Beyond Buildings


Postmodernism: The Eternal Return

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Pomo Wet

Wet magazine. Copyright: April Greiman and Jamie Odger. Courtesy of V&A Museum


The return has returned. After years (well, at least a year or so) of yelling in the darkness of deconstructivism’s debris, I can see the pastiche palaces of Postmodernism rising again out of the mists of the recent past–even in my language. This week, a major conference on the time or the movement, I am not sure which, is taking place in New York. I’m missing it, but I did catch Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 at the Victoria & Albert in London, where it is on view through Jan. 15, 2012.


The irony of this exhibition—and irony is central to Postmodernism—is that it is the latest in a series of such shows that itself constitutes a kind of Postmodernism. For the last decade or so, the V&A has been reviving those styles that once embodied modernism as the attempt to give form, image, and space to modernity. Along the way, those varieties of Modernism produced the elements out of which we construct the pastiches with which we confront and make ourselves at home in the fragments, ruins, constitutional ephemerality, and global culture modernity created. Arts & Crafts, Art Deco, and even Modernism itself showed themselves off in glorious abandon in the V&A’s cavernous special exhibition halls.


Pomo Scott Brown

Scott Brown in Las Vegas. Image Credit: Venturi and Scott Brown. Image courtesy of V&A Museum.


Now comes Postmodernism. Charles Jencks first made the phrase popular beyond academic circles by referring to an architecture that saw itself not as a fact or an inevitable realization of progress, but as a language. In the exhibition and catalog, curators Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt take a more expansive view, eschewing what to those of us that lived through it seemed like the central question Postmodern designers faced, namely which tongue or dialect to speak (or not speak, in expressive silence). Instead, they trace Postmodernism from the “last rites” of modernism, the failed forms of progress, on road trips through popular culture, the adaptation of the grabbing of fragments from that global terrain of mass production and consumption in collages, sampling, and appropriation, the construction of “synthetic identities” (think Bowie and Grace Jones) out of those fragments, the arrival of “big money” and the transformation of that punkish detritus into tabletop wares, some of them (like the AT&T Building) masquerading as architecture, and finally the delirious dissolution of all that into the kitsch, irony, and camp of the video generation. It makes you want your MTV, and you get plenty of it at the V&A.


It is an excellent, intelligent journey through this complex confluence of different approaches and movements. Like all retrospective views, it also makes you realize that some people got it right, or at least knew how to vamp it up with style, while others just look plain silly. To my mind, Memphis comes out surprisingly poorly, despite the central place the curators give it in the formation of Postmodernism. On the other hand, Shiro Kuramata, the Japanese furniture designer, is indeed the guardian angel the organizers make him out to be. Michael Graves and Arata Isozaki look pretty good, as do Venturi and Scott Brown. SITE receives a deserved second look, while most of the European Neo-Classicists look even thinner and more ridiculous to me now than they did then.


Pomo Videos

PoMo videos. Image credit: V&A Museum.


Postmodernism, the exhibition, was for me a trip down memory lane. It is the first major historical survey in which I felt I was reflecting back on my own life. I was there at the creation of a few of those artifacts, and I consumed almost all of them as soon as they appeared in the magazines, on TV, or out of the ground. I am part of the Postmodern generation and so I cannot see beyond the movement. So I would say that everything we inhabit is Postmodern: by its very definition, it is everything that comes after modernism, and we are still after. All that comes after that after is either a further return, whether to the orders of modernism, classicism, or any other –ism, to the land, to material, to one’s self, or to progress itself. Return itself is, of course, Postmodern.


As a style, however, Postmodernism has long been over, and going through this exhibition is like raiding its tomb. It turns out that there are many artifacts worth stealing there. The body, in other words, might be dead, but the spirit lives on.




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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.