Book Review: The Story of Post-Modernism

The Story of Post-Modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture by Charles Jencks, published by Wiley, 2011. Paperback, 272 pages. (Amazon)

Charles Jencks is attributed with marking the death of Modernism with the precise time of the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis in 1972. Yes, Jencks did say as much in his influential book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, though he admits in his latest book on Post-Modern architecture that the time was a fabrication (to lend it a Modern precision) and that the repeated quotings turned the event into a social fact. Yet Modernism didn't so much die then as be transformed or displaced. Post-Modernism (or Postmodernism, or whatever other spelling; I'll use Jenck's preferred hyphenation here) prevailed, and architecture looked back to history and recompiled architectural elements in new and ironic ways. Or such is the oversimplified version that we learn in history and theory books. Jencks's take on the other hand, is more broad -- rooted in four-fold traits of pluralism, double-coding, complexity, and iconology/iconography -- and therefore encompasses much contemporary architecture that we may not associate with the term Post-Modernism.

If I dig into my library for books on Post-Modernism, the titles are drenched with projects by Michal Graves, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, and others practicing in the 1980s. But that chunk of production that we normally affiliate with Post-Modernism comprises only about a third of Jencks's Story. The rest is made up of what can best be described as pluralism, from Frank Gehry to Peter Zumthor, with most high-profile architects in between -- Peter Eisenman, Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Daniel Libeskind, UNStudio. This "Starchitect" list points to Jencks's trait of iconology, or the icons that are produced by these and other globe-trotting architects. Even though these architects' buildings make up a tiny extent of the built environment designed by architects (my biggest complaint with the book is he focuses only on big-name, high-profile architecture), this trait is important for Jencks because he sees it as the equivalent of early Post-Modernism's iconography. Where the re-appropriation of historical elements could express a particular meaning a couple decades ago, design in the age of globalization is more vague in terms of interpretation, so therefore icons refer to various things at once. In most icons (see Madelon Vriesendrop's cover for a sampling) Jencks finds metaphors in nature, therefore labeling them "cosmic icons."

Jencks's latest book, whose title makes it sound like it will be his last on the subject, comes at time when other outlets are reconsidering Post-Modernism, most notably the Victoria and Albert Museum with its Postmodern: Style and Subversion exhibition now on display and the recent Reconsidering Postmodern conference sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA). Both of these appear to approach Post-Modernism as a historic entity, not as something that permeates culture today, as Jencks sees it. Writing recently for the interior design website Houzz, I speculated that the liberation of form in Post-Modern architecture influenced today's architecture. Of course, at least two other influences can also be found: computer technology and Deconstructivist architecture; the first enables the "cosmic" forms of contemporary icons as well as 21st-century ornament, and the second (highlighted in a 1988 MoMA exhibition) offered an alternate route to historical reference. So my take is aligned more with Jencks than the ICAA, but it remains to be seen if this book will influence people to broaden their own definitions of Post-Modern architecture, perhaps removing the shackles that have made it a particular style rather than an "alternative to a mechanistic Modernism."