No Mo’ PoMo?: Thoughts on Postmodernism

For those of you familiar with Bill Watterson’s comic, Calvin & Hobbes, you’d know Calvin and his toy tiger would play a game called Calvinball – an anything-goes-make-up-the-rules-as-you-go-along bastardization of a variation of sports and often, something that does not resemble sport at all. It is oftentimes completely absurd, in the best way possible. This brings me to modernism and post-modernism and the way in which both still influence our design thinking today and why the latter was (and is) so important.

Triangle House. Louis Karol

Going down this road requires an explanation of the dialectic cycle and a basic understanding of modernism and post-modernism within the context of architecture where after we can get back to Calvin & Hobbes and hopefully it will all make sense (or not) by the time we get there.

The dialectical method is a mode of discourse, which theorizes that a thesis (art or architecture movement) would result in an antithesis, resulting in synthesis, creating a new thesis which would be subject to the same interrogation. Applied here to the modern and post-modern movement, the latter is a direct counter-reaction to the former resulting in a new thesis, in this case post-modernism which would subsequently generate its own antithesis, hence the cycle in dialectic cycle.

Bank of America Centre. Philip Johnson

Modernism is a term that encompasses many movements across a broad variation of timelines and disciplines and here I am merely referring to the architectural movement; primarily championed early on by architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. It is characterized by embracing minimalism and in this way sought be an antithesis to the classical aesthetics and styles, a rejection of tradition.

Modernism became the most prevalent design approach within architecture in both the United States and Europe, especially following World War 2. However, various architects rejected the formal notion of a “building as a machine for living” and sought to physically represent in their architecture the symbolism, meaning and a response to the cultural and social context.

Neue Staatsgalerie. James Stirling

This was to certain degree a Calvinball free-for-all of architecture and stood in stark contrast to the dignified, clean and clinical modernist structures that were the norm for the previous few decades. The post-modernists were not interested in the white and beige rules of right angles and sought to be more expressive. This resulted in some very interesting buildings and some very good buildings. However, it was vitally important to have such an extreme departure from the modernist ideals as they had become formulaic, restrictive and in a certain sense as oppressive as the classical ideals that it sought to escape.

Post-modernism re-introduced adornment, frivolity and a much less formal approach to the buildings it cultivated and many of them are still to this day revered as excellent examples from that time.

The Venturi House (1964) is widely considered the first post-modern building and its designers, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, were essential in aesthetically encouraging the movement with their book, Learning from Las Vegas, which (in a nutshell) posturized that the vulgar and kitsch neon signage and world-landmark appropriation in Las Vegas was appropriate to its function and context and therefore could be aesthetically excused, if not embraced.

Vanna Venturi. Robert Venturi

My favourite example of Post-modern architecture is the San-Cataldo Cemetery (1971) by Aldo Rossi, which appears strictly formal but was more subtle in it’s expression of symbolism and meaning, remaining appropriate to the brief and respectful of the genius loci of the place, proving that Post-modernist architecture did not need to be frivolous or kitsch to move away from modernist ideals and maintain it’s character as reaction to modernism.

San Cataldo Cemetery. Aldo rossi

A less favourite example of Post-Modern architecture would Michael Graves’ Eisner Building, built for Team Disney as part of it’s headquarters. It famously appropriates the ancient greek architectural element of a caryatid, a sculpted figure of a woman taking the place of a column, with the seven dwarves from Snow White. Aesthetically, I do not care for it and feel it takes the post-modern idea a little too far – but should personal taste count when discussing architectural preservation matters?

Eisner Building. Michael Graves

Many famous modernist architects, like Philip Johnson, went on to design post-modern structures and while they may be less high-brow than the modernist work they did, the point was for architecture to once again appeal to general public and not be for architecture for architects which many felt had been too intellectualized and subsequently became dehumanized. The way I see it, the point was really for everyone to feel like they could make up the rules and do as they please – much like Calvinball.

Some may call it a moment of madness while others find it to be a breath of fresh air. Case in point; The AT&T building in New York, designed by a modernist champion and icon, Philip Johnson. A postmodern masterpiece that is facing the threat of renovation and sparking outrage and protest. This has raised the important question that led me to undertaking this thought piece: if a building is deemed a valuable historic example of a period of architecture, should it be protected?

AT&T Building. Philip Johnson

My answer would be yes, what do you think? No mo’ PoMo?