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Radicalising Postmodernism

London - Radical Post-Modernism Today

Those who live outside of the London architectural scene may find themselves bewildered by the Postmodern renaissance commanding the attention of its inner circle. Alongside the V&A’s exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 (see Reviews section) and the Architectural Design (AD) issue on ‘Radical Post-Modernism’ come a number of discussions and lectures on this most unfashionable of architectural trends.

One such talk, Radical Post-Modernism Today, held at the Royal Academy of Arts, had a full house of slightly disbelieving guests, each secretly wondering whether their attendance was an ironic statement. Guest editors of the ‘Radical Post-Modernism’ issue of AD (Charles Jencks and FAT’s Sean Griffiths and Charles Holland) shared the stage with allegedly Postmodern architects Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Edouard François.

Jencks set the scene by revisiting the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe − known as Modernism’s death − which left a pile of dust in a verdant wilderness, and Philip Johnson’s 1984 AT&T tower, which Jencks considers to signify Postmodernism’s demise. He reiterated the three points of the ‘radical’ nature of the revived movement: the return to ornament, return of contextual counterpoint and the iconic building.

Sadly these are all concerned with style rather than its social engagement. Griffiths started with the Postmodern Catch-22 statement: ‘I am not now and nor have I ever been a Postmodernist.’ And in doing so, he consciously echoed Robert Venturi. He claimed ‘commodification, ephemerality, taste and fashion’ for Postmodernism, and extolled the virtues of the superficiality of facadism due to its ability to engage with the public.

Griffiths’s later comments on the two-dimensional mediation of architecture were curtailed but potentially offered the most opportunity for progressing the discussion of PoMo architecture. Holland followed up with a polemic on taste, citing Pierre Bourdieu’s adage ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’ and using Le Corbusier’s famous Pessac as the definitive example. Taste, claimed Holland, identifies class and has the ability to introduce the user, opening up architecture beyond an architectural audience.

Zaera-Polo seemed unsure as to why he was there, neither claiming nor disclaiming allegiance with the movement. But he moved the discussion on to postmodern techno-socio-econo-politics by attempting to link the style to the state of the world today and the admission that we are unable either to change it or to believe in utopia. Whether intentional or not, this highlighted the tenuous link that exists between a PoMo style and 21st-century Postmodern thinking.

Finally, François just did the architect-like thing of showing slides of his work, denying any relationship with Postmodernism whatsoever. The evening proved, if anything, only one thing: there is not now and nor has there ever been a conclusive definition of Postmodernism, or even agreement as to whether it is a new movement or a continuation of Modernism. But as it appears over the horizon of historical respectability, its discourse shows a willingness to tackle questions that more dogmatic discourses shy away from.

With Bourdieu, however, Holland introduces a whole theoretical framework concerning class and power that is particularly pertinent to Postmodernism. Its overarching narrative is less concerned with style or even self-reflection, and more with classification, something that the self-confessed ‘architectural botanist’ Jencks is particularly keen on. Who is and is not a Postmodernist is less important than who gets to say who is and is not.

Venturi’s assertion and Griffiths’s echo of it are therefore more potent than Zaera-Polo’s and François’s ambivalence. By double-coding themselves as both architects and critics, FAT’s directors are moving in a different orbit, closer to the centre of power. Their work as architects may be two-dimensional, but as critics, it most certainly is not.

From the AR Archives: Charles Jencks has been writing for The Architectural Review for half a century as critic, contributor and connoisseur of aesthetics and architecture. Jencks discusses his theory of evolution and why his favourite architect is Antoni Gaudi

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