Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Don't Whatever You Do Go Through the Door Marked Post Modernism

Image of Bankside 123 via

The following is a slightly rambling response to recent interesting posts here and here...

Ok, to summarise, the story so far....

Current architecture can be characterised by two main tendencies: On the one hand there is the neo-modernism of Allies and Morrison, Stanton Williams etc. and, on the other, the 'iconic' architecture of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid etc.* Both these strands have a ubiquitous relationship to the urban panacea of Regeneration, either through the provision of a base level of mixed use commercial and 1/2 bed apartment blocks or through one off signature buildings striving for the 'Bilbao effect'. What's more both the writers at Sit Down Man and Entschwindet und Vergeht relate these styles directly to the broader political framework behind such regeneration projects. So that the slickly repackaged modernism that has replaced post-modernism as the Developer's architecture style of choice is directly analogous to the slickly repackaged Thatcherite policies of New Labour**.

To follow the argument to its logical endpoint implies that the pedimented post modern classicism of the 1980's is beyond the pale for contemporary architects in just the same way that the unreconstructed brutality of Thatcherism is beyond the pale for New Labour. The differences between all of them is paper thin though. A jazzed up version of International Style Modernism has become the dominant architectural style of contemporary development whether it be affordable housing or City of London office blocks, although it is a modernism emptied of its social and political content. It's triumph over post modernism is a pyric one.

Owen Hatherley interestingly uses the commercial pop architecture of 1950/60's America - or Googie as its known - as a way to deflate the radical posturing of the current architectural avant garde and expose their complicity within a rampant commercialism. While the architects concerned relate the non-orthogonal geometries and skewed angularity (or voluptuous doubly curved surfaces) of their buildings to, variously, Derridian deconstructivism or Deleuzian deterritorialisation, they bear more than a superficial resemblance to the Look At Me vulgarity of Googie. The difference being of course that the vulgar commercialism of Googie is preferable to the radical chic posturing of Liebeskind et al.

What everyone is agreed on though is that post modernism is utterly beyond the pale. No one has a good word for it although as E&V point out, there are few practices without the odd Po Mo skeleton in their plan chest. I unfortunately have more than one. My own practice's interest in post modernism grew out of both an (admittedly perverse) interest in its pariah status (the "Don't whatever you do, go through that door" appeal) and a more serious reappraisal of the work of its inadvertent spiritual godfather Robert Venturi.

Venturi is of course the man most ofter blamed (I think that's the right word) for the advent of Post Modernism through two books: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas (with Denise Scott Brown and Stven Izenour). This accusation is not entirely fair or accurate but others have made that case already, not least Robert Venturi himself. The interesting thing though is how close the arguments related above resemble the opinions of Venturi Scott Brown themselves.

The Venturi's (as the husband and wife team of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are known) are one of the few architects to have consistently articulated a critique of both the strands articulated above: bland neo-modernism and vacuous neo-expressionism. For the Venturis, the International Style became too formally reduced to articulate either the complexity of contemporary programme or the dynamic of our social structures. What's more, as art, it lacked richness, dynamism and the messy vitality that Venturi identified in historical models and the contemporary vernacular of Main Street. However, Venturi was equally critical of the heroic sculptural tendency within late modernism which he explicitly attacked in Learning from Las Vegas. Venturi relates the expressionist sculptural tendency of 1960's modernism to roadside American architecture, the diners and fast food shacks that are shaped like giant donuts and hamburgers and, in the case of the famous Long Island Duckling, a duck. Venturi labels these buildings therefore as 'Ducks' as opposed to his preferred 'Decorate Sheds'.

The conflation of contemporary expressionist architecture with Googie is interesting because it is exactly the analogy that Venturi made in Learning from Las Vegas. The need for competing cities to aquire an 'iconic' building, one that can be instantly recognised (and reduced to a logo) in order to attract well healed cultural tourists is, on a global scale, the same as the need for fast food diners to compete for the motorists attention along the strip. After all, what is a building that can be reduced to a logo if not a Duck?

Interestingly, Venturi Scott Brown are almost alone among architects in having an interest in roadside architecture, pop symbolism and what they term the messy vitality of commercial architecture. Whilst they rejected - for the most part - the sculptural one liner of the Duck typology, they embraced the electronic dynamism of the signs and lights of Las Vegas. Their critique comes up to date with their rejection of Deconstructivist architecture and what they see as its decorative use of early modernist and industrial imagery. For the Venturis this turns the buildings of Zaha, Gehry etc. into Ducks, as they became huge pieces of decoration in themselves. What's more, in the early twenty first century the forms of constructivism and early modernism ARE historical architecture, no more or less relevant to todays construction industry than pediments and Doric columns. The borrowing of the radical clothes of pioneering modernism doesn't make you either pioneering or modern.

The Venturis claim that their work is continuing the project of Modernism in different cultural and economic circumstances. The representational language of early industrial buildings is no longer a relevant one, although the social programme of modernism and its commitment to evolving an architectural language appropriate to its age still is.

The standard critique of Post Modernism is that its use of historical and familiar elements of architecture (a pediment to denote a door, a columns to denote importance etc.) is reductive and reactionary. While it is true that the Jencksian definition of Post Modernism argued for a straightforwardly structuralist use of signifiers (although even Jencks wrote of multivalence and double coding), Venturi Scott Brown's work could hardly be accused of such simplistic reductivism.

At its best their work recombines familiar visual and spatial references into a tense, unresolved whole. Their work is frequently about dissonance, fragmentation and a sense of the uncanny that is emphatically not patronising or reactionary. Venturi didn't after all write a book called Simplicity and Straightforwardness in Architecture.

His big sin though was to suggest that both pre-modern and low brow buildings might hold clues as to a richer and more meaningful architecture. VSBA's more intriguing research into housing, the everyday and, indeed, Googie was rejected by the architectural establishment for its non- judgmental stance. Venturi was not disapproving enough of popular culture or buildings that fell outside of the accepted canon of high brow good taste.

In that respect Venturi's brand of 'post modernism' could be seen as having a political dimension too, through its recognition of taste and by extension class impacting on architecture. Not only that but it points the way to an architectural language that avoids a return to the familiar modernist language we started with. Instead it offers the potential to evolve one that doesn't only represent the dominant aesthetic tastes of the well healed. This doesn't necessarily mean that an outbreak of post modernism is what we need now. But in our own work, post modernism has offered a neglected area of interest for architects and pardoxically a way to engage with social and cultural circumstance. Equally E&V's reappraisal of the spectacular qualities of Victorian engineering in the crystal palace is an intriguing proposition.

* Somewhere in the middle and oscillating between the two is a practice like Make.

** Personally, I don't quite share that sentiment but the story has a certain logic.


owen hatherley said...

Excellent stuff. If I might make a couple of predictable gripes, though, particularly with ref to:

they embraced the electronic dynamism of the signs and lights of Las Vegas


(Venturi's) big sin though was to suggest that both pre-modern and low brow buildings might hold clues as to a richer and more meaningful architecture.

I think my problem with this is that (what I know of) Venturi's actual buildings is so much more focused on the 'richness and meaningfulness of the pre-modern' than on the 'electronic dynamism' element. As I wrote in my first post on googie a little while ago, my problem with Learning From... is first the way that Vegas seems to become an 'authentic' example of what people want, letting the decidedly non-dissonant idea of the authentic back in through the back door. Popular desire is never something unmediated, never 'authentic'.

If 'vernacular' meant (the indisputably low-brow) googie then it would be a lot less worrying than when it means classicism. This isn't snobbery (at least I hope not) but more a feeling that the signifiers of revivalism results in reactionary and faintly patronising ideas of what architecture should be (from 'an Englishman's home is his castle' to 'palaces for the people'). Whether the conflicting and dissonant forms used alongside the classical refs manage to work against that I don't know - much as most people only see the 'inhumanity' of Robin Hood Gardens, most only see the 'classicism' of the National Gallery Extension (although the solution to this might be educational rather than architectural).

owen hatherley said...

(incidentally I have just written some relatively nice things about that Hoogvliet scheme in a piece to be published in January's Frieze, so I'm not entirely unconvertible on this point)

Charles Holland said...

thanks! i look forward to reading it. We have started describing it as psychadelic brutalism so maybe there is a possibiity to meet in the middle!

(a longer more considered response to your first comment to come...)

Charles Holland said...


I agree with you about authenticity and that a certain kind of populism (you might say all of it)priveleges consumerism or popular culture as an authentic expression of desire and high brow culture as mediated and imposed. I don't think Venturi does that myself though and that is not his point in Learning from....I don't think. Its more that he sees the possibilities in vernacular or commercial architecture, much as he sees the richness in the Baroque or Mannerism. That seems simply an intelligent and meaningful engagemet with life as it is lived, similar to much of koolhaas' writing but without the nihilism (a fact acknowleged by him in his harvar Guide to shopping interview with VSBA).

But yes I agree, more eletronicica and less classica would be less boring.

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