Oh boy are y’all in for a treat this week. I hope y’all like words because there are quite a few in this post. You’ve probably seen me refer to Postmodernism at least once, and if you follow me on Twitter, you know that I pretty frequently garbage post about it.
Of all the styles in architectural history, none has become as ubiquitous in our suburban landscape as Postmodernism, later called PoMo, for short. But what is it? How did it get here? Most importantly, Why do I care?
BECAUSE POSTMODERNISM IS DANK AS HELL:
M2 Tokyo, Kengo Kuma, 1991 (Photo: flickr/wakiii)
But before we get to this dankness, we have to talk…
A wee bit about Modernism
For most of the 20th century, modernism dominated architecture. It’s focus on design efficiency and the lack or absence of ornamentation (ornament was for the Bourgeoisie) was eagerly adopted and practiced by architects such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius who were fascinated with the technological advancements of the early 20th century, specifically, the factory.
Le Corbusier, the French-Swiss architect who famously said that a house is, “a machine for living in,” and his contemporaries were entranced both by the forms of industrial structures and their streamlined efficiency, as well as by the new materials of the modern day: steel and reinforced concrete.
Don’t worry, I’ll be doing a post all about Modernism (which is my soapbox bae) so I don’t want to spend too much time here, but it’s the starting point of Postmodernism, so it’s, y’know, worth a mention.
Here’s the thing about Modernism: it dominated architecture practiced by architects for almost a century, but made up only a small (well-documented and beloved) part of residential architecture built during its reign.
The thing is, the people who toiled their lives away in the factories absolutely DID NOT want to go home to a house that looked like the factory.
However, traditional architecture quickly (by the mid-forties) became a huge faux-pas in the practice of architects and was omitted from architectural education. In addition an exploding population that now needed housing (the Modernists thought it was a great idea to put them in high rises and we all know how well that turned out) emerged that wanted said housing to look like the centuries-old conception of home (aka a box with a door, windows, and topped with a triangle hat).
The combination of these factors led to developers sweeping in (as architects chilled in the Modernism echo chamber), and, lo and behold, we ended up with places like this:
While the modernists were practicing modernism, the rest of us were voraciously exploding out into the wilderness with our cars and highways and motels and suburbs and shopping centers and other ‘vulgar’ pursuits. And nothing communicated said vulgar pursuits better than the booming city of Las Vegas.
Over the first half of the 20th century, the field of architecture was more than a little disconnected from the general public, and without their guidance, the suburban and commercial world developed an aesthetic language all their own.
In the late 1960s, the architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, took a group of students from Venturi’s studio at the Yale School of Architecture on a long trip to Las Vegas.
What happened to Venturi & co. in Vegas definitely didn’t stay in Vegas, and architecture would never be the same.
Learning from Las Vegas: The Stirrings of Postmodern Architecture
Venturi & co. set out to document the landscape of the largest and gaudiest strip in the country and came out with, yes, a study of a city and its forms, but more importantly a manifesto in two parts: first, that modern architecture is ignorant of what most people want, and what most people want is worth studying, and secondly, that the past has a place in present architecture, and that ornament in architecture has meaning, is intrinsically symbolic, and can be used communicate ideas.
The underlying foundation of Learning from Las Vegas is that architecture is both a space and a symbol, and that modern architects abandoned the symbol in favor of the space, and in doing such made the space itself a symbol, AKA:
Venturi called this type of architecture –where the space itself (and by extension, the structure, and function of a building) was the symbol – a duck after the famous NY roadside stand that takes the actual shape of a duck.
He contrasts this to the concept of the decorated shed where the space and structure are at the service of the program (the intended use or function of a building), and the ornament is applied independently of those things.
TL;DR: The duck is a building that is a symbol, the decorated shed is the building that applies symbols. Venturi argues that the history of architecture is the history of ornament, and after this brief deviation of modernism, ornament and its symbolism is something to which we should return.
The Expression of an Idea: Postmodernism in Action
Needless to say, Venturi & Co. telling the whole world of architecture “up yours” went about as well as you’d expect. But after a bit of fighting, a school of architects emerged and began working in this new style, a style that combined the symbolism of the past with the forms of the present.
The Vanna Venturi House by Robert Venturi (1964) [Photo: Wikipedia] takes the traditional symbolism or idea of the house as a box with a gabled roof and a front door flanked by windows, and executes it in a new context – with new materials, minimal lines (hence the integration of the modern) and a bit of architectural irony and humor (e.g. the roofline above the front door is imitating a broken pediment, like one that is often found above a front door)
It quickly gained public popularity in the 80s and 90s and, thus, transformed into PoMo. (For the curious, this dichotomy between artistic Postmodernism and corporate/neoliberal PoMo is explained at length by Charles Jencks, the intensely detailed taxonomist of the movement, in his 2011 book The Story of Postmodernism.)
From Postmodernism to PoMo
In 1984, this
broken pediment architectural punskyscraper by Philip Johnson went up in New York and became the most public symbol (and triumph/downfall) of Postmodernism:
Let’s just say developers loved it. Through developers looking for a big ROI, the great, elegant glass box of modernism, was transformed through said developers into cheap, soulless office boxes, forgettable skyscrapers, and loathed public housing. Their shoddy modernist jobs were, by the 80s, becoming rather passé and unpopular. Thank gawd the Sony Building came along, the developers thought.
AND SO, the original spirit of Postmodernism, lovable, colorful, nostalgic for most of my readers and myself:
WAS NOW, through developers seeking a quick ROI, transformed into:
So, let me get this straight:
This is the crux of the failure of PoMo: Postmodernism was about using architectural ornament within a modern context because we have emotional connections and connotations to architectural ornament. These buildings were about saying through ornament “I AM A HOUSE” or “I AM A BANK” mixed, of course, with a bit of clever architectural humor.
However, this was also the 80s & 90s and the global corporation ruled all, and rather than using the clever language of Postmodernism, PoMo was global corporations saying architecturally: “WORK IS YOUR HOME” or “THE MALL IS YOUR HOME” or “DOLLAR GENERAL IS YOUR HOME.”
That dull and mundane office block? Now it’s an insulting, dull, and mundane office block with a gable and Palladian windows.
Remember those people at the beginning of this post who didn’t want to live in modernist houses that looked like the factories they toiled away at?
We have no choice but to live in houses that look like our office blocks, because our office blocks took the architectural symbols of our houses. And, in response, our houses took the vomited up architectural symbols from their corporate remixes, because residential architecture almost always imitates the public architecture of the time.
Now, I’m not saying McMansions are a product of Postmodernism, or that they are themselves Postmodern architecture, because neither is true. It’s more of a coincidence than anything else that they borrowed certain tropes from the PoMo office tower and integrated them into features like the two-story entryway with the huge transom window.
So what did we learn from this endeavor?
Not much. And, much to Venturi’s chagrin, after this brief period of badly decorated sheds, architecture went right back to making, big, expensive ducks.
BONUS: here’s a pic of me speaking at TEDxMidAtlantic about how much I love buildings and want to encourage others to love buildings as much as I do:
That’s it for PoMo, friends! I’ll see you Thursday with a Dank Southern Special, so stay tuned.
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