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Pomo summertime: Postmodernism is nonetheless shaping modern architecture, says Owen Hatherley, but its impact on social housing is an unforgivable legacy.


Every little thing gets revived at some point. And when it gets revived, it gets applause from folks who originally hated it. The record is extended of architects and critics who now praise the “icons” of the 1960s and lament the ‘icons’ of the 2000s, but would have been doing significantly the opposite ten or 20 years ago.

A single point that Postmodernists were and are most undoubtedly right about is the fact that the culture of architecture is strangely unwilling to admit that what it does is massively established by fashion. Postmodernists themselves have been hugely unfashionable during the 2000s, but a slow revival is certainly taking spot, observed notably on this web site of late.

It is, by the 20-year rule of revivals that looks to have pertained considering that the 1970s, evident that Postmodernism’s time has come. It truly is equally clear that Postmodernist suggestions either explicit (Unwanted fat and AOC getting unabashed Venturi fans) or implicit (with such disparate firms as Caruso St John and Foreign Workplace Architects owing it a debt) are nonetheless shaping contemporary architecture.

Commercialism, a single of the typical issues that Pomo is blamed for, had never genuinely gone away

However, for some of us, Postmodernism will not be forgiven lightly for what it did to architectural culture from the 1970s onwards. So here’s the case towards forgiveness.

Initial, there’s numerous grounds on which it’s silly, anachronistic or hypocritical to make Postmodernism into a pejorative. Decoration has been a portion of 20th-century architecture even at its most apparently refined – as Postmodernists liked to stage out, the I-Beams on Mies’ towers had no structural position whatsoever. Presently by the 1950s, this kind of an obvious hardliner as Walter Gropius was off undertaking neo-Islamic domes in Baghdad and mid-century Ionic in Athens. The notion of a really unmediated conjunction of kind and function, if it ever existed, was most likely constrained by that point to some of the far more banal, industrialised mass-housing estates.

For the exact same purpose, you can’t indict Postmodernism for its historicism, when a variety of Modernists, from Basil Spence to Giancarlo de Carlo, have been fairly happy to style in some thing approximating to the regional “vernacular”.

Last but not least, commercialism, one of the usual factors that Pomo is blamed for, had never ever genuinely gone away, bar maybe for a handful of austere years in the second half of the 1940s. It was element of Present day architecture from extremely early on, in the so-known as Reklamarchitektur (“promoting architecture”) of Erich Mendelsohn’s department stores and cinemas in 1920s Germany, which had been major sources for the Worldwide Modernism of the 1930s and following. Rather, the difficulties with Pomo boil down to two linked constructions – historiographical and political.

There is a purpose why Postmodernism and the Thatcher-Reagan revolution became so closely linked

The thing that distinguishes Postmodernism from Mendelsohnian Reklamarchitektur, 1950s “local Modernism”, 1960s Pop Architecture or the plainly completely anti-functionalist varieties of Googie or Expressionism is a partly aesthetic, partly political favouring of leaving items as they are.

If you read through, say, Erich Mendelsohn on Times Square, he loves and talks up the dazzling spectacle of the neon ads (hated then, by most proper-thinking intellectuals, as Vegas was in the 1970s), but he isn’t going to accept them. They may well seem fantastic at evening, he points out, but they look terrible in the daytime, when you can really read them – depressing mixtures of adverts that deal with you like an idiot and political slogans that aim to enforce that idiocy. He imagines that he’ll do one thing various with neon, smooth it out and design and style buildings that integrate it on their own terms. Which he did. When Venturi/Scott Brown looked at neon signs and billboards 50 years later, they were nicely mindful of this precedent, and their way of differentiating themselves was to deliberately disavow critique. This is how it is, and it truly is “almost all proper”.


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This could have its virtues as sociology, maybe, but it was dangerous nonetheless. By refusing to criticise the object world of ads, consumption and spectacle – in somewhere as exploitative as Las Vegas for God’s sake! – they produced an influential equation. Buyer decision is constantly genuine and very good, and to argue otherwise is to be a snobbish aesthete.

Defenders of Pomo who mix their liking for it with left-of-centre politics can stage to the way that early Pomo was linked to regional campaigns and tips of “local community architecture”, against the collusion of big company and the state in spots like Greenwich Village and Covent Garden. The architectural results of these events are pretty small, but in the West Berlin IBA of 1987, Postmodernist tips about streets, complexity, juxtaposition, decoration and context did outcome in some of the most intriguing social housing schemes in a city already complete of them.

Pomo ushered in a new wave of architectural determinism – worse than that of Modernism

But there is a explanation why Postmodernism and the Thatcher-Reagan revolution became so closely linked. Charles Jencks’s inaugural manifesto-compendium on Postmodernism incorporated inside it a staged knife assault in Robin Hood Gardens, one of the social housing schemes written off therein as a social failure largely due to the fact of its design and style. A fantastic way of intensifying the rationale behind a layout choice was the outdated Ruskinian appeal to morality. Modernism meant negative concrete estates complete of bad walkways and negative open spaces and a undesirable lack of ornament and tradition, which produced undesirable individuals committing undesirable crimes. If you feel that’s a reductio ad absurdum, go through virtually any guide on architecture and organizing published in between 1975 and 1995. The final results, for people in those apparently “negative” buildings, would be drastic. The new “frequent sense” was that their housing was so awful that it possibly necessary to be demolished – sooner or later, as you can see in, say, London’s Cressingham Gardens, no matter how significantly residents insisted they liked their Modernist homes.

It is not Postmodernist architects’ fault that in most of the west, social housing stopped acquiring constructed at close to the time their suggestions came into fashion. Nonetheless, the fate of Modernist social housing is partly their fault, in that they willingly gave the aesthetic alibi for a political campaign.

You can try to envision, if you like, a counterfactual the place Pomo did not imply dockside condos and bumptious HQs for huge business but grew to become a much better variety of social architecture than Modernism could ever produce. Possibly the IBA came shut to that. Historical past, however, deals with what did occur. Overwhelmingly, Pomo ushered in a new wave of architectural determinism – worse than that of Modernism, to a big degree, in that an optimism about human beings, their intelligence and their civilised nature was replaced by an aesthetic which assumed that the most critical point of intersection among aesthetics and consumers was the funds nexus. And if the plastic broken pediments and fibreglass Doric columns are gone, that spirit definitely outlives it.


Owen Hatherley is a critic and writer, focusing on architecture, politics and culture. His books incorporate Militant Modernism (2009), A Guidebook to the New Ruins of Excellent Britain (2010), and A New Sort of Bleak: Journeys Through urban Britain (2012).

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