This essay by the academic and writer Martin Lampprecht responds directly to an opinion piece penned by Sean Griffiths, a former partner of FAT, entitled "now is not the time to be indulging in postmodern revivalism".
Oh my. Where to begin? My first impulse was just to move on and shake my head in wonder, perhaps, that a well-established designer and architectural thinker would wish to publish an article so dyspeptic. It is, after all, a common pattern: the young pranksters of yesteryear, once their hairlines have started to recede, transform into schoolmasters as befitting their recently-acquired academic sinecures. It’s all just part of the normal generational cycle that keeps a culture moving forward. Business as usual.
If I write this at all then it is because Sean Griffiths’ argument singles out—explicitly or implicitly—an entire group of young architects and designers whose work I have been following with great interest for some time. It takes the form of a rather mean-spirited ad-hominem attack against them by implying that they somehow “don’t get” the political and cultural climate that we find ourselves in, but are also guilty of moral and political failings by making all the wrong noises at the wrong time.
Of course, one of the best ways to sharpen and polish your brand has always been to make enemies. And one of the best ways to make enemies has always been to simply fabricate them by erecting a straw man against whom to present your intellectual arms. (Choosing a crop of up-and-coming designers who are simply making their first public splashes, instead of some of the older people of your own generation who really have influence and institutional power, may seem a bit low – but that’s all a part of the traditional ritual, too.) So you could, for example. invent an entire movement and label it “postmodern revivalism”. No weapon kills more effectively than the taxonomical pin with which to pierce an all too colorful butterfly and forever assign it the correct (derivative) place in the public’s entomological cabinet. You may have to distort both the intention of your pet peeves’ work and ignore what they publicly say about it, but that’s how this strategy tends to work.
The butterfly that Griffiths has chosen here as his pars pro toto for the wider family is Adam Nathaniel Furman. I have been watching Furman’s work for some time now, both as a designer and as a prolific and insightful commentator on architecture and design – and, of course, as a cultural mediator. He may wear many hats, but there’s one thing that he certainly is not, and has never claimed to be: a postmodernist, whether “neo”, “retro”, “revival” or otherwise. It is, therefore, quite regrettable that, in the public eye, he has become superficially known as the go-to “pomo guy”, simply because among his historical interests modern classicism and postmodernism figure prominently. As a lobbyist for architectural conservation, he has been drumming up support for the overdue protection of postmodern architectural heritage, which is currently still receiving a rough deal from critics, conservationists, and public authorities. But while his own design work evidently demonstrates the influence of his interest in and commitment to postmodern precedents and (classical) design history at large, his intentions and strategies are far from the derivative “neo-postmodernism” which Griffiths claims to see. Griffiths’ claims hinge on two conceptual shortcuts: “ornament and heightened attention to colourful surface = pomo” and “pomo = irony”.
And yet Furman’s work, among others, is not primarily occupied with irony, distancing effects, and conceptual quotations marks. What he and they are after is rather a new richness of stimuli, an aesthetic and semiotic density (both formally and historically) that draws the observer into a highly engaging interaction with the work, rich with associations, ambiguities, and playful possibilities of spatial disorientation. Insofar as their work draws on postmodern precedents it does so because, on a formal level, certain postmodernists experimented with similar strategies of ornamental densification, formal complexity, and playful cognitive overkill. Far from rhetorical gestures of “irony”, the works explore possibilities of spatial and semiotic experience in a complex, multi-layered and mediated modern environment: their fun is serious business. (In other words: just what Griffiths claims for his own achievements of twenty years ago.)
Having lumped together a group of designers as “neo-neo-postmodernists” (and as a result, adding an unnecessary appendix to FAT’s own work of the 1990s and 2000s too late and apparently for the wrong reasons), his principal argument is, unsurprisingly, political: in the world of Trump, Brexit, fake news and the alt-right, in which shifting signifiers and ambivalent meanings are exploited by sinister forces, the moment for irony has passed. The same, one suspects, is true for color, ornament, visual complexity and other frivolous luxuries of happy times gone by: Griffiths’ suggestions as to where architecture might go from here exude a somewhat puritanical spirit of (tactile) hair shirts and reasonable visual modesty. But it’s all for the greater good, because we know how easily architecture’s useful idiots are appropriated and swallowed whole by political circumstances: “If your building looks fascistic, [...] it is ripe for appropriation by fascistic values.”
This is somewhat surprising given how Griffiths’ whole condemnation of the supposed “neo-neo-postmodern” cabal starts with the assumption that architecture does not “speak”, as it is not a language. How such non-speaking architecture can be so eloquent as to be readily recognizable as and appropriated by an ideology appears as a bit of a mystery. But then, of course, does Griffiths himself really believe in a non-signifying, semiotically mute architecture? That architecture is not related to literature and therefore does not “speak” or convey a complex, let alone linear “narrative” is a truism. However, it is equally true that architecture, thanks to cultural context, is evocative and symbolically rich, and therefore a means of communication. To paraphrase Paul Watzlawick: architecture cannot not communicate. There is no semiotically neutral, ideology-free zone for architecture, especially not for the kind of architecture now espoused by Griffiths, which “strives heavily to actively resist visual signification, that tries to disappear, that abjures meaning, an architecture that makes no attempt to speak and can tell no lies”. An architecture so unburdened of meaning, in a virgin state of non-signification, is a fantasy. Whether a building looks fascistic is for fascists to say, and what ideology Griffiths’ tactile, visually chaste, semiotically teetotalling architecture might or might not come to represent is not something that is intrinsic to its design: a building’s meaning has everything to do with context, and a lot with intention, and none of these are eternally inscribed into the built structure itself.
One can ask whether, upon a more generous reading of both context and intention, Adam Nathaniel Furman’s work and that of other contemporary ornamentalists is in fact likely to somehow play into the hands of the dark cultural and political forces of post-truth political culture and the alt-right. Because, as far as I can see, the latter aren’t much attracted to exuberant hedonism, or historical complexity, or eclectic pluralism, or confidently ambiguous and fluid (one might say, “queer”) messaging, or creative irreverence in dealing with the past. These are all qualities an unprejudiced observer might find in the kind of work Griffiths is declaring obsolete, politically naïve, and potentially dangerous. Which, ultimately, begs the question: what’s your problem, professor?
As John Cage might have put it: if you have nothing to say, at least say it better than in a condescending, ungenerous opinion piece.
Martin Lampprecht is an academic specializing in film and media, with a strong interest in architecture and urbanism, and currently works at the University of Bordeaux. He writes on cinema, architecture, music, mass culture, and seriality.
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