Postmodernism implies ‘beyond modernism’ or ‘after modernism’ and therefore should be understood only in the context of that which preceded it. Postmodernism emerged when people could no longer accept the earlier universally held beliefs of progress ad defined by science and rationality, a world view prevalent since the Enlightenment. It was expressed, “with incredulity towards our cultural meta-narratives.” (Shawver, 2007)
The Genesis for Change
The period of prosperity after the Second World War was also a period of cultural and intellectual disillusionment. The promise of an ideal society, of a utopian future, believed in by the many manifestos that emerged between the wars went unrealized. The world was not necessarily a better place just a more confused one. Worldviews governed by rationalism and sciences were pitted against the realities of corporate machinations, political posturing and media makeovers.
In architecture, this feeling of loss was particularly acute- the promises of a better word envisaged by the polemics of modern architecture were reduced to acres of exclusionary steel and glass edifices of multinationals that in the urban sphere rose side by side with slums and decrepitude. For both, the inhabitants or the architects who followed the ideologies of modernism, it now was clear that Architecture did not have all the answers to architecture. Here too, alternate voices were sought.
Modern architecture emerged in opposition to the chaotic babble of revivalism dominating architectural thinking in Europe and the US. Modernists posited a rational stance based on the rejection of style and the upheld rationalist abstraction as universal. The insistence “that a revitalization of art depended on the absolute clarity of forms as a means of communication” (Tafuri 1976, p.94) led to widespread acceptance of industrial aesthetics of the machine age and the Modern Movement. Le Corbusier described the modern feeling as “a spirit of geometry; a spirit of construction and of synthesis” (Tafuri 1976, p.138), best described in the pure forms of his Vila Savoy (1929).
By the 60s Postmodernism emerged, to celebrate cultural, regional and ethnic diversity. “As the global village grows smaller by the day, local efforts have been arising to assert, rediscover, or even invent traditions to combat homogenization or ideological colonialism.” (Ellin 1999, p.13) The hybrid language that diversity engendered allowed Charles Jencks to famously define Post Modern architecture as “doubly coded, half-Modern and half-conventional, in its attempt to communicate with both the public and a concerned minority, usually architects.”(1984, p.6)
The significance of this changed stance was heralded by Robert Venturi’s seminal book ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ (1966). Venturi celebrated precisely that which was rejected by modernists- historicity as quotation, contemporary Pop culture influencing architecture, mixing at once the highbrow with the commonplace, learning from places like Las Vegas and shifting architecture from the iconic back into the marketplace and the street. Venturi “sets up a series of visual preferences in opposition to Modernism: complexity and contradiction vs. simplification; ambiguity and tension rather than straightforwardness; ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’; doubly functioning elements rather than singly working ones, hybrid rather than pure elements, and messy vitality rather than obvious unity.” (Jencks 1984, p.87)
Using the familiar ‘with a slant’, traditions were ‘created’ and played with visually, imagery spilling out meanings rather than messages with semantic irony. Venturi’s Vana-Venturi House (1964) is a theoretical response created by “the adaptation of historical models, appropriately modified to serve contemporary needs, designs richer in experiences and meaning. That these references were iconographic, rather than tectonic became apparent in the thin flat façade and steeply gabled roof of the house, which Venturi described as ” an enlarged broken pediment with applied ornament.” (Ghirardo 1996, p.130)
Post Modern architecture embraced the past, not from a Palladian/Purist standpoint, but by a catch-as-catch-can eclecticism, built up as a collage of preferences, whether playful or deeply considered. Michael Graves’ Portland Building in 1980 “…returned architecture to the wider Western tradition of Classicism, the Free-Style tradition which stems ultimately from the Egyptians. Indeed with the heavy blue green piers and color contrasts The Portland even look somewhat Egyptian.” (Jencks 1984, p.7)
The Crisis of Urbanism
In the period after the war, both in Europe and in the United States, urban renewal programmes were implemented with vigor. Yet they seemed to reflect the thinking of the extreme realism of German Town Planning from previous decades, where “the city plan was thought of as a matter of method, of a system” (Tafuri 1976, p.51). All urban development was created on a rational basis. In America, the crisis in urbanism was provoked by out-migration from cities to suburbs. This resulted in several new urban renewal projects built using the available new technologies of steel and concrete, and the use of high-rise to cater to the densities of users in inner cities and suburbs. However these developments resulted in “destroying urban heritage; disrupting communities, and displacing people from their homes and businesses; increasing social segregation on a regional scale; accentuating gender role distinctions and disfavoring that of a woman; diminishing the public realm; and of environmental insensitivity, aesthetic monotony, and down right ugliness.” (Ellin 1999, p.236)
The Pruitt-Igoe Housing scheme was constructed according to the ideals of CIAM in the 1950s by Minoru Yamasaki won an award from the AIA in 1951. The scheme consisted of several 14-storey slab blocks with ‘streets in the air’. By the 1970s, it had been vandalized mutilated and defaced by its inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were expended trying to revitalize it. In 1972 it was finally demolished by dynamite. For the critic Charles Jencks, this demolition was a milestone: “Modern Architecture died in St. Louis Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite. Boom, boom, boom.” (Jencks 1984, p.9)
Critiques of the Modern Project
In the sixties and after, several of these voices rose as direct and specific critiques of the project of Modernism in architecture. The critics of Modern movement included Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961). Jacobs lamented modern architecture and planning in their failure to take note of the rituals and patterns of daily life and the network of human relationships. She critiqued the planning ideas of Le Corbusier (and their expression in new cities like Zagreb, Brasilia and Chandigarh) and other modern movement designers, as well as the garden city programme of Ebenezer Howard. “The hidden order of the underdeveloped street, Jacobs argued, sustained a rich and varied urban life and improved security.” (Ghirardo 1996, p.13-14) Contemporary cities should be nourished as the vital and encaging places they were in reality.
Architectural theorist Leon Krier said that European cities should derive inspiration from Pre-industrial Urbanism, rejecting industrial mode of architectural production. Cities can be created by using the forms of streets, squares and quarters, integrating all functions of urban life and presenting a familiar pattern and having dimensions and proportions of the best and most beautiful pre-industrial cities. He wrote in 1980 in ‘The Reconstruction of the European City’ that architects should once again value the role of memory, by creating settings, which become ‘theatres of memory’ (Ellin 1999, p.30).
Landscape as Architecture
The Modernist French gardens of the early 20th century reflected the stylistic currents that prevailed in the applied arts and were frequently labeled as Cubist because their gardens featured forms such as jagged lines, angles and planes of colors (Blau 1997, p.167). Gabriel Guevrekian’s ‘Garden of Water and Light’ was a triangular garden that used angled panels of lawn and mirrors and a sphere of faceted glass (Treib, 1993, p.39). Yet the acceptance of such designs was not universal. Several American landscape architects dismissed this new formalism as the “The critics held that such designs reflected the excessive indulgence on paper of the T-square, triangle and compass and came closer to a layering of painted surfaces rather than to real landscapes” (Blau 1997, p.170). Marc Treib abstracted axioms based on the writings of landscape architects like Eckbo, Rose and Kiley which clearly set them in the Modernist Space (1993, p. 36-67): a denial of historical styles, a concern for space rather than pattern, the destruction of the axis, landscapes for people and plants used for their individual qualities as botanical entities and sculpture.
Postmodern approaches to landscape design too have countered the dissatisfaction with formalist abstraction in several ways. Most important amongst these are the reinterpretation of the relation between buildings and sites. In LF1, Landesgartenschau by Zaha Hadid, the site and the ground plane are interchangeable, “more ground form than building, a gently rolling landscape”. (Weston 2004, p.228) Another example is the Water garden at Columbus, Ohio, by Reiser and Umemoto and Partners who create their designs by a process of land carving. (Amidon 2001, p. 52) New landscape designs are bolder in their approach working with the non-linear, with fractals and chaos theory, exploring intricacy though natural or organic (non-quantifiable, yet phenonmenological) aspects of being.
New environments to counter placelessness
Post Modern architects countered the placelessness of the contemporary metropolis, characterized by anonymous blocks all built with steel and glass. They envisaged place and culture specific designs to counter the deterritorializing homogeneity created by the modernist planning ideologies. “If Post-Modernists refuse to accept either agnosticism or its visual equivalent- the bland, technocratic façade- then they have to discover credible ideas in the buildings programme or of the particular society for whom they are designing.” (Jencks 1984, p.7)
The Piazza d’Italia, New Orleans, designed by Charles Moore (1976-9), was to give identity of the Italian community and for the celebration of their annual days. This is symbolized, classical order and arcades, Latin inscriptions and the plan of Italy incorporated into a fountain based on the Trevi in Rome. At the same time neon necklaces, and watering metopes bring in architectural whimsy and puns with a contemporary flavor. “It fits into and extends the urban context. It characterizes the various functions symbolic and practical, with various styles and it takes its cues for content and form from the local taste culture. Moreover, it provides this community with a center, a “heart”, to repeat the Post Modern catchword.” (Jencks 1984, p.7)
Replacing Modern Manifestos with Postmodern Theory
The paradigm shift in architectural thinking from modernism to post modernism is when ideology and manifestos were replaced with theory. Theory, specifically Critical Theory, now informed architecture, not in a definitive manner but in a loose fuzzy set of possibilities and guidelines that helped clear certain doubts, while raising several others. Most theory came from a relativistic and pluralistic standpoint, not providing fixed definitions and changing from field to field and author to author. The common factors in these theories were the rejection of a unitary worldview, of grand narratives.
Away from Objective truths (that had led to the meta-narratives of sciences, rationality, and the abstract Modern Project), architects now chose from the cultural and context specific. Perhaps for the first time architects chose to learn from fields other than architecture, and looked to Literary Criticism, semantics, Philosophy, gender studies, media, and others to gain insights into architecture. The studies of space of Michel Foucault, of psychology of Lacan and the interpretive alternatives of Jacques Derrida became guiding spirits of the architects of the last decades of the 20th century. Derrida collaborated with the architect Bernard Tschumi to create architecture, as in the case of the Parc de la Villette in Paris. The polemics of Le Corbusier, Loos, Gropius and Wright were now countered by speculative theoretical pieces by Eisenmann, Tschumi, Liebeskind, and Koolhaas, who influenced the creation of the architecture of Deconstructivism, more with their writings and drawings than with their built designs.
Critics like Kenneth Frampton have systematically disapproved of the icons of postmodernism, although acknowledging that it was “an understandable reaction to the pressures of societal modernization.” Postmodern architecture has been derided as pastiche and kitsch and has remained to many a stylistic phenomenon, a “conscious ruination of style and cannibalization of architectural form” where architecture was “a package deal arranged by the builder developer that determines the carcass (of the built form)” (Frampton 1992, p. 306-307).
In conclusion then, postmodernism does not replace modernist meta-narratives with other meta-narratives (Shawver, 2007). Frampton himself offers an alternative- Critical regionalism, whose architecture “stresses the site specific and yet refuses to abandon the emancipatory and progressive aspects of the modern architectural legacy while distancing from the naïve utopianism, and is opposed to the sentimental simulation of the local vernacular. (Frampton 1992, p. 327). Thus, by discarding “grand narratives” and focusing on specific local goals, postmodernism offers a way to theorize local situations as fluid and unpredictable, though influenced by global trends (Klages 2003).