July 2011

Reassessing the rise and fall of Postmodern architecture

It is now nearly a quarter of a century since Postmodern architecture — which proposed to make historical references respectable once again — was declared officially dead by none other than its most capricious establishment advocate, Philip Johnson. His exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture (co-curated in 1988 with Mark Wigley) at New York’s Museum of Modern Art brought an abrupt end to a trend that had lasted just over two decades.

Photography ' Rollin La France
The house Robert Venturi designed for his mother Vanna in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania (1964).
Image courtesy Capelin Communications
Johnson/Burgee’s AT&T presentation drawing (1978).

In hindsight, Postmodernism at its worst can seem like a bad dream, or a bad joke. Yet during its brief heyday, PoMo possessed such potent commercial allure that even the mighty Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, high priests of Modernism, precipitously recanted the long-held faith and converted to beliefs once deemed heretical.

The backwash of revulsion that follows a troubling artistic phase has finally abated, as indicated by the conjunction of several new books that reassess Postmodern architecture, and by exhibitions that open this September on opposite sides of the Atlantic: Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and Parabolas to Post-Modern: Selections of Post-War Architecture from the Academy’s Collection at the National Academy of Design in New York.

A star of the V&A show is certain to be its recently acquired 1978 presentation drawing for Johnson/Burgee’s AT&T corporate headquarters in New York. It will be interesting to see whether the museum acknowledges the actual source of that instantly controversial building’s superscale split-pediment roof.

Johnson, who often paraphrased Stravinsky’s famous crack that “Good composers don’t borrow, they steal,” lifted AT&T’s bifurcated crowning motif not from a Chippendale highboy, as he claimed, but straight from Robert Venturi’s Vanna Venturi house. Johnson was bravely called out by Venturi’s partner and wife, Denise Scott Brown, in her scathing 1979 Saturday Review essay “High Boy: The Making of an Eclectic,” a definitive dissection of Johnson’s inherent weaknesses that won her the subject’s undying enmity.

The V&A’s 7.5-foot-high, flat-frontal AT&T drawing is only tenuously connected to Johnson, however. By his own admission he was no draftsman, and wont to hand off a crudely scrawled conceptual sketch to be worked up by colleagues. The museum’s purchase of this lifeless image for $70,000 [record, September 2010, page 38] seems especially ironic given the exhilarating resurgence of architectural drawing by the Postmodernists, exemplified in the lyrical arcadian fantasies of Michael Graves and the haunting de Chirico'like cityscapes of Aldo Rossi.

But the AT&T drawing signifies the pivotal role Johnson played in transforming Postmodern architecture from an earnest intellectual investigation of historical motifs in contemporary design into a cynical marketing ploy for status-obsessed tycoons in the Age of Reagan.

Connecting the architectural language of American corporate culture with global economic and political forces is a strong suit of Reinhold Martin, director of Columbia University’s Buell Center and author of Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minnesota, 2010). Martin’s disquisition on mirror-glass buildings (including Johnson/Burgee’s IDS Center, Transco Headquarters, PPG Place, and Crystal Cathedral) is particularly suggestive, or at least those portions of it that are intelligible, since about every fifth sentence stubbornly resists parsing.

Widening the discourse internationally is Neo-avant-garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond (Yale, 2011), a lively anthology edited by Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman. It includes Martin’s characteristically sharp analysis of the neo-imperialist “Great Seal Order” dreamed up by Allen Greenberg for his historicizing interior revamp of the U.S. State Department’s Modernist headquarters in Washington.

In Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (Minnesota, 2010), Martin’s Columbia colleague Jorge Otero-Pailos attempts to weave profiles of four important figures — professor Jean Labatut, architect Charles Moore, theoretician Christian Norberg-Schulz, and historian Kenneth Frampton — into a continuous narrative on the emergence of Postmodernism, explained through phenomenology (the study of experiential perception). However, the only unquestionable link among these men is the well-known influence exerted by the Classically oriented Labatut on his Princeton pupil Moore.

The book’s most riveting revelation is that Moore’s peripatetic career and inclusive outlook were by-products of his outsider status. In a stunning discovery, Otero-Pailos found a smoking-gun letter from a university official in Moore’s Princeton personnel file that (in thinly veiled language) recommended against his receiving a permanent teaching post because he was gay.

Otero-Pailos draws convincing parallels between Moore’s emphasis on a more richly diverse architecture and his acute distaste for the profession’s restrictive, conformist mind-set at mid-century. Such illuminating interpretations make it clear that it’s time to revisit that transitional period with fresh eyes and open minds (but let’s leave it consigned to the Ninth Circle of Architectural Hell).

Martin Filler writes for the New York Review of Books.