Thursday, September 29, 2011

Post Modern Myths


Detail of James Stirling's Staatsgalerie: Ho ho ho. Photograph via.

In conversations (alright, arguments) about post modernism, a number of criticisms come up over and over again. Often I find myself mildly exasperated by these so in order to get it out of my system and become a less pedantic individual, I've attempted to tackle them one by one. So, here they are, the five most prevalent myths about architectural post modernism:

1. It's full of unfunny jokes (see the 'ruined' cladding on James Stirling's Staastgalerie and the columns that don't meet the ceiling in VSBA's Sainsbury Wing). Well, firstly they aren't meant to be funny. Secondly, they aren't even jokes, at least in the traditional sense. They are  devices, or tactics, used to make evident various contradictory or paradoxical aspects of contemporary buildings.

2. It's superficial (see false facades, stuck on pediments, thin cladding panels etc.). The thing is, no one building is any less physically there than any other. It's a question of visual/tectonic emphasis. Peter Zumthor's thermal baths, for instance, stress mass and solidity although they are constructed in the manner of most modern buildings. Many post modern buildings de-emphasise the same things for different aesthetic aims. Superficiality in post modern architecture is a rhetorical device then, not a physical fact.

3. It's exactly the same as New Urbanism (see Seaside in Florida, Disney's Celebration, Poundbury etc.) Whilst there is an edge to pomo that undoubtedly has affinities to New Urbanism, they are by no more means synonymous. In fact, architects like Venturi Scott Brown stress their lack of sympathy for the pernicious influence of New Urbanism and its obsession with design codes and (sinisterly) polite contextualism. They are as likely to stress the importance of buildings not fitting in to their context, and of the importance of difference, disjunction and counterpoint in making vital cities. 

4. It's the hand-maiden of neo-liberal capitalism (see countless pedimented banks and any building designed in the mid-'80's).  Fair point, unless you also ask what current architectural style isn't the hand-maiden of neo-liberalism? At least, as the artist Pablo Bronstein has pointed out, post modernism has the virtue of shameless honesty on this question. Actually, I'm being a bit flippant. In facing up to the mechanics and effects of neo-liberalism (rather than posing behind a veneer of radical chic or retreating into a minimalist ghetto), post modernism offers the possibility of critical engagement and meaningful intervention within it. I would argue.

5. It's merely ironic (see everything by and about VSBA, Charles Moore's Piazza D'Italia and, particularly, Terry Farrell's eggcups). Irony - a perfectly respectable literary and artistic device - is here conflated entirely with a camp affectation for naffness or some kind of recherche parlour game. But post modernism, at its best, is emphatically not camp*. It is critical and nuanced, self-reflexive and engaged**. It is not, I repeat not, the same thing as cocks on bicycles sporting moustaches.

*For a thorough analysis of the differences, read the chapter entitled Camp/Non-Camp in Jencks' Modern Movements in Architecture


** Philip Johnson, I admit, was camp. But he was camp when he was a modernist too. 

17 comments:

Lutz Eitel said...

2 cents from somebody who lived in Stuttgart then (and liked the Staatsgalerie): It becomes a tired joke when there are buckets in the newly opened exhibition spaces to catch the rainwater dripping from the roof. And I'd sort of agree it's not superficial, but often the buildings are much more awesome in the raw concrete (though my memory on the Staatsgalerie may deceive me here, this definitely goes for the posthumous University of Music next door, which looked great in the early stages, although a bit on the sinister video game fortress side of things ...)

Matt Tempest said...

I can only speak for myself (literally a cock on a bicycle sporting a moustache) but that's a very convincing argument. And yet I still hate Po-Mo.

Anonymous said...

fine, fine, it's not a joke. it just happens to look like a joke, walk like a joke, quack like a joke.

ie said...
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ie said...
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ie said...

I think this is a non-issue. Most postmodernist buildings are not structurally different from modern buildings - architecture's place in society was "A" before they arrived, and when they left, it still was "A". The bourgeoisie's use for architecture was "A", and after these buildings, it was still "A". I don't like "A", and why I don't is a key point, but I'll leave that for another comment.

Both modernist and postmodernist architecture, in general, engage with ideology in not very relevant ways. But that's OK, because in the current conditions, architecture is pretty much not possible - one must go beyond separation in order to find a place for architects outside the narrow ideological frame of "architecture". This is the meaning of Le Corbusier's pseudo-Saint-Simonism, or what's good about new towns - but these are not THE final models (I wonder what does Owen Hatherley think about Badiou's idea that communism is a "hypothesis"? Maybe I'm mistaken here but Hatherley sometimes seems to affirm that the city of socialism has existed. I mean, of course new towns were better that neoliberal non-planning, but why be so nostalgic for the city of social-democracy? It was the city of social-democracy after all, and it is because of social-democracy's mistaken assumptions and inconsistence that it is no more - it is a city that couldn't not have led to its own dissolution. Nostalgia doesn't let us meaningfully learn from, say, Park Hill, because it postulates that Park Hill wasn't a failure, and in doing that we're being as blind to it as those who want it torn down. I can agree that architecture as "war of position" exists and it is the line to follow but, despite the lessons to be learnt from them, I wouldn't identify it with the different forms of Siedlungen, new towns and so on - mainly because their proposals are kind of hard to separate from the family, and the "home", which in turn are hard to discern from the division of labour, and ultimately private property itself. It's hard not to think of Frankfurt functionalism when building regulations demand that flats must be an assemblage of rooms with minimal measurements which only find their justification in the "home" and in the idea that a flat is a piece of property, which allows it to be made from pieces in this manner. The relationship between "open space" and collective use needs lots of thought too. But I concede that some Siedlungen, new towns and so on do include proposals for aspects of life which seem to point towards another society, and sometimes these proposals even succeed. There's another issue, too - planning's relationship to the state. Would "planning" under the Paris Commune or Lenin's State and Revolution mean the same as "planning" under parliaments or dictatorships? Maybe yes; this is something that probably can only be found by practise but I think it will probably not mean the same and that the conditions for that "practise" can be prepared from right now.)

Of course there are always interesting things - Sejima or Toyo Ito's ambiguous relationship to "programme" sometimes results in buildings that seem to make explicit contradictory situations created by capitalism, and there is probably something good to be found in the results of Koolhaas' head-on engagement with globalisation. Miralles and Pinos' early stuff took advantage of the fact that the Augenblick of the death of Franco, while missed, left a little void in ideology that took until the Olympics to close, so, with the state as their main client, they built stuff so alien to this society that it's no wonder nobody knew what to make of their buildings so they have tended to get mutilated, torn down and in general not be looked after. Even that sell-out Benedetta Tagliabue and her employees had a hard time negotiating with the Scottish Government.

ie said...

On humour and irony, I think I'll side with the surrealists, the letterists and the situationists, that is, with Lautréamont. I mean, think of the difference betweeen Ad-Busters or Poster Boy and détournement. Debord explicitly stated that the basis of détournement was indifference towards the source material. So, on this basis, he said that Brecht's "cuts on the classics" were on the right track but not radical enough. It's stupid to assault a billboard to answer to the advertisements when instead you could answer to the billboard itself and détourn it into something useful. There is no humour if you're just commenting on the pre-existing context rather than introducing abrupt dissonance into it. I think something like Albert Viaplana's non-plazas or Josep Llinàs' deviations on the traditional old town flats of Barcelona come closer to humour in architecture than postmodernist buildings do, but they're still not quite there.

Ultimately images are also part of what you can see in today's "modernist" buildings. They just are images that cater to another side of ideology - the images of efficency, comfort and other silly bourgeois-isms.

OK, I'm a bit tired now...

ie said...

ps. you say that postmodernism, at its best, is not camp. you then add that, however, phillip johnson was camp. i'm kind of shocked at the idea that phillip johnson can be anything at its best.

owen hatherley said...

ie - my name is my name! No, I don't think the city of socialism has ever existed. But contra Badiou I do think that pointing to concrete examples of socialistic or social democratic policy that have worked, in however partial and hobbled a manner, whether council housing, the siedlung or the NHS, is more politically useful than scorning anything other than the utopian vision or the cataclysmic event. That said, anyone mentioning the 'failure' of these things would be advised to read Badiou on 'what is called failure'...

Re the pomo list. Most of those are fine and dandy, but I was having what I thought was a more substantive troll at you on twitter re VSBA and 'Learning' for what strikes me as a very capitalist realist conception of 'what is' being considered uncritically, and I guess that's what irks me in general with their work. Contradiction, montage, conflict, dissonance, these are all great things, although I'm not terribly sure if they're not done better in, say, Lloyds than the Sainsbury Wing. (though, dogmatism aside, it strikes me that if there is a pomo that is still interesting and worthwhile for reappraisal it's the Berlin IBA, re architectureinberlin's great posts on this a while back. And I still haven't read yr AD issue...)

ie said...
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ie said...

There is a lot of overlap between the aesthetics of postmodernism and those of present day architecture one would (perhaps not very accurately at all) call "modernist". So the difference lies somewhere else, and I think you would agree with me in that this something else is that, while postmodernist architecture tried to go beyond the frame of what "architecture" is supposed to do by looking at what already is or by commenting on it in ways that don't disturb it; modernist architecture actually went beyond the frame of architecture because, at different moments, it was the product of a previously impossible situation; it worked with what came out of what wasn't there, and it commented on what already was in ways that turned it into something else (this is what I meant by saying that, when it comes to humour, I side with Lautréamont.)

If this is so, then the modern city (and both its dissolution and the fact that there are reactionary versions of it) is a "failure". We can learn lessons on what to do when architecture aims to be at the service of a radical change in life, that is, lessons on this radical change in life itself. Siedlungen and so on, their incapability to change life, the fall of the state they depended on, and the ease with which they were recycled into built reaction are examples the social-democratic state is a strategic error (but if you argue that social-democracy was always part of capitalism then of course there is no history to talk of, no "failure" and no lessons of this kind to be learnt, although there are other things to be learnt of course.)

What I was arguing is that, in the po-mo versus modernist discussion, people act as if modernist architecture as it exists/has existed were a real progressive force - and in doing this, one forgets that, first (and least), a great part of today's modernism is highly reactionary, and last (and most importantly) what's unforgettable about modernist architecture is that, at its best, it has been a series of failures at going beyond what architecture is and what the situation is.

So if I mentioned your name it's because, if we're talking about architecture blogs, you're the most outspoken advocate of this side of modern architecture. And I wondered about your opinion, because, despite having such strong opinions on the matter, what you write usually is not about what can be learnt from modern architecture, rather saying that modern architecture is good, that social-democracy did right. But I guess I am mistaken. After all I guess your criticism of today's anti-city is just a call for the need of revolution rather than nostalgia for yesterday's city which couldn't not lead to today's sad state of things. So sorry for calling you out on this. I just wondered what you have to say on the matter since I've never really read that sort of thing coming from you. I'm sorry.

Charles Holland said...

Wow! A more than usually provocative set of comments, some of them not even directed at me...

i.e. Whilst I follow your Tafurian position that political conditions preclude architecture, or at least a genuinely progressive architecture, from happening, I guess my politics are probably not that hardline and I'm prepared to believe that architecture has a role in improving the situation and that we should be looking to do so. Otherwise one is simply standing around whistling and feeling pure about it.

A slightly un-robust defence I admit but if you can make an exception for Miralles as offering a potential to exceed the miserable terms of current practice than i guess I can make the same claim for others!

Less importantly, I have no intention of resurrecting Philip Johnson either as an architecture or a person. I go along with Michael Sorkin who describes him as "clarifyingly emblematic of everything revolting about architectural culture, from his long love of the Nazis and his unspeakable anti-semitism, to his club-house conduct of architectural patronage ... his fey irony, his upper-crust superficiality". I just meant that I am uninterested in his camp and a-political version of pomo.

Owen, yes you've got an interesting and important point there which probably demands another post to try to address....but rather than cop-out completely at this point, I would say that a similar concern raised itself when I saw Denise Scott Brown in discussion at the V&A last night. My concern was not so much with her but with an idea of - as you say - simply attempting to reproduce more of the city as it is in an attempt to avoid masterplans and utopian visions. The problem was more evident when discussing VSBA's influence and idea that new areas of the city should pick up their morphology, structure etc. from the existing in a way which precludes an analysis of the forces which created the city in the first place - i.e. the existing city is treated as a kind of organic and neutral condition which we need to simply tap into rather than a product of certain socio-economic and political forces. This leads to a cute pragmatism and a depolitical conception of planning and urbanism.

This is much less of an issue with something like Learning from Las Vegas i feel, which should be valued more for its analytical methodology than its ostensible subject matter. Treated as methodology it allows precisely the kind of materalist analysis of the city that reveals important relationships of private to public space, patterns of land ownership etc.

I agree that there is a celebratory aspect to much of it too and it offers some prescriptive design ideas but this could be seen as a critique aimed at architecture as an institution. That may not be enough to convince you but I think their body of work as a whole offers a remarkable resource to architects trying to understand the city. It's also a direct continuation of the earlier research into "socio-plastics" by the Smithson's who never get in the neck, partly because they gave it all up and went phenomenoligical instead.

You might be interested too in VSBA's involvement in activist/advocacy planning on projects such as South Street in Philadelphia where they were directly involved in resisting the large scale commercial development of a predominantly working-class neighbourhood. So, I guess, in Scott Brown's words they are far closer to being "sombre moralists" than glorifiers of capitalist culture.

By the way, Capitalist Realism is the title of a Gerhard Richter painting I found out the other day......

owen hatherley said...

I should investigate more, but Learning did wind me up a great deal when I read it for the reasons mentioned, and it might take a while to shake that off. Also, in the spirit of naming people who might be reading, My brackishness is partly coming from a frustration at some crits I did with another VSBA-associated London firm who shall remain nameless (oh sod it, I obviously mean AOC), who were 'learning' first from the Thames Valley and then from the Big Society, and who seemed to be trying to reconcile their students (and themselves, to some degree) to a completely intolerable political/planning status quo; eventually pretty much actively supporting that status quo. They'd got me in because they knew I'd be this grumpy, of course...the aspect that involves properly looking at and analysing what exists is obviously very worthwhile, but when 'engaging with what exists' is added to the equation its potential to becoming uncritical affirmation is very high indeed.

ie - no need to apologise at all, I was just amused that I was being called out on Charles' comments box rather than my own, hence Marlo Stanfield. Modernism as it is right now is clearly every bit as implicated in neoliberalism as pomo was - I've argued as much several times. Where I disagree is in the idea that architecture is always and necessarily 'A'. The usual ref here is something like Tafuri's 'no class architecture but only a class critique of architecture', but this comes up against what we conceive social democracy to be. I think of it as a compromise between capital and labour, one which was rescinded at the end of the 1970s, and I would argue that during that compromise it was possible to develop an architecture that was an active part of labour's side in that compromise, whether it was 20s Vienna, 50s Sheffield or 70s Newcastle.

Tafuri, Negri or the SI's analysis of social democracy assumed that it had become an intrinsic part of capitalism, and that was overtaken by events sometime in the early 80s, so I take a dim view of people writing as it still is. Whether it was doomed to failure I don't know; it was possible it could have been radicalised rather than abandoned and wiped out, cf Swedish reforms in the '70s that were narrowly defeated that would have tipped the compromise decisively in labour's favour. There's no use crying over spilt milk, so its use now, as I see it, is in combating what Mark K-Punk calls 'impossiblism' - being able to point to things now considered inconceivable that were once considered quite uncontroversial, 'normal', even, is perhaps more politically effective, in the matter of changing minds, than pointing to an after-the-revolution.

Capitalist Realism was aslo the title of a book on Moscow pomo, appropriately enough...

p said...

regarding Learning from Las Vegas and studying what is already there, and somewhat related to the other discussion regarding social democracy:
in 1930 there was an exhibition in Stockholm seen as the big breakthrough for modernism in Sweden. the following year some of the architects involved wrote a manifesto called 'Acceptera' (literally 'Accept') that was published by a publishing house closely related to the Social Democratic Party. the manifesto's introduction and main rallying cry was 'Acceptera den föreliggande verkligheten - endast därigenom har vi utsikt att behärska den' ('Accept the present reality - only then may we have the possibility to conquer it' (my translation))

while never having finished the entire manifesto myself, it was a bit too laden with 30's baggage and my time a little too precious, I'd say that those opening words are still as radical as they ever were while hinting at an attitude which is distinct from both the tabula rasa-approach of contemporary modernist dogma and later Anglo-Saxon theories of the Independent Group and VSB.

(if anybody would happen to be interested in Acceptera there's a recent translation included in this book: http://www.amazon.com/Modern-Swedish-Design-Three-Founding/dp/0870707221)

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for that p....never heard of that before and will check it out some more. I guess it comes back to that same materialist analysis of the city and the forces that shape it and how this is the basis for a socially and politically relevant architecture. The present avant garde in architecture (excepting perhaps Koolhaas) operates in almost exactly the opposite way and ignores the social/political/economic formation of the city in favour of an empty but profitable signature formalism. That seems the value of learning from las vegas for me...

Greg said...

Charles - lovely blog (which I've only just come across). Really enjoying it.

Whilst I seem to be (instinctively) aesthetically adverse to post-modernism, it's nice to come across an argument in its favour.

I find one of PoMo's redeeming features to be its playful toying with high camp. It's this quirky edge that makes it at least interesting, rather than, say, the straight-faced unrelenting beauty and harmony of somewhere like Georgian Bath that becomes such a slog to look at after a few hours.

Perhaps that's why I enjoyed Welwyn Garden City so much (obviously, as mock-Georgian, not PoMo), the sheer audacious scale of the pastiche gives the buildings and set-piece Parkway a slightly-surreal parallel-universe charm. The Sainsbury's they're currently building at the edge of the main drag wobbles along a tightrope of warm stone Georgian/20s/50s harmony and PoMo fakery. Which is rather fun for a superstore.

Charles Holland said...

Hi Greg and thanks for your kind comments....

I share your enthusiasm of Welwyn Garden City although the Sainsbury's sounds mildly terrifying.

It's been pointe out - not least in the comments above yours - that I tend towards the anglo-american, critical end of PoMo rather than its more gleefully camp OR grimly bombastic ends. Charles Moore more than Ricardo Bofill, say. However, for anyone who can possibly take any more i'm planning a quick tour of some of its more revolting and hard-to-take corners to see if there's anything there worth redeeming.