Postmodernism, Style & Subversion, 1970-1990

By Davies, Christie | New Criterion, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Postmodernism, Style & Subversion, 1970-1990


Davies, Christie, New Criterion


"Postmodernism, Style & Subversion, 1970-1990"

Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

September 24, 2011-January 15, 2012

As a style, postmodernism is a delight; as a way of thinking, it is incoherent. This is readily apparent at the Victoria and Albert's museum exhibition "Postmodernism, Style, and Subversion." The postmodern artifacts, the tiny films, and the plans, models, and photographs of postmodern buildings are an inspired collection, but the general commentary is garbled. What the postmodern artists have said about their own work often makes little sense and the analyses of the theorists of theory cited make no sense at all. They explain postmodernism in terms of social change without producing proper empirical data to backup their case. Their abstract claims are not even airy but hang in a gravity-free vacuum. Visitors will need to concentrate on that which they can see for themselves. In fairness, the brief accounts of particular items given alongside them are often very cogent and helpful, and a visit is a treat.

The exhibition begins with a blown-up photograph of a blown-up building. An entire wall is given over to the dynamiting of Minoru Yamasaki's modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing block in Saint Louis, Missouri on or about 15:32 hours on March 15, 1972. Designed in 1951, it had lasted only sixteen years since completion. Charles Jencks called this moment the death of modernism. It was and it wasn't. It certainly indicated the death of a progressive ideology, of the idea that modernist building design and planning would lead to Utopia. Yet where similar buildings have been demolished, the fault of the architect has not been that they designed a "functionalist" building but that the building was dysfunctional. The modernists with their grand narrative neglect detail--whether the elevators and the heating and plumbing worked, where children could play and yet be supervised, whether the fabric would be easy to maintain, what to do about the creeping of the damp. Yet it is difficult to see how a switch to postmodernist design could in itself have avoided these failures. Tomorrow it will be their buildings' turn to be demolished.

Postmodernism's success has been in the realm of aesthetics. Their return to the use of decoration, and to an eclectic, playful blending of traditional older styles and novel ones, has created buildings that are worth traveling to look at. Appropriately enough the most successful of these have been extensions to nineteenth-century museums and art galleries as in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (1991) and the Neue Staatsgalerie (Stuttgart) (1977-84) by James Stirling, Michael Wilford, and associates, both illustrated in the exhibition. The Sainsbury Wing's architects above all recognized the importance of surface. Their flat Corinthian columns cut and pasted to a flat wall look across at the early nineteenth century's massive Corinthian columns of the main building. This irregularly angled building with its scattering of false windows, however, is no exercise in historicism, the key term of denigration used by angry modernists who had watched their fantasy of a world of decoration-free oblongs fade away. The huge color photographs Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the Las Vegas desert with the strip in the background (1966) placed alongside indicates the breadth of their imagination. Even if the Sainsbury Wing were historicism, why would it matter?

History, local identity, and personal choice: all have and always have had and always will have a place in the design of buildings. It is modernism that was an aberration, not because it is an invalid style but because it became an ideology of the architects that sought to squeeze out competing styles. …

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