Postmodern Architecture - Gene Edward Veith
by Gene Edward Veith
Postmodern: a challenge to (or rejection of) modern truth claims about language, culture, history, and identity, even truth itself; tolerance of contradictions; loss of faith in grand meta-narratives (stories) that try to explain origins, morality, meaning, or destiny.
The modernist architectural aesthetic was based on the principle of "form follows function." Instead of designing a structure around some pre-existing meaning or form, the function of the building should have priority. As those who worshiped in traditional [cross-shaped] churches were always reminded, worship is a matter of being gathered into his cross. The modernist approach to church design would first ascertain the practical functions the building needed to fulfil – accommodate a certain number of worshipers, classrooms for Sunday school, etc.
Those who built the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis designed a form to follow the function of solving the housing problems of the urban poor. Designed according to every modernist principle, the project proved unlivable. In 1972 the city dynamited Pruitt-Igoe, marking the end of modernism in architecture.
Disillusioned with the modernist dogma that the present is always the best, architects and the public they serve rediscovered the value and beauty of the past. They started restoring old buildings. Whereas modern architecture is abstract, postmodern architecture is referential. Modern buildings look typically drab in their concrete and steel. Postmodern high-rises often flaunt bright colors and rich decorative detail. The ornamentation is flagrantly non-functional and often draws from past styles. A contemporary building may include Art Deco touches from the 1920s or updated classical columns or simplified Victorian bric-a-brac.
Postmodern architect Robert Venturi, author of Learning from Las Vegas, celebrates buildings that frankly cater to the whims and fancies of ordinary people (such as the gaudy luxury of Vegas hotels). He sees nothing wrong with buildings that are playful, funny, or in conventionally bad taste.
Much postmodernist architecture is like the New York City AT&T building (Philip Johnson, 1978). It pilfers various historical styles and works them into a pastiche (the characteristic post modernist form), void of coherence or meaning. The combination of discordant styles (modernism, baroque, classicism) is a sort of joke. By lifting these incompatible styles out of history and tacking them together, the styles lose their significance. History is reduced to a smorgasbord of styles, to be sampled according to one's taste. The effect is to deconstruct style and relativize history.
Some postmodernist architects have set about overtly deconstructing their own designs, mocking both their forms and their functions. James Wine designed a series of Best stores that made people driving by do a double take. One of his stores in Milwaukee looked as if it were falling apart. The front wall was apparently peeled away in a pile of bricks, revealing shelves holding plastic replicas of lamps, toasters, and Barbie dolls. A customer would walk past this facade, past the plaster replicas, through the glass doors, and into the store with its shelves of real lamps, posters, and Barbies. With its fake rubble and gaping hole, the store was designed as a parody of itself, not so much a construction as a deconstruction.
Contemporary architecture has a curious feature, the confusion of interiors and exteriors. If you walk from the street into a new office building, the first thing you see inside may well be trees! Many buildings today include atriums complete with trees, nature paths, and bright sunlight.
Just as the atrium brings the outside inside, many postmodernist buildings bring the inside outside. Structural framework such as beams and ventilation ducts may appear on the surface. An extreme example is the Pompidou Center in Paris (1977). Support beams, tie-rods, and the plumbing appear to be on the outside of the building, painted in bright garish colors. An escalator snakes along the exterior of the building. It is as if the building were turned inside out. The effect is unsettling, like looking at a man but seeing only his insides - his lungs, blood vessels, and red guts.
What has been happening in architecture illustrates what has been happening throughout the arts and the culture since the collapse of modernism. The post modern rejection of absolutes, it's triviality and relativism, and its penchant for self-gratification all undercut Christianity. The temptation is to capitulate to the new mind-set rather than work to redeem it. But the postmodern age also has room for Christianity in ways that modernism did not. The postmodern openness to the past, its rejection of narrow rationalism, its insistence that art refers to meanings and context beyond itself – these insights are all useful to the recovery of a Christian worldview.
For reflection and discussion
• What elements of postmodern style have been built in your area? How do you respond to their design, especially compared to the simple geometric shapes and the concrete, steel, and glass designs of modern structures?
Postmodernists take comfort in the demise of modernism's confidence that man, starting from his own reason, education, and technology, can solve our problems. They search to understand: How do we know what is true and good? Where have we come from? Where are we going? How do we find purpose and meaning? Yet they have little confidence that answers can be found. The journey is everything, and they find comfort in sharing it with a loving circle of people and place great value on relationships and authenticity.
• In what ways might this view resonate with you? What do you think postmodernism offers in a positive way?
• In what ways might you find a postmodern view lacking? Can the journey be better than the arrival at the destination?
• How do you think Jesus embodies or transcends these two viewpoints?
What value does he place on truth and certainty? On relationships?
• How might God want to strengthen your confidence in his Truth?
How might he want you to seek and speak truth in love, guarding relationships?
Published in Kelly Monroe and Lael Arrington (ed.): A Faith and Culture Devotional. Daily Readings in Art, Science, and Life, Zondervan – Grand Rapids, 2008.
Gene Edward Veith is provost and professor of literature, Patrick Henry College. Adapted from his book Postmodern Times. Veith is culture editor of World magazine.
Used by permission of Zondervan.