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In defence of Postmodernism

Philip Johnson
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Adam Nathaniel Furman makes the case for Postmodernism as a way of life rather than an architectural catergorisation, writes Patrick Lynch

In this witty and robust defence, the author makes a very good case for thinking about Postmodernism as a style of thinking and as a way life; or rather, as the expression of the diversity of ways of living that emerged in the 1960s in affluent Western societies – civil rights, gay rights, etc.

He convincingly elides these social phenomena with the various strands of architectural thinking that one finds recorded in the annals of the leading architectural schools in the 1970s (‘green architecture’ etc).

The author declares that ‘far from being Modernism’s opposite, Postmodernism in architecture was a momentary rediscovery of the raging heart of modernity, the scintillating brilliance of art forms and mentalities that harness the awful beauty of what the contemporary economy can offer, in all its monstrous abundance.

‘It was the pulsing of liberal politics through the veins of a new kind of beauty, one that was all about the responsibility to think for yourself, create for yourself, position yourself, stand up for yourself.’

This is nuanced and an optimistic, calibrated perspective, free of the crippling self-conscious irony and faux mischievousness that typifies conventional discussions about Postmodernism in architecture.

It is an excitingly well written, admirably ambiguous and slightly intoxicating style of essay writing, good for the short form and hard to carry off, I imagine. It’s stylish without being gratuitous.

Far from being Modernism’s opposite, Postmodernism in architecture was a momentary rediscovery of the raging heart of modernity

In defining Postmodernism as difference – ‘messy, involved, contingent, clever and communicative’ – and emphasising its progressive, social dimension and its energetic contrariness, the author tacitly emphasises its continuing relevance today.  

He also makes clear his views of the ridiculous nature of Philip Johnson’s contributions to 20th-century architecture. Stating soberly and outrageously that Johnson ‘killed’ modem architecture – in traducing it as a vacuous fashion (The International Style) – and in doing so condemning it to monocultural convention.

Johnson later adopted the poses of Postmodernism and deconstruction of course, and for the author the former is a particularly arid moment in architectural culture – the imposition of establishment and traditional architectural motifs on to a thriving counterculture in New York.

He implies that Johnson’s hokey ‘enervating, formalistic architecture’ isn’t sufficiently sophisticated to account for the complex phenomena and ‘energy and passion’ that influence imaginative design, and was essentially a ‘Double Murder’.

In essence, Furman’s argument is that to describe Postmodernism, or Modernism, as a style – ie as Johnson did – is to misrepresent the relationship between creativity and ideas: to murder this energy and to reduce it to pointless taxonomy.

Certainly, the role of the art historian’s concept of style, irrevocably linked to the conceit of the 19th-century myth of ‘epoch’, is extremely problematic for a civic, utile art such as architecture. In particular, it’s very difficult to see how these pseudo categories, both temporal and aesthetic, are relevant to what Jean-François Lyotard famously described as ‘the Post-Modern Condition’.

The editors of this series have thus set themselves (albeit ironically?) an impossible methodological problem: one which their authors struggle to grasp.

If we are living in a Postmodern situation, as Furman convincingly suggests we are, then how can you describe this ontological condition in aesthetic terms – other than as a style of being or becoming (as Hermann Bauer described the Baroque)?

In particular, the attempts by Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects to look the wrong way down a telescope in order to predict ‘parametricism as a new style for a new century’ appears, in the Postmodern context described so well in Furman’s essay, to be – at best – vain gloriously wrong-headed.

Style, like cool, is perhaps one of those things it’s best to leave others to talk about on one’s behalf. In common with Fight Club, the first rule of style club would seem to be, never talk about … etc.

Nonetheless, this series of short and provocative essays reveals the pluralism and energy of contemporary architectural discourse … and its confusion.

E-book: Style: In Defence of Postmodernism, by Adam Nathaniel Furman • 9pp • Machine Books • £1.99

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