Architectural Review - 1377 - November 2011

Architectural Review - 1377 - November 2011
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Publication Date Nov 2011
Description Postmodernism never quite died, but does it still have the stamina to re-engage with new ways of thinking about buildings and cities? Postmodernism, architecture’s favourite painted corpse, rises again, with a tactical cultural assault on those who would dare to declare it extinct. A major new retrospective at London’s V&A presents a familiar art-historical canter through the 1970s and ’80s, the two critical decades in which PoMo finally shook off the dull, discredited shackles of Modernism and took root as a ‘distanced, ironic, amoral handmaiden of the market’, as Sam Jacob notes in his review. It all started so well. The best Postmodern buildings articulated a new kind of architectural compact through their witty and sophisticated engagement with ornament, historical allusion and context; so refreshing after the aridity of Modernism. James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart is one obvious triumph, its calculated artfulness crowning Stirling’s career and propelling an unremarkable provincial art gallery to the top of the most popular German museums league. Ironically, like many PoMo converts, Big Jim began life as the original tough-minded Modernist. Yet for every Staatsgalerie, there were dismaying acres of mannerist, saccharine pastiche, characterised by generic floorplates and mechanistic tracts of space wrapped in skin-deep PoMo motifs as an appeasing sop to planners and the public. As time wore on, the populism proved deceptive, the buildings turned out to be vacuous, and in August 1986, the AR declared Postmodernism well and truly dead. ‘It was clear that Postmodernism was not an independent freedom force at all,’ wrote EM Farrelly at the time, ‘but a sort of mutant isotope of elemental Modernism; initially radiant, but highly derivative, insidious, and programmed to decay.’ But did it? Has it? Charles Jencks, Postmodernism’s midwife, physician and official biographer, has just published a definitive 50-year history of the movement and claims that it never really went away. Pressing his metaphorical stethoscope up against the coffin lid, he detects signs of life, especially as the iconic and the ironic have been some of the most energetically mined architectural tropes of the last 10 years. More pertinently, however, Jencks also envisages the new possibility of Postmodernist urbanism − for instance in the proposed re-modelling of Doha (AR May 2011) − as dense, complex and low-rise, rooted in tradition and ecologically driven, forming a riposte to the dislocation of modern cities. As Colin Fournier points out in his analysis of Jencks’s arguments, this also raises questions about how, as the city becomes increasingly dematerialised, through the plurality of cyberspace and digital networking, it can still ‘remain the primary manifestation of contemporary civilisation’. Yet for serious students of Postmodernism, this is a far more fascinating and critically relevant speculation than whether or not ornament is back. Can the better aspects of Postmodernism contrive to shape and humanise cities in the 21st century? Maybe there’s life in the old painted corpse yet. Catherine Slessor, Editor
Quantity 1
Month November 2011
Publication Architectural Review

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