Thursday, December 22, 2011

After Modern Architecture: Postmodernism Without the Irony

Mid-century modernism expressed the technological optimism of its time, but modernism no longer speaks to our more complex attitude toward technology. We could address the cultural issues of our time by reviving postmodernism - but without the irony that vitiated the postmodernism of the 1970s.

Mid-Century Modernism

In the early to mid-twentieth century, a spate of new technologies improved people's lives. Electric lights were better than kerosene lamps. Gas stoves were better than coal stoves. Electric trolley cars were better than omnibuses pulled by horses.

Modernist architecture developed during this time of technological optimism. If new technologies are better than older ones, then it also must be better to live in a modern steel-and-glass box than to live in an old-fashioned house.

Mies van der Rohe's steel-and-glass Farnsworth House is a famous example, but notice in the picture that the shades are closed. On days when Mr. Farnsworth wanted to keep the sun out, his glass box offered less of a view than a house with conventional windows and awnings.

Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House (1945-1951)

The steel-and-glass high-rises designed by Mies van der Rohe were even more influential, and they soon became a preferred design for office buildings as well as apartment buildings. Notice in the picture that almost all the residents of Mies's most famous apartment buildings have their shades completely closed.

Mies van der Rohe, Apartment Buildings on Lake Shore Drive, Chicago (1949-1951) (photograph by JeremyA)

From Technological Optimism to Technological Realism

Modernist architecture was part of the uncritical attitude toward technology that was common during the mid-century and that seems completely out-of-date today.

During the 1950s, the middle-class ate mass-produced white bread. Everyone believed that mechanized, chemical-intensive agriculture would give us better food at lower cost.

Today, the stores carry many different types of bread, including artisanal breads. Environmentalists tell us that chemical farming aggravates global warming and has created a dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico, so we should move toward more organic farming.

During the 1950s, American cities had freeways sliced through their centers and suburban sprawl developed at their edges. Cities and suburbs where people drive were more modern and therefore must be better than old-fashioned neighborhoods where people walk.

Today, city planners tell us that cities and suburbs are more livable if they are designed to work for pedestrians, bicyclists, and rail as well as for automobiles.

During the 1950s, people believed that nuclear power would produce energy so cheaply that the utilities would not have to meter it, and the nuclear wastes would just be dumped in the ocean.

Today, we know that nuclear radiation is a threat to health and must be contained.

During the 1950s, progressives supported more federal spending on freeways, dams, and power plants.

Today, progressives spend much of their time opposing dangerous technologies, such as mountain-top removal and tar-sands pipelines, and supporting more benign technologies, such as solar power and wind power.

Some technologies clearly improve our lives: computers are obviously better than typewriters. But progressives today can see that we must be selective, using benign technologies and controlling destructive technologies.

Postmodern Architecture

In the 1960s and 1970s, the steel, glass, and concrete boxes that were filling our cities began to feel oppressive. Postmodern architects and urbanists began to criticize mid-century modernism at the same time that the new environmental movement began to undermine mid-century technological optimism. But the post-modernists fell into two camps.

At one extreme, post-modernists used traditional styles ironically. An example is Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans, a garish replica of an Italian piazza that uses the five orders of classical architecture plus a sixth order with neon lights in its capitals, which Moore invented and named the "Deli Order."

This side of postmodernism was meant as a joke. No one could tale it as a serious attempt to develop a new style to follow modernism.

At the other extreme, post-modernists tried to learn from traditional architecture. For example, Christopher Alexander wrote that all traditional and vernacular architecture is based on certain patterns that people developed based on their experience of buildings that made them comfortable. In the twentieth century, these patterns were replaced by patterns based on the products of modern industry. We should move beyond modernism, Alexander says, by creating a new architecture based on the patterns of traditional architecture, returning to what he calls "the timeless way of building."

This side of postmodernism was meant seriously. It can still help us to understand why modernist architecture feels cold and sterile and how to develop a more humanistic architecture after modernism.

Outrageous ironic gestures got the most press, but the more serious side of postmodernism produced many modest buildings that have helped create more livable places.

Koshland Hall, Vernon DeMars, 1990

Koshland Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, is this sort of modest and serious postmodern design. It respects the older classical buildings of the campus, but it does not use a classical vocabulary itself. Instead, it uses the lessons of traditional architecture to create the sort of place where people feel comfortable.

Koshland Hall, Detail

More recently, many architects have forgotten the lessons of postmodernism and have begun to design buildings in a neo-modernist style that is more grotesque than mid-century modernism. Frank Gehry's buildings are the most famous examples, but more modest buildings are doing as much to create ugly, alienating places.

For example, Shing Center, which is now being built next to Koshland Hall, is as cold, sterile, and alienating as a Mies van der Rohe design but is grotesquely jumbled.

Shing Center, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, 2011

The neo-modernist style does not express any social ideal. Mid-century modernism expressed the idea that modernization would bring a better society. Today's neo-modernism is purely an esthetic gesture, irrelevant to larger social issues: no one believes that Frank Gehry is pointing the way to a better society.

But one revival style follows another, and some architecture critics are predicting that the current neo-modernist revival will be followed by a postmodernist revival. The current exhibit about postmodernism at London's Victoria and Albert Museum and the conference "Reconsidering Postmodernism," planned next month by New York's Institute for Classical Architecture and Art, may be the beginning of this postmodernist revival.

The postmodernist revival can contribute to the most important cultural task of our time, but only if it drops the irony and bases itself on the serious side of postmodernism. If architects using modern technology can learn from traditional architecture how to design good places for people, then architecture will contribute to the larger cultural task of humanizing our technological economy.