Postmodern Architects

The Masters of Postmodernism

Postmodern architecture is a generational Oedipal act of rebellion against the Modernist fathers. Beginning with early criticisms of Modernist destruction of traditional cities, from the 1970s a genuine rebellion broke out among younger architects. The new generation systematically broke all the rules laid down by their predecessors—idealism was replaced by cynicism and irony, originality was superseded by a return to history, and a pure meaning born of visual unity was wiped away by the multi vocalism of allegory, as buildings designed by historical analogy began to dot the landscape.

One of the first acts of provocation came from none other than one of the Modernist masters, Philip Johnson. In a perverse act that some called “betrayal,” the architect of the famous Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut, mashed styles and periods together in the AT&T Building—now the Sony Building—of 1978-84. Rising above New York City, the AT&T Building was topped by a faux crown fashioned after the top of a cabinet by the 18th century designer, Thomas Chippendale. As is typical of Postmodern art, the building required and even demanded a knowledgable viewer to understand the inside jokes written across the facade. The mixture of styles was an affront to Modernist purity, but Chippendale himself made furniture that was hybrid and allegorical: “classical” and “Queen Anne,” which would be called “Federalist” in New York. The broken pediment was a Baroque comment on the Greek pediment on temples transplanted from architecture by Chippendale who propped his “high boy” (haut bois) on curved cabriolet legs (pilotis for furniture) antithetical to pure classicism. The stories of the AT&T Building resemble the drawers of a cabinet or the shelves in a Chippendale bookcase. The resulting building was sixty odd layers of ironic allusions to the history of architecture and design, an act of architectural bricolage. It caused a sensation.

Just as Philip Johnson referred back to a previous period of quotation, Charles Moore followed with the Piazza d’Italia (1976-79) in New Orleans which commented on Roman architecture which, was in and of itself, a pastiche of Greek and local Tuscan styles. The key trope of Moore’s “piazza” is the fact that Roman architecture was based on façade or a cladding of the structure to disguise construction—also a rejection of Modernism’s assertion of form. The Piazza is also a nod to Hollywood which uses fake fronts, stage sets, for the Piazza is not a set of buildings but a grouping of façades that jumble together architectural components and materials all of which allude to imperial architecture. Originally conceived of as a piece of “destination architecture” by a “star architect,” (starchitect) the Piazza was not popular with the locals and quickly fell into disrepair as the unstable materials altered or were vandalized, after its opening in 1978. In 2004 this famous piece by the late architect was restored by Ronald C. Filson of Tulane University.

It is perhaps Michael Graves whose works have been the most iconic and most recognizably “Postmodern.” His style is marked by a flat and linear effect, as if the façades of his buildings are drawings cut out of balsa wood, like an architectural model. The Portland Public Service Building (1982) is typical of his Postmodern “classicism,” with small windows, surface patterns and strong pops of color, especially terra cotta. But despite the iconic building in Portland, Graves is part of a group of architects, loyal to Modernism, known as the “Whites.” While it is hard to imagine Graves and the Late (Lingering) Modernist architect, Richard Meier, the “Whites” are distinguished from the “Grays,” led by Robert Venturi who take their inspirations from the built environment of the vernacular landscape. Because the structure is decorated with motifs that quote Classicism and Art Deco and refers to the practice of architecture, its history and its theories, the term “pastiche” sums up the Portland building by Graves.

It is important to note that the high point of Postmodern architecture coincided with a period of wealth and extravagance, particularly in the corporate culture. Like the International Style, Postmodern architecture quickly became equated with corporate arrogance and greed. These were expensive buildings, utilizing hard to maintain precious materials, and the architects allowed theories to override practicality and the insistence upon allegorical designs that combined architectural elements from various periods often overwhelmed function. It is best to think of these buildings as large works of art, needing the same care and conservation as any artistic creation. For example the architect Frank Gehry, who is neither Modernist nor Postmodernist, comes less from the world of architecture and more from the world of art. In Los Angeles, he was close to the artists of the city and his buildings resemble sculptures made out of titanium.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles are explosions in metal, sprawling aggressively in peaks and valleys that shine in the sun and shimmer in rain. These fragile buildings are “signature” works, as recognizable as Dan Flavin’s florescent bulbs, and, like it is impossible to throw paint on the floor without being “Pollock,” Gehry “owns” titanium. Although this architect is not “Postmodern” in the sense of piling allegorical references upon a building which becomes an “emblem” of “architecture,” Gehry could not have built his signature creations in any other era. Neither could Peter Eisenman have made the move from academic theories on architecture if had the culture not been willing to embrace innovative ideas. In fact both he and Gehry are included, along with Rem Koolhaus, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelblau, in a group of Deconstructivist architects who Deconstruct the Constructivist architecture of the Russian Avant-Garde.

The great architectural theorist, Mark Wigley, defined Deconstruction (taken from ideas of Jacques Derrida) in architecture as locating “inherent dilemmas within buildings….The demonstrative architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and the violent torture: the form is interrogated.” The most famous example of such architecture is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center of Visual Arts (1983-89) on the campus of Ohio University in Columbus. The building is an ironic commentary on the Modernist grid and on the grid system, based in turn on Roman town planning, that was used by the American government to map the midwest and lay out its towns and cities. The grid for the city and the grid for the university were deliberately misaligned by Eisenman by 12 1/2 degrees. So it is here, at the site of an armory that was demolished after a devastating fire in 1958, that two historic grids inadvertently come together but do not join seamlessly.

The Wexner Center with its skewed gridded building is sited at the point of disjuncture and memory. The shape but not the function of the armory was disinterred from its fiery grave and sliced in half, split by time and space out of joint. The vaguely castle like shape in faux red brick is surrounded by a building that is a grid that de-defines enclosure and yet must contain the double buildings—the museum and the library. Pure white, without straight lines, full of stops and starts, suspended columns, unfinished lines, the building is a dizzying deconstruction of Modernist rectitude and the quintessential example of Deconstruction in Postmodernism in architecture. Indeed, Charles Jencks describes the building as a negation of the assumptions of architecture: a “not-entrance” past a “not-excavated” “not-armory” and through a “not-doorway” and towards “non-columns” and “non-pilasters”–all of which are evidence of “absent-presence.” Welcome to Postmodernism.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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