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By the mid point of the twentieth century, the clean lines of the International Style and the stripped utilitarianism of functionalism were becoming increasingly common in American and European cities. Created out of a wholesale rethink of core modernist values, Postmodern architecture came as part of a philosophical shift that was just as all-encompassing as the Modernism it sought to replace; aiming to revive historical or traditional ideas and bring a more contextual approach to design. A critical elite who never really left modernism often condemned postmodernism as tacky, regressive or pandering to popular opinion; but after something of a resurgence of modernism in recent years, what’s the value of postmodernism to contemporary thinking?
What makes Postmodern architecture different?
Postmodernism's origins in rejecting the validity of modernism mean that it tends to be expressed in highly idiosyncratic ways; something which is itself part of the postmodern philosophy of rejecting the idea of a single, "correct" approach to design. Charles Moore, for example, one of the first and most prominently postmodern architects, would identify primarily as a contrarian architect, something originating in his 1963 Sea Ranch building, designed with Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker, which threw out much of the modernist rulebook. As carefully examined by Alexandra Lange, Moore’s maverick image was based on a deep immersion in American design and a desire to open up design from the strictures of modernism:
This highly contextual, personal interpretation of a shared appreciation for historical themes and freedom within design is what characterizes postmodern architecture. Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, for example, identify themselves as highly practical, emphasizing usability in their urban planning and adaptability in construction, while contrasting themselves with both the modernists and other postmodern architects, especially Philip Johnson:
A fourth key postmodern theorist, Michael Graves, is notable thanks to his 1982 Portland Building, which critic Charles Jencks called "the first major monument of Post-Modernism" :
Graves framed his approach to architecture as a democratizing force, as seen in Samuel Medina’s review of the Michael Graves: Past as Prologue exhibition in New Jersey. Graves, who focused on industrial design as much as architecture, used the shared frame of historical reference in his designs to popularize design and make it relevant to the majority of people:
These four figures articulate the basic shared principles of postmodernism: historical reference, freedom from rules, populist design and contextual approaches, while the many approaches they used to do so shows off another core tenet of postmodern architecture.
What use is Postmodernism today?
Since the popularity of postmodernism as a self-contained movement faltered, we live in a post-postmodern era. But huge swathes of the postmodern philosophy has been incorporated into contemporary design, especially in the ideals of contextual design and acknowledging the legitimacy of many different individual and often conflicting interpretations of architecture. Lachlan Anderson-Frank, argues that the way Graves' work was able to “be ugly” articulated a philosophy of individualism in the face of monolithic modernist design:
Similarly James Stirling, derided as incompetent in his time and yet still the inspiration behind the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize, occupied a similar awkward space within architecture before his more recent reassessment, as Simon Henley argues in his article asking for more understanding and preservation of postmodern architecture. Henley notes that the release of his working materials has painted a picture of a thorough, dedicated architect, and argues that Stirling's architecture reinvents typologies with wit and an inclusive message:
So how has Postmodernism dealt with the criticism?
Peter Eisenman, a key figure within deconstructivist architecture - a movement which itself grew out of postmodern design and, more importantly, postmodern philosophy - has been central the theoretical arguments around postmodernism. Stefano Corbo attempts to unify Eisenman’s provocative career into one connected whole, in bringing in the concept of “weak thought” to explain Eisenman’s move away from objective truth as a harmonizing form:
Nikos Salingaros, meanwhile, as part of his book “Unified Architectural Theory,” launches an assault on the postmodern theory employed by Eisenman, examining a debate between Eisenman and Christopher Alexander from 1982, and arguing that what he characterizes as Eisenman’s theoretical “hegemony” has since produced disharmonious, shallow and poorly functioning buildings:
What has this theoretical argument meant for practical architecture?
The core issues fought over by Salingaros and Eisenman or as articulated by Graves, Venturi or Moore are still directly impacting contemporary architecture. With current architecture in a state of confusion as to what might be its next great move, the arguments made by Postmodernism are as relevant today as when they were first made, influencing everyone from neo-traditionalists to critical regionalists.
Feargus O'Sullivan maps out a growing desire to rebuild lost traditional buildings or, in the case of Skopje, invent entirely new ones. Cultural recreation, as first advanced by the Postmodernists like Stirling as a shared frame of reference within which to base new buildings, has now become a popular genre in its own right; O’Sullivan links this to a growing political conservatism and increasing weight of nostalgia across Europe:
One person behind much of the trend towards cultural recreation, Prince Charles, has also intervened in architectural discourse to promote “Geometric Principles” based around a similar rejection of modernism as the original postmodernists:
However, the influence of Postmodern thought can be seen in the reaction to this argument. Matthew Johnson’s argument against neo-traditionalism and for contemporary architecture agrees with the central diagnosis of many neo-traditionalists and earlier postmodern ones:
Ultimately, then it seems that the principles of Postmodernism have been absorbed into almost every other architectural trend, even as the movement itself died out.
- Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1984