Postmodern Architecture: The Death of Modernism
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Postmodern Architecture: The Death of Modernism

Postmodernism was one of the most significant cultural developments of the twentieth century . Postmodernism had implications for all forms of culture, as well as philosophy, history and science, but itÂ’s fair to say that postmodernism was first identified in architecture and design, in which field it can best be understood as a reaction against the Modern Movement of the early twentieth century.

Postmodernism was one of the most significant cultural developments of the twentieth century . Postmodernism had implications for all forms of culture, as well as philosophy, history and science, but it’s fair to say that postmodernism was first identified in architecture and design, in which field it can best be understood as a reaction against the Modern Movement of the early twentieth century.

The Modern Movement dominated design from the 1920s to the 60s. One of the most iconic Modernist buildings was the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. It embodies the attributes of Modernism: it is rational; the form has been dictated by function and it has been purged of ornamentation. The idea was that Modernism would be universally valid and could be used across the world, and in fact it came to be known as the International Style.

In the 1970s there was a reaction against the Modern Movement. This cultural shift came to be known as postmodernism, which means ‘after modernism.’

One of the first people to use the term was the architectural historian Charles Jencks, who stated that Modernism came to an end at 3:32 pm on 15 July, 1972.  This was the moment when the mass housing development of Pruitt-Igoe at St. Louis, Missouri was demolished . This had been designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Centre. It was the most famous public housing project in the United States and it was designed on Modernist principles. Within a few years it was plagued by vandalism and crime and it came to symbolise the failings of the Modern Movement.

Another nail in the coffin of Modernism was the publication of Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a brilliant critique of Modernist architecture. Charles Jencks called this the 'first shot' of Postmodernism. Jacobs examined Modernist housing developments like Pruitt Igoe and asked what it was like to actually live in them. She argued that they were dehumanising because they deny individuality, provoke social malaise and lead to crime and vandalism. Jacobs concluded that Modernist architecture is mentally and socially damaging.

Much postmodernist design documents the failure of Modernism. For example, Superstudio was a group of radical young architects founded in Florence in 1966. Their main tactic was to produce provocative photo-montages, films and exhibitions that attacked Modernism. These were satirical, subversive and iconoclastic.

One of their most famous ‘designs’ was a proposal for a grid-like superstructure that would wrap around the world. They called it Il Monumento Continuo, or Continuous Monument (1969). This was produced as a series of photo-montages. It was an anonymous uniform megastructure that would eventually cover the entire surface of the planet, stamping out all local cultures and leaving the Earth completely featureless.

This wasn’t a serious proposal; it was a satire about the state of contemporary architecture. Superstudio was making a comment on globalisation and the spread of a uniform architecture. They felt that the world was becoming swamped with international Modernism, which damaged historic cities and eradicated local cultures. A member of the group, Adolfo Natalini explained:

In 1969, we started designing negative utopias like Il Monumento Continuo, images warning of the horrors architecture had in store with its scientific methods for perpetuating standard models worldwide. Of course, we were also having fun.

The phrases ‘scientific method’ and ‘standard models’ are clear references to Modernism.

SITE was a radical group founded in 1973. The name is an acronym standing for Sculpture in the Environment. SITE did a great deal of work for the Best retail chain in the 70s. This is the Arden Fair Shopping Mall (1976-7), a monolithic building that has a fake rift cut into the structure. We could interpret it as meaning that the orthodoxy of Modernism is breaking up.

Another example exposes the structure, revealing how the building is constructed – as Modernism demanded – but does it in a very different way, by breaking the façade open. It’s as if Modernism has been discovered as an ancient ruin, so it defies the idea of Modernism as eternally valid.

This is called the Peeling Project in Richmond, Virginia (1971-2). It looks as if the façade is peeling off. This uses the materials in unexpected ways.

Another example is the Ghost Parking lot, which has cars embedded in the tarmac. This challenges the Modernist idea of functionalism: it clearly expresses what it’s for, but you can’t use it.

Fundamentally, postmodernism is a reaction against Modernism. The name assumes that Modernism has ended and been replaced by something different, something that very often rejects or denounces Modernism. The work of SITE challenged the principles of Modernism using humour and irony.

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Comments (7)

Very cool! I wouldn not have known about these images had you not presented them! Thanks for the insight.

I have always thought that "postmodern" essentially means "what used to be called modern is now out of date, but we haven't the imagination to think of anything else to call it." How unlike the last half of the eighteenth century, when theorists invented the term "Baroque" to describe what they disliked about the first half of the eighteenth century! The only thing I can think of to call "modern" architecture is "boring." I worked for a while in a building designed by Mies van der Rohe. Someone had remodeled the inside of the building and put in a curved wall in the entry way. Purists were outraged. I thought it was too little, too late. But at least the real Mies van der Rohe buildings were somehow less boring than the imitations all over town. Thank you for writing its obituary.

another fascinating article

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Thanks for such an interesting comment, David. You're right, many of the cultural labels we use began as terms of abuse: Gothic, Baroque, Impressionism. The term postmodernism definitely implies that modernism is out of date, but also that we have shifted to a new cultural phase. It's easy to oversimplify, but whereas modernity was characterised by the machine, mass production, order and rationality, postmodernity is characterised by the mass media, the global flow of information, chaos and the breakdown of order. I'm interested to learn you worked in a Mies van der Rohe building. It wasn't the Seagram Building by any chance was it? I would love to hear more, because I've rarely encountered anyone who has experienced his buildings first hand. Its true that Mies inspired a wave of immitators. He himself always used expensive materials like marble, bronze and aluminium, giving his buildings subtle textures usually lacking in modernist architecture.

Thanks for the information.

Now I could see how architecture relates to people's way of life. Nice work.

This is one of the most outstanding pieces of work. Thanks for sharing.