Sam Jacob opinion on Postmodernism

Pomo summer: could there be anything much more ridiculous than the idea of a Postmodern revival? It depends what you suggest by Postmodernism, says Sam Jacob, in his column for Dezeen’s summer time season on the controversial movement.


A Postmodern revival, huh? Can you picture a more absurd concept? Or something that could characterise the sheer vacuous idiocy of contemporary architecture and design and style a lot more than this?

Why? Nicely, simply because if there ever was such a factor as “Postmodernism” it was currently about the pop-will-consume-itself nature of the modern world, about the emptiness of the stylistic gesture, about the collapse of historical past into an endlessly rearrangeable flatness, about the fluidity of which means. Most of all, it wasn’t a issue but an idea, a idea not a fashion.

Postmodernism’s core was the floating signifier, the notion of the signal detached from the point it as soon as referred so that it no longer factors to a clear, agreed upon that means. Isn’t reviving the signal of Postmodernism in such a literal, un-Postmodern way simply recasting its lighter-than-air essence with all the wit of a lead ballon?

A Postmodern revival of this kind is absolutely nothing much less than a trap

A Postmodern revival of this type is absolutely nothing significantly less than a trap set by the past for designers of the long term. And, if Dezeen is to be believed, we are walking into it with cartoon smiles drawn all above our dumb faces.

It’s like Marx in reverse: 1st as farce, then as tragedy. Why? Because farce is a finely constructed theatre of the absurd that satirises an era’s social mores. And tragedy? Because to decrease Postmodernism to a style is to fundamentally misunderstand its really essence.

But then, Postmodernism in architecture and design has continuously been misunderstood. Consider those who regard it as an incarnation of Reagan-Thatcher politics. Very first, historically inaccurate – it was close to significantly earlier than that. 2nd, that’s just a handy fit-up task, a circumstantial straw guy developed to protect fragile aesthetic sensibilities that masquerade as anything more profound. And third, effectively it is just plain incorrect.

Those who deny Postmodernism’s intrinsically political task are those who will not truly think in architecture and design’s inherent political abilities, who dismiss the discipline to be capable of political agency in any other form than spelt with a capital P.

There are other people who try to discredit Postmodernism as “inauthentic”, who argue that it “dates” and that architecture must address a mythological “timelessness” that exists somewhere past the earthly characteristics of trend, culture and taste. But these are precisely the types of ideas that Postmodernism was gunning for, just the sorts of sacred cows that it swung for – and ironically, just the items that created it so quite sincere and authentic. These have been just the folks that it sought to make uncomfortable via its disciplinary – rather than expert – concept of architecture. Bear in mind that these are the individuals who depend on an aesthetic veneer of severe authenticity to cloak their industry-driven manoeuvres.

The most significant misunderstanding of all is that Postmodernism was an assault on Modernism

Postmodernism’s suggestion that authenticity might be a more hard notion, and that the made globe itself is an totally synthetic “unnatural” factor stays a risk to these types of practice. Its conceptual depth still provokes a defensive guard decades later on – so it have to have been doing something appropriate.

Perhaps the most significant misunderstanding of all is that Postmodernism was an assault on Modernism itself.

Not at all: I would argue that it was an try to realize Modernism in the context of the submit-war era, in an age no longer dominated by the industrial machine but by the publish-industrial age of worldwide data. Postmodernism was not against Modernism but rather an attempt to stand Modernism’s ground whilst new types of modernity raged around it – a modernity Frederick Jameson referred to as the “logic of late capitalism”.

What Postmodernism did attack was the limp ghost of the Worldwide Type which cast Modernism as watered-down aesthetic, as a sort of neo-ism assuming the clothes of the Modern undertaking while editing out the hard parts.

In the 1950s, young architects felt that the unique guarantee of Modernism has essentially been betrayed by the generation that preceded them. Groups like Team X and the Independent Group were attempts to re-boot the Modern day project, to escape what they saw had become a lifeless doctrine And to do this they responded to the world as it was then, and to the way they imagined the long term could be.

Modernism was deeply strange, usually antagonistic, mystic and visionary

New Brutalism in Britain and Structuralism in the Netherlands both sought new types of directness that reclaimed Modernism’s rawness on the one particular hand even though connecting it to the complexities of daily life-as-lived on the other.

Modernism, let me remind you, was a motion that included Dada, Surrealism, Joyce, Freud, and Futurism amongst considerably else. It was deeply unusual, typically antagonistic, mystic and visionary. Its architecture as well must be witnessed as component of this planet, not merely as the rational, logical, sincere and stylistically abstract, reductive issue that it has come to imply.


Associated story: The Dezeen guidebook to Postmodern architecture and style


If we keep in mind that Modernism itself was a volatile collection of the rational and the subconscious, that it was not only a social and technical revolution but also psychological and cultural one the place surrealism and social reform went hand in hand. Understood in this way Postmodernism is not oppositional to the traditions of Modernism. Postmodernism is really its final surviving relative. Or, conversely, 1 could argue that Modernism was all the issues we more easily associate with Postmodernism avant la lettre.

From people post-war stirrings in CIAM and London’s ICA came a new thought of what Modernism may well be in a planet more and more dominated by media, well-liked culture and consumerism – how artwork, architecture and layout may well be relevant to this new planet and what new sorts of lives it may possibly be capable to make inside of it. New Brutalism, Pop Artwork and Nouveau Futurism have been a continuum of exploration that had begun at the start off of the 20th century. And from the Smithsons, James Stirling, Reyner Banham, Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, we could draw a golden thread straight into the globe that later on grew to become recognized as Postmodernism.

You may argue that Postmodernism was just a type, in which situation you never really understood it in the initial place

Postmodernism was – is – the continuing struggle to come to terms with and make sense of the modern globe.

You may argue that Postmodernism was just a type, a discreet period in architectural history, some thing you can write nerdish listicles about if you can’t carry any better imagination to the project. In which case you never ever quite understood it in the first place (caveat: if you are an real scholar it is, of course, absolutely genuine to research a period – which is your work).

Or you can argue that Postmodernism is a continuing challenge. A challenge of how to conceive of architecture and layout in our contemporary circumstance. In which case it is element of the long tradition of the avant garde that also contains Modernism.

These who believe Postmodernism implies clinging on to issues like loving Las Vegas or cartoons as if this was somehow interesting or something radical are also, sadly, deluded. If Postmodernism had a cartoon quality, it was not about simplifying but about complicating, not about easiness but about issues. But then, people who never know their historical past are condemned to repeat it as a farcical incarnation of the authentic.

Instead, and at its best, Postmodernism’s real characteristics are suggest, sarcastic, blank, challenging, demanding, yet somehow simultaneously psychedelically good.

So, to people of you contemplating a Postmodern revival, some guidance. 1st, let’s turn to the canon. What is actually part of the Postmodern tradition that I’m advocating? And, more importantly, what is not?

Postmodernism’s pluralism – after radical – has been co-opted as totally free market place selection

First: No historical jokes. Yes to projects about absence, loss, flatness, impossibility. But please, no bloody jokes for the sake of it. Yes also to pathos, rhetoric and provocation. Yes to reference but no to overblown self-reference. In other words, weed out all that historically inflected industrial schlock. Get rid of fun-for-fun’s-sake. Bin the pseudo-academic references. But treasure these moments that make us break our stride, double-take and out of the blue believe about the nature of the world.

Keep in mind also that Postmodernism’s pluralism – once radical – has been co-opted as free of charge market place option. The results of totally fledged neoliberal capitalism on our physical, social and economic landscapes are profound and disorientating. In the wake of this kind of pretzel logics as credit score default swaps – the regular-bearing instrument of deregulated, dematerialised financial product – we might include confusion to Postmodernism’s authentic complexity and contradiction.

Now, when everything is one click away from almost everything else, high Postmodernism’s essential dialectic – the rhetoric of “double coding” that permitted Postmodernism to articulate its yes/no place – has exploded into several and provisional relationships. In our era of networked data, juxtapositions of large culture with popular, the historical with the modern or the academy with the everyday no longer operate in the very same way. Rome and Las Vegas, the temple and the shed, the pediment and the billboard – as soon as potent juxtapositions are now just much more flotsam bobbing in the endlessly broad pool of culture.

And remember what Postmodernism was genuinely about in the very first spot. It was, I would argue, a deep and profound investigation into late 20th-century circumstances – situations existing in the world, and the situation of the designer inside of that planet. It was an knowing of the methods in which cultural, economic and power structures have been modifying, how old structures had been becoming dismantled and flattened.

If you are saying that we are all Postmodern now whether we accept it or not, I will be behind you all the way

It not only advised us this would take place (why else would it have been so invested in flatness of two dimensions?), how it would occur (media, advertising, vehicles, and other consumerisms) and why it would come about (the ideology of late capitalism). It also knew that the mechanisms of culture would transform so radically that its personal foundation would collapse, that its own vital position would too be flattened. Its ostentatious physical gestures had been not waving but signalling a desperate truth at the minute just before invisible torrents of neoliberal, free of charge industry capitalism washed over every thing.

Postmodernism was about this planet, about the tendencies that were just then beginning to surface. But now, nicely into the 21st century, this stuff is the globe. We are now in the belly of the beast, devoured whole. If you are saying, as you embark on your Postmodern revival that, yes, we are all Postmodern now whether we accept it or not, and that the only real response is to fight fire with fire, then yes, I’ll be behind you all the way.

In our flatlands of networked culture there is a pop-will-eat-itself perversity to Postmodernism’s reappearance. But could its return, outdoors of its authentic historical second, probably permit it to come back steeled for battle and ready for revenge?

Released from the parochial arguments of grey and white, large and low, tradition and modernity that swirled close to it and at some point drove it into the sand, could it not remerge as a actually transformative form of layout practice? Could it aid us escape fates of tragedy and farce? Could Postmodernism’s ghost, in other words, fulfil its destiny far more totally than it ever could in its unique type?


Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at University of Illinois at Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association, and edits Strange Harvest.

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