A Postmortem on Postmodernism

General / People / Places / November 22, 2011

By Ralph C. Muldrow, RA

When famed architect Robert Venturi claims that he “is not now, and never was, a Postmodernist,” he’s evading the blanket label that architectural historian Charles Jencks once threw over a design movement’s entire body of work – including that of Venturi.  Jencks, of course, coined the term for the new architectural direction in the 1970s.

On Nov. 11 and 12, a gathering of architectural luminaries from the ’70s through the ’90s – many of whom once practiced in the lively, colorful vein of  Postmodernism – came together in New York City to regale a large crowd with a number of points of view.

It was hardly a visceral postmortem, as so many living architects were there, including Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Gordon Smith, Tom Beeby, Demitri Porphyrios, David Schwarz, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jacque Robertson, Michael Lykoudis and Robert Adam, while writers and editors included Witold Rybczynski, Paul Goldberger, Robert Campbell, Mildred Schmertz and others.   One thinks of Mark Twain’s aphorism: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

One speaker asked all those in the rarified audience who had been postmodernists to raise their hands, but few hands went up. More went up for classicism.  Robert Adam said: “Well, it appears that that today there are ‘-isms’ and there are ‘wasms.’”

At the end of the first day, Tom Wolfe (celebrating the 30th anniversary of his book, “From Bauhaus to Our House”) noted that the impetus for the historicist related, but invention-driven days of Postmodernism were somewhat like a sine-wave that disperses the past upon the future at intervals, like the sea that leaves her impression on the dunes.  One imagines the image of the much-discussed late Charles Moore (read Moore is more), whose ‘Piazza d’talia’ set the reinvigoration of classicism in neon and aluminum.

And there was a classical undercurrent to the conference.  The cousin to classicism (Postmodernism) reluctantly but truly allowed for the revived crafts and products related to historic preservation to be used with less ‘tongue-in-cheek,’ and more veracity in the realm of classical and traditional architecture.

Like the image of one’s face in the morning mirror, that postmodern image is a reversal of the actual self.  Praise for the Postmodern included the idea of ‘double coding’ —  that is, there was a postmodernism that occupied the senses, such as Thomas Gordon Smith’s groundbreaking entry in the 1980 Venice Biennale, and a secondary richness also inherent in Smith’s work that spoke to architects of a mannerism and baroque inventiveness that was spoken quietly to the cognoscenti.

Tomorrow:  More from the conference.

Ralph C. Muldrow is the Simons Professor of Architecture and Preservation at the College of Charleston and is adjunct Professor of Preservation at Clemson University.

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4 Comments

on November 22, 2011

Wonderful reporting for those of us who couldn’t be there, thank you! Looking forward to part 2.

on November 22, 2011

I read Jencks The Language of Postmodernism last summer, and ever since have been spotting what is modern and what is post-modern by its form, use of space, aesthetic, and goal. Reading his explanations on how the movement of architecture in the 70’s was diverging (or transforming?) from what it had been to what is was becoming made so much sense. The mix of historicism and contextualism of, say, Madeleine Arbour’s addition to The Citadelle of Québec, using elements and designs that mimic the St. Laurence River and the Québec winter, can not be said to be just classicist or modern. I might buy into a definition of Postmodernism as an era of architecture rather than a style, since by Jencks own descriptions, it is a collection of rejections and returns. This dialogue is so important though. Thank you for your coverage on this conference, and your mission to discuss rich and trending architecture.

on November 28, 2011

I gently beg to differ with your conclusion that Charles Jencks invented the term ‘Post Modern’ (though he does have a magical way of gelling changes into ‘brands’.) It has been around more than a century (check out WikiPedia on ‘Post Modernism’.)

And even in this iteration – as a desciption of architecture in the 60’s and 70’s — it was coined much earlier than Charles Jencks’ book. Another Charles, Charles W. Moore, described himself in the mid-60’s as a ‘post-modern radical eclectic’ when asked about his style by House and Garden magazine.

I don’t blame Robert Venturi for saying that he was not a postmodernist because by that time it had become a cliche of historicist pastiche. The early phases of the movement were actually very modern and also progressive in spatial, organizational, and material approaches. Much of that was overlooked by critics and the public, as it was hidden behind the shock of ironic references to the past.

on November 30, 2011

I’m sure there are caveats about Jenck’s role in introducing the term “Postmodernism,”
but he was the energetic force and participant in the architectural realm of the term.



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