Modernism.

The power of this book lies not so much in the sharpness of the author’s criticism of the present as in the generosity and perceptiveness of his anticipation of the future: Jencks identifies two positive phenomena that give him grounds for optimism. On the one hand, he diagnoses the growing significance of ‘cosmic’ references and although such symbolism may come across as one of the transcendent ‘meta-narratives’ that Jean-François Lyotard was so critical of in The Postmodern Condition, a holistic view of nature may indeed be, in the 21st century, the only realm that can offer alternative metaphors as powerful as the enduring machine metaphors of Modernism.

On the other hand, he identifies the renewed emphasis on the city, more than on individual pieces of architecture, thereby returning to some of the early principles established by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter in Collage City, their brilliant attack on Modernist urbanism, recently extended by David Grahame Shane’s Recombinant Urbanism and his fascination for heterotopias. The last image in the book is a proposal for a city, and this is highly significant, because the inherent weakness of Postmodernism − perhaps even the Achilles heel that made it trip − was that it tried to squeeze too much meaning into too little stuff.

The movement attempted to inject excessive levels of simulated complexity into the design of single buildings, while it should have been obvious from the start that the degree of variety that Postmodernism aspired to could only be achieved within the much wider realm of the city as a whole. Jorge Luis Borges suggested that the world contains certain points, ‘alephs’, that contain all other points: the conceit of Postmodernism was to design even small buildings as microcosmic alephs and to load them with an excess of things to say, until they were smothered and reduced to silence by the overwhelming momentum of late Modernism.

One is left with the question as to whether the material city will be able to nurture its diversity and complexity and thus remain the primary manifestation of contemporary civilisation, at a time when the social activities and building blocks that have made it up for thousands of years are dematerialising and switching over to cyberspace. The new cathedrals, if one persists in using such an anachronistic metaphor, are not even the gigantic server farms that anonymously house, on remote desert sites, the hardware of Google’s search engines, but the ever-changing software packages and ethereal data banks that they create.

Perhaps that is where the architecture of the future city really lies, as William J Mitchell has implied in City of Bits, rather than in the more or less sophisticated piles of concrete and steel featured in this book.What is being said in the world today is not laboriously carved in stone nor delicately etched on sensual glass facades, but generated digitally through collective networks and transferred swiftly, effortlessly and succinctly, on Twitter and other social media.

The communication systems of late capitalism have embraced the pluralistic principles of Postmodernism much more effectively than its architecture has, and the question − for Jencks’s next book? − will be how, under these hybrid conditions, part material, part immaterial, the Postmodernist city will evolve and reinvent itself.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Post Modernism always gave me a feeling similar to that of being on a bumpy car ride for too long. Other than Hans Hollein and James Stirling, it always smacked of a clicque engaging in private wisecracks at the expense of their clients (Venturi Rauch...).

    What does amaze me is the sheer power of ZHA built work, supposedly in continuity with "postmodernism" through Derrida and others. I think that Hadid's work has created a different way of seeing architecture, you could call it a "Zadid" style, but the profound engagement with volume, vista and light makes me feel that it's as perjorative as trying to say James Stirling had a "(post modern) style". It is a privilege to live in a time when I can visit buildings by these 2 creative geniuses.

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