Kristen Richards, the founder and editor of the indispensable ArchNewsNow, sent me the other day a piece she said would interest me. Well, that was the understatement of the week. “Understanding British Postmodernism (Hint: It’s Not What You Thought),” by Timothy Brittain-Catlin in ArchDaily, was almost like me talking to myself.
Since I’m not British, that is odd. But I’ve always had cranky thoughts about American postmodernism that track with the “It’s Not What You Thought” part of Brittain-Catlin’s article. He doesn’t think that British postmodernism is “about Charles Jencks, or about Robert Venturi. Nor is it about being the cheap British imitation of what the expensive Americans were doing. Look- ing back, it was a magnificent Edwardian revival.”
Likewise, I’ve never thought much of the postmodernism expressed by Venturi or most of his followers, except for its challenge to modernism. As a challenge to modernist orthodoxy it was on target and powerful; but as a movement it wimped out, satisfying its “revolutionary” urges by lamely plopping cartoon classical details on modernist forms, while modernism responded by twisting itself, vaulting from “strength” to “strength” by valuing absurdity of form over purity of line. But to the extent that post- modernism did open a crack in the door for a few architects interested in a real classical revival, it, too, owed little to Venturi or Jencks.
The architects that Brittain-Catlin identifies as the Edwardian Revival – John Melvin, Richard Reid and others – are excellent. And yet when you look at the buildings that inspired them, there is at least a slight falling-off from the non-neo Edwardian architecture. Almost any challenge to orthodoxy, in this case the modernist establishment in Britain, usually pays some tribute in the form of timidity. But the original buildings were extraordinarily exuberant.
What?! Exuberant Edwardianism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms, as difficult to imagine as libertine Victorianism? Well, this is what we are supposed to think or at least what mod-symp architectural critics and historians have tried to teach us to think.
Referring to the architect Piers Gough’s comments on the Edwardians, Brittain-Catlin writes:
Those architects were enormously inventive – as Gough said, they would vary the fenestration on every floor; they were built well at a time when quality building was valued. Yet you could recognise easily the features on them that spoke to everyone. [Critic Trevor] Garnham’s hero W.R. Lethaby knew that if the ornamentation of a building reaches back in time to distant, symbolic things, everyone will somehow understand it, however complicated it is, and like it the more for it.
Isn’t that what architecture and architects are supposed to do? Brittain-Catlin could have been channeling some of Robert Adam’s thoughts on the classical language’s parallel with the English language, or any tongue that has evolved down the centuries, as classicism has but modernism hasn’t; indeed, modern architecture has not even sought to forge a comprehensible language – quite the reverse. (Preliminary to a broader review of Adam’s new book Classical Columns, I have recently posted a few quotes from it here and here. I earlier quoted at length from his essay “How to build a skyscraper” after he won this year’s Driehaus Prize. I did not have the book yet but the essay was reprinted in City Journal, available via my post’s link.)