Adam Nathaniel Furman
In a text within the pages of the catalogue for the 2011 V&A Exhibition on Postmodernism, Denise Scott-Brown once again “came out” as a Postmodernist after several decades of denial. She explained that Bob Venturi’s infamous statement “I am not now and never have been a Postmodernist” was a quasi-ironic, quasi-exasperated rejoinder to the couple’s incessant post-1980s hounding by critics, architects and students in a fervid atmosphere of denouncement that reminded them of the McCarthy-era Communist witch-hunts. It was the architectural equivalent of the statement “I am not now and have never been a member of the Communist party” that was forced as a sign of conformity upon intellectuals, artists and celebrities in post-war America in return for their professional survival.
There are few things in society that can cause quite as much backlash as those who wilfully stand out, who cannot be pigeon-holed, as those who make hard work look like fun, who are equivocal, who throw taboos, prejudices, values, borders and hierarchies back in the face of a world that values nothing better than clarity and order. Postmodernism in architecture accepted nothing, gleefully played with everything, and was so consistently polyamorous in approach that it always confounded easy categorisation, which was why it was so thoroughly stamped out, and is still sneered at, by those of dictatorial and illiberal temperament.
Postmodernism was one of the more painful periods for those who do not like to think for themselves, for those who cannot handle complexity and need to see the world in comfortable binaries of black and white, in or out, good or bad. It marked a return to the differentiated, and explosively creative environment of Modernism in the early 20th Century, to a febrile, hothouse atmosphere of proliferating isms in which the only unifying sentiment between frequently incommensurable approaches was a shared belief that the contemporary world was an entirely new territory, a voraciously new and alien field of existence for the human condition, one which demanded new ways of making art, new thought, new architectures. As with the politics of the day, art could not ignore the contemporary world, it needed to adapt itself to it, and it took up the challenge with gusto.
The International Style swallowed the complexity of Modernism whole into a vacuously formalist, living corpse of desiccated aphorisms (Form Follows Function, Less is More, Ornament is Crime: ROFL), annihilating forever the richness of what Modernism had meant in Architecture. Never again the raging complexities of Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Cubism, Rationalism, Surrealism, and all the other approaches: history was rewritten to leave us with only the cold monolith of an anaemic German functionalism.
Far from being Modernism’s opposite, Postmodernism in architecture was the momentary rediscovery of that raging heart of modernity, the scintillating brilliance of art-forms and mentalities that harness the awful beauty of what the contemporary economy can offer, in all its monstrous abundance. It was the pulsing of liberal politics through the veins of a new kind of beauty, one that was all about the responsibility to think for yourself, create for yourself, position yourself, to stand up for what you believe in - and whatever that happened to be was given substance through style, through form, through image and space. It was simultaneously a time in which local cultures, alternative viewpoints, the wealth of history, and the exoticism of popular culture meant that there was no need to demand a tabula rasa in order to work. Yet it was also a period in which everyone was reinventing the world from the ground up, every time they approached a new site, in a profusion of formal, compositional and stylistic inventiveness. Arte Povera architecture, Billboard architecture, Cartoon architecture, Gundam architecture, Objet Trouvé architecture, Folkloric architecture, Camp architecture, Green architecture, Tropical Architecture, Conceptual architecture, Classical architecture and on and on. The International Style had forbidden the past and ignored the present, while precluding innovation through the straightjacket of its formal orthodoxy. Postmodernism inverted this to create a fervid environment of ever proliferating worldly forms that were messy, involved, contingent, clever, complex and communicative.