The Antipodes of Post Modernism

The Quiet Sinking of a Little Ship (Original collage by Stanley Tigerman, new collage with a Stanley Tigerman building in it by Argitect.)

“A feeling for paradox allows seemingly dissimilar things to exist side by side, their very incongruity suggesting a kind of truth.”- August Heckscher (as quoted in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.)

Post-Modernism is a period in architectural history we would just like to forget. It’s like looking at an old photograph of yourself and saying “OH god my hair, and what was I wearing.” Architecture will always be reactionary, and by the seventies the modern movement had grown stale. All the master architects that produced the modern movement were dead and the second wave didn’t have the finesse to keep modernism sophisticated. So, inevitably rebellion ensued. Venturi declared that less is actually a bore. Tigerman sunk the Titanic (Crown Hall) The shots were fired. But, what beautiful writing these Post-Modernists had. Complexity and Contradiction has to be one of my all time favorite books on architecture ever. It is vital! One of the biggest shocks comes at the end when you actually get to see examples of Venturi’s work. I scratched my head and thought to myself; “He wrote so beautifully, and this is his solution to architecture?” Needless to say, Venturi’s inclusive, contextual, symbolic architecture has most definitely not stood the test of time. Perhaps it was not meant to. Perhaps it was meant to be a placeholder in the evolution of architecture. Such fleeting architecture will always rub me the wrong way because the very essence of architecture is posterity. A building will live longer than it’s inhabitants, it will live for a long long time. With architecture it is always a bad idea to use trends because future users will hate it so much they will want to tear it down before it’s time. How many skyscrapers in Chicago are so ugly now that we would just like to see them go? Unfortunately, these buildings are much younger than ones by Sullivan, Burnham, Wright, and Mies. These post-Modern buildings with their bright colors, mirrored glass and suggestive forms are so abhorrent to us now we almost don’t see them as contributions to architectural history.

So where is the duality in Post-Modernism? The duality lies primarily in the two major branches of architectural expression found in the period of PoMo. One branch is characterized by a bloated symbolism that reintroduces classical and symbolic elements, which I’ll call Classical Post-Modernism. The other branch is a bold exaggeration of the functional systems in modern building. This is known as High-Tech Modernism. The common factor for both of these branches is theatrical exaggeration. The subtlety and minimalism of high-Modernism is replaced by camp and excess in both strands of Post-Modernism.

Philip Johnson and his AT&T Building. A long long way from the glass house.

Portland Building by Michael Graves. It is impossible to show his buildings in Black and White.

The Classical Post-Modernists sought to incorporate the idea of image back into architecture. Their solution was to take elements from classical architecture previously shunned as irrelevant by the Modernists and reintroduce them in wildly oversized fashion. These symbols were recontextualized, just like the large pop art of Claus Oldenburg, to give society some kind of historical linear connection. The first shot fired in this direction that got major headlines was the AT&T Tower by, of all people, Phillip Johnson. The building is obviously less about glass and more about solidity. Most noticeably though is the use of very large exaggerated classical symbolism. The top is capped with an enormous ridiculous looking broken pediment. This is what led critics to call it a giant Chippendale furniture piece. The entrance is a large Renaissance looking arch. We see architecture that is willfully playful and unfunctional. Amazingly the AT&T tower has stood up over time better than most of its contemporaries mainly because of it’s fine proportioning and homogeneous use of muted color. Michael Graves now notorious Portland Building of 1983 was once a famous example of the Post-Modern counterpoint to the minimalist glass box. It is dolled up in fake ribbons and giant keystones. Its proportions are almost a complete square. But it is building on the most superficial level. It has nothing to do with Classicism, it has nothing to do with regionalism or context; it is merely reactionary. As one character in Woody Allens’ Bergmanesque drama Interiors said, it is “Form without Content.” This building is symptomatic of the extreme cases of Post-Modernism that plagued the eighties. Unfortunately for us this Post-Modern temperament happened at a time of great financial prosperity so there is a lot of this stuff in the skylines all over America. The wealthy clients also liked this Po-Mo posturing because the ties with tradition seemed to bolster their conservative nature. It is similar to Pop Art in the sense that it appealed to the masses even if they didn’t understand it’s meaning. The surface was loud, glossy, unsubtle and the message was irrelevant to the client. Classicist Post-Modernism is case of pure aesthetics run amok.

Centre Pompidou by Richard Rogers. The canonization of utility.

Lloyd’s of London-Richard Rogers

High-Tech Post Modernism is the antipode. It is a case of pure functionalism run amok. Whereas the Classicists PoMos aggrandized empty symbolism, the high tech designers took the systems of building and exploited their appearance. Ductwork was no longer hidden or marginalized. It was made huge for effect, painted bright colors, and given a reverent location. Cables strung everywhere. Trusses criss-crossed all over the place. All of the “unsightly” aspects of architecture the Modernists were trying to minimize and hide were embraced by the High Tech movement. This is just another example of the exaggerated nature of architecture in reaction against the rationality of minimalist Modernism. The most famous example (the yin to AT&T’s yang) of this high tech PoMo is the Pompidou Center by Richard Rogers and Partners. Mechanical and structural systems are exposed in such a pronounced way it appears as if the building is inside out. Ducts are painted bright colors, the shear bracing cables are spider webbed across the facade, and the escalator is enclosed in a glass tube, giving it the appearance also of a mechanical utility. Essentially the same story is found at the Lloyd’s of London Building, by Richard Rogers, which also looks inside out. Staircases are shiny corkscrews and ducts seem to snake in every direction, it looks like it belongs in a Terry Gilliam movie. The famous Hong Kong bank by Norman Foster also takes this idea of inside out architecture and literally puts the building cores on the perimeter. This allows a glazed open cavity in the middle. The building is held up with complex structural acrobatics that resemble stacked suspension bridges.

Norman Foster and Partners. Hong Kong Bank. An inside-out building.

The problem I find with High Tech architecture is it’s extreme loudness. It has no subtlety of expression; it is busy and makes one nervous. It has a dystopian nature. Why would anyone want that? The problem I find with Classical Post Modernism is it’s extreme transitory nature. It’s appeal lasts maybe five years, however it’s existence is perhaps a hundred. The reaction against modernism was a reaction against the subtle refinement of post industrial, non-regional, non-symbolic building. Unfortunately this reaction did not have posterity on its side. It was a necessary step in the evolution of architecture and some of its lessons still dominate architectural practice such as an interest in context and region.

One last note: I am not suggesting here that Post Modernism only consisted of two very opposite styles. The very nature of the Post Modern era was pluralism. Each individual architect approached the question of what to do after the Modern era in differing ways. The ones I discuss here are just the extremes in the antipodes of thought. Someone like Helmut Jahn arguably combined the high tech look with symbolic classicism in some of his eighties work. But that is for another post.

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One Response to The Antipodes of Post Modernism

  1. Hein says:

    i love every buildings that he built.

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