Post and Poseur- Post Modern Itches



            Postmodernism is one of the strangest, most misleading and problematic phenomenon that has ever occured in architecture. While we understand that the principles of the style are passé and that the time is ripe for a change in direction, it appears that postmodernism is here to stay. It influences the dynamics of everyday life, and, since it is progress-dependent, as time passes its effects will only increase. The computer technology we have grown so dependent on produces a world without boundaries, a reality where everyone can "click" themselves a new identity, adopt a new name, age, and sex, and use it at his or her whim. It is a rootless world in which  ‘time and a place’ have no advantage over the timeless, or the placeless. It is a world in which the symbol replaces the significant, and reality must compete with the virtual.

            This article aims to transmit three important messages. First, that there is incongruity between the postmodernist realm and its architectural realizations. Second, that the resulting architectural chaos means that space is no longer the only way for social interactions. And third, that architecture as a discipline should take advantage of the cultural chaos and use it as an opportunity to rethink its role in the postmodern era.


The Situation

            Contrary to the popular view amongst architects today, postmodernism is an interdisciplinary system that dominates all the areas of study: religion, philosophy, art, cinema, theatre, literature, and naturally, architecture. Postmodernism is "post" because it denies the universal precepts of Modernism - a movement that set to rationalize every phenomenon. Contrary to this cold and sterile attitude, postmodernism is based on truths, spirituality, intuition, individualism, and imagination. Unfortunately, the creators of the new paradigm created a new world in which conceptualized reality replaced actual reality, a world in which the boundaries of our identity - the "I", the "you", and the space in between - are blurred. Consequently, what you see is never the real thing.

            The most tangible example of this reality is the relationships formed on the internet where each chatterer adopts an imaginary identity in order to interact with other imaginary friends, forming non-committal relationships that have absolutely nothing to do with everyday life. Another example is  the mobile phone that can "follow you" as far as the beach in Australia, misleading the caller into believing you are slaving away at your desk on the tenth floor in your hi-tech office. That same mobile phone may be voice-activated and scare the life out of an intruder by turning on your TV at home while you are driving your car. You can do your grocery shopping without standing in line, place a bid in an auction for a work of art you have never actually seen, get a prescription from a doctor without ever actually leaving the house, and call yourself "Napoleon" without fear of being hospitalized.


A little theory

            The source of this debate, like almost any other debate of philosophical nature, lies in the writings of Aristotle, the "Materialist," which goes to prove that no substance can be both A and B at the same time, in contrast to Plato, the "Idealist," who claimed that reality is only a poor image of the ideal word. The former a "modernist" who disputes the idea of subjective reality, and thee latter, a "postmodernist" who legitimizes endless interpretations of human thought.

            Later disciplines base their arguments on either, neither, or any combination of one of these approaches. Metaphysics was concerned with the question whether what we see is real. Kants apriori knowledge claimed that everything we perceive must conform to the "spatial glasses" of our mind, affirming the individuals right of expression. Essentialism declares that beyond the forms of a  real and  true essence of things are invariable and fixed properties essential to define their being. Pluralism, Dualism and Pragmatism (William James), proclaim that the "truth" depends on the given circumstances. Phenomenology denies we can never know more about things than that which can be directly comprehended by ones senses:  everything else is speculation (Edmund Husserl).  The Existentialists say that individuals have the right to form their own beliefs, values, and identity and to express them in space. And, most importantly, skepticism, which disputes any claim as to the existence of objective reality, and in fact, all the basic assumptions of Modernism and its opposing Postmodernism.

            Perhaps the greatest paradox of Postmodernism is its constant contradiction of its own principles. The central ideas of Postmodernism are actually what inspired the Modernist movement. Modernist movements such as: Cubism, which expounded the essence of objects can only be captured by showing it from multiple points of view simultaneously; Dadaism, the basis of Deconstructivism; Surrealism, which takes things out of their context, applies them to a different one and thus creates a new reality;  and Futurism which served as an inspiration for the British Archigram group, for the realization of the hi-tech and the virtual world.

            All these were not born into an empty theoretical world. An article by Nietzsche "Truth and Lies," written in 1873 (90 years preceding Postmodernism), expresses the essence of the postmodernism architecture in its title. It is an example of one of the first attempts to relate an idea to its fulfillment in reality. Nietzsche said that language is metaphorical in its nature, because it already represents previous intellectual realities and thus it is not real. Another theoretician that contributed to this idea is the "Deconstructivist" Jacques Derrida. His insight was that language is not just a receptacle for conveying meanings or significance: the words and the blank spaces in between the letters of words and the words themselves, are like the silent gaps between two utterances. In other words, as language allows humans to grasp and interpret reality, paradoxically, it is that very language that distances us from reality. Thus, if the language of a given text is not essentially stable in its signification, we have no other option but to defer our interpretations of the text. The best example is of the deconstructions of the "Narratives," and on a more limited level, the stories which architects assign their buildings. Jean-Francois Lyotard comes into the picture with his critique of the scientific, when he claimed hat political truths or sciences such as Marxism or Capitalism (especially after the riots in 1968) are a kind of narrative, an event which can be interpreted in different ways. A narrative, as such, is just one form of interpretation, and no single interpretation will capture events accurately. "Narratives," or events, ignore the "libidinal intensities," and affects of man and are therefore totally baseless.

            Lyotard predicted the "Postmodern Condition" almost exactly, by recognizing that without idealism like "progress" or "liberty,"  the postmodern age will produce a shallow and spiritually empty world in which social interactions are completely blown to pieces. In other words, "Individuals without any sense of freedom or history are channeled by thousands of TV channels."  This dismal condition was also foreseen by the French social theorist Jean Braudilliard, who talks about the regression of "simulacra", the media hall-of-mirrors in which any reference to the actual disappears, a world in which we are all consumers of social images that have no significance. The distance from this point to the architectural style that expresses mostly "nothing" is very short.


A little history

            The over-imagistic, over-done and multi-shaped postmodernist architectural expressions were first formed in the 1950s, when more and more buildings were built in violation of  "dry" Modernist principles. Structural forms were freed from their function and from the associated economic constraints, and structure became an independent factor of the planning process. The Expressionist works of Eero Saarinen and the baroque compositions of Philip Johnson, who defected from the modernist style of Mies van der Rohe, adopting neoclassic elements he dragged out of the history storeroom, are the milestones of the postmodernist style in architecture.

            In his book "Complexity and Composition." published in 1966, Robert Venturi coined the famous saying "Less is a Bore," as opposed to van der Rohe’s well known "Less is More". This book, along with a number of buildings Venturi planned, more or less signified the end of the age of the International style, and renewed the legitimacy of vernacular architecture. Another book by Venturi, "Learning from Las Vegas" (Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, 1972), is an analysis of the advantaged symbolism and semiotics of the Las Vegas aesthetics, as an alternative to the monumentalism of the modern style. The book "From Bauhaus to Our House," written in 1981 by the American humorist Tom Wolf, is in the same spirit, expressing the need to break away from the anonymist architecture of the previous period and the widespread willingness of the crowd and the creators to regain personal vision and originality by creating a familiar local architecture.


From theory to practice

            The aim of those who broke away from Modernism was to bring attention to the uniqueness of the local, yet the result actually caused a disconnection between the structure and its place. And thus a library of pseudo-historical exaggerated details is used to symbolize the buildings function. "Celebnrity" architects like Michael Graves (Portland building, Oregon) and Robert Stern (Museum of Modern Art, Stuttgart, Germany), decorated functional parts of their buildings with "cultural fragments.". Gradually these popular quotes were blindly, meaninglessly, and tastelessly re-quoted by others, and soon, the Emperor s New Clothes  became a clearly recognizable architectural style, with a  meaningless gable with a hole-in-the-middle, "classical" columns, and degraded configurations recalling the wall of an archeological excavation.

            In order for this "wild" style to gain full accreditation, architectural historian Charles Jencks theorized Postmodern architecture in his book "The Language of Postmodern Architecture." By acknowledging that buildings signify and can therefore be read like a book, Jencks actually gave legitimacy to this double-coding and to the endless juxtaposition of styles used simultaneously in one design by Postmodern architects all over the world. 

            Three main streams dominate the Postmodern architecture scene today. Together they produce a chaotic style which at best expresses the factors of traditional architecture, and at worst. arrogantly casts them aside. The first is the textual style upheld by narratives - axiomatic "truths"  used to support and form any idea which may erupt in the architect’s mind, regardless of the physical reality The second, Deconstructivism, challenges structuralist explanations but cannot exist without them. And the third, the most popular, imitates the peacock principle, where a building is overburdened by the weight of the decorative elements which have nothing do with its functional value.

            These three streams of Postmodern architecture have overpowered the image and the content of almost every building built in recent times. They have caused a situation in which a conceptualized reality determines the style. Nowadays, one is hard pressed to identify the differences among private houses, museums, country clubs, adult care centers, town halls and commercial buildings. 


The role of architecture

            In the early twentieth century, the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin drew attention away from the stylistic and introduced a formulist analysis approach in which critique of the style is more important than the content of the work. In his book "Principles of Art History," Wolffin sought to define the laws of stylistic change, and in particular the stylistic paradigm that determines the artist’s attitude toward the object of his art.

            In his analysis of the differences between the Rennaisance and Baroque periods, Wolffin identified a revolutionary formulist process whereby there is a constant rotation between a clean and exact style and a free and decorative one. This same phenomenon clearly occurred as a consequence of the change from the minimalist Modernist style to the extravagant overstated Postmodernist style. According to this approach, when people have exhausted the Postmodernist style, they will return to the Modernist, and indeed for a while some actually toyed with the idea. Some sought in this comeback more promising names such as "Post postmodernism","Super modernism", "Improved Modernism" etc. Only this time, it is no longer a matter of a rotation, but rather a sharp evolutionary "jump". Since Postmodernism is based on unknown rules of the game, architecture will have to reach to a more creative solution this time. Even if we could accept the fact that heroic and sturdy Modernism would necessarily evolve into a world rich with content and forms, a world in which the individual is allowed to express his emotional aspirations, and aesthetics are no longer a dependent variable of the function, it is difficult to accept an architecture that is so excessive.        

            Furthermore, since Postmodernism is mainly based on illusions, all these theoretical explanations pale in the presence of contemporary reality, where technology enables us to either prove or refute any argument. However, in a time where the theoretical milieu is on the verge of bankruptcy, architecture - that is you, me and us -  should lead us along a more moderate and decipherable road, where technology is at our service rather than our oppressor.


And here with us

            Whereas the "gable" and the Roman "column" may somehow relate to modern Western society, they really have no relevance in concrete, pragmatic, and straightforward contemporary Israeli society. The opportunity to link modern Israeli architecture to its Jewish heritage has been lost for the sake of identification with the Greek Gods.

            The question, which came first, the chicken or the egg, will not be resolved here, especially since (here, as elsewhere) the rules of the game are fixed by the entrepreneurs and their interest in making a profit out of their investments. And it is disappointing that one of the signs of the era of Postmodernism is the loss of the unique identity of some architects who, in their struggle for survival, have gambled their exceptional achievements for populistic kitsch.


In summation

            Quoting Jesus, Nietzsche said, amongst other things, "It is easier to thread a camel through a needle than a rich man through the gates of Paradise".  Postmodern architecture is primarily a rich and wasteful architecture, especially in comparison to the poor and minimalist Modernist one. Hence, if those who believe it is time to return to an age of decency and restraint, they should take care. The ‘founding fathers’, Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, and Robert Venturi, laid their milestones long before the age of the internet and the cellular phone, and therefore are no longer relevant. Returning to the principles and demands that prevailed - and may have been right at their time - would be like profiling a 2003 Mercedes according to the performance of a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle.   



חזרה לגליון 54    back to issue 54