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Your views: Paradigm Lost?

Charles Jencks reconsiders the ultimate fate of Postmodernism

In New York and London, architects have held conferences to reconsider Postmodernism, streamlining the word as Modernists do. But first a reassessment has to consider the wider paradigm. Why is Postmodernism the only ‘ism’ besides Modernism (and possibly Surrealism) to have a 50-year life span? Why does it exist across all the arts and cultural formations − including the postmodern sciences of complexity? These, the non-linear sciences, illuminated by the computer, have grown from their first phase in the 1960s, when Jane Jacobs and Robert Venturi wrote about early complexity theory.

Now they have burgeoned into the vast array of disciplines that dominate thinking, from biology to cosmology, from a Fractal Walk Down Wall Street to weather prediction. The Newtonian sciences of simplicity had been the dominant form of Modern thought, from Newton to Marx to Freud, and when this deterministic mentality changed to open-systems, then more than architecture moved on. The paradigm of thought changed.

My argument in The Story of Post-Modernism, reviewed by Colin Fournier in last month’s issue (Theory, AR November) is that the movement suffered a temporary ‘stroke’ when embraced by the Disney Corporation in 1985 − the kiss of ‘Entertainment Architecture’, which was almost as deadly as the AT&T Building. It went underground during the 1990s, the decade of Default Modernism, the reigning approach. But since the Millennium, it has roared back, happily without its moniker, and now it is very much alive with complexity architecture, digitised ornament, contextual counterpoint, and a thousand metaphorical buildings with enigmatic shapes, intent on communicating with a global culture, sans religion, sans belief, sans a public iconography. The results are decidedly mixed.

You cannot create a very deep iconic architecture without clients and a society that knows what they want, culturally. But a few, good postmodern buildings since 2000 show it is possible. What are the dozen recent, canonic PoMo buildings that reset the paradigm? A list is only a list, but it shows the direction. Herzog & de Meuron’s CaixaForum (Time City) in Madrid and the Bird’s Nest in Beijing (designed with Ai Wei Wei); Foreign Office Architects’ Ravensbourne College in London, and Toyo Ito’s and Cecil Balmond’s Serpentine Pavilion in the same city, both adopting a fractal, nonlinear ornament in their construction; Norman Foster’s ‘Skypricker’ known euphemistically by polite citizens as the ‘Gherkin’ and obviously Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, the most recent version of the iconic genre Le Corbusier had opened up with Ronchamp in 1955; and Peter Eisenman’s Critical architecture using algorithms based on various semantic codes that are evident in Santiago de Compostela, but more Spartan, and powerful, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Every movement of architecture has its green buildings and Edouard François has produced some postmodern gems, but a modest and brilliant essay in contextual counterpoint is Alan Short’s UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, hiding away in Bloomsbury, London. EMBT has designed several complex and contradictory buildings that extend the city, including the Scottish Parliament, but the Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona is a sensuous reconstruction of an old marketplace that pulls together into a multivalent whole the street-life and context, the fruit and vegetables − another miniature Time City.

Finally, Rem Koolhaas has designed several moves in architectural organisation that create the new route building: the Seattle Library, Dutch Embassy in Berlin and the Casa Musica in Porto. But perhaps his CCTV Headquarters, in Beijing, will turn out to be the most accomplished when it opens soon, a different version of the ‘non-skyscraper’ and ‘anti-icon icon’.

These buildings, and their related ones, do not make a single Postmodern movement, but then it has always been a movement of pluralism. This is the one definer on which all critics − from the countless different disciplines − agree. We still live in a Late-Modern era, when Late-Capitalism dominates the driving force (or collapse) of the economy, and there are several other vital movements of architecture at work, none of which dominates the profession, or culture, generally. The result on a global level is market pluralism − not a deeper political and cultural version − but at least, for the world as a whole, something slightly healthier than the monocultural alternatives.

Image: Artist Madelon Vriesendorp’s cover design for Charles Jencks’s The Story of Post-Modernism depicts some of the author’s contemporary (and perhaps unwitting) examples of the movement.

From the AR Archives: Charles Jencks discusses revivalism in relation to the Getty Museum and asks if we should still indulge in historical simulation from 1978’s February edition of The Architectural Review.


Readers' comments (1)

  • Larry H

    This article needs to be accompanied by illustrations of the buildings that underpin its points. I am familiar with a few, but the points to be made really require illustration.

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