BY Oliver Elser in Opinion | 19 FEB 15
Featured in
Issue 18

Pretty Ugly

Is postmodern architecture experiencing a revival?

BY Oliver Elser in Opinion | 19 FEB 15

Hans Hollein, Façade of La Strada Novissima, 1st International Architecture Exhibition Venice, 1980 (courtesy: Archiv Hans Hollein)

Before Postmodernism even landed in Germany, it was dealt a blow from Germany’s most important political intellectual of the time. In 1980, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas took the first Venice Architecture Biennale as his cue to settle the score with all postmodernist currents. In his acceptance lecture for the Adorno Prize, he declared modernity an ‘unfinished project’ under serious threat from conservativism in politics, philosophy and culture. Postmodern architecture was given short shrift: ‘The response to this, the first architecture Biennale, was one of disappointment. The participants who exhibited in Venice formed an avant-garde in reverse: under the slogan of “the presence of the past” they sacrificed the tradition of modernity in the name of a new species of historicism.’

Before long, examples of this ‘new historicism’ began to appear. In Frankfurt, after the 1977 election of the first Christian Democrat mayor since the war, a new major museum-building programme began to involve numerous postmodernist architects. This prompted the left-leaning newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau to suspect a bourgeois­ification of culture and to lament the ‘gigantism’ of such ‘super-planning’. In Stuttgart, British architect James Stirling won the competition for the Neue Staatsgalerie in 1978. His design was dismissed by prominent Stuttgart architects as ‘Nazi architecture’, not least due to his generous use of travertine, a type of stone thought to have been liked by Hitler and his pet architect Albert Speer. From 1984 to 1987, Berlin was the site of the largest postmodernist town-planning project in Germany, the International Building Exhibition (IBA), whose guidelines are still a key influence on architecture policy in Berlin. Today, as a Hohenzollern Palace with concrete plasterwork is being rammed into Berlin’s pseudo-historical centre, the IBA continues to dominate the city in the form of standard-issue buildings. Back in 1980, Habermas himself could not predict that Postmodernism would have such poor aesthetic consequences.

Oswald Mathias Ungers, Housing development project Ritterstraße, Marburg, 1977, (courtesy: © Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaften, Köln)

Speaking to architects today, especially those who were active at the time, it is all but impossible to find anyone who refers positively to postmodern architecture. The period between 1975 and 1990 is as passionately derided as the historicism of the 19th century was vilified by the modernist architects around 1920. Writing in 1990, Denise Scott Brown, who with her partner Robert Venturi is among the ‘parents’ of Postmodernism, put it like this: ‘we are modernists, not postmodernists. No one is a postmodernist. Maybe Postmodernism is dead.’ As early as 1984, the Cologne architect Oswald Mathias Ungers strictly denied that his architecture was postmodern. Paradoxically, he said this in an interview for the opening of his German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, considered an icon of postmodern architecture and one of Ungers’s most important buildings.

Why, after such a meteoric rise, did postmodern architecture fall so quickly out of favour? And might it not be possible to tell its story in an entirely different way? In 2012, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) held the first ever museum show on Postmodernism under the title Postmodernism. Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. The cover of the catalogue shows singer Grace Jones in a costume fusing Memphis design with Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922). The architecture section naturally features the PoMo-deniers Ungers and Scott Brown. At great expense, the V&A reconstructed a section from the central exhibit of that first Architecture Biennale that drew such a strong negative response from Habermas: the Strada Novissima at the Arsenale, a walkway flanked by full-scale facade designs by the 22 most important postmodern architects. The Strada Novissima was not only the show’s main crowd-puller but remains the most famous and elaborate installation ever shown at the Architecture Biennale. The London exhibition recreated the section by Hans Hollein who focused ironically, playfully and with great erudition on reclaiming the motif of the column – a key motif of postmodern architecture as a whole. Hollein is also one of the first postmodern architects to have been revaluated in recent times, with major exhibitions in 2014 in Mönchengladbach and Vienna. Wherever you look, the rediscovery of Postmodernism in architecture is in full swing. And there are even new buildings that return (be it ironically or cynically) to postmodern themes: tradition and collage at a Dutch hotel (Inntel Hotel in Zaandam, by WAM architects), pop and populism at a British apartment block in Middlesborough by FAT architects, anonymity and irony in the projects of Hild und K from Munich. At architecture faculties in London, Zurich and elsewhere, students are producing designs that could be from 1984.

Photograph by Heinrich Klotz of James Stirling’s

Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 1984, (courtesy: Heinrich Klotz Bildarchiv, Karlsruhe)

But will this postmodern revival really happen in German architecture? Equivalent revivals are more or less over in design, fashion and music, albeit still pending in art. Although the cities of Berlin and Frankfurt are both strongly shaped by postmodern buildings, discourse on Postmodernism in Germany and the rest of the world between 1980 and 1990 seemed to take place on separate planets. At the time, postmodern architecture freshly imported from the United States, Japan and Italy was considered by many in West Germany as a liberation from what Heinrich Klotz, the founder of the German Architecture Museum, aptly referred to at the time as the ‘construction sector functionalism’ dictated by investors and major housing associations. In the United States in 1969, Klotz met the future protagonists of postmodernism (including Charles Moore, Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown) and published a book of interviews with them that was translated into several languages (Conversations With Architects, 1973). After this, he fought for the launch of Postmodernism in West Germany in books, articles and, from 1979, as the founding director of the German Architecture Museum. But the museum’s opening in 1984 caused a scandal. German newspaper critics were near-unanimous in rubbishing the inaugural exhibition Revision of Modernism. Postmodern Architecture 1960–1980. There was disapproval for Klotz’s approach of rehabilitating architecture as art, preferring to show attractive drawings than actual photographs, even of finished buildings. Criticism also focused on the museum’s establishment as a bastion of Postmodernism in enemy territory (although its collection included opposing positions from the outset). Of the 43 architects featured in the first show, only four were from West Germany, two of whom worked mainly as artists, so that only two active German architects had the honour of being shown in what was then Germany’s only architecture museum: Josef Paul Kleihues and Oswald Mathias Ungers. As well as the critics, this also enraged the professional associations representing architects. Meanwhile, Klotz despaired at attempts by German architects to raise their designs to the international standard of postmodern architecture. In the context of the Frankfurt construction programme under Christian Democrat mayor Walter Wallmann between 1980 and 1990, key commissions were given to foreign architects: Richard Meier, Helmut Jahn and Charles Moore (United States), Gustav Peichl and Hans Hollein (Austria), Ernst Gisel (Switzerland) and Adolpho Natalini (Italy).

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. Learning from Las Vegas Studio, 1968, (courtesy: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Philadelphia)

This internationalization reached its peak with the International Building Exhibition, the urban renewal programme initiated in 1979 that shook up the architecture scene in Berlin. The principal IBA projects were by architects from the United States, Austria, the Netherlands and Italy. Klotz’s curatorial choices proved prescient: 13 architects from the Revision of Modernism show contributed projects to the IBA. But once the show was over, a clique of German architects retook control. After the fall of the Wall, such experiments with tradition were declared a closed chapter, and there began the still-ongoing Stone Age of Berlin architecture, whose implementation is associated with the names of Hans Stimmann, Josef Paul Kleihues and Hans Kollhoff. All three are children of Postmodernism, having been shaped professionally in the 1970s and 1980s by discussions on postmodern architecture and a return to the block and plot model of traditional town planning.

Might the development of postmodern architecture be summarized by saying that in Germany, its presence was felt only as a brief eruption of international positions, from which German architects were willing or able to adopt only the tendency to tradition, before finally succumbing, in the frenzy of Reunification and Berlin as the new-old capital, to an inflexible neo-conservatism? Was it always the others who were avant-garde? One could also put it like this: in Germany, the postmodern period coincided with Helmut Kohl’s time as chancellor, diminishing quickly from a set of freshly imported ideas to construction-sector traditionalism. The proof supporting this view is overpowering. But the renewed interest in postmodern positions should be taken as an opportunity to venture a counter-theory, as the PoMo revival throws up buildings, projects and contexts and causing history to appear in a different light.

Still from televised demolition of Pruitt–Igoe housing project, St. Louis, USA 21 April 1972, (courtesy: US Department od Housing and Urban Development)

But how did it all begin? In The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), Charles Jencks gives a precise date for the birth of postmodern architecture: 15 July 1972, 3:32 pm. At this moment, he claims, modernism’s promises of salvation were blown away by dynamite. An apartment block in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, built only 20 years previously, sank into dust. Crime and dilapidation had ostensibly left the city authorities with no choice other than to demolish the development. In fact, how­ever, racial segregation had played no small part in its failure. The former inhabitants moved to nearby small towns like Ferguson (which would be rocked by serious civil unrest in August 2014). For Jencks, however, everything was the fault of ‘modernism’, whose death he was happy to record. Its place was taken by Postmodernism, for example in the form of Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia (1978), a fountain with columns and neon light designed to generate an ironic sense of home for the Italian community in New Orleans: tradition meets pop, Rome meets Las Vegas. An exemplary implementation, then, of the design method proposed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who instead of taking their Ivy League students on trips to Italy now favoured ‘Learning from Las Vegas’, the title of their 1968 course at Yale and the book based on it. This was all exciting and new, turning the European-influenced model of high and low culture on its head, in the minds of young Americans. For a very brief moment, by analogy to Pop Art, there was something like Pop Architecture. In Europe at this time, Hollein had already completed his Retti candle shop in Vienna and began, influenced not least by the impressions gathered during his time in the United States, to insert pop elements into architecture. In 1972, he was commissioned by Johannes Cladders to draw up plans for the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach. Inaugurated ten years later, the complex revealed previously inconceivable architectural possibilities. This began with the ruse of luring visitors onto the building’s roof, a space with the qualities of a public square. The main volume of the museum beneath is sunk into the side of the mountain. Instead of a prominent facade, this creates an artificial landscape shaped with ‘rice terraces’ to make it look not like part of the museum but like a new public park. The exhibition spaces themselves are arranged in an innovative clover leaf format that challenges visitors rather than dictating their movements. With all its baffling situations and details, the building radiates a resourcefulness and intensity that can clearly be attributed to the embryonic status of postmodern architecture at this point. Everything was still possible. The second key postmodern museum building in Germany, James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie (1984) in Stuttgart, is more static and classical, less open and accessible – both physically and figuratively. It prefigures the fate of postmodern architecture: to become stuck, after a brief period, in half-hearted formal gags instead of making a genuine connection with tradition.

Charles Moore and August Perez & Associates

Piazza d’Italia, New Orleans, 1978, (courtesy: August Perez & Associates, New Orleans; photograph: Gail Des Jardin)

In this light, any rediscovery of the qualities of postmodern architecture ought to begin with Hollein’s museum in Mönchengladbach and not with the far better known building by Stirling. Or with the Landeszentralbank in Frankfurt, a statement project by the architects Jourdan & Müller and Berghof-Landes-Rang, inaugurated in 1988 but still largely unknown. Rather than imposing its huge volume as a then unpopular high-rise block, it was integrated into the surrounding turn-of-the-century development using green courtyards. And even after 25 years, the quality and intensity of the details is surprisingly fresh. Although many appear kitschy at first, one gradually notices the passion with which traditions are reinterpreted, in some cases with a surreal sense of humour. The obvious delight taken in the design process and the elaborate realization are unmatched to this day, and in view of inter­national standards of bank and office architecture, the building remains a quirky and lovable exception.

Admittedly, rediscovering postmodern architecture through specific examples runs the risk of digging up old questions and disputes concerning style. Exemplary individual buildings always played a major role, but since Postmodernism (like Modernism before it) was always a media phenomenon, socio-cultural changes with no initial links to specific architectural taste created conditions for these new ideas in the first place. From the 1960s, scepticism towards modernization grew in the industrialized west, driven in no small part by the ongoing destruction of specific historical buildings (like New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963) and entire neighbourhoods. At first, the renewed interest in existing structures was associated with a critique of capitalism. In the course of this development, conservation of architectural heritage acquired a new status internationally from the early 1970s. It is no coincidence that Frankfurt and Berlin saw such flowerings of postmodern architecture. Around 1970, both cities planned to demolish large residential areas. This led to squatting and a broad-based protest movement blending nostalgia and social criticism, as well as a general rejection of ‘construction sector functionalism’ and with it all new architecture. Postmodernism promised reconciliation. Frankfurt wanted to rid itself of its image as ‘Bankfurt’ and ‘Krankfurt’ (krank meaning ill). The demolition of villas in the Westend district was halted and the Museums­ufer along the River Main became one of the world’s largest collections of postmodernist cultural venues. In Berlin, the IBA implemented a so-called ‘city-repair’ programme that involved not only internationally renowned new buildings but also small-scale conversions of existing pre-war structures. In both cities, the worst planning excesses of 1960s technocratic modernization were avoided. For all the criticism of the gentrification and the turn to conservative architecture linked with this development, Postmodernism made an important contribution to ensuring that the crassest evils of postwar modernization were stopped at the last minute. In architecture and town planning today, we are still seeking the right balance between tradition and innovation. We are still feeling the effects of the postmodern sea change, whether we like it or not.

Oliver Elser is a curator at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum. He lives in Frankfurt am Main.