Confusing messages from its dual authors fail, just, to mar a rich new resource book on Postmodernism in architecture, writes Jon Astbury
In Chapter 3 of RIBA Publishing’s Revisiting Postmodernism comes some half-baked taxonomy from one of its authors, Terry Farrell, that sums up the somewhat confused message of the book. Sorting architects into five categories depending on the degree to which Postmodernism has influenced them, Farrelll refers to a group he has termed ‘the reformed Modernists’: ‘a group that were unknowingly or in some cases knowingly but sotto voce reformed Modernists, or indeed proclaimed modernisms that continued in their Modernist traditions but would never have done so in the way they did if Postmodernism hadn’t happened.’ The prose is confusing enough, but what to make of such a catch-all and arbitrary summarising of this ‘revisiting’ of Postmodernism’s influence, one in which the conclusion is that everything is still sort-of-a-little-bit postmodern, whichever way you look at it?
This new book, authored jointly by Farrell (chapters 1-3) and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman (chapters 4-6), forms part of what is being branded as something of a Postmodern revival, centred around the welcome listing of No1 Poultry and John Outram’s pumping station – hopefully to be followed by more stand out examples from this era – as well as the publication of Postmodern Buildings in Britain by The Twentieth Century Society.
Revisiting Postmodernism comprises two accounts of Postmodernism in architecture, one focusing on Britain and drawing on Farrell’s experiences at the centre of the movement, while Furman, as a designer who did not live through the period but has drawn great influence from it, takes a broader view of how it took shape in Europe and the States. Both explore the style’s rise and fall, from being a riposte to Modernism to its unfortunate association with Thatcher and Reagan, split by a bizarre and extraordinarily glossy ‘image gallery’ section and rounded off with a small conclusion on what Postmodernism’s lasting influence has been and where it may go from here.
The introduction establishes a focus that will be ‘mostly on buildings and architecture, at the expense of theory and discourse’. Farrell’s first half has some trouble grappling with this, seemingly desperate to work in various pieces of theory and historical periods – such as the poems of William Blake or the Reformation – that without proper space for expansion seem a little glib. This is loosely grouped under the idea of a ‘pendulum effect’, whereby fierce revolutionary change is followed by periods of balance, with Postmodernism positioned as one of these dramatic swings.
It is the beginning of a fairly difficult first half, where Farrell’s own view that Postmodernism should be seen as a freestyle, eclectic ability to work with context and urbanism rather than a rigid visual style seems at odds with having to present it as exactly that. When it moves into some more first-hand accounts of his own projects and influences things pick up, although there is not a huge amount by way of critical self-reflection and a healthy amount of quoting critics lauding his own work: most of Farrell’s thinking, it would seem, is already visible through the work itself, and a written accompaniment does not do much to offer an alternate or deeper reading.
When things do get more stylistic, Farrell can’t seem to decide whether people simply didn’t get it – ‘neither the client nor the contractor could see the seriousness of them,’ he writes of TV-AM’s egg cups, or whether it all is just a bit of fun. ‘I believe, however, it is the architect’s job to be able to raid the dressing-up box when needed,’ he writes, only later to decry the Thatcher era ‘dressing up an otherwise merely commercial office building’, while MI6 was self-confessedly a ‘factory-made project but in exuberant dress’.
It is the architect’s job to be able to raid the dressing-up box when needed
This swinging, between wanting to acknowledge the more superficial joy of Postmodernism (PoMo as style) but still upholding some sense of clever irony and intellectual rigour (Postmodernism as cultural theory), brings some confusion into the idea of what exactly we are reconsidering, from what standpoint and, most importantly, why? And why now? Farrell is of course known for seeing architectural Postmodernism from both sides, never allying himself strictly to the movement but nonetheless creating some of its seminal works. But where this could offer some ‘outside’ perspective it seems only to muddy what exactly the thrust of this revisit is.
Furman is, by contrast, positioned as a more removed observer, taking us on a cross-country whirlwind tour of Postmodernism’s various heydays with impassioned descriptions of important works. The array is dizzying and the prose breathless, as anyone familiar with the author’s Instagram account might expect, and certainly welcome after the book’s first half. Here we are firmly rooted in the world of buildings, architecture and urbanism, although this does make more apparent the absence of any large-scale drawings and the relatively joyless graphic design – an area in which RIBA Publishing has been well overtaken by the likes of Circa, Park Books and others. Nonetheless, the second half sees elements in photography begin to be directly referenced, with the whole feeling a little more cohesive. Postmodernism in architecture, we learn, means a great number of things to a great number of people, making the fiercely personal debates it ignited in Britain seem petty by comparison.
Furman has always been refreshingly clear on where he stands on Postmodernism, historical referencing and ornament, referring to his own work not as PoMo but rather as putting buildings in ‘drag’. It would seem the most apparent difference between these two generations of Postmodern experience is the latter’s ability to shake off the stuffy rationalisation, the constant looking over one’s shoulder most recently demonstrated by Sean ‘we only did PoMo because we hated it’ Griffiths.
So while with Farrell we can still feel a tension and defensiveness when discussing High-Tech, Furman allows the manifold different expressions of Postmodernism – returning to history, new formalism, excess and experience, ‘pop’ architecture and so on – sit together without forcing any sort of overarching lineage or arc of influence. It comes to a slightly abrupt end and there isn’t much to sum up the whole (although hints of this can be found in Furman’s own practice), but it is nonetheless a valuable collection of case studies, introductions to key debates and insightful, passionate commentary.
The result is a book that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be, and quite what it wishes to draw out, other than greater exposure, from a revisiting of Postmodernism. The dual account aspect is welcome and holds promise, but it is hard to shake the feeling that these two sides were edited independently and little thought given to overlaps – chapter numbers for projects that are cross-referenced are given, but little else. The idea that there is inherently something to gain by putting these accounts side-by-side has been overestimated, and where there should be some sparks between the two (for example, Furman has recently been fiercely defending the AT&T building against a proposed renovation by Snøhetta, a project Farrell describes as ‘truly awful’), there are none. Pitched as it is as a reassessment, it feels lacking, but the book is a rich resource for examples of the period and an introduction to its key debates, and this alone will make it worthwhile for those new to or studying the movement.