Postmodernism is enjoying a modest revival, with a retrospective exhibit at the V&A, a conference in New York, and several new books that reassess its past and present claims. Postmodernism emerged here in the late 1970s as serious competition for the corporate modernism and bay regionalism predominant earlier in that decade, but my personal encounters with postmodernists began slightly earlier. This short essay recounts them.
When Post-Modernism was defined in the other arts, sciences, and cultural forms, it was understood as “subversion from within” the establishment, using the reigning voice to send a different message.—Charles Jencks
My first postmodernist was my Washington University classmate Norman Spatz. We were in the second semester of our third year, in a school dedicated to Corbu. The assignment was to replace the traditional house of one of the professors. “Pretend it’s burned down,” we were told. The house was in one of the gated neighborhoods that adjoined the campus. Spatz opted to replace it with a house in the same idiom, complete with a pair of lions guarding the doorway. His scheme was a riff on tradition, not a replica.
Talk about subversion! The professors rounded on the project like a pair of imams dealing with an apostate. This was early in 1969. My classmate was in the avant-garde.
I tracked him down in Montreal a few months ago, hoping to obtain an image of his project. He had abandoned a career in preservation to become a teacher of English as a second language. After another classmate photographed his model, he told me, he destroyed it, only to learn that there was no film in the camera.
Postmodernism in architecture is usually thought to have rejected earlier metaphysical efforts in favor of the playful, more or less arbitrary exchange of signifying elements. But this exchange spoke a jargon of its own.—Reinhold Martin
My second postmodernist made the cover of the first and second editions of Charles Jencks’s The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) with two versions of the same night-club building in Tokyo. I was in graduate school when Minoru Takeyama showed up, visiting Wurster Hall at UC Berkeley on a Fulbright fellowship. As I learned from helping him transliterate a few of his English-language essays from “Takeyamese,” his real interest was in semiotics, derived from Saussure and Barthes. Takeyama argued that each place generates an architectural language that reflects its underlying culture. His work shows the influence of Metabolism and of Bauhaus and Scandinavian modernism (he studied at Harvard and worked in Denmark for six years). It reflects the fact that Rossi, Sottsass, Venturi, perhaps even Hundertwasser are his contemporaries.
“The methods of architecture,” he wrote, “are more opportunistic and subversive than strictly logical.” Part of what makes postmodernism subversive is its critique of modernism’s bias toward the universal. This is the core of Takeyama’s understanding and use of semiotics, and what makes him an early and enduring postmodernist. “Architecture may appear to have achieved a global syntax,” he wrote. “The truth is that this syntax is filtered through a multitude of cultural screens that differ with each individual community. Unless one is attuned to this, it is easy to misread the signs.” Noting that “many architects are like tourists, projecting their own values and biases onto particular cultures,” he argues that architecture should rather emerge from a “process of understanding and responding to the particularity that we experience, allowing its meaning to enrich our world rather than imposing our world upon it. Otherwise I fear the universal world will come again.”
I was uncomfortable with the notion of this street, “Strada Novissima,” and the title, “The Presence of the Past.” It may be one of those cases where I thought I didn’t belong, but in the end belonged much more than I thought.—Rem Koolhaas
My third postmodernist also participated in the 1980 Venice Biennale, but I first met him in the early 1970s because he sat next to a friend in Joseph Esherick’s graduate architecture studio at UC Berkeley. I believe that his thesis project was modernist, but I can’t swear to it. Thomas Gordon Smith made my map later with his Richmond Hill House, a self-built project in the East Bay to house his growing family.
Smith’s interest in classicism is genuine and of long-standing. Although he was “a key figure in the development of Post-Modernism,” as Richard John wrote, he subsequently “rejected the ironical approach of Robert Venturi and the decontextualization of Charles Moore to develop an architecture which draws freely on the twenty-five centuries of the classical tradition.” Among his influences, John notes, is Bernard Maybeck, “who fused a wide-ranging knowledge of architectural history and a fascination with modern materials and techniques. Smith has come to pursue a similar synthesis in his own work.”
Smith’s Richmond Hill House pulls off what amounts to the greatest challenge for a young architect without a private income, which is to infuse a body of thought into a small and dirt-cheap package without having it sink under its own weight. It has always appealed to me as a creative fusion of his growing interest in classicism with the inevitable influences of his education and upbringing—his actual time and place.
The historian John Summerson said Post-Modernism’s original claim was to insist that “Modernism could die” when he, like most people, thought it was immortal, and therefore inevitable.—Jencks
The real necessity of postmodernism in the late 1970s, here and elsewhere, was modernism’s sclerosis. For me, the motto of that moment was Paul Feyerabend’s “Anything goes,” his farewell to the claims of the scientific method, the existence of which he denied. Postmodernism freed modernism from its status as the “official corporate style,” allowing it to evolve. The sclerosis from which we suffer most today is public regulation of building design, which has devolved into a drawn-out, case-by-case process that tends to squeeze the life out of design. Most of the time, it’s the opposite of “Anything goes.”
In his introduction to Radical Post-Modernism, Charles Jencks cites the art historian Anthony Blunt’s assertion that “there are no perfectly and completely Baroque and Rococo buildings because the category is always more capacious and contradictory than any single structure.” The best of modernism as it has evolved here is like this, too. “Its stealth emergence,” Jencks writes, “gives a new take on an old cliché: sometimes history repeats itself better if the architects don’t know it.”
SOURCES OF QUOTATIONS
Anthony Blunt, Charles Jencks, and Rem Koolhaas:
Charles Jencks, “What is Radical Post-Modernism?” in Jencks, Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland, and Sam Jacob, ed’s., Radical Post-Modernism (Architectural Design 05/2011), Wiley, 2011.
Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, Verso, 1978.
Richard John, Thomas Gordon Smith and the Rebirth of Classical Architecture, New Architecture Monograph, Andreas Papadakis, 2001.
Reinhold Martin, Utopia’s Ghost, Minnesota, 2010.
Minoru Takeyama, “Sources of Meaning,” in Botond Bognar, ed., Minoru Takeyama, Architectural Monographs No. 42, Academy Editions, 1995.
John Parman, a founder of TraceSF and Design Book Review, is a writer and editor, based in Berkeley and San Francisco.