The Death of Post-Modernism

They say that you never forget where you were, or what you were doing, when a major event happens – Man Walking on the Moon, John F Kennedy’s assassination, the destruction of the Twin Towers, or the All Blacks winning the World Cup (in the case of myself, and I suspect many of us, it is: in school, out of school, in a flat in Mt Vic, and in front of a tv). In a similar manner, there are times marked by significant events – the one that springs to mind is the declaration of the End of the Modern Movement, with the demolition of the AIA Award-winning housing project at Pruitt Igoe, on March 16, 1972.

“Upon completion in 1956, the project won design awards from the American Institute of Architects which assessed the project as being an exemplar for future low cost housing projects. But the high-rise design was soon considered uninhabitable by its residents. Parents could not supervise children in the ground level playground, the facilities were inadequate, and the building’s segregation inhibited natural social flows and broke the resident’s established social relationships, allowing crime and vandalism to flourish. Just sixteen years after the initial flurry of accolades, the complex was demolished with almost universal blessing.”

Charles Jencks was fond of pronouncing the announcement of major architectural movements, classifying Post Modernism, announcing the various -isms that have come in and out of favour over the last 30 years. The demolition of Yamasaki’s scheme at Pruitt Igoe must have been a major blow to Minoru Yamasaki, and the destruction of the Twin Trade Towers even more so – how much harder can it get for an award winning architect?!
Post-script comment: Minoru Yamasaki died in 1986, and so did not see the collapse of the World Trade Centre, although his practice would have seen the destruction: they continued on after him, and the practice eventually closed its doors at the end of 2009.

But I think I have another moment for Mr Jencks, if he is still doing his cataloging of architectural trends to the world. This Christmas, just as the rain was gently falling across the entire country, they demolished the AMP building in Napier. Yes, we all know that PoMo is long dead – so firmly dead that they nailed the coffin shut quite some time ago. It’s so uncool to even say you like PoMo, that soon trendy hipsters will be saying they’re keen just because everyone is is not. But the AMP building in Napier, built by the suitably named Hogg brothers back in about 1988, was always the height of ghastly. Its extraordinary facade, Mock Deco to the max, was so crudely designed that it seemed to have been drawn with a blunt crayon on a piece of graph paper. The architects, whoever they were, should remain nameless – actually, they should be named and shamed really, but I suspect that no one is willing to own up to it.

So: 25 December 2010, for me, was the day that Post-Modernism really died. The building, like Pruitt-Igoe, had many years of structural productive life in it yet, but was just so disliked, and badly designed in the first place, that no-one is shedding a tear. Clad exclusively in fibre-cement board cladding, with mock ‘Art-Deco style’ appendages, the building was originally going to go to 8 stories high (permitable at that stage under the Napier District Plan). Luckily for Napier, now widely acknowledged as something of a gem, in its collection of genuine Art Deco buildings, a group called the Art Deco Trust stopped the additional 6 floors dead in their tracks, and it sat, stumpy, for many years. The AMP is dying a well-deserved death – now just a giant pile of rubble on the foreshore. Yes, it is going to be rebuilt, as a Farmers department store, and no, that’s not a perfect solution, but it is better than what was there. We hope.

The big question for me, is that at some stage PoMo will pass the age barrier of permissable nostalgia, and some advocates, somewhere, will call for the ‘saving’ of some classic PoMo buildings. They are, after all, around 30 years old, and so could already be thought of as tomorrow’s heritage…. If you had a choice, what choice piece of Post Modernism would you save, and why?


22 responses to “The Death of Post-Modernism”

  1. I would save anything named or sketeched in venturi’s ‘Learning from Las vegas’, particularly the duck-shaped diner.

  2. Yes, but we’re a bit short of Duck-shaped Diners in NZ.
    Is there anything back here in NZ you would want to save – even more specifically, in Wellington? We don’t have a duck-shaped diner, but we do have a whale-shaped Church of Christ the Scientist. It won many awards at the time, and now just sits, fairly much ignored, and we have an octopus-shaped restaurant at the top of the Cable Car, which is rotting away. Either of those take your fancy?

  3. Neither of those two Athfield monstrosities deserve to be on anyone’s save list – they’re a combination of both hideous and banal. But there are a lot of Post Modern buildings in Wellington, that one day will be seen as classic, because of the last great building boom in the city. Some of the Warren and Mahoney designs from that period are quite good – Compudign House for instance.

  4. Yes, but ‘quite good’ is not good enough. What about the Wellington City Library, by Athfield Architects? It is well recognised as being a pretty fantastic work, with clever referencing of the Nikau palms, the whole faux palazzo frontage, and the wavy glass wall. That’s my pick for the best PoMo in Wellington…

  5. Cryptic critic Avatar
    Cryptic critic

    You’re a bit late old boy…. Roger Kimball wrote on the Death (and resurrection) of postmodern architecture way back… in June 1988. So you’re only 24 years out.

  6. Cryptic Critic – thank you for that introduction to Roger Kimball – what a fantastically bitchy article it is. Kimball sure doesn’t pull any punches – he slugs right in to the corpse of post-modernism. Yes, if he is calling it dead in 1988, then that does indeed render my post a little bit irrelevant – but my point was, that if Modernism was pronounced dead when a prominent Modern project was demolished, then in a similar manner the true death of PoMo only really happens when they start to demolish that too….

    Kimball rips into Jencks with well-deserved barbs, noting that “Jencks has gone beyond Camp and pushed postmodernism firmly in the direction of kitsch. The difference is that where the Camp sensibility retains sufficient self-consciousness to play with the sentimentalized products of bad taste, the kitsch sensibility surrenders to them…”

    But herewith some choice comments from Kimball on the self-appointed head of arch American architectural deconstructivist elitism: Peter Eisenman: Kimball notes that his “language is adamantly, famously, extravagantly obscure”, and that his 1988 talk was “an expostulation of formidable elusiveness”.
    “I know it’s nonsense, but I’m quite sure that Mr Eisenman can’t help it: his writing has always been like this, laden with half-digested ideas and jargon culled from whatever abstruse academic theories happen to be making the rounds.”

  7. starkive Avatar

    On the subject of justifiable architect paranoia, how about a shout-out to the oft-demolished Roger Walker? Transistors, the current exhibition at Aratoi in Masterton, documents the giddy launch and sad splash-down of the Vostok of the Wairarapa – Centrepoint. Four weeks to run and well-worth the schlep over the Rimutakas, if only for the distant echoes of the days of Ron Brierley, Rob Muldoon and Bob Jones. Strangely, it took an Australian curatorial team to come up with the show.

  8. The Vostok of the Wairarapa? What does that mean? And wasn’t Centrepoint the commune in Aucklnad that got shut down over Bert Potter’s sexual shenanigans? Was there another one in the Wairarapa?

  9. Perfect – thank you – I’m off to the ‘rapa this weekend then !
    Roger Walker rocks!

  10. Following on from this post, I realized that there was an exhibition going on, on the Post Modern, over at the V&A in London. I texted some close friends there to see if they had been / were going – but they all refused, claiming they had lived through it, and had no intention of ever wanting to see anything to do with the PostModern condition again. Which is disappointing, especially as the exhibition finished that weekend – gone forever. I’ve got Mr Amazon to send me the book of the exhibition and it’s a real treasure – if you’re interested in the Post Modern, go get it. Crammed full of great pictures and words – 40 articles by people like Jencks and Scott-Brown.
    The title, though, is telling. PostModernism – Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. There’s your end date then!

  11. not really..surely it well past it

  12. I found the inclusion of the World Trade Center in this article – as cited as a misfortune to Mr. Yamasaki – in excruciatingly bad taste.

    I dare say that the architects of Christchurch would not look upon the tremendous damage and loss of life in that city of late as a series of personal affronts.

  13. David – bad taste? My apologies for offending you – but really, I was merely drawing a link between two of Yamasaki’s buildings, which many people do not know were designed by the same architectural practice. As an architect, to have any building you have designed get demolished is a bit of a personal affront – I would imagine that Yamasaki would have been deeply saddened to hear of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, not just as because of the terrible human toll, but also because he had put so much of himself into the building. But, while he himself died in 1986, and so did not see the destruction of WTC, his practice continued on after him, and eventually closed its doors at the end of 2009.

    Architects in Christchurch and around New Zealand, both young and old, are hugely saddened by the destruction of the city, and at the loss of their buildings, and of the buildings designed and built in preceding eras that we will never be able to replace.

  14. There’s an interesting article on Pruitt-Igoe just appeared on the Arch Record website:

    A new documentary is screening in the USA – director Chad Freidrichs challenges the convenient and oversimplified assessment in his documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, opening in limited release (USA) on January 20:

    “Nearly 40 years after its destruction, the people interviewed for the film continue to wrestle with Pruitt-Igoe’s legacy and its place in their lives. They love it and hate it, but don’t resent it. Despite the piles of trash, mountains of drugs, and preponderance of crime, this was their home. For some, it was their first proper dwelling. They cared deeply about Pruitt-Igoe and still do, even in its current form—a largely overgrown lot roved by feral dogs. Pruitt-Igoe is fundamentally a part of them, and by sharing their memories they obliterate the part of the myth that says it was undone by its people.”

  15. I objected chiefly to the photo tagline “it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you!” which I see has been removed.

    Neither Mr. Yamasaki nor, I expect, anyone on site that morning thought anyone was “after them.”

  16. David, yes, I removed that phrase as you rightly pointed out that it may cause offence.

  17. david needs to lighten up. The exact same commentary about yamasaki was made my deyan sudjic in The Edifice Complex. It’s that exact same hyperbolic response that labeled liberals as “enemy combatants” and had idiots pouring french wine in the streets in the US. I’d hope that most kiwi’s would be above falling into that bullshit manufactured outrage trap.

  18. I think it’s worth recognising that, unlike the earthquake taniwha, which seems to have struck without specific intent, those involved in planning the attack of September 11 2001 had a very clear purpose.

    The WTC was chosen – as it had been some years earlier – for its symbolic position at the heart of US capitalism. Its name alone appears to have given it particular significance to its attackers, but so did did its architecture, particularly its height and its domination of the Manhattan skyline.

    In some respects, they really were “after” Yamasaki.

  19. Starkive and Minimus, thanks for your comments. I guess, on a completely personal level, I feel that an architect will have a sense of personal “ownership”, or authorship, even parentage to a building. “Its my baby!” There is a certain sense of outrage when anyone defaces your building – I certainly felt it when a beautifully finished modernist building that I had completed in central Wellington was defaced, and in my opinion, destroyed, by being converted into a “Irish” pub selling Indian food. An abortion of a design idea, an abortion of a menu, and yet, inexplicably popular with the (undiscerning) public. Absolutely nothing to do with me, but boy, did I really feel that “they” were after me. That’s the sense I had of Yamasaki – had he been alive – who, I’m sure, would have been questioning the gods as to why he had been chosen to be their plaything.

    Anyway – onwards ! Byegones!

  20. Frank B Redman Avatar
    Frank B Redman

    Seeing as how you’re all keen on Post Modernism and all… have a read of this – the second coming has started!

    The Humana Building, Michael Graves’s Postmodern Gem Reconsidered
    04/08/2012 Chicago Tribune By Blair Kamin

    “Much has happened to the art of skyscraper design in the 30 years since architect Michael Graves won the design competition that led to the construction of the quintessentially postmodern Humana Building here, not the least of which is that postmodernism itself fell into disrepute.

    Critics savaged the style, which reacted against the austerity of modernist steel and glass boxes, for producing a pastiche of historical references — a column tacked on here, a pediment there. Architects like Frank Gehry have since moved in a new direction, using the computer to conjure sleek sculptural forms that would have been unthinkable three decades ago.

    But postmodernism deserves a more sophisticated reappraisal, one that carefully separates its masterpieces from its mediocrities and clarifies its contributions to the long-term arc of design. That’s the conclusion I reached after a recent tour of the Humana Building. While the building has undeniable flaws, they are easily outweighed by its attributes, which have only grown stronger with time.

    To put this 27-story office headquarters — originally built for $60 million — into perspective, it is helpful to recall the state of architecture in the early 1980s, when postmodernism was at the height of its influence and architects were in full revolt against the abstract forms of commercial modernism.

    Philip Johnson had shocked the architecture world in 1978 when he released the design for the AT&T Building (now Sony Tower) in Manhattan, which resembled a Chippendale highboy. In 1983, New York architects Kohn Pedersen Fox took the epicenter of the glass box, Chicago, by storm with their 333 W. Wacker Drive tower and its elegantly curving wall of green glass along the Chicago River.

    Graves, a relatively obscure architect and teacher at Princeton University, was vaulted to stardom in 1980 when he won an international competition for the Portland Public Service Building, a highly decorated box whose design would be seriously compromised by a tight budget. In Humana, a booming hospital company that is now a health insurance provider, he found a client whose ambitions — and resources — were an ideal match for his philosophy of contextual design, which called for buildings to reflect their urban surroundings…..”
    and so it continues…

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