Radical Post Modernism

Radical Post Modernism, AD, Edited by Charles Jencks, Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland and Sam Jacob. Amazon link here.

I’m please to announce that the issue of AD that I’ve edited with fellow FAT directors Sean Griffiths and Charles Holland alongside Charles Jencks is now out. Titled ‘Radical Post Modernism’, it has three real aims.

The first is to posit a re-reading of ‘high’ Post Modern architecture (a section that could be titled ‘How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Post Modernism’). The argument here is that it was a grave error for Post Modernism to allow itself to be cast as a style rather than an attitude and that beyond the most superficial of glances there was a far more complex, ambitious and politicised project.

Secondly, it states how all architecture – most especially that which thinks its not – is now Post Modern. But that amongst it there are contemporary architects and designers who are using strategies that can be traced back to Post Modernism via an almost imperceptable, golden thread that runs through architectural culture. And its these that we focus on because these practices, by engaging with the mechanisms of the Post Modern culture that we now fully inhabit, seem to suggest ways of engaging critically with wider culture rather than acting complicitly. Practices cited include muf, Crimson, Damon Rich / CUP, Ateiler Bow Wow, John Kormelling, Terunobu Fujimori and more.

Which leads to the third aim: to suggest how this contemporary and radical form of Post Modernism re-animates the political and social concerns that lay at the movements origins. How, in its re-animation, it moves from a rhetorical mode (being about something) to an active mode (doing something). And to suggest how these new forms of practice suggest models of critical engagement and sometimes resistance to the effects of global capital.

That’s to say, that it argues Post Modernism out of its stylistic caricature , out of its historical moment and into a vital contemporary dialogue where ideology, economics, locality and architecture intersect.

Here is an extract from the essay titled Beyond the Flatline that I’ve contributed to the edition:

“Marx argued that history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce. But Marx never had cable TV or he would have watched history repeating endlessly. In the age of digital information, events come around again and again, their mode and meaning shifting with each cycle. Tragedy becomes farce and then spins into a dizzying blur of genres: Rom-Com, Family Drama, Satire, Pornography and so on. So Marx was half right. History repeats first as tragedy, then as farce, and then as tragi-farce-romcom-porno or slasher-drama-chic-flick-docudrama.

The same cultural trajectory holds true in architecture. Modernism ran its course as tragedy (heroic failure) while Post-Modernism acted out farce (ironic failure). After this, it – where ‘it’ means the historical trajectory of architectural culture – splinters into kaleidoscopic genre-Moderns: Neo-, Retro-, Alter-, Super-, Para- and Extra-Moderns. Porno-Modern, Slasher-Modern, Feelgood-Modern. Everything is flattened into an infinitely wide and depthless pool where image, text and history are dissolved by the solvents of media and communication. Not the end of history, but an intensifying and multiplying of histories into the present where we can be pre and post, neo and authentic simultaneously.

This cyclic turn is already inscribed in (early) Post-Modernism’s attempts to reconnect architecture to the socially, politically and economically engaged ambitions of (early) Modernism – think, for example, of Denise Scott Brown’s interest in what she describes as ‘active socioplastics’. As Modernism recognised its early 20th-century industrial context, Post-Modernism re-sited late 20th-century architecture within the increasingly powerful context of globalisation, the growing ubiquity of media, liberalised markets and the free flow of capital, the pervasiveness of communication technology, the fragmentation of ideology and so on.

While on one hand it attempted to reinvigorate Modernism’s social programme, Post-Modernism simultaneously recognised the impossibility of constructing a Utopian architectural programme. Indeed, it was often concerned with representing the impossibility of Utopia – or at least the contrast between the idealised and the everyday. Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, for example, invokes the Italian Renaissance in order to reveal contemporary culture’s alienation from the values we associate with such ideals. Through what we might regard as this kind of intentionally farcical historicism, Post-Modernism signalled and signposted the reasons why the authentic Modernist project was doomed to tragic failure, and why its success could only ever exist as a zombified aesthetic.

High Post-Modernism’s understanding of late 20th century conditions anticipated the flattening of cultures structures. It not only told us this would happen (why else would it have been so invested in flatness of two dimensions?), how it would happen (media, advertising, cars, and other consumerisms) and why it would happen (the ideology of late capitalism). It also knew that the mechanisms of culture would transform so radically that its own foundation would collapse, that its own critical position would too be flattened. Its ostentatious physical gestures were not waving but signalling a desperate truth at the moment before invisible torrents of neo-liberal, free market capitalism washed over everything. Post-Modernism’s pluralism – once radical – has been co-opted as free market choice. The effects of fully fledged neo-liberal capitalism on our physical, social and economic landscapes is profound and disorientating. In the wake of such pretzel logics as credit default swaps – the standard-bearing instrument of deregulated, dematerialised financial product – we might add confusion to Post-Modernism’s complexity and contradiction.

Now, when everything is one click away from everything else, high Post-Modernism’s critical dialectic – the rhetoric of ‘double coding’ that allowed Post-Modernism to articulate its yes/no position – has exploded into multiple and provisional relationships. In our era of networked information, juxtapositions of high culture with popular, the historical with the contemporary or the academy with the everyday can no longer operate. Nodal points – Rome and Las Vegas, the temple and the shed, the pediment and the billboard – now bob in the flat pool of culture. Despite its interest in the everyday, the commercial and the ordinary, Post-Modern architecture’s field of operation was within the academy, which like every other armature of culture has been flattened by neo-liberal ideology.

When Richard Hamilton’s scissors chopped out an image of a lollipop with the word ‘Pop’ emblazoned on its wrapper from a magazine while composing Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956) as part of the ‘This is Tomorrow’ art/architecture exhibition, a trajectory was set that found architectural purchase in Post-Modernism a decade later. You can feel its tremors in Archigram, Ant Farm, Archizoom and certainly through Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. ‘Americans feel uncomfortable sitting in a square: they should be at home looking at the television’, Venturi wrote, and then placed a golden TV aerial on top of his Guild House in Philadelphia (1961) as a monument to communication to make sure you knew how serious he was. The radical gesture here was to cite the relationship between architecture, space and media – to speculate on what might happen iconographically or spatially if these two distinct worlds were to collide.

The ‘tomorrow’ that the Independent Group (please can you add a brief footnote to say who these were and when active etc) speculated upon only partially materialised. Not the technological robot-assisted sci-fi, but the image-world of media that exploded with exceptional force and speed. Media, in our ‘tomorrow’, means networks of instantaneous communication create what we might call a collapsing of culture, meaning, geography and history – reconfiguring spatial relationships on the fly. The non-dimensional structure of the Internet alters our relationship to information. It lays out the entire repository of culture like a giant puddle, infinitely wide and without depth – a flatland of undifferentiated information. ‘This’ versus ‘that’ no longer exists. Instead ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘them’, ‘those’ and ‘these’ all happen simultaneously in a great horizontal flux.

From the Guggenheim Bilbao (1997) onwards, recent mainstream architectural avant-garde projects have used distorted (and de-politicised) abstractions of Modernist and Constructivist languages in ways that have suggested the clearest illustrations of the sensations of late capitalism: fluid form at audacious scale, the swoosh of volumes, the lightheadedness of refection and translucencies, curves of overblown sensuality. This litany of effects formalises the heady liquid state of mind of millennial abstract-boom economics into physical and spatial form – literally sensational. While they accentuate Post-Modernism’s sometime tendencies towards academic autonomy – the formal game – they have also removed its explicit critical and communicational position. That is to say, Post-Modernism has been, in some form, alive and well despite its apparent disappearance in a form we might name ‘Complicit Post-Modernism’.

Radical Post-Modernism (RPM), however, is an alternative architectural approach that explicitly recognises the system within which architecture operates. Positioning itself between the mechanisms of globalisation and its effects on particular situations, it articulates a broader and nuanced understanding of architectural context.”

You’ll have to buy the thing to read the rest.

Finally, for FAT, the issues publication is the culmination perhaps of a particular set of interests that began almost accidently in the mid 1990’s when concerns with communication and media (stirred by the rise of the internet) coincided with the re-discovery of an architecture that had been erased from our education and only surfaced in the lowest of cultural outlets, the remaindered bookstore. Of course, Post Modernism’s cultural capital seems to have risen since this low point, ennobled as it is by the V&A’s imminent exhibition.

Yet our project was never simply to acknowledge the Post Modern project as a valid art historical movement. Rather, it was how the startling early Post Modern experiments that we encountered with fresh eyes, unencumbered by a previous generations reductive argument could challenge architecture to re-engage with the cultures around it. Radical Post Modernism is also, then, about our own development as a practice, documenting our concerns and interests, our relationship with architectural culture and our desire to formulate a more productive and expanded relationship between architecture and its contexts.

Now, like any good chat show appearance, after that heartfelt moment of personal sincerity … here’s the plug!


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  1. Dan says:

    You should donate a free pdf of this to me because I live on the other side of the world and am a poor part 1 (politically informed) architect (please).

  2. Dan says:

    I have credentials if that will persuade you.

    Paul Davies has name checked me TWICE on his blog. If you know any finer architectural achievement than that then I would like to know.

  3. It is not true that all early post-modernism was ironic, in the style of Piazza d’Italia.

    Most was semi-ironic, like Philip Johnson’s AT&T building. The breakfront pediment was a joke, but when you stand on the sidewalk next to the building, you can see that there was also a serious attempt to revive historical detailing and to reject the bland glass box.

    Some was completely serious, like Christopher Alexander’s attempt to revive “the timeless way of building.”

    It is not useful to lump together all recent architecture as post-modernist. There has been a distinct change in style and in attitude. Post-modernism of the 1970s and into the 1980s made use of traditional styles, with more or less irony. Today’s avant-garde is hypermodernist rather than post-modernist.

    Finally, you would write much better prose if you tried a little less hard to be clever. I can just see you congratulating yourself when you wrote:

    “Modernism ran its course as tragedy (heroic failure) while Post-Modernism acted out farce (ironic failure). After this, it – where ‘it’ means the historical trajectory of architectural culture – splinters into kaleidoscopic genre-Moderns: Neo-, Retro-, Alter-, Super-, Para- and Extra-Moderns. Porno-Modern, Slasher-Modern, Feelgood-Modern.”

    Try writing in a way that makes a difficult subject as clear as possible – rather than in a way that makes the subject less clear in order to make the writer look more clever.

  4. Akhil Bakhda says:

    Mr. Siegel

    I agree with you when you say there has been a ‘distinct change in style and in attitude’ in recent architectural work than, say in Post-Modernist work from the 1970’s but – hang on! Is that not what Jacob is implying (actually, stating) in that much maligned paragraph you have quoted? I don’t think this article is about Jacob’s zeal in gauging, through some sort of sophisticated irony barometer, the level of irony in particular architectural works. At any rate, in an article of this length, it would be unreasonable for him to tease every last nuance of a given piece of architecture when he is trying to make a general point.

    I think when Jacob makes a blanket observation such as ‘Post-Modernism acted out farce (ironic failure)’ he is writing generally about both the intention of the architect and the eventual realisation of the proposed building. Perhaps it is more interesting and relevant to ask yourself whether Johnson’s intention of demonstrating both irony and an earnest attempt at reviving historical detailing is simply too confusing and contradictory to realise in a solid, static piece of building. For is that not the general conundrum and plight of the architect living today: to critically dissect an aspect of contemporary culture in order to stay relevant, whilst upholding a particular set of values specific to an architect’s innate desires? And was that not the plight of an architect living in the 1970’s or 1980’s? As Jacob has stated, tragedy acts itself out again and again as the plight of the architect today is the essence of the inescapable condition overriding today – the Post-Modernist condition.

    Remember, when you write ‘when you stand on the sidewalk next to the building’ you are missing out that architecture, whether we like it or not, is a part of a different sort of experience other than empirical observation: image. With images spread through varieties of mass media, capturing different viewpoints of a building from perspectives that aren’t necessarily human, how can one effectively communicate ‘semi-ironic’ as you put it: how can one escape Post-Modernism?

    In short, perhaps it is better to consider, as I think Jacob has clearly suggested if not stated, Post- Modernism as a cultural condition as opposed to a style or set of styles. I think the ironic undertone in ‘Porno-modern, Slasher-modern, Feelgood-Modern’ is tantamount to Jacob stating that Post-Modernism is a paradigm of what one might call the human condition. It needs to be endlessly fed with material that quenches our most innate needs and desires, like your typical Hollywood films, but forever tragically falls short, never quite satisfying for long.

    On Jacob’s writing style: I quite like his writing style! I think it is clear, invites interpretation and I feel his stylistic flair invites interpretation of his argument, as I hope I have demonstrated. But as you don’t feel this way, I would put it to you that content is the most important thing here, as indeed is your interpretation of it, rather than the style. Now that’s semi-ironic, huh?

  5. Dan says:

    Anybody who thinks that

    “Modernism ran its course as tragedy (heroic failure) while Post-Modernism acted out farce (ironic failure). After this, it – where ‘it’ means the historical trajectory of architectural culture – splinters into kaleidoscopic genre-Moderns: Neo-, Retro-, Alter-, Super-, Para- and Extra-Moderns. Porno-Modern, Slasher-Modern, Feelgood-Modern.”

    is overly ‘clever’ writing obscuring the subject should probably turn their internet connection off for a while.

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