Postmodern Architecture: Parody and Pastiche

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Postmodernism has had implications for all forms of culture. An important theorist was Jean-François Lyotard, who argues that Postmodernism represents a loss of faith in what he calls 'meta-narratives' . These are the embedded beliefs of a society.

Postmodernism has had implications for all forms of culture.   An important theorist was Jean-François Lyotard.  In his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Lyotard argues that society has lost faith ‘meta-narratives’, grand belief systems like religion, political ideology, and even cultural forms like architectural style or cinematic genre. This means that postmodern culture often parodies the conventions of earlier forms.

The Marxist academic Fredric Jameson has examined the functions of postmodern pastiche. He describes pastiche as ‘the random cannibalisation of all the styles of the past, the play of stylistic allusion.’ This is partly the result of over-exposure. In the age of mass media there is a sense that we have seen too many films, watched too much TV, too much advertising. We are over-familiar with the forms of mass culture, which means it’s impossible to be original. We can only recycle the conventions of earlier texts – which Jameson calls the cannibalisation of the past. Jameson describes pastiche as ‘blank parody’. This means that rather than being humorous or satirical, pastiche has become a ‘dead language’ unable to satirize in any effective way. Whereas pastiche used to be a humorous device, it has become ‘devoid of laughter’.

This permeates down to architectural style. Architects use style ironically, as a comment on the futility of belief systems. The Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1975-9) was built for the Italian community of New Orleans. It references Roman Classical architecture, but the style appears as a series of redundant signs like a dead language; it looks like a storeroom of old stage sets. Everything has been given a gaudy and superficial colouring.

This is the American Telephone and Telegraph Building on Madison Avenue, New York by Philip Johnson (1979). This building is a Postmodernist interpretation of the conventional office block. It uses a Classical pediment, but instead of positioning it above the door where it should be, this feature is expanded in scale and carved into the top of the building. Johnson is using a Classical detail in an absurd, deliberately incorrect way. Likewise, the conjunction of a modern office block and neo-classical details is a deliberate anachronism.

One of the most successful postmodernist architects is Michael Graves, who specialises in subverting Classical iconography. The Portland Building in Portland, Oregon (1975) is based on Classicism. It’s a monumental office block with square windows. The features suggest Classical columns and the large blocks resemble keystones, but on a massive scale. The shape of an inverted pyramid is displayed on the surface.

Michael Graves’ Clos Pegase Winery in California has a Classical monumentality. Standard Classical forms are used in unconventional ways, such as the column placed in the centre of the door – conventional Classicism would put one on either side. It also has a hint of Ancient Egyptian influence in the temple-like form.

These are all based on the Classical style, but Classicism is actually used to indicate that Postmodernists reject orthodox styles altogether. Postmoderm architects use Classicism as a reference point because it is a recognisable language. Pastiche depends on viewers being able to read the cues.

The British architect James Stirling was once a committed Modernist, buit later in his career he became an exponent of postmodernism, as in his maritime-themed and bizarrely-named building, No. 1 Poultry.

Even provincial architecture displays postmodernist tendencies.  The following buildings are both in Newcastle.


Posted on Jan 30, 2011
carol roach
Posted on Jan 28, 2011
James R. Coffey
Posted on Jan 28, 2011