Postmodern architecture  

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"Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm when the infamous Pruitt–Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite."--Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977)
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"Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm when the infamous Pruitt–Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite."--Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Postmodern architecture is an international style whose first examples are generally cited as being from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and which continues to influence present-day architecture. Postmodernism in architecture is generally thought to be heralded by the return of "wit, ornament and reference" to architecture in response to the formalism of the International Style of modernism. As with many cultural movements, some of postmodernism's most pronounced and visible ideas can be seen in architecture. The functional and formalized shapes and spaces of the modernist movement are replaced by unapologetically diverse aesthetics: styles collide, form is adopted for its own sake, and new ways of viewing familiar styles and space abound. Tt is eclectic rather than monolithic, ironic rather than idealistic, ornamental rather than functional.

Classic examples of modern architecture are the Lever House and the Seagram Building in commercial space, and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright or the Bauhaus movement in private or communal spaces. Transitional examples of postmodern architecture are the Portland Building in Portland, Oregon and the Sony Building (New York City) (originally AT&T Building) in New York City, which borrows elements and references from the past and reintroduces color and symbolism to architecture. A prime example of inspiration for postmodern architecture lies along the Las Vegas Strip, which was studied by Robert Venturi in his 1977 book Learning from Las Vegas celebrating the strip's ordinary and common architecture.

Postmodern architecture has also been described as "neo-eclectic", where reference and ornament have returned to the facade, replacing the aggressively unornamented modern styles. This eclecticism is often combined with the use of non-orthogonal angles and unusual surfaces, most famously in the State Gallery of Stuttgart (New wing of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart) and the Piazza d'Italia by Charles Willard Moore. The Scottish Parliament buildings in Edinburgh have also been cited as being of postmodern vogue.

Modernist architects regard post-modern buildings as vulgar and cluttered with "gew-gaws". Postmodern architects often regard modern spaces as soulless and bland. The divergence in opinions comes down to a difference in goals: modernism is rooted in minimal and true use of material as well as absence of ornament, while postmodernism is a rejection of strict rules set by the early modernists and seeks exuberance in the use of building techniques, angles, and stylistic references.

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Relationship to previous styles

New trends became evident in the last quarter of the 20th century as some architects started to turn away from modern Functionalism which they viewed as boring, and which some of the public considered unwelcoming and even unpleasant. These architects turned towards the past, quoting past aspects of various buildings and melding them together (even sometimes in an inharmonious manner) to create a new means of designing buildings. A vivid example of this new approach was that Postmodernism saw the comeback of pillars and other elements of premodern designs, sometimes adapting classical Greek and Roman examples (but not simply recreating them, as was done in neoclassical architecture). In Modernism, the pillar (as a design feature) was either replaced by other technological means such as cantilevers, or masked completely by curtain wall façades. The revival of the pillar was an aesthetic, rather than a technological, necessity. Modernist high-rise buildings had become in most instances monolithic, rejecting the concept of a stack of varied design elements for a single vocabulary from ground level to the top, in the most extreme cases even using a constant "footprint" (with no tapering or "wedding cake" design), with the building sometimes even suggesting the possibility of a single metallic extrusion directly from the ground, mostly by eliminating visual horizontal elements — this was seen most strictly in Minoru Yamasaki's World Trade Center buildings.

Another return was that of the “wit, ornament and reference” seen in older buildings in terra cotta decorative façades and bronze or stainless steel embellishments of the Beaux-Arts and Art Deco periods. In post-modern structures this was often achieved by placing contradictory quotes of previous building styles alongside each other, and even incorporating furniture stylistic references at a huge scale.

Contextualism, a trend in thinking in the later parts of 20th Century, influences the ideologies of the postmodern movement in general. Contextualism was centered on the belief that all knowledge is “context-sensitive”. This idea was even taken further to say that knowledge cannot be understood without considering its context. This influenced Postmodern Architecture to be sensitive to context as discussed below.

Postmodernism

The postmodernist movement began in America around the 1960s–1970s and then it spread to Europe and the rest of the world, to remain right through to the present. The aims of postmodernism or Late-modernism begin with its reaction to Modernism; it tries to address the limitations of its predecessor. The list of aims is extended to include communicating ideas with the public often in a then humorous or witty way. Often, the communication is done by quoting extensively from past architectural styles, often many at once. In breaking away from modernism, it also strives to produce buildings that are sensitive to the context within which they are built.

Postmodernism has its origins in the perceived failure of Modern Architecture. Its preoccupation with functionalism and economical building meant that ornaments were done away with and the buildings were cloaked in a stark rational appearance. Postmodernists felt the buildings failed to meet the human need for comfort both for body and for the eye. Modernism did not account for the desire for beauty. The problem worsened when some already monotonous apartment blocks degenerated into slums. Post Modernism sought to cure this by reintroducing ornament and decoration for its own sake. Form was no longer to be defined solely by its functional requirements; it could be anything the architect pleased.

Robert Venturi

Robert Venturi was at the forefront of this movement. His book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (published in 1966), was instrumental in the postmodernist movement in architecture and was fiercely critical of the dominant Functional Modernism. The move away from Modernism’s functionalism is well illustrated by Venturi’s witty adaptation of Mies van der Rohe’s famous maxim “Less is more”. Venturi instead said “less is a bore”. Along with the rest of the Postmodernists, he sought to bring back ornament because of its necessity. He explains this and his criticism of Modernism in his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by saying that:

Architects can bemoan or try to ignore them (referring to the ornamental and decorative elements in buildings) or even try to abolish them, but they will not go away. Or they will not go away for a long time, because architects do not have the power to replace them (nor do they know what to replace them with).

Robert Venturi was possibly the foremost campaigner of the rebellion against Modernist Architecture which became known as Postmodern. His two books Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972) (although not actual manifestos of Post Modern Architecture) do well to express many of the aims embodied in Postmodernism. The latter book he co-authored with his wife, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.

Learning from Las Vegas highlights an aim that ornamental and decorative elements “accommodate existing needs for variety and communication”. Here Venturi stresses the importance of the building communicating a meaning to the public (which necessitates non-functional elements of the building). The Postmodernists in general strive to achieve this communication through their buildings. This communication is not intended to a direct narrating of the meaning. Venturi goes on to explain that it is rather intended to be a communication that could be interpreted in many ways. Each interpretation is more or less true for its moment because work of such quality will have many dimensions and layers of meaning. This pluralism of meaning is intended to mirror the similar nature of contemporary society. The pluralism in meaning was also echoed in the postmodern architects striving for variety in their buildings. Venturi reminisces in one of his essays, A View from the Campidoglio, to that effect when he says that:

When [he] was young, a sure way to distinguish great architects was through the consistency and originality of their work...This should no longer be the case. Where the Modern masters' strength lay in consistency, ours should lie in diversity.

Postmodernism with its diversity possesses sensitivity to the building’s context and history, and the client’s requirements. The Postmodernist architects considered the general requirements of the urban buildings and their surroundings during the building’s design. For example, in Frank Gehry's Venice Beach House, the neighboring houses have a similar bright flat color. This vernacular sensitivity is evident in some Postmodern buildings.

Aims and Characteristics

The aims of post-modernism, including solving the problems of Modernism, communicating meanings with ambiguity, and sensitivity for the building’s context, are surprisingly unified for a period of buildings designed by architects who largely never collaborated with each other. The aims do, however, leave room for various implementations as can be illustrated by the diverse buildings created during the movement.

The characteristics of Postmodernism allow its aim to be expressed in diverse ways. These characteristics include the use of sculptural forms, ornaments, anthropomorphism and materials which perform trompe l’oeil. These physical characteristics are combined with conceptual characteristics of meaning. These characteristics of meaning include pluralism, double coding, flying buttresses and high ceilings, irony and paradox, and contextualism.

The sculptural forms, not necessarily organic, were created with much ardor. These can be seen in Hans Hollein’s Abteiberg Museum (1972-1982). The building is made up of several building units, all very different. Each building’s forms are nothing like the conforming rigid ones of Modernism. These forms are sculptural and are somewhat playful. These forms are not reduced to an absolute minimum; they are built and shaped for their own sake. The building units all fit together in a very organic way, which enhances the effect of the forms.

After many years of neglect, ornament returned. Frank Gehry’s Venice Beach house, built in 1986, is littered with small ornamental details that would have been considered excessive and needless in Modernism. The Venice Beach House has an assembly of circular logs which exist mostly for decoration. The logs on top do have a minor purpose of holding up the window covers. However, the mere fact that they could have been replaced with a practically invisible nail, makes their exaggerated existence largely ornamental. The ornament in Michael Graves' Portland Public Service Building (1980) is even more prominent. The two obtruding triangular forms are largely ornamental. They exist for aesthetic or their own purpose.

Postmodernism, with its sensitivity to the building’s context, did not exclude the needs of humans from the building. Carlo Scarpa’s Brion-Vega Cemetery (1970-72) exemplifies this. The human requirements of a cemetery is that it possesses a solemn nature, yet it must not cause the visitor to become depressed. Scarpa’s cemetery achieves the solemn mood with the dull gray colors of the walls and neatly defined forms, but the bright green grass prevents this from being too overwhelming.

Postmodern buildings sometimes perform the age old trompe l'oeil, creating the illusion of forms or depths where none actually exist, as has been done by painters since the renaissance. The Portland Public Service Building (1980) has pillars represented on the side of the building that to some extent appear to be real, yet they are not.

The Hood Museum of Art (1981-1983) has a typical symmetrical façade which was at the time prevalent throughout Postmodern Buildings.

Robert Venturi’s Vanna Venturi House (1962-64) illustrates the Postmodernist aim of communicating a meaning and the characteristic of symbolism. The façade is, according to Venturi, a symbolic picture of a house, looking back to the 18th century. This is partly achieved through the use of symmetry and the arch over the entrance.

Perhaps the best example of irony in Postmodern buildings is Charles Willard Moore’s Piazza d’Italia (1978). Moore quotes (architecturally) elements of Italian renaissance and Roman Antiquity. However, he does so with a twist. The irony comes when it is noted that the pillars are covered with steel. It is also paradoxical in the way he quotes Italian antiquity far away from the original in New Orleans.

Double coding meant the buildings convey many meanings simultaneously. The Sony Building in New York does this very well. The building is a tall skyscraper which brings with it connotations of very modern technology. Yet, the top contradicts this. The top section conveys elements of classical antiquity. This double coding is a prevalent trait of Postmodernism.

The characteristics of Postmodernism were rather unified given their diverse appearances. The most notable among their characteristics is their playfully extravagant forms and the humour of the meanings the buildings conveyed.

Influential architects

Some of the most well-known and influential architects in the postmodern style are:

Changes in the teaching of architectural history

The rise of interest in history that came as a consequence of the general Postmodernist turn had a profound impact on architectural education. History courses became increasingly regularized and insisted upon. With the demand for professors knowledgeable in the history of architecture, several Ph.D. programs in schools of architecture arose in order to differentiate themselves from art history Ph.D. programs, where architectural historians had previously trained. In the US, MIT and Cornell were the first, created in the mid 1970s, followed by Columbia, Berkeley, and Princeton. Among the founders of new architectural history programs were Bruno Zevi at the Institute for the History of Architecture in Venice, Stanford Anderson and Henry Millon at MIT, Alexander Tzonis at the Architectural Association, Anthony Vidler at Princeton, Manfredo Tafuri at the University of Venice, Kenneth Frampton at Columbia University, and Werner Oechslin and Kurt Forster at ETH.

The creation of these programs was paralleled by the hiring, in the 1970s, of professionally trained historians by schools of architecture: Margaret Crawford (with a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A) at SCI-Arc; Elisabeth Grossman (Ph.D., Brown University) at Rhode Island School of Design; Christian Otto (Ph.D., Columbia University) at Cornell University; Richard Chafee (Ph.D., Courtauld Institute) at Roger Williams University; and Howard Burns (M.A. Kings College) at Harvard, to name just a few examples. A second generation of scholars then emerged that began to extend these efforts in the direction of what is now called “theory”: K. Michael Hays (Ph.D., MIT) at Harvard, Mark Wigley (Ph.D., Auckland University) at Princeton (now at Columbia University), and Beatriz Colomina (Ph.D., School of Architecture, Barcelona) at Princeton; Mark Jarzombek (Ph.D. MIT) at Cornell (now at MIT), Jennifer Bloomer (Ph.D., Georgia Tech) at Iowa State and Catherine Ingraham (Ph.D., Johns Hopkins) now at Pratt Institute.


First postmodern building

See also




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