The Passing of Post-Modernism: Cultural Influences in Design

By Zwirn, Robert | National Forum, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

The Passing of Post-Modernism: Cultural Influences in Design


Zwirn, Robert, National Forum


Cultural Influences in Design

If you were considering a building in the post-modern idiom, you are a bit late. In the fast-paced world of style and fashion, post-modernism is passe. The latest movement in architecture is Deconstruction, or decon as it is affectionately, or derisively, known. Theoretically this new vision of the built environment is based on French literary and linguistic analysis. Visually it harks back to the Russian work of the deconstructivists in the years immediately following the Revolution.

What passes for the avant garde in architecture has moved on, leaving post-modernism to the second-tier architects and the shelter magazines - the cultural equivalent of trickle-down economics. You do not even have to hire an architect, or even build a building; you can buy a Michael Graves teapot or Robert Stem designer sheets. To be sure, post-modern buildings are still being designed and constructed while most decon work is going on at schools of architecture and will never be built. And despite deconstruction's substantive pedigree of French thought and Russian expression, it appears to be simply another stylistic riff in our insatiable late twentieth-century hunger for the novel.

Unless you read certain journals or frequent a few museums in New York or Los Angeles, you are not likely to be aware of any of this. Architecture, once the most tangible manifestation of our culture, has become fashion - transitory and trivial. Architects still have the responsibility of responding to their era and its place in the chronological continuum, but we have found that simply giving our time in history a name is an easier and more lucrative endeavor than coming to terms - emotionally and intellectually - with the zeitgeist. So long as we can name, we need not understand. "Post-modern," "deconstruction," even "modern" are no longer keys that unlock a time and place as do "gothic" or "renaissance." They are more like those clever graphic signs that distinguish between the genders on restroom doors.

THE MODERN URGE TO NAME

Perhaps people have always had the ability to name or label the era in which they live. The desire to do this appears to be a much more recent phenomenon. The identification of a zeitgeist was once the product of retrospection and archaeology. Today, that labelling takes place before the events and accomplishments of the era can be evaluated. In some extreme cases the name precedes even the events - a late twentieth-century take on the emperor's new clothes.

Those of us who teach history have long regaled our students with cautionary tales about accumulating evidence before judgment or identification. Time and detachment are elemental. Epochs do not begin on a given day, month, or year. We employ clever anecdotes to make our point - folks did not wake up sometime in fifteenth-century Florence and say, "Gee, I have this urge to study antiquity and science and stop relying on superstition. I guess this must be the Renaissance."

That lesson is a tough sell in today's classroom. We live in an age when information is instantaneous and pundits lie in wait on television, radio, and the World Wide Web eager to tell us which age is dawning and why.

Our forebears were less audacious. They were loath to label. They knew the tremendous responsibility that comes with naming. Although rare, there were those who stepped out of their epoch to see it whole. Usually, the impetus was religious or moral. Often it involved great personal peril. The Bible tells us of prophets - mystical men who often paid a heavy price for telling the people where they were in the great continuum. The classical world had philosophers. The Enlightenment had scientists. Even the so-called Dark Ages had hermits and alchemists. We still read the words of these folks, some of whom are several millennia removed. Few, if any, were given to nomenclature.

In our "information age" where we daily accept such chronological oxymorons as "pre-boarding" or "stock futures," labeling has become a lucrative lark rather than a burdensome responsibility. …

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