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.