As architects and urban designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro are definitely hitting their stride. They have always been innovative and influential, but the recent completion of Alice Tully Hall (the first element in their ongoing Lincoln Center renovation), June 9th's opening of the first stretch of the High Line, and a townhouse in Nolita -- not to mention the ICA in Boston from 2006 -- marks their influence on the city, not just other architects' and designers' minds.
Two of these projects -- the High Line and the Nolita Townhouse -- provoke considerations of what's been called post-postmodernism, an -ism even more vague than the one, in its heyday, it purportedly displaces, particularly when it relies on references to postmodernism and is now in its early stages. While postmodernism in architecture can be defined as a response to modernism -- where the latter's orthodox formalism and big planning was displaced by a pluralism that borrowed and referenced previous architecture styles and relied on infill projects -- post-postmodernism's formal synthesis does not spring so easily to mind, especially if it's seen as a response to postmodernism. I would argue that in architecture the latest -ism takes the means of collage or pastiche and the historical allusions of postmodernism one step further, seeing history and authenticity as subjective and malleable. Two pieces of two projects by DS+R illustrate this hypothesis that straddles a fine line between post-postmodernism and its predecessor.
The High Line is a new linear park that rides on the long unused rail viaduct in Chelsea west of 10th Avenue. Years of blown seeds and growth made the railway a green space of sorts, captured most eloquently by Joel Sternfeld, whose photos helped Friends of the High Line advance its cause in its rails to trails initiative. The rest is history and the first portion of the park opens Tuesday.
[The High Line's "tracks" | image source]
Visitors will see tracks, like the image above, and think they are remnants of the High Line from when it was a working railway for freight on Manhattan's west side. They will be both right and wrong. In order to build the park the High Line needed to be gutted of just about everything but its structure, which then needed to be analyzed and reinforced as necessary. A new concrete slab and then a raised platform that allows room for the new vegetation was built on top. As can be seen in these before and during construction photos, the tracks were removed and then some portions laid back down in a position close to their original location. Of course it's clear their existence in the new park is anything but authentic. They are remnants, but they are merely an image of their former self, removed of function but also of a direct connection to what put them there in the first place.
But do history and authenticity matter in this case? I would say that a post-postmodernist reading would not concern itself with those traits, that the appearance of such is what matters. This sounds kinda like postmodernism, but what I think separates the two is how the earlier movement would either either use a historical element in a different way (a column as a guardrail) or reference something removed from it in time and place (Cape Cod houses in Celebration, Florida). In their appearance here the railroad tracks and ties and the vegetation refer not to the original function of the High Line, but its ruined state between its time as a working railway and its current incarnation as a linear park. On a related note, Wikipedia defines Raoul Eshelman's style of post-postmodernism (performatism) as "closed works of art that force viewers to identify with simple, opaque characters or situations and to experience beauty, love, belief and transcendence under particular, artificial conditions." The artificial conditions here are obvious.
Another Diller Scofidio + Renfro project that provoke considerations of the post-postmodern is their Nolita Townhouse on Mott Street, NOrth of LIttle iTAly. Located in a historic district, according to the architects, this seven-story, three-unit apartment building with retail needed a facade of at least 50% masonry. The architects opted to explore not only the generality of such a condition -- the code does not indicated where or how the masonry is distributed, such as with punched openings like the neighbors -- but also a deconstruction of the term masonry. What exactly is masonry? What is it made of? How is it constructed as a facade?
[Nolita Townhouse's "masonry" wall | image source]
These questions are answered by Stefan Roschert in the 2007 Engineered Transparency conference at Columbia and subsequent book, where the Diller Scofidio + Renfro architect explains the impetus for using the monocoque construction. The decision to use "recycled and optical borosilicate-glass bricks ... shimmed using laser-cut, glass-fiber-filled polycarbonate plates in a prestressed assembly, with embedded duplex-alloy stainless rods woven into an expanded, masonry-bound translucent and flaccid curtain" (quite a mouthful!) was simply based on getting the most light into the deepest sections of the narrow floor plate. The sliding panels sit in front of full-height glazing, allowing direct and filtered light into the full-floor units.
The architects reference Gottfried Semper's Stoffwechsel theory, which uses new materials with traditional techniques. Seeing masonry as what it has become, "a nonstructural skin designed to mimic traditional masonry walls" -- the Nolita Townhouse's neighbors being, I'm guessing, part of the latter -- Roschert explains that their design reintroduces two traits (flaccidity and translucency) into what are basically textiles, if one sees masonry as composed of bricks or other modular units woven together with mortar, silicone or some other binding material. So their argument allows the unconventional design to work within a restriction that shuns such an aesthetic.
What makes this design post-postmodern is how masonry becomes something completely different than what we normally associate as masonry. We do not normally question the authenticity of "new" -- meaning, non-load-bearing -- masonry walls relative to the old, load-bearing ones, because they look the same or similar, even when they are undulating or porous. But translucent? Never, until we rework the definition of masonry's appearance to include its construction, not just its materiality. In a sense this is an inversion of sorts of what Diller Scofidion + Renfro achieved at the High Line: the appearance of authenticity gives way to a change in authenticity's appearance. That these two approaches coexist in one practice is very, well, post-postmodern to me.
I'll admit my understanding of what's called post-postmodernism is rudimentary at best; if anything the above is just my take on one potential avenue of it, not something culled from any lengthy exploration of reputable writing on the subject. But I think if there exist architects who would exhibit a post-postmodernist technique and/or formalism it would be Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
Correction 06/10: A comment by James reminded me that Field Operations is the lead designer on the High Line, so credit should be given James Corner for the ideas he generated that shape the interaction of the natural and the artificial/historical on the High Line. The tracks are most likely outside the purview of DS+R, though I don't think this changes my argument. It merely widens it to involve other players. Perhaps a future post looking at Fresh Kills through the lens of the above might be worthwhile.