Architecture : the Postmodernism

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-90

Modernism left a lot to be desired with its strict, form-follows-function aesthetic.

Postmodernism, however, permitted designers and architects to look beyond the Bauhaus, mixing and matching pop and high cultural references, embracing contradiction, complexity and consumer culture as never before.

Jane Pavitt, the head of the history of design department at the Royal College of Art, London, has co-organised the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) exploration of the way designers and architects reacted against the strictures of modernism, and its consequences.

Postmodernism “quickly became a toxic word”, said Pavitt. The anger it aroused from the late 1970s among orthodox modernists has not gone away, she added, “particularly in architecture”. Denise Scott Brown, the architect and theorist who, along with her husband Robert Venturi, were akin to godparents of architectural postmodernism, has contributed a chapter in the exhibition’s accompanying publication on how postmodernism became a pejorative term for some.

Venturi and Scott Brown’s eloquently expressed enthusiasm for the vernacular of US urban sprawl, and most famously the Las Vegas strip, and the virtues of architectural symbolism and decoration, was unforgivable in the eyes of the purists, particularly when it resulted in a building such as the former AT&T (now Sony) building in New York designed by Philip Johnson that resembled a Chippendale bookcase in the sky.

A PoMo classic, Hans Hollein’s quirky take on the classical order of columns The Presence of the Past, which adorned the façade of the Strada Novissima at the 1980 Venice Biennale of Architecture Venice, is being rebuilt for the show.

The show maps how in New York, Berlin, Paris, London and Milan designers mixed and matched, distressed and deconstructed clothes, furniture, pop videos and magazine graphics.

Hotspots on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain are included. “In Prague in the 80s young designers made short-run products, the opposite of state-organised mass production,” said Pavitt, while in Moscow the self-styled “paper architects”, such as Brodsky and Utkin, created designs for visionary buildings that were a thinly disguised critique of what was being built during what proved to be late communism. Back in the West, the Italian company Alessi was commissioning up-and-coming architects and designers, including Philippe Starck and Michael Graves, to design lemon squeezers and coffee pots.

“We are interested in how the market for high-end design grew and changed. Who was selling it? How many were in circulation?” Some limited editions were very limited indeed, surprising even Pavitt.

When she asked the US designer Howard Meister how many Nothing Continues to Happen side chairs were made in 1980, she discovered there were just three.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one example of the painted hardwood furniture that looks like distressed concrete, another is in private hands, but the V&A has been able to acquire the third.

“It’s a good time to buy postmodern design,” said Pavitt. “A lot has flowed back on the market with good provenance,” often from the original owners.

Less than 10% of the curators’ wish list could be found in the museum’s stores when they started researching the show.



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