Mark Lamster | Essays

Postmodernism Returns (Or Maybe It Never Left)

Is there any more pejorative word in the architectural lexicon than postmodernism? There is no style more reviled, not even modernism itself. I've come to know this first hand studying the work of Philip Johnson, and it was repeatedly emphasized to me as I was reporting my story on the history of postmodernism for the (must-read) 30th anniversary issue of Metropolis.

We love to hate postmodernism, but I'm not sure that hatred is rational, especially insofar as it has become, as I write in the piece, "a convenient catchall at once describing a moment in history, a stance vis-à-vis modernism, an aesthetic, and a way of thinking in the world—or some combination thereof."

That the term now is primarily associated with a vilified style is a bit ironic insofar as it was Johnson who, perhaps more than anyone, defined 20th century architecture as a series of styles. So you could say that he made his bed, and then he had to sleep in it. This metaphor is particularly apt, as there is a very good argument to be made that the ground zero of architectural postmodernism is the vaulted bedroom he designed for himself in the guest house of his New Canaan compound. 

Due in part to the passage of time, postmodernism is becoming a more and more fashionable subject of architectural discourse. An exhibition sponsored by Yale and the CCA on Jim Stirling did much to recover the reputation of a man tarnished by postmodern association. A major new show on postmodernism is forthcoming at the V&A, in London, and even here in New York, the Cooper-Hewitt is organizing a show, I believe, on colonial architecture, which seems a very postmodern project. From the publishing world, we have two new treatises on the subject, Reinhold Martin's Utopia's Ghost (a bit theory-heavy, but worth the effort) and Jorge Otero-Pailos's Architecture's Historic Turn (on my schedule).

I close my story with a reference to the Russian architect Sasha Brodsky, in my opinion one of the more compelling architects practicing today. I think you'd have to call him a postmodernist. I would say the same of a firm like Roman and Williams, who create spaces that feel modern, or at least contemporary, even as they're steeped in historical detail. Certainly their spaces are popular, and this is a broader truth about postmodernism: though we may hate the name, we can't seem to keep away. 

Comments [6]

Why is postmodernism hated? I just graduated from SCAD so take this as you will, but if you look at the definition, postmodernism is not a bad thing. It's kind of a refutation of modernism's pie in the sky attitude towards art changing the world. Postmodernism may have had champions in the past that fell into an unpopular style, but the idea of postmodernism is still better than the alternatives (it's also too broad, but that's a post for another time).

Now I am 55, therefore I remember well the (short period of) time when Post-moderninsm was the most exciting, freshest, ground-breaking thing, the closest our generation could get to the idea of an avant-garde. I am quite happy that museums now try to "re-discover" the real Post-modernism, so that the young generations could look and decide for themselves.

But I think, Mark, there is a problem to refer to Sasha Brodsky, or anybody working today, as Post-modernists. That movement came and went long time ago. What some (very good) architects are doing today might have some qualities of P-m or be influenced, perhaps, by that movement, yet it is inevitably a different thing.

Brodsky's "style" might as well be the zeitgeist to epitomize the 2010s. But you guys must come with a new name for that style. It is better to leave Post-modernism in history.
constantin boym


it's interesting that the two comments here virtually contradict each other: the first, from brian, suggests that postmodernism remains "better than the alternatives" (and thus operative) and then yours, suggesting that it is a historical moment now passed.

i think one of my points in that metropolis piece is that the definitions of postmodernism are elastic and subjective. it seems to me you're talking about two different ways of understanding what postmodernism is.

as for brodsky, i would say that what he's doing began during the heyday of a certain kind of postmodernism, and his mode of operation is, intellectually, postmodern, even if it is not "stylistically" such. could it use a new name? sure. but that doesn't mean it can't also be, in its own unique way, postmodern. but not postmodern in the same way, perhaps, as the att building.
mark lamster

why do we continue to talk about postmodernism in the past tense? why is it all restrospectives and tributes? we still live in the same image dominated world venturi and stirling did, but the lcd screen is the new bill board.

postmodernism definitely never left. it just became unfahionable.

modernism, post modernism are really banal identifiers trying to objectivise periods of time during that time.
post modernism is really the birth of EIFS cladding and the wonders of machine cut polystyrene.
many architects were practising in a "post modernism manner" before during and after modernism, and continue to do so.
likewise the "modernists"
Johnson was a great propagandist, more power to him.
time for the the historians to find names that are appropriate.

I don't know that postmodernism (or even modernism for that matter) have ever really died. They're still concepts that are being thrown around and debated on (obviously) still today. Perhaps it's because of their broadness, especially with postmodernism. And if we were past post modernism, what would you call what we're in today? Its time to stop pushing that task to the "historians". We aren't exactly dealing with history yet, unless we figure out what exactly we ARE dealing with that's separate from concepts of the past. Just because a movement changes in aesthetic doesn't mean it's rudimentary concept has changed. What do you guys think?
Drew Palko

Jobs | May 19