PoMo in revival mod(e)?

The Portland Building (1982) by Michael Graves. (source to come)

The Portland (Ore.) Building (1982) by Michael Graves. (source to come)

It was sort of a meh moment for me to learn a few moments ago that the Portland Building, the postmodernist icon by postmodernist starchitect Michael Graves, will be preserved. News a year or so ago of its proposed demolition gave me the opportunity to express my lack of fervor for the building. But my feelings for postmodernism as a style or philosophy of design are not meh. I dislike it, just not as much as I dislike modernism, for which PoMo was a stand-in during an awkward period.

These feelings are aroused by Karrie Jacobs’s piece “PoMo Redux” in Architecture, the mouthpiece of the American Institute of Architects. A very interesting piece, it reflects its author’s uneasy relationship with modernism and the spiritual boost she got from PoMo. She recalls her first encounter with the Portland Building.

I remember being thrilled by it. Having grown up with default modernism—my dispiriting high school, my poured-concrete college campus, every bank tower I’d ever seen—the Portland Building alerted me to the idea that architecture could be different, approachable, maybe even lovable.

Her positive description of postmodernist architecture reflects a more optimistic version of my own disdain for the same architecture. She writes of the uneasiness it caused:

… Postmodernism was troublesome from the start, when the reintroduction of architectural ornament riled the Modernists who still held sway. Jencks wrote that PoMo relied on “double coding,” which he defined as “the combination of Modern techniques with something else (usually traditional building) in order for architecture to communicate with the public and a concerned minority, usually other architects.” But the real motivation might have been the reintroduction of human qualities, like sensuality, warmth, and color, that had been long banished.

I don’t believe postmodernism truly reintroduced “human qualities.” My view is oddly akin to Jencks’s view. I like to picture it as modernists in a carriage fleeing angry mobs and throwing arches and columns out the rear (that is, using cartoon ornament in their designs) in order to propitiate the public dislike for modernism and slow down its pursuit.

For modernism was on the run, or at least chafing at trenchant critique from modernists disenchanted with establishment modernism. But when it came to turning their sharp critique into actual design, their structures were often just orthodox modernism with a few “ironic” or “witty” traditional features pasted on the exterior. In short, the Portland Building. To me, this was far from any reintroduction of human qualities in architecture.

Jacobs expresses dismay at how a symposium celebrating Michael Graves last November, sponsored by the Architectural League of New York, seemed oddly reluctant to embrace postmodernism. Her feelings remind me of my own feelings about the 2011 conference on postmodernism sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

To me, the ICAA was a curious forum for a celebration of postmodernism. PoMo’s critique of modernism gave space to architects who wanted to go beyond ironic or witty ornament to revive genuine classical and traditional architecture. But the ICAA conference did not seem to revel in that history but rather seemed to equate postmodernism with the classical revival. The equation is unjustified, and too many panelists emphasized the importance of deviating aggressively from the canon that gives order to classicism and from which most traditional styles derive.

No classical architect today questions the need for experiment based on the orders, but many hope to avoid a confusion of classicism and modernism that too much experimentation might generate. And yet this vital matter did not come up at the conference, not that I recall.

Well, I should bring this discussion to a close. I don’t want to give heartburn to anyone. If Jacobs is correct in seeing a resurgence of PoMo style in the preservation of a lame version of it, then there will be heartburn enough to go around in every corner of architecture.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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