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Beyond Buildings


Postmodernism is Back

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Sussex Dew Mine
John Becker


This image has been popping up around the Web for the last week and certainly caught my eye. It promises some light place at the end of a dark tunnel, but it is that tunnel that holds the eye as much as that promise. Above the open stairs, the tube is a knot of interlocking ropes, coiling around each other as they rise up towards a final intersection. A glimpse between the risers promises more fluidity of form vaulting through space.

This staircase is part of John Becker’s thesis project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. It was overseen, not coincidentally, by Geoff Manaugh, who writes one of the most popular architecture blogs, bldgblog. The thesis imagines a future pure-water product produced in the chalk hills of England by capturing dew. The main building is a warping of Neo-Classical forms into a continuously curved skeleton that rises out of, or digs into, the earth. Becker invented not just the building where the water is sourced and bottled, but a story about the site’s history (written "retrospectively," in 2071). The story includes plans and sections that evoke 18th century architecture in their filigree etching of lines into pages, explained with elaborate, serif lettering. It is the combination of narrative, the photorealism of the views, and the archaizing imagery of the drawings—as well as the skill of the design itself—that makes this project so compelling.

John Becker


This project also reinforced the suspicion I have had for a few years, particularly since attending thesis reviews at MIT and seeing one student attempting to evoke Michael Graves’ “poche planning” in a plan of shifted grids and thick walls: Postmodernism is back. In particular, the notion of history as providing images that you can collage onto a structure that is not scientific or economic, but rather a malleable framework for experience, expanding, contracting, evoking past and future, is back. I hope that the ability to use such form and structure to develop a character that has a story and a style to it, will also return.

Plan Section
John Becker

Some with long memories might not be altogether sanguine about this retrospective prospect. Like all interesting apercus in architectural history, the work of designers such as Michael Graves, James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, and John Hejduk, to name just a few masters at creating such work, quickly turned into cliches to the point that even McDonald’s became Neo-Palladian with a side order of Neo-Gothic, fried in mauve and pilasters.

Moorehead Fargo
Michael Graves, Moorehead-Fargo Bridge


Now it appears that the ability of the computer to not just create alien shapes, but to rape and pillage history and make it available to us, is finally liberating some designers to create what some of the Postmodernists listed above aspired to do: create a mythic other world, steeped in history, tracing or tracking our current social, economic, and technological realities, and and imagine another possible future. I await such fairy tale words with great anticipation.

One other sign of the return of the Postmodern, though in a slightly different form: the appearance of the SBF Tower, a plan for a collage of fragments by the octogenarian Postmodernist Hans Hollein for Shenzhen, China. Get ready: Postmodernism is back.


Hans Hollein, SBF Tower



Comments (14 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:21 AM Thursday, May 31, 2012

    Post Modernist can be great or greatly gaudy... and IDK what that thing is in the beginning but I wouldn't want to inhabit the inside of a carcass. -__-

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:11 PM Thursday, March 15, 2012

    I believe this artwork represents how my life works, the buildings have there ups and downs but mainly ups, it is a very trippy imagine and to look at it does take you into anothor amazing world, i would like to see more of this artwork or maybe there is anothor planet with this artwork ? maybe we all die and go to Postmodernism world ... this Artwork is Beatuiful

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:10 PM Thursday, March 15, 2012

    I am an achitect. I believe that for true inspiration you need to smoke marjuana on a daily basis, preferably in a bong. It has given me the ideas and motivation that i have craved for years, and also it is really really fun. Take my advice, before you think of designing a building, smoke a bong or two.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:06 PM Thursday, March 15, 2012

    i wish my friend george talked to me , but all he does play skyrim anyway this artwork is cool, reminds me of the days i smoked cones with george PACK IT MAYTE PACK IT !!!! good times

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:04 PM Thursday, March 15, 2012

    I feel that Post Modernism architecture is too "trippy" these days. We have to go back to the 1930's when the architecture was truly beautiful.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:03 PM Thursday, March 15, 2012

    I feel that Post Modernism architecture is too "trippy" these days. We have to go back to the 1930's when the architecture was truly beautiful.

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  • Posted by: GLC | Time: 3:54 AM Monday, February 27, 2012

    Call it what you want but it's just a sickening and perverse exercise of make-up. What kind of history it refers? Architecture can break free from twists and turns of fashion? Postmodernism is back? And when he was gone?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:50 PM Wednesday, September 29, 2010

    Gaudi? No no no, Giger!

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  • Posted by: duploT | Time: 7:21 PM Thursday, August 26, 2010

    Hey, I wanna enter this tagging competition too! For me it's style is 'romantic brutalism'.

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  • Posted by: isozaki420 | Time: 4:01 AM Sunday, August 15, 2010

    neo postmodernism

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:10 AM Sunday, August 08, 2010

    PO MO??? perhaps a better term might be Post-Gaudi!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:55 PM Friday, August 06, 2010

    The fact that it's tall and squarish might make it a post-post.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:38 PM Friday, August 06, 2010

    Does the fact that Hollein's design for the tower stems from sketches he made decades ago make it post-post-modern? A project referencing history referencing history? Post-modern-modern? Post-squared modern?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:19 PM Friday, August 06, 2010

    Post-Modern? Not a good term for this work. I think that 'Romantic Deconstructivism' would be a better term.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.