Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory


The comparison of these two time periods was an inevitable result of the desire of Postmodern theorists to critique Modernist theory. But comparison was an early impulse trapped in the very polarities of Modernism that Postmodernism rejected. Nevertheless, establishing pairs of opposites allowed Postmodern thought to distinguish itself from its the ancestor before the new generation could go forward on its own terms. Regardless of the simplistic Oedipal origins, Ihab Hassen’s 1987 essay “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” provided a neat model of comparison that was highly influential:


Romanticism/Symbolism Form (conjunctive, closed)/ Purpose/ Design/ Hierarchy Mastery/Logos Art Object/Finished Work/ Distance/ Creation/Totalization/ Synthesis Presence/ Centering Genre/Boundary/ Semantics/ Paradigm/ Hypotaxis/ Metaphor/ Selection Root/Depth/ Interpretation/Reading/ Signified/ Lisible (Readerly)/ Narrative/Grande Histoire/Master Code /Symptom/ Type/ Genital-Phallic Paranoia/ Origin/Cause God the Father Metaphysics/ Determinancy/ Transcendence


Pataphysics/Dadaism/ Antiform (disjunctive, open) Play/ Chance/ Anarchy Exhaustion/Silence Process/Performance/Happening Participation Decreation/Deconstruction/ Antithesis Absence/ Dispersal/ Text/Intertext Rhetoric Syntagm Parataxis /Metonymy/ Combination/ Rhizome/Surface/ Against Interpretation/Misreading Signifier/ Scriptible (Writerly)/ Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire/ Idiolect/Desire /Mutant Polymorphous/Androgynous/Schizophrenia/ Difference-Differance/Trace/ The Holy Ghost Irony/ Indeterminancy/ Immanence

The destruction of Modernism was a slow moving chain reaction, like the 1987 video, The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss–element was pushed and toppled into another element which fell into the the third piece until a major explosion took place at 3.32pm in St Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972 when a sprawling housing complex named Pruitt Igoe was dynamited. Destroyed by its inhabitants who pulverized it from within before it was exploded from without, the highly decorated, prize winning celebration of Modernism utopianism imploded under the weight of Modernist entropy. The occasion, an ordinary one in the larger scheme of things was elevated into a historic landmark by Charles Jencks in his 1977 book The Language of Postmodern Architecture and set to music in the brilliant documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1975-1982).


The Demolition of the Pruitt Igoe Complex 1972

One could quibble that the example chosen by Jencks was a convenient but arbitrary one, but history has a grim way of making a prophet even of a mere historian. The architect of Pruitt Igoe was none other than Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), who was also the architect for the Twin Towers. When the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on September 11th 2001, it was widely announced that Postmodernism was over. So a somewhat obscure Asian American architect had the honor of being the omega and the omega of Modernism and Postmodernism.

Las Vegas as a Sign System

Wherever Postmodernism ended, it began where all things begin, in Las Vegas. It is perhaps no accident that iconoclasts Tom Wolfe (1930-) and Robert Venturi (1925-) both had Yale connections: Wolfe as a graduate and Venturi as a member of the architecture faculty. Wolfe made his literary mark wrote two seminal essays that defined the growing “counter-culture:” “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the famous 1963 article on the Kar Kulture of Los Angeles and “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” of 1964, both for Esquire magazine. As a contemporary of the Pop artists, Wolfe was not only rattling the cages of the ossified Modernist establishment, he was also pointing the way a new appreciation of one of the major taboos of Modernism, the vernacular. Indeed one could argue that Las Vegas, with its ambivalent status as a proper “city,” is a work of folk art, an unconscious counterpart to the less-is-more austerity of Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In 1968 the Strip with its riot of lights and pleasure became the destination for Robert Venturi and his new wife and fellow architect, Denise Scott Brown (1931-), their colleague Steven Izenour (1940-2001), with Yale students in two to see Wolfe’s “incredible electric sign gauntlet” for themselves.

In seeking an architectural site where contemporary “life” was organically creating architecture, the architects rejected other “new cities,” such as Los Angeles in favor of Las Vegas, which was “more concentrated and easier to study.” In the late sixties, the famed Strip, lined with casinos and hotels displaying brightly lit signs, was less a place where people lived and more an isolated site servicing improbable fantasies. Four years later, the trio published Learning from Las Vegas and by championing the vital and the vernacular, the book upended the purity of Modernist theory. In advocating for the intersection of art and life, Robert Venturi could be thought of as the architectural equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg as he and his partners called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. The preference for the ordinary and this attention to the unartistic world surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style, which had come to a sterile and corporate dead end. Not only did Venturi and Scott Brown not turn their backs on architectural history, they used the past to explain and validate their analysis of Vegas. The parking lot the the A & P grocery store is compared to the parterre of the gardens of Versailles: this is contemporary space where the architecture is taken over by the signs that are the façade of the buildings.

The architects have the Baroque tradition in architecture in mind: the long vistas of power are now long vistas of Route 66 which promise pleasure. Las Vegas is the new Rome, centrally planned and precisely laid out for a specific purpose. Like a Roman military camp, Las Vegas is laid out in an orderly grid which keeps in check the blazing lights constantly jumping and jiving to their own internal rhythms. What Venturi and Scott Brown pointed out that Las Vegas is more symbolism than architecture, meaning that meaning had become detached from the form and its function. The result was a landscape of free-floating signifiers. As they write, “Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned toward the front and no one sees the back..the artistic influence has spread and Las Vegas motels have signs like no others..” The visual contrast between the Weissenhof housing estate built by canonical Modernist architects in Stuttgart in 1927, and the brightly lit and colored pleasure palaces of Las Vegas is striking. The white box absolutism of Walter Gropius and his colleagues favored the general over the specific and the absolute over the particular. Las Vegas is all incoherence and is fixated on detail of the signage. “Detail”, that is, a reference, which would locate the work and place it beyond the realm of transcendence, was to be banished.

As the late Naomi Schor pointed out in her 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, the “detail” had long been relegated to the feminine as being opposed to the General or the Universal. The Detail was the unassailable Other and had to be banished. Detail like decoration is unnecessary within the totality. At the beginning of the 20th century, Viennese architect and theorist Aldof Loos declaring “ornament” to be “crime” in architecture. The stripping of “white architecture”, as architecture critic Mark Wigley termed it in his 1995 book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, coincides with the development of abstract art. Abstract art, stripped of representation, needed to ally itself with humanism, spiritualization, and self-actualization—all while excluding the other half of the human race: women. Wigley goes on to point out that Modernist architecture, in its turn, was only fashion, the “structure” of its “erections” betrayed by the white (dress) covering. It would take twenty years for a new generation of architects to develop a Postmodern approach to architecture.

Taking a cue from Las Vegas, Postmodern buildings emphasized detail and façade and referential signage over purity. Architects followed the “linguistic turn” of literary theory and were aware of the latest in philosophical trends. One of the most interesting theories that was manifested in art and architecture was that of allegory. Because Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism, which broke firmly with the past, Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins. Each element re-found by the architect retained its historical meaning even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure. A building by Michael Graves or Charles Moore would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to consistency of period or meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text.


Allegory as Text

The theories that would support Postmodern art preceded the art and were then applied to the works of art in a mix and match fashion. Unlike Modernist theory, Postmodernist theory came from numerous sources, from linguistics to post-Marxism to the critique of Enlightenment philosophy. Because all of the texts upon which Postmodernism would be based were either in French or German, the translators and explicators became significant players in disseminating the unfamiliar theories to the academic and artistic audiences. Borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which in 1980 was still unfamiliar to American readers, the late art historian Craig Owens (1950-1980) wrote “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” The significance of this two part article is its early publication date, meaning that Owens introduced many readers to one of the important aspects of Postmodern theory. Owens begins by locating allegory in its site of origin, which is literature. As the prefiguration for the New Testament, the Old Testament, allegory was the origin of critique because of its role as commentary. Owens explained,

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos =other + agoreuei =to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather,he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however,he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance

Because Owens was writing his essay before art became “Postmodern,” his choices of art and artists to explain allegory are forced. When he stated that “Allegory concerns itself,then,with the projection-either spatial or temporal or both-of structure as sequence; the result,however,is not dynamic, but It is thus the of for it static, ritualistic,repetitive. epitome counter-narrative, arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events,”it is hard to understand how Minimal artists Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt–as we analyze them today–could possible have any relationship to allegory. Owens continued by linked appropriation and hybridity to allegory: “Appropriation,site specificity, impermanence,accumulation, discursivity, hybridization these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.” Owens identifies allegory with a kind of writing in the visual arts. Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1925-1993) was completed in 1978 and provides an excellent example of allegory. First, it is a witty reference to Robert Venturi’s comparison of Las Vegas to the piazzas of Rome and second, it is an ode to Las Vegas in its fictionality and in its assertion of the façade, which, indecently, is lit like a sign on the Strip. The Piazza is an assemblage of architectural elements and is a dizzy discourse on the history of the built environment. Therefore, “reading” the Piazza involves Robert Venturi, the Las Vegas strip, and a heavy dose of architectural historian Vincent Scully. In a nod to New Orleans, the façade rises like a fake Hollywood set from its shallow bed of water, the worst enemy of the low lying city.

In explaining how allegory is writing which is a text that must be read, Owens wrote,

If allegory is identified as a supplement, then it is also aligned with writing, insofar as writing is conceived as supplementary to speech.It is of course within the same philosophic tradition which subordinates writing to speech that allegory is subordinated to the symbol. It might demonstrated, perspective, that the suppression of allegory is identical with the suppression of writing. For allegory, whether visual or verbal,is essentially a form of script-this is the basis for Walter Benjamin’s treatment of it in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “At one stroke the profound vision of allegory transforms things and works into stirring writing.”

In the second part of his essay Owens discussed the art of Édouard Manet as a form of allegory. In his early career Manet made a number of what Michel Foucault would term “museum paintings,” or art that referred to other works of art. As hybrids these early paintings appropriated motifs from other famous works of art which could be recognized, even in their buried state, by viewers familiar with art history. In acting as though he was leafing through the pages of an art history text, Manet performed as a bricoleur that cultural producer highlighted by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Writing in The Savage Mind in 1966, Lévi-Strauss stated,

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’ – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

A comment that Lévi-Strauss made was particularly interesting for Postmodern theory: “It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the ‘bricoleur’ addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture.”In other words, the bricoleur works with”sub-sets” and does not, like the engineer, “question the universe.” Rather than attempt to remake subject matter for painting, Manet played with sub-sets of the already existing elements of culture. Compared to the awkward contemporary examples put forward by Craig Owens in 1980, the paintings of Mark Tansey who was actively involved in creating works of art that one had to “read thorough” to decode are a far superior example of allegory. Like Manet who dueled with the classical Renaissance tradition, Tansey rifled through the history of Modernist painting and piled on references to both Modernist and Postmodernist theories. Painting backwards by lifting paint off the canvas, illustrating in the discarded style of Norman Rockwell, Tansey paid homage to Lévi-Strauss in his 1987 painting, The Bricoleur’s Daughter, in which a young girl stands on a step stool and rifles through a set of cabinets. The cabinets, which are both above and below the counter are stuffed with art supplies and items gone astray from Dutch still life paintings, are a reference to the origin of museums as wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity. The role of the allegorist is that of a gatherer who piles on references through a collection of emblems found in the ruins of a past culture.

Allegory is always specific to the needs of a culture, meaning that there are periods when the intelligentsia drives “impure” forms of expression,such as allegory, from its boundaries. The intent of Walter Benjamin was to revive the reputation of Baroque allegory. Although he did not state his intention as directly, Robert Venturi’s frequent appeal to Baroque architecture in Learning from Las Vegas suggests a swerve away from the classicism of Modernism. And, in his turn, Craig Owens noted that Modernist literary theory had also rejected allegory. Allegory then is a commentary on a recent past and it is also a rejection of its predecessors, suggesting that allegory should be viewed as symptom of a cultural need to “take stock,” like The Bricoleur’s Daughter of the leftovers of the past.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

The Postmodern in Architecture


In America, Postmodernism, as an art form, was first manifested in architecture, arriving as a new discourse about architecture as early as the 1960s. It is important to note that this discourse was architectural and not philosophical, although philosophy enters into the precincts of architecture by the 1980s. In the 1960s, it would be more precise to refer to the new thinking in architecture as anti-modernist or anti-International Style. In a very real way, the reaction against the forced invasion of tall glass buildings into traditional neighborhoods was paralleled by Robert Rauschenberg’s exploration of the urban landscape around Pearl Street and his interest in the “vernacular.”

One of the early harbingers of Postmodern thinking was a remarkable book written by Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961. Jacobs sounded the death knell of the Utopian dreams of Modernist architecture in which the architect thought s/he could save the world by razing the organically developed city and building a new urban world. The result of such architectural destruction, however well-intentioned, was a ripping away of urban fabrics and the neighborhoods that made cities live. Jacobs recommended an ad hoc, spontaneous approach to a more natural growth in contrast to urban planning that had paid no attention to the human life of cities. Jacobs began her section on “The Need for Aged Buildings” saying,

Cities need old building so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normla granary so far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year after year, are replaced by new ones—or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is , therefore, instantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types, This is of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture.

A decade later, in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas was published. This work of a trio of architects, Robert Venturi,his wife Denise Scott-Brown,and the late Steven Izenour, called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. His demand that architecture come down out of its ivory tower and to take note of the ordinary urban experience in the 1960s comes at the same time as Pop Art was dominating the art world. Venturi’s preference for the ordinary and his attention to the world—the environment—surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style. As the couple wrote,

Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down pParis an d begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another way is more tolerant: that is to question how we look at things. The Commercial Strip, the Las Vegas Strip in particular—it is the example par excellent—challenges the architect to take a positive, non-chip-on-the -shoulder view. Architects are out of the habit of looking non judgmentally at the environment because orthodox modernist architecture is progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian and puristic; is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.

In its quest to develop an architectural style suitable for the new materials and new conditions of the new twentieth century, modernist architecture turned its back on the past. Architecture of the nineteenth century had been an architecture of eclecticism, as exemplified by Charles Garnier’s Paris Opèra, dripping with past styles. It was an article of faith that modern architecture had to eliminate all of the surface ornamentation that crusted over the buildings. Austrian designer Adolf Loos famously characterized ornament as “crime.” Therefore, a building by Mies van der Rohre demonstrated that “less is more,” by stripping architecture to acts of construction/structure and by placing stress on the activity of making/building. “God,” as Mies would say, “is in the details,” in the precision of the angles and in the rightness of the materials. Mies was famously focused on corners of his steel-caged buildings.

Modernist architecture followed the thinking of Modernist painting—truth to materials, a focus on intrinsic properties, and an elimination of extrinsic aspects, such as decoration or ornamentation. Modernist architecture, in its pure whiteness ignores the environment and is independent of its surroundings. A building by Le Corbusier, such as Villa Savoye (1928-29), stood alone, aloof from its surroundings, majestic in its reductive purity. The Villa stood alone, surrounded by a green field rimmed with trees and it took in the environment through its long rectangular windows on its own terms. Like a sculpture the building was lifted, as if being placed on a pedestal, on pilotis, or columns. Modernist architecture was designed to make a statement of modernity, of newness, to dominate the aging landscape, to make a statement of difference. Modernist architecture is avant-garde, new, free of the past.

But the utopian dreams of Modernism had to confront the realities of the human inhabitants of the modern buildings. Modernist architecture before World War II was mostly manifested in private domestic homes, designed for discerning clients, such as the Villa or the homes for the Masters of the Bauhaus. However, after the war, modernist architecture became the International Style and there was enough money to build these very expensive glass and steel skyscrapers, such as the Seagram Building (1958). Awash in post-war profits, the corporations and their architects could realize the grand utopian dream of modernism—reform of the cities. But here is where Modernism theory began to fail in the face of reality.

Le Corbusier’s mass housing project (1949-1952) in Marseilles, unité d’habitation, was a prototype, not just for post-war mass housing but also for the New Brutalism (brut) style, due to its use of raw concrete. Mass housing was an efficient way to house the large numbers of people who lived in worked in major cities. Rather than leave individuals to their own devices or rather than allow the city to grow organically, the modern city and its buildings must be planned for purpose and located conveniently. Corbu, the master was reportedly dismayed when the people who lived in his exemplary work imposed their own needs upon the pristine building, as manifested by their varying uses of the exposed balconies. By and large, people made their peace with the idea of the roof of unité d’habitation being their outdoor landscape but the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Complex (1954) in St. Louis did not have a happy ending.

Conceived of as a place to house lower class populations, the buildings were unloved and were subjected to physical assault on the part of the residents. Remarkably the architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki had won awards for their work. Today the buildings remain as a potent memory, standing for the failure of modernist architecture and modernist arrogance that good architecture was good for society. According to architectural theorist, Charles Jencks, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe was the death-knell of Modernist architecture and its attempt to wipe out human nature and the vestiges of the past and the history of architecture. As Jencks stated, in a famous proclamation,

Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously, it had been vandalized, mutilated and defaced by its inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, bring to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.

The age of Postmodern architecture was brief one, dating roughly from 1970 to 1990 or from 1980 to 2000, depending on your source. In one of the most ironic and tragic coincidences of the modern era, the total destruction of another set of buildings is said to have closed the postmodern era when the World Trade Center—once again with Minoru Yamasaki as the architect—was destroyed. Precisely why Postmodernism lay beneath the ruins is two-fold. First, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers ended the sense that the West was the impervious center of the world and ushered in a realization of global conditions. Second, the modernization and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan by city planner Robert Moses and the Rockefeller brothers and the building of the World Trade Center was the quintessential act of Modernist arrogance and disregard for the organic city. As architectural critic, Paul Goldberger pointed out, after the site was rebuilt,

…it was Jacob’s via of the city, not Yamasaki’s or Austin Tobin’s or Robert Moses’s, that eventually prevailed in New York and in much of the rest of the country. It had become common wisdom, long before the towers were destroyed—so ouch so that it is hard to believe that he twin towers could have been built as they were had the project begin only a few years after it did. It is unlikely that all the streets in the sixteen-acre site would have been eliminated; it is unlikely that the efforts to preserve Radio Row would have been so completely ignored by public officials; an fit is unlikely that Yamasaki’s design would have been considered exempt from public reviews.

But whenever Postmodern architecture ended, it did end and today these buildings bear the distinct marks of what Postmodernism refuted—a signature style. In addition to a particular look that emerged over time, which will be discussed in the next post, Postmodernism in architecture was also an attitude or a particular approach to the built environment. Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism which broke firmly with the past. A building by postmodern architects would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to time period or consistency.

Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins, and creating an allegory, which is Postmodernism’s major characteristic. Even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure, each element of the allegory re-found by the architect retains its historical meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text for a knowledgable audience. Steeped in irony, bereft of idealism, Postmodernist architecture was an insider’s theoretical architecture and it was precisely that ironic attitude that collapsed with the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

See also Charles Jencks. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism. 2002

Paul Goldberger. Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. 2005

(Link to Learning from Las Vegas: Ironically the Las Vegas that the architects wrote about no longer exists)