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AT&T Building, designed by Philip Johnson.
The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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Why postmodernism is the palate cleanser we need

Our love-to-hate-it relationship with postmodernism may be more important to design progress than we think

Around the time I was putting this column together in my head, the new owners of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 AT&T Building decided to take a wrecking ball to the building’s lobby, with its inlaid black-and-white floor, circuit of round arches, and intricate brass elevator doors. While the exterior of the building is being considered for landmark designation, the lobby (which I thought of as an inside-out palazzo) was fair game.

It was made vulnerable, as interiors so often are, by an earlier renovation that robbed AT&T of its most interesting spatial effect: the hollowed-out loggia at the base of the top-heavy highboy. Johnson loved spindly arrays of columns, stretching them like taffy in his city hall for Celebration, Florida. His idea of the public realm, at least on narrow Madison Avenue, was softening the sharp street corners with arches and providing a base through which people could flow.

"Golden Boy" in AT&T headquarter building.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

That was a quirky idea, especially when coupled with the opulence of the lobby, where the sculpture “Golden Boy” once pointed skyward, with lightning bolts. I had been hoping against hope that the owners, and renovation architect Snøhetta, would see the lobby as I did: as an experiment with materials, space and art more distinctive than their proffered Scandi-adjacent discourse on light and air. Midtown has plenty of brightly lit, forward-facing, gridded lobbies. What it has precious little of is drama—or texture.

What the owners want is a style that’s completely played out: Let’s call it Modernist Revival, the contemporary interpretation of postwar modernism that began in the mid-1990s. If postmodernism rose as a rebellion against modernism’s repetition and boredom, I now await the next style revolution. Anyone looking at SOM’s 1950s heyday, in 2018, is looking in the wrong direction.

Some puckish architects want to revive postmodernism, bringing back its candy colors and historical ornament, but the revivalism is more popular in tabletop than streetscape. If there’s a warehouse somewhere full of Venturi, Scott Brown’s Best Products showroom panels, sure, let’s reinstall. But in the meantime we have WORKac’s Edible Schoolyard homage, a good example of not taking one’s styles too seriously.

What feels timely is the restlessness of mind that produced postmodernism—not only Johnson’s opulence, but John Portman’s hotel lobbies as future cities, Venturi, Scott Brown’s embrace of awkwardness. All of them wanted to wake you up, not calm you down.

I don’t even like the AT&T Building, and I shudder to think what its progeny might be. Nonetheless, it gets to stay. None of us, least of all architects, can escape the taste of the moment—but that doesn’t mean refusing to fight, even for design you don’t understand.

For a glimpse into the temporal nature of taste, check New York magazine’s 1987 cover story, “The Buildings New Yorkers Love to Hate.” “Big, overbearing ugly buildings. Banal buildings that screw up memorable views. All-right buildings in the wrong places. Monstrosities that should never have been built anywhere, much less here,” wrote Richard David Story. Madison Square Garden, (“the dump that replaced the masterpiece”— playwright John Guare) slated to be demolished in 1991, still afflicts us. The World Trade Center towers “seem[ed] the Scylla and Charybdis of lower Manhattan.”

Many of the buildings on the list were terribly young—and squarely in the Postmodern canon. Portman’s Marriott Marquis Hotel “ruined Times Square forever,” according to gossip columnist Liz Smith. The AT&T Building was dismissed with an “Ugh.” When I wrote a similarly-framed story for T magazine in 2015, most of the examples cited were Brutalist. What we hate is just as fashionable as what we love. The PoMo on New York mag’s list fell out of fashion faster, but neither –ism could be accused of being boring.

In November, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote a manifesto for the present day titled, “Boring architecture? Yes, please.” The work, by a geographically dispersed set of mostly Gen Xers and an unusually large contingent of women, seems to him against digital bombastics, against trying too hard. “Is it best understood as a transitional style?” he asks, to which I would answer, loudly, Yes, and let’s move that transition along before we all fall asleep.

I feel a greater sense of urgency because I am actually bored by much of this work. It can be exquisite on a small scale, but those unruffled surfaces and elemental forms don’t translate well to the exigencies of the city. Museums and houses are all very nice (hence their domination of architectural media), but that’s not where most people meet architecture, nor where architecture meets its greatest challenges.

The endpoint of Modernist Revival as a style is a kind of neo-Japonisme, in which architects around the world attempt the lightness and precision of SANAA’s best work. Go to the latter’s Grace Farms and you cannot help but be wowed—but, as I asked after my first visit, to what end? Buildings sold with silence and separation. I love it, but I don’t think it is good for me.

Boring architecture is not the endpoint but the banal before the storm. In the new book Revisiting Postmodernism, co-authored with Adam Nathaniel Furman, practitioner Sir Terry Farrell writes of his own awakening in the mid-1970s, “I met Charles Jencks and attended conferences and began to speak out about the hoped-for demise of Modernism as we knew it. It had become such a style, such a club—so tribalist.”

The decisive moment, for Farrell, was the 1980 Venice Biennale, where architect Paolo Portoghesi invited Venturi, Graves, Charles Moore, Also Rossi, Hans Hollein, Bob Stern, and many others to create the Strada Novissima: literally, a street of styles.

“To walk down the Strada Novissima was an extraordinary experience: like a shopping mall, with different shops representing different architects, but all agreeing on at least one thing—that performance, individuality, and theatricality were the right way to show their wares.” Architecture today could use such a jolt, with the crass commercialism of a streetfront rivalry overtaking a solid facade of good taste (and too many extremely similar cladding systems).

So what should come after? Modernism was replaced by postmodernism, which was in turn supplanted by neo-modernism, or Modernist Revival—our present state of sobriety and transparency and meh.

Lobby of the AT&T Building.
Steven Zucker/Flickr

Rewind to the AT&T lobby. Drama and texture. Think about those qualities, not with the vacant materials and shapes of the past, but with brick or wood or concrete—or a combination of the three. Architecture that provides a sense of place. Architecture that is tough enough for daily wear. Architecture that uses old technologies to new effect, rather than calling upon new technologies to solve old problems (like icicles off the edge of an overhanging roof).

In his book, Farrell references Louis Kahn’s studio at the University of Pennsylvania in which Kahn posed the question, What does your building want to be? In American architecture, Kahn’s so-called New Monumentality became a dead end, admired but not widely practiced. But the buildings that spark my interest now seem like distant descendants of Kahn, though less self-serious, more angles, more colors.

London School of Economics, Saw Swee Hock Students' Centre.
Alamy Stock Photo

The building I saw in 2017 I admired most was from 2014, the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the London School of Economics, by Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey. Clad in brick, but in no way nostalgic, the building zigs and zags as it rises, making room for a public square at its base while accommodating all manner of student activities within.

Students, backpacks, flyers, laptops were everywhere as I wandered up the triangulating steps to the sixth floor, and yet I could still see the screen walls, the pennant-like enamel panels on the core, the concrete floors. It looked used, but not dirty, unlike the conceptually and materially similar Tate Modern addition by Herzog and de Meuron. It also embodies the openness and autonomy of higher education without the slightest whiff of Hogwarts.

What are its influences? Kahn’s brickwork passageways at academic buildings like Exeter Library and the Indian Institute of Management; 1970s supergraphics; origami. A stew of not-necessarily-up-to-date references that comes out looking right-now.

Postmodernism should be preserved, but it is even more important to preserve its iconoclasm. Every -ism will eventually be overthrown. Without things to hate, you’ll never come up with something equally strong to love.

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