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Postmodern Architecture: Radical Eclecticism

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Postmodernism was one of the most significant cultural developments of the twentieth century. Only a hybrid architecture combining many different styles can possibly reflect the diversity of postmodern existence.

Postmodernism was one of the most significant cultural developments of the twentieth century . Postmodernism had implications for all forms of culture, as well as philosophy, history and science, but it’s fair to say that postmodernism was first identified in architecture and design, in which field it can best be understood as a reaction against the Modern Movement of the early twentieth century.

Architects began to find the Modernist vocabulary restrictive. They grew bored with the sterile, puritan forms. This shift was signalled by two famous statements. The Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe had coined the phrase ‘Less is more,’ meaning that decoration and detail had to be stripped away. That was a maxim of the Modern Movement. The postmodernist architect Robert Venturi responded with the phrase ‘Less is a bore’. The faith in a universal aesthetic was shattered. Postmodernism marks a return to colour, variety and historical reference.

For example, this is a postmodernist building in London, a water treatment works on the Isle of Dogs by John Outram (1988). It’s a hybrid of different styles. It has a triangular pediment, which is drawn from the Classical architecture of Greece and Rome, but it’s been rendered in corrugated iron which seems to negate the historical reference. The columns have multicoloured Egyptian capitals. This form is a turbine, which is a quotation from airplane design – but the turbine is fake, it’s a piece of non-functional decoration. This is a parody of the Modernist machine aesthetic and the fetishisation of technology. Overall, the aesthetic of this building is ‘hybrid rather than pure’ in the words of Robert Venturi.

But there are deeper reasons for this shift. It has been argued that since the 1970s our culture has been fundamentally different. Charles Jencks says that culture has been transformed by the ‘information explosion’ – by which he means the rise of the mass media, mass communication and technologies like the internet. These have fundamentally altered our civilisation, so we no longer in the ‘modern’ age, we are now in a ‘post-modern’ age. Postmodernism, then, is not just another style; it is a decisive cultural break.

The information explosion makes images from different places and cultures available around the world simultaneously. In this context, it is impossible to be committed to any one style. Jencks wrote that “the true and proper style’ in architecture is ‘eclecticism, because only this can adequately encompass the pluralism that is our social and metaphysical reality.’

The post-modern age marks the return to eclecticism – the use of multiple styles. But the most important point is that Postmodernism shows no commitment to the styles it uses – it is deliberately superficial and transitory.  Everything is a pastiche, a quotation. Styles are used in celebration of the diversity that as Jencks argues is a fundamental condition of our reality.

This is the Austrian Travel Centre in Vienna by Hans Hollein (1976-8). This airport interior presents a hybrid aesthetic. Metal palm trees evoke exotic destinations.  The column in the centre is based on Classical architecture, but it’s broken to form a mock-ruin. This acknowledges that Classicism is only ever encountered as an ancient ruin, except when it is consciously revived.  Victorian architects, for example, where able to use a 2000 year old style for modern purposes without any sense of contradiction.  Hollein's design mocks the absurdity of reviving an ancient style. He also merges the Classical column with a metallic support, which could be seen as a reference to Modernism and the machine aesthetic. There are also references to Asian and Viennese architecture. Ultimately, the design uses a range of styles to suggest international travel and the collision of cultures.

In 1969, the architect Robert Venturi published a book entitled Learning from Las Vegas, which celebrates the eclecticism and mass-cultural appeal of Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is in a sense the capital city of Postmodernism. The casinos and hotels quote from different cultural icons, many of them architectural. It forms a disorientating geography that juxtaposes the Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty and so on. It has a mix of styles, all of which are superficial. This led to a new aesthetic. Architects used style as a parody or pastiche.

In conclusion, it has been argued the mass media have brought different cultures clashing together. Only a hybrid architecture combining many different styles can possibly reflect the diversity of postmodern existence.

6 comments

Abdel-moniem El-Shorbagy
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Posted on May 27, 2011
Bhart Verma
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carol roach
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