A reaction to Modernism
Postmodernism began as a critique. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Modernism was no longer seen as radical or even relevant. Designers began to question whether architecture indeed had the power to be a utopian remedy for social problems, as more radical Modernists had claimed. Chicago architect and provocateur Stanley Tigerman illustrated this demise in his memorable 1978 photomontage, The Titanic. In it, Tigerman shows Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic 1956 Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (Tigerman’s alma mater) sinking into Lake Michigan. In 2015, Tigerman unveiled a response to his original work entitled New Titanic “The Epiphany”.
A turbulent time
Postmodern trends and ideas emerged out of the 1960s, a time when urban renewal projects led to the widespread demolition of many historic structures in urban centers like Chicago. Preservation battles over the loss of humble neighborhoods as well as city icons (New York’s Penn Station, for example) led many to question how the country recognized its historic heritage—and whether it did at all. Throughout the last decades of the 20th century, global perspectives and popular culture were shaped by things such as the OPEC oil embargo; early efforts in passive energy design; the end of the Cold War; corporate excess; new directions in abstract art; and the rise of hip-hop. Many postmodern architects and artists reacted to these cultural shifts.
The postmodern era saw the publication of several influential texts that introduced new phrases, theories and ways of seeing the built environment of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1966, architect Robert Venturi authored Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture which argued for “richness of meaning, rather than clarity of meaning” in buildings. “Less is a Bore” he claimed, in response to Mies van der Rohe’s famous “Less is More” quotation. In 1968, Venturi, his partner Denise Scott Brown and architect Steve Izenour took their class of Yale architecture students to Las Vegas, claiming the commercial strip was America’s equivalent to a Roman piazza or square—and therefore worthy of study. The research was later published as Learning from Las Vegas, which coined the terms “duck” and “decorated shed” to describe the architecture of the day. By 1977, architect and theorist Charles Jencks wrote The Language of Postmodernism—borrowing the term from literature—in an attempt to explain the international shift away from modernism.
In 2011, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London curated a wide-reaching exhibition on Postmodernism. Architectural critics today may look upon the last decades of the 20th century and shake their heads at the decorative excess and “pop cultural parody” of the time period. But the V & A curators took a serious approach to investigating the common threads of Postmodernism. They identified four characteristics: quotation, metaphor, plurality and parody. A Postmodern building such as 1991’s Harold Washington Library, with its exaggerated ornament and references to historic Chicago buildings, clearly illustrates these ideas.
Postmodernism crosses all aspects of life and design
It’s very difficult to define Postmodernism, and many architects and artists resist the classification. Postmodernist ideas could be found in a wide variety of creative fields that dissolved the boundaries between them, including: literature, visual arts, graphic arts, industrial design, theater and dance. In architecture, Postmodernism is not so much a singular style but an amalgamation of many styles that borrowed from history, reacted to urban context and embraced decorative traditions. Postmodernism was, as historian Mary McLeod wrote, “a desire to make architecture a vehicle of cultural expression.”