Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990

Patrick Hannay reflects on the waste and diversion of energy by a movement that purported to cure a cultural malaise

September 22, 2011



Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

24 September to 15 January 2012

The curator Glenn Adamson couldn't be precise. It was 2007 when he got a call. The V&A was inviting him and his co-curator to put together what has four years later become Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990. Dates and significant collective events matter. He reminded me as I left that it is 30 years to the month since the Memphis Group, the Meistersingers of Post-Modernism, made their debut at the Salone del Mobile in Milan.

Charles Jencks, the prophet and profiteer of Post-Modernism, was precise as to Modernism's demise - 3.32pm on 16 March 1972, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri was demolished. The precision of his timing was an effective mask to cover the imprecision of his analysis and prognosis. That mask has been deeply corrosive. It still is.

Somehow the collapse of Ronan Point in East London four years earlier was not, in Jencks' view, a significant enough global media event. It was to sound the death knell for UK public housing when it should have led to large sections of the building industry being taken to court. It was 1968, also the year of worldwide youth revolt. The events share the same year but epitomise that generational schism. For Jencks and Pruitt-Igoe, the problem was simply corrupt architectural ideas. By selecting Pruitt-Igoe, Jencks bypassed political theorist Patrick Dunleavy's remarkable exposure of the deep corruption that underpinned the UK production of council tower blocks, which Margaret Thatcher placed in everyone's minds as being synonymous with the collapse of the post-Second World War utopian dream of the socialist welfare state. (That Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan commissioned most of the council housing is rarely remembered.)

Yes, so much of Post-Modernists' early action was a pained cry of disillusion; the sadness was that their understanding and cure was so trivial and superficial, although entertaining. It was so easy, as it has been ever since, to blame the architects. The V&A exhibition compounds this error by foregrounding architecture in the narrative. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi's vacuous drive-by Vegas love affair has left us with a litany of architectures as quick consumption-branding for the tourist in a hurry, or a city in need of a makeover. Post-Modernism's error was to suggest that if you could just change the imagery, create familiarity and make people laugh, somehow the deeper cultural malaise would be cured.

This diversionary, not subversionary, trajectory of Post-Modernism began as it would continue, endless sassy imagery promoted through an explosion of media, until its tired playfulness was replaced by the genuine narrative of a socially responsible architecture that began to appear again in the new century, with government programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, Sure Start children's centres and much-needed hospital building, which had all been left to waste away during the reign of Post-Modernism.

Of course Jencks hadn't ignited the subversive critique. That had begun decades before with the European Team X's critique of the International Style Modernism of America's Henry-Russell Hitchcock and ("all-architects-are-whores") Philip Johnson. Of course, to a commercial US eye, architecture was all a brand, a style. Ignorance of what Colin St John Wilson was to call the "other tradition" of Modernist values allowed Post-Modernism to appear more radical than it ever was. Team X in the late 1950s could already see the appalling pollution of developer-friendly, maximise-density, decontextualised, Miesian global box architecture, devoid of political participation by local communities, devoid and profligate of resource responsibility and consumption.

The dramatic new facades changed nothing of substance; they just set up endless image-grabbing smokescreens and headlines, while the forces that underpinned the problem proceeded untouched, as Johnson was to demonstrate at AT&T so crudely but honestly. The fundamental issue of who holds the power in design, Post-Modernism's dabbling in populism and participation, became subsumed under the royal prerogative of "community architecture" that never threatened anything. Instead we got Poundbury (the Dorset village built according to the principles of Prince Charles), giving the people what they want, while behind it Thatcher dismantled localism (as "Dave" now sees it), public architects' offices were closed and she sold off the public estate. No amount of Post-Modern tomfoolery and subversion or style was intending to tackle that.

The Post-Modernist's answer to the iconic Jane Jacobs' thesis (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) and her profound questioning of 1960s urban politics and development values, was either to preserve everything as it was or to make it new but imitate the context with a slavish fitting-in architecture, a neo-neo classicism or a toytown vernacular. So the real radicalism of late 1970s community action would just be suffocated in endless "Covent Gardens" everywhere. Somehow it was all all right; the image of the facade was of no-change; meanwhile the forces of darkness quietly spirited away those former residents who got in the way. It is unsurprising that the UK's most iconic and superb magazine of the Post-Modern era was called The Face. Brian Anson's tale of Covent Garden, I'll Fight You For It!, tells us a thousand more truths of how radical community action was subverted by the smokescreen of "fitting in". The subversion of Post-Modernism, all the frippery, was to ensure that no one could dig out the real wolves in the undergrowth.

There is nothing in the V&A exhibition that hints at the battleground fury as the dreams of the 1968ers collided with real power in the mid to late 1970s when Post-Modernism flowered. All we are reminded of in other histories are the three-day week, the collapse of all systems, the unnecessary IMF strictures, the strikes, the disorder. Post-Modernist architecture simply provided a superficial rappel à l'ordre instead of enacting a truly subversive radicalism. Meanwhile, the remarkable investigations of the short-lived Community Development Programme were simply closed down because they were too politically embarrassing. The only profound response in London to Jacobs' critique, the creation by the Greater London Council and councillor George Nicholson of the Community Areas Policy, was snuffed out by Thatcher. Only Coin Street remains.

So standing here at 1.54pm on 14 September 2011 at the end of previewing the almost-constructed engaging tale of the V&A's extensive and absorbing romp through two decades of Post-Modernism, what am I left with? I am equally entertained and appalled, and left with a gnawing anger at the wasted energy and diversionary tactics that Jencks and his co-conspirators set in motion.

The penultimate and most visually stunning section of the show is simply entitled "Money". The storyline is, as ever, that "the system" commodifies and suffocates all the radicalism, denudes it of its creative anger, corrupts its protagonists and carries on regardless. It's a useful reminder of what we really need to tackle but, instead, many of the writers in the catalogue are desperate to tell us we are all Post-Modernist now. It can never end. We have all been corrupted.

Could it be, then, that 5.30pm on 15 January 2012, when this V&A tale will close, will coincide with the collapse of the eurozone and the second collapse of the banking system? If it does, then we will need to get our very serious thinking caps on, and pick up on all those subverted ideas screened out by the superficial noise of Post-Modernism. (The irony of Barclays Wealth sponsoring the show will be a true ironic "double decoding".)

But what is the actual reality on the ground? Jencks has worked most creatively in moulding landscapes - no temporary superficiality there - and through the Maggie Jencks cancer care programme the family has tackled something of profound social significance, which early Modernists and many current Modernists did and do all the time. That each Maggie's centre is designed by an architectural zoo of contributors is by-the-by. It is the vision and the hope and the subtlety and the humanity of the programme that is seared into every one of its creations. There's no time limit on the need for that.

Postscript:

Patrick Hannay was programme director of the interior architecture degree course at Cardiff School of Art and Design until July 2011, and is editor of Touchstone - the magazine for Architecture in Wales.

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