Postmodernism is Back
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.
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.
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.
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