Art News & Views

Warping the Modernist Space: Stylistics of Postmodern Architecture


by  Arnab Bhattacharya

Postmodern architecture is primarily conceived as a reaction against the Bauhaus style in architecture which originated in post- World War II Germany and spread across Europe from the 1950s onwards, getting acknowledged as “the International Style” of modern architecture. Though ripples of postmodern sensibilities were beginning to be felt in the 1950s, it was not until the late 1970s that postmodernism emerged as a full-fledged movement in architecture. While the Bauhaus style stressed the 'rationality and functionality' in architectural designs, discarding all ornamentations and references, the votaries of postmodernist style unapologetically brought forth diversities of styles, which at times cohere and at other times collide, viewing space imaginatively, even fantastically, countering the formal rigour and preordained symmetry of the modernist space. The postmodernists welcomed ornamentations and excesses back to the architectural space. Houses, which stood as “machines for living” for Le Corbusier, were made with flat roofs in modernist technique with the functional purpose of getting rid of rainwater quickly. Postmodernists introduced gabled roofs and that too in different non-functional orientations. For instance, in Robert Venturi's Vanna Venturi House (1961-64) the gable is divided in the middle in an overt affront to the functionality of the form, whereas Philip Johnson's 22 storeyed 1001 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (1979) sports an ersatz mansard roof supported by slanting buttresses exhibiting a façade made entirely of limestone. Though modernists often disparaged these stylizations as chichi overkill, postmodernists always had the ready answer that men do not simply live in their houses, they live them. Houses, according to postmodernists, are supposed to cater to more than their mere physical needs. They wanted to reclaim the symbolic and communicative values of architectural structures which the 'minimalist' modernist philosophy considered redundant.

One of the prime movers of the movement was Robert Venturi whose book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) took a firm stand against the claustrophobic “functional modernism” and called forth pluralism in architecture. The ruling principle of this pluralism was reflected in Venturi's subversive adaptation of Mies van der Rohe's famous maxim “Less is more” to "Less is a bore." In his book Venturi sought to redefine the modernist concept of 'necessity', arguing that in architectural lexicon 'necessity' is not to be understood in terms of the barest minimum as the modernists would have us believe, but something which positively responds to the larger need of human psychology, his sense of ethic and aesthetic. Overstressed formalism, to Venturi's mind, robs architecture of its soul, leaving only the structure behind. Ornamental and decorative styles are simply indispensable so much so that, Venturi declared with conviction, these cannot be wished away.

Venturi's second book Learning from Las Vegas (1972) which he co-authored with his wife Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour develops the idea further, claiming that architecture needs to “accommodate existing needs for variety and communication”. Venturi argues that architecture needs to communicate in a pluralistic way. The meaning it communicates may be amenable to multiple interpretations which will unravel its different layers of meaning and open up different vistas of the viewer's sensibility. This pluralism of meaning is supposed to reflect the pluralism of life itself, and of course the heterogeneity of contemporary society at large with all its disparities and contradictions. In his essay “A View from the Campidoglio” he points out that if a modern master's skill consists in his consistency in style, a postmodern master's virtuosity lies in his stylistic diversity.

In order to achieve this diversity, postmodernism in architecture puts a high premium on eclecticism with ornamental facades combining orthogonal angles and unusual surfaces, most famously demonstrated in the new State Gallery of Stuttgart by James Stirling which was annexed to the old building in 2002, and in the Piazza d'Italia by Charles Moore in 1976-79, about which Charles Jencks writes that it fulfils three basic justifications of “choosing a style, or mixing them, as the case may be: the context that the building fits into, the character of the particular functions which must be enhanced by style and the taste-culture of the inhabitants.” (Postmodern Architecture) Postmodernists challenged the modernist colour field, juxtaposing grey with the modernist black and white, pointing out that the modernist world view which conceptualises the world in black and white is incomplete in the absence of occasional grey. Another manifestation of postmodernist eclecticism consists in their appropriation of ancient architectural designs, including the classical Greek and Roman. Thus traditional columns which were replaced by cantilevers or concealed under wall curtain facades in modernist structures registered their re-entry in the postmodernist architectural vocabulary. Modernist high-rise buildings like Minoru Yamasaki's World Trade Centre building often represented a monolithic structure with an over-emphasis on verticality and a complete elimination of horizontal aspects. Postmodernists attempt to counterbalance the vertical with the horizontal. They borrow heavily from the stylistic décor of terra cotta facades and bronze and stainless steel embellishments of Beaux-Arts and Art Decor periods which were dismissed as obsolete by the modernists. Another important stylistic feature of postmodern architecture is its contextualism which proclaims that knowledge is always context-sensitive, and, as such, any piece of architecture must be situated in its proper cultural context in terms of material, forms and artistic details. The City Hall in Mississauga, Canada demonstrates a context-sensitive postmodern architectural style visually embodying the concept of a "futuristic farm". Frank Gehry's Venice Beach House built in 1986 with the neighboring houses having been painted a similar bright flat colour is another case in point. An imaginative combination of colour responding to human moods, and also trying to impart specific shades to the prevailing mood, is another constituent of postmodern contextualism. Carlo Scarpa's Brion-Vega Cemetery (1970-72) is a brilliant example of such contextualism which strives literally to colour the mood of the viewer. The dull grey colours of the walls of the cemetery and its unexaggerated formal texture calmly respond to the viewer's solemn mood, whereas the context of the verdant surroundings gives it an excellent relief with the effect of enlivening the mood. Postmodern buildings often incorporate elements of playful deceptions. This is often achieved by the technique trompe l'oeil, creating the illusion of non-existing space or depths, usually used in paintings in post-Roman period. The pillars on the sides of the Portland Building (1980) are meant to produce such optical illusion. The spirit of playfulness is amply evident in the deployment of irony and paradox in postmodern architectural enterprise. Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia (1978) 'quotes' copiously from the Italian Renaissance and classical Romanic tradition, but the structural irony comes alive in its coating the 'classical' pillars with steel. In another case, playfulness appears in the form of “double coding” in which technique disparate elements from irreconcilably divergent paradigms of architectural history are accommodated in a design with intended emphasis on simulative juxtaposition. For example, the Sony Building in New York (2007) is a towering sky-scrapper a la any modernist urban structure, but its top with a distinct appearance of classical antiquity contradicts the 'meaning' of the base purveying a sense of historical paradox.

An off-shoot of the postmodernist movement of architecture is deconstructivism which received impetus from the philosophy of the French intellectual Jacques Derrida. Deconstructivists use structures in their architectural designs which have sculptural appearance and which intend to break through the solemn composure of the modernist space. Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind are some of the masters of the trade. This specific genre of architecture, which, according to Philip Johnson, a deconstructivist of repute, represents “a symbolic break-down of walls”, is generally characterized by its fragmentation of architectural space into non-rectilinear shapes.  Critics of architecture often trace the roots of this genre back in the avant-garde supermatist movement of Russia of the 1920s as manifested in the works of Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitzky, and the Dada art movement of Europe around the same time. Deconstructivists make a clean break from the traditional architectural language, deploying a disturbing mélange of styles with 'controlled chaos', playing vertical and horizontal elements audaciously against one another, and destabilizing the tectonic and orthogonal system. In fact, deconstructivist architecture arrogantly undercuts the basic principles of architecture itself, because, as the architect Bernard Tschumi says, it “is anti-form, anti-hierarchy, anti-structure, the opposite of all that architecture stands for”.

One of the brilliant epitomes of the deconstructivist style is Frank O. Gehry's titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, Spain. In this Gehry used thin sheets of titanium which undergo contortive movements due to thermal and mechanical stress. In varying lighting conditions these sheets display different shades of colours in reflected glows. Many hold this structure as the masterpiece of deconstructivist architecture. Another Gehry masterpiece is the Nationale Nederlanden Head Office, Prague, Czech Republic 1996 which seems to be a parody of Twin Towers. The towers in this structure, one straight though unshapely, and the other distorted and inclined, have been constructed in drastic denial of functionality. The towers are often nicknamed “Fred and Ginger' because they represent an arrested dancing rhythm.

Peter Eisenman, one of the group New York Five, designed buildings with crossing frames and distorted building grids. In this design epitomized in Colombus University (1989) Eisenman applied a special folding. Daniel Libeskind took a leaf out of his book at the Berlin Jewish Museum (1988-95). Zaha Hadid, a British Iraqi architect, has proposed a design for the new School of Design tower on the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The tower utilizes glass and steel in a multi-deck ship-like structure with a relatively expanded top on a narrower base, and is expected to be completed in 2011.

Before I conclude the article, let me quote what François Lyotard defined as postmodernism in Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, “The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” It is due to this indomitable propensity to convey a sense of unpresentable that the postmodernists warp and dismantle the demure, composed uniformity of the modernist architectural space.

Images Courtesy: The Author



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