Has Postmodern Architecture Killed Modern Architecture?

Before the term ‘postmodern’ has been begun to be discussed, in many areas, many thinkers tried to make absolute truths in the first half of the 20th century. This was possibly an effect of the enlightenment era upon modernism. However, the next epoch ‘postmodernism’ came after the 1950s and, as Lyotard (1984:71-82) stated, there can no longer be Truth, but truths. Although postmodernist theorists mentioned many other changes and effects of postmodernism, architecture was most affected by the thinking regarding style and view (Jencks 1977:9-38, Jameson 1991:97-102).

Figure 1. Implosion of a Pruitt-Igoe Building, 15 July 1972

In architecture, the term ‘modern’ is used to define the buildings designed by modernist architectural style, which insists to use contemporary thinking to design, rather than using historical items. However, in modern architecture, appearance was not as essential as function during the time between the 1900s and 1950s, and then through ‘postmodern’ buildings, ornamentation and aesthetics have gained importance in architecture. In 1972, the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing (fig. 1), which was constructed according to the ideals of CIAM (the Congress of International Modern Architects) and awarded by the American Institute of Architects in 1951, was declared by the postmodern architecture theorist Jencks (1977:9) as ‘’the death of modern architecture’’. The aim of this essay is to focus on whether postmodern architecture caused the death of modern architecture and how this question benefits the analysis of current architecture. It will firstly examine Jencks’s theories regarding postmodern architecture and modern architecture’s death and then go on to attempt to make a connection with current architecture through the examples of London and the project ‘The Interlace’.

Figure 2. The Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg

Jencks (1986:16) claims that modernist building methods were clearly a ‘social failure’ due to ‘’cheap prefabrication, lack of personal ‘defensible’ space and the alienating housing estate’’. However, this approach ignores one major factor that a successful idea, style or an ideology usually gets its success from its time and these need to be evaluated in the conditions of their decades. In addition, some modern buildings are fairly well-known for their function, rather than being a ‘failure’. The Marina City complex in Chicago by Bertrand Goldberg is such an accurate illustration that includes a swimming pool, theatre, gym, ice rink and 896 parking spaces per building (fig. 2). Furthermore, another aspect of this perspective is that the negative generalization of modern architecture ignores many successful architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Oscar Niemeyer. In this context, considering the superiority of function in the modern architecture era ought to give modernist architects their right to focus on functional issues as they design because the era required so.

When focused on the period of destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing, there might be seen many other reasons such as the cultural level and tendency of the inhabitants rather than insisting on architectural style. However, Jencks (1977:9, 1986:16) correlates all reasons of the demolitions to only modern architecture’s failure. A documentary film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History (2011) by Chad Freidrichs investigates the reasons and effects of the demolitions with many interviews with inhabitants and makes a more satisfying understanding about the case of the buildings. In the film, it is clarified that after the federal funds to operate the buildings were ceased, cleaning and security services became problems and these problems caused other problems such as ‘vandalism’ and robberies. In other words, there were also other reasons apart modern architecture’s failure.

On the other hand, Jencks (1986:19-20) alleges that modernist architects neglected to get in touch with residents and users of areas who might not have liked their style and he continues to state that every postmodern architect – Robert Venturi, Hans Hollein, Charles Moore, Robert Stern, Michael Graves and Arata Isozaki are reputable representatives – has their own marks and hence, ‘pluralism’ in architecture has come true through postmodernism and postmodern architecture. Although Jameson (1991) depicts the pluralism fact of postmodernism unavoidable encouragement for ‘late capitalism’, the idea of new forms and diversity of postmodernism let architects expand their own boundaries regarding style. Therefore, many notable and unique works like The Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon (fig. 3) and The Dancing House in Prague by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić (fig. 4) could be designed.

Figure 3. The Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon

Figure 4. The Dancing House by Frank Gehry

Compared to architectural design, luxurious facilities of buildings in modern architecture were too important that, according to the postmodern architectural thinkers Venturi (1966:20) and Jencks (1977:10), an architectural ‘ambiguity’ and a ‘crisis’ were inevitable. Jencks (1977:10-13) deals with modern hotels and states that in spite of their very modern services, the hotels of modern architecture have unnecessary rooms because of formulated method of design and also are too ‘commercial’. Then, he countinues by defining postmodernist architectural style as the ‘challenge’ agaist the commercial concerns of modern architecture. This view is partly true because it ignores the need of great hotels in case of big events in cities such as Olympics or international fairs, though their style is a ‘cliché’ or resplendent.

Another conflict between modernist architects and postmodern architects is using cultural signs of architecture. As Jencks (1986:47) states, while modern architecture focuses on the culture in the building area, postmodern architecture tries to be ‘multinational’. In other words, it might be said that a mixed style of cultures has more functions rather than insisting on one culture. A general representation of modern buildings by postmodern architecture theorists is the massy buildings which are stuck in their culture. To put this idea another way, Jencks (1977) points out the fact that even though modern architecture considered to keep the same style regarding culture in an area to create a city, postmodern architecture aims to have various type of buildings to have a comprehensive and cosmopolitan city. Accordingly, it can be clearly said that the ‘heterogeneity’ of postmodernism completely have come true in architecture. In comparison to the modernist style, however, Jameson (1991:215) describes the heterogeneity of postmodern architecture as dreams of populism due he thinks these changes can only bring popular culture, rather than high art and therefore he argues that postmodern architecture can only be a phase in modern architecture.  As a response to this view, Jencks (1986:19) previously states that one characteristic of postmodern architectural style is to have more meanings rather than one meaning and he expresses that if a building has only one meaning, then it needs to be perceived in different understandings by each resident of the building. While many prestigious postmodern buildings could be shown as an example of this characteristic, Jameson (1991) believes that postmodern architecture might cause too complicated designs and buildings.

To demonstrate the absolute metamorphosis between modern architecture and postmodern architecture, Venturi (1966) and Jencks (1977, 1986) indicate using ‘new techniques’ and ‘old patterns’ together and then, to avoid the criticisms about revivalism and traditionalism, Jencks (1986) focuses on the using of contemporary technology to separate postmodern architects from modernist architects. However, in other meaning, even though it uses technology, this new style looks forward to achieve the new designs which contain old patterns rather than researching and exploring new patterns. Therefore, it may be inferred that this characteristic of postmodern architecture is a kind of searching new in the past without considering the future. Jameson (1991:122) severely criticizes this appoach of postmodern architecture and defines that this new architecture is just a new utopia because it directs architects to a newly ‘unconscious’ system with old forms’ combination and expects the expansion of the old architecture to this new system.

Figure 5. Typical London Houses

However, Jencks (1977:10) states that modern architecture insists in bulky buildings. Nevertheless, in some cases, even though they are well-known cities, modern architecture is still in use with its all circumstances. The city of London is a good example for this determination because it still has the same modernist housing style as well as in the strong period of modern architecture (fig. 5). Although the reason of keeping this style the same is to keep the history and the historical appearance of London, the government somehow admits the style of modern architecture at the present time. Hence, architects use the old style without editing for new housing projects in London.

Figure 6. The Interlace by Ole Scheeren

In substance, modern architecture and postmodern architecture have different approachs for architecture and they are very against each other. However, it could be asserted that architecture now is in another epoch that has not been named yet rather than modern or postmodern architecture because current architecture has no longer strict rules as modern architecture and postmodern architecture had. If modern architecture and postmodern architecture are defined by one word, the words ‘function’ and ‘aesthetics’ would be quite accurate. New designs in the last decade have a combination of them and can be seen even in one design. For instance, ‘The Interlace’ project in Singapore by Ole Scheeren (fig. 6), which is a relevant model of this combination, might be even shown as a newly up-to-date form of the Pruitte-Igoe Housing buildings, which were destroyed in 1972.

In the final analysis, as it has been evaluated in this essay, postmodern architecture neither killed modern architecture nor became an extension of modern architecture. However, postmodern architecture has caused the contemporary architecture unintentionally by criticizing modern architecture. For the contemporary architecture, because it has almost every characteristics of all ‘–ism’ trends of architecture, it seems illogical to make a new generalization or admit one of modern architecture or postmodern architecture. Nonetheless, all of the successful architects of this new era have their own lines and rules, which are determined by them.

Selman CELIK
Goldsmiths, University of London

Reference List

Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jencks, C. (1977) The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. London: Academy Editions.

Jencks, C. (1986) What is Post-Modernism?. London: Academy Editions.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Bennington, G. and B. Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

The Pruitte-Igoe Myth: an Urban History (2011) Documentary Film. Directed by Chad Freidrichs. St. Louis: Unicorn Stencil.

Venturi, R. (1966) Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Venturi, R. and S. Izenour, D. S. Brown (1977) Learning from Las Vegas: the forgotten symbolism of architectural form. Cambridge: MIT Press.


Figure 1. Implosion of a Pruitt-Igoe Building, 15 July 1972.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pruitt-igoe/5472095321 [last accessed 27/08/2012].

Figure 2. The Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/sabra100/6975396284 [last accessed 27/08/2012].

Figure 3. The Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/headjames/3060183176 [last accessed 27/08/2012].

Figure 4. The Dancing House by Frank Gehry.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/29745454@N04/5392746173 [last accessed 27/08/2012].

Figure 5. Typical London Houses.
http://maps.google.com [last accessed 27/08/2012].

Figure 6. The Interlace by Ole Scheeren.
http://i49.tinypic.com/hvayiq.jpg [last accessed 27/08/2012].