| Dec 28, 2011 |
Architects, critics convened for Postmodernism Conference
Boh staff
By Staff

More than 400  design professionals, clients, patrons, and scholars gathered at City University of New York's Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan on November 11 and 12 to explore the phenomenon of Postmodernism.

Tom Wolfe and Jacquelin T. Robertson

An international conference marked the 30th anniversary of Tom Wolfe's renowned book, From Bauhaus to Our House, one of the fabled expressions of this cultural force which is also the eponymous subject of London's Victoria and Albert's (V&A) fall exhibition completing its decade-long commitment to exploring the history of 20th-century design. Mr. Wolfe was on hand as keynote speaker to reiterate his characterizing impulses and the strong continuum of essential human values sustained despite the forces of official academic taste.  

Robert A.M. Stern

Also present to speak was fabled if too-little celebrated Anglo–American architect and theorist, Charles Jencks, who in 1975 first invented the term. In an essay called The Rise of Postmodern Architecture, he explained the brand new moniker thusly, “ This title is evasive. If I knew what to call it, I wouldn’t use the negative prefix ‘post’. It is rather like defining women as ‘non-men’…” And so it started to transform global culture.

Michael Graves

All those assembled reconfirmed Postmodernism's  ongoing relevance as evidenced in part by traces of permanent hostility even among those modernists who concede that postmodernism in fact helped spawn the revival of modernism itself--freed at last  from the old dogmas of its founding generation. Such a paradox stems in part from using the term to describe a specific transitory design vocabulary as opposed to  a broader, liberating rupture in overall design culture.

As speaker Robert A. M. Stern summed up "today we're all postmodernists," which is a fact of overlooked history that the ICAA is determined to help revivify. 

Paul Goldberger

Friday’s session took place in Charles Gwathmey’s renewal of the Beaux Arts landmark by Trowbridge and Livingston once known as B. Altman’s, and was followed by a reception in the studios of Robert A. M. Stern for speakers, donors, and Institute of Classical Architecture and Art (ICAA) trustees. Together they toasted this historical investigation of a design movement that still stirs strong view pro and con as also evidenced these days in London, where the V&A is exhibiting Postmodernism as part of its fabled 20th century design series.

"During the many months of planning required by a lean yet prodigious staff and passionate band of volunteers, I have naturally become highly attuned to the use of the term postmodern in discourse related not only to architecture but also to a broader philosophical interdisciplinary conversation regarding both theory and application," said ICAA President Paul Gunther in his opening remarks. "And I have concluded that postmodernism is to such theory what the 1957 film classic the Three Faces of Eve is to the canon of Hollywood. In other words, it is a story of multiple personality disorder or as we’re now supposed to say: Dissociative Identity Disorder. Postmodernism defined today is subjective and mutable in ways that no other critical label comes even close. Its identity ranges from much of what is bad and reactionary and vulgar –even diabolical—to the liberating progressivity of broken hierarchies bringing with it an overdue blurring of high and low that has ever since advanced scholarship and the shared culture it seeks to reflect and advance."

"It is feminist and yet finally it is sexist and anti-feminist. It is Las Vegas as opposed to Berlin–at least the good bits. Hip hop to jazz. Disco to rock and roll.  It manages simultaneously, to be both contemptuously unserious and a threatening virus whose mere mention infects its user and certainly this Institute’s good name in revisiting it along with the Victoria and Albert earlier this fall. It is Ville Radieuse sprawl versus a environmental wake-up-call with the condign rediscovery of traditional town planning and its humane connective tissue. On the other hand, did it not herald stylistic nostalgia? It spawns bad theme park architecture as opposed to parks like Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island whose theme is star architects imported from the West received unequivocally with resounding critical acclaim. And in no way do such opposite labels fall into categories neatly coincident with the same old polemical divide  between modernists and classicists.  Remarkably, postmodernism manages to transcend even them!  Whether portent or prophetic, it unites those who would never conceive its possibility. And yet with the perspective of two ensuing generations, this phenomenon is a fact of history that is heedlessly ignored or worse denied. That is our task to overcome."

He continued, "With special focus on the architectural ingredients of this broader philosophical stew, our distinguished speakers will frame an historical appraisal and consider Postmodernism’s pertinent application today, including as cautionary tale of dogmatic overreach or as unwarranted dismissal of any comparable philosophical theories whether in force today or just now emergent. In any case there is no set or correct narrative tacitly fixed to our work here. Argument is essential."

The goal of this conference is to bring together top architects, critics and scholars to reexamine Postmodernism, to understand why it occurred, why it was ultimately rejected and yet how it continues to influence much of architectural practice and education in the second decade of the 21st century.

The event featured nearly 40 experts of diverse background and expertise assigned as they were to specific themes historical and theoretical.  The Schools of Architecture at both Notre Dame University and the University of Miami served as co-sponsors.

Robert A. M. Stern and ICAA trustee Gary Brewer, served as event chairman. Below are notes from his lecture:

"Postmodernism architecture’s earliest examples precede the label by a generation, emerging even in the late-1950s as a rejection of the International Style’s predominance as admired by the professional and academic architectural communities yet over time increasingly questioned by practitioners and a restive public alike.

"In reaction to modernism’s limitations and history-erasing ubiquity, postmodern building design rediscovered the symbolic value of traditional architectural forms that had evolved through centuries despite their recent and radical abandonment in the wake of the political cataclysms, social upheaval, and the technological advancements of the 20th century.

"Architects, designers and especially students in the 1970s and 1980s were influenced by postmodern philosophy first expressed in Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture published in 1966. It was made popular almost a generation later in 1981 Thomas Wolfe’s bestseller From Bauhaus to Our House.

"Postmodern architecture, often described as “neo-eclectic” brought the reemergence of rule-based, history-inspired precedents as a jumping off point for a contemporary building design that sought to synthesize the past in new ways. The label postmodernism was introduced by Charles Jencks in the magazine Architectural Design and later expanded in his book The Language of Post Modern Architecture (1977). Kenneth Frampton referred to it to it as Post-Avant-Gardism is his book Modern Architecture (1980). Robert Jensen and Patricia Conway rejected both and instead introduced Ornamentalism, in the volume of like title (1982).

"Such an eclectic approach returned to precedent for a revived ornament, color, traditional details and building materials inflected often with wit and irony which in part sought to distinguish this new language for what was feared by many as literal pastiche.

"Postmodern design was executed in all building types and at all scales. The single –family residence, too often ignored by the design elite and concurrent academic curricula, was an early focal point as exemplified by Robert Venturi’s Vanna Venturi house with its revived formal language. The gable at once loathed by modernists yet recognized by the mass culture as the identifiable architectural feature associated with residential design stood as its a defining metaphor.  Libraries and civic centers looked to regional styles for their inspiration.  Michael Graves San Juan Capistrano Library, awarded in a design competition in 1981, drew on the Spanish Mission style of the region while Chicago’s new Harold Washington Library by Hammond, Beeby and Babka, selected in a 1987 design competition, boasted a bold civic presence evoking Chicago earlier Beaux-Arts buildings.  Corporate high rise buildings were also well represented in a postmodern style including Michael Graves Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky, Philip Johnson’s AT&T building in Manhattan, and Kohn Pedersen and Fox’s numerous office towers of the 1980s in such central cities as Chicago, Cincinnati, Houston and Pittsburgh.

"In addition, many Postmodern theorists and their practicing acolytes believed that modernism’s lack of sympathetic contextual design had destroyed the urbanism of many cities. Its “universal style” seemed to overlook recognizable and often cherished (even if only subliminally) regional styles and symbolic expressions identified throughout Western culture with different building types whether civic and residential.

"Inspired by Jane Jacob’s seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which called into question the 'rationalist' planners of the 1950’s and 1960’s, postmodern architects and planners looked to the earlier patterns of traditional urban and suburban design in their quest to cease and even to reverse what they saw as  the mistakes of modernist planning.  One result was the advent in 1993 of New Urbanism as the defining mission of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which in part looked to the example of the writing of Lewis Mumford. He coined the phrase 'anti-urban' development in his book The City in History (1961). New Urbanist communities such as Seaside, Florida with its master plan by Duany Plate Zyberk and Disney’s Celebration in Orlando, Florida, of Robert A. M. Stern Architects and Cooper Robertson looked to pre-war planned American suburbs as precedents for an alternative to sprawl and its inevitably car-dependent, environmentally destructive patterns of dwindling density.

"Postmodernism was arguably the most important and influential architectural expression from the 1970s to the early 1980s. Yet today, more than thirty years after its initial rejection of modernism and formal iteration, it has been replaced with a new version of modernism as well as more literate interpretations of traditional design as characterized in the work of so many across the nation today.  

"Postmodernism, ignored or spurned by most architects and design professionals today, was nonetheless a pivotal turning point in establishing new directions for America’s built future. While it rose quickly to national and international prominence and just as quickly fell from fashion, traces of its intellectual underpinnings are behind much of architecture and urban planning today. 

All Photos © 2011 Sterne Slaven

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