Metropolis: postmodern watchlist 2014
Paul Makovsky and Michael Gotkin's 'Postmodern Watchlist', Metropolis Magazine, November 2014, discusses the historic preservation of postmodern buildings from the 1970s and early '80s and how the commission that designates landmark buildings hasn't a methodology for the kind of modifications and additions that both characterise postmodern buildings and are their fate.
The critique that divided 'building as object' from 'buildings as fabric' developed in the 1970s (Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York was about this very quality of combative individualism) where more and more buildings were suddenly realised to be part of a significant context. The buildings in the list waver between a genuine appreciation of historic methods and materials, and the semblance of such which was the thing that eventually made a mockery of architecture and architectural postmodernism: the keystone that was merely a keystone-shaped incision on the brick, or marble, or stucco rain screen.
The 60-year rule (that a style reaches its nadir at 60 and after that starts to gain historic currency), means that mid-70s architectural postmodernism, when the idea was at its newest and most exciting, won't be the subject of positive theoretical investigation until the 2030s. I distinguish between architectural postmodernism and postmodernism in other disciplines as architects were distinctly vulnerable to image and style: slapping a pediment on a curtain wall tower was technically simple but theoretically complex. But that kind of complex discussion was for the critics, who actually existed then, unlike now.
David Balzer's book, Curationism, points out how criticism has been supplanted by curatorial practice: the choosing of arrays of material, ideas, lists, that in their array begin, hopefully, to frame some sort of discussion. This perhaps has to do with unstable critical positions, no longer is there the magisterial Pevsner, or a Peter Collins, or a Colin Rowe, historians that put architecture into linear continua. Balzer and the reviewers of his book all cite the deep and lapidary access to unprocessable amounts of information today – we look to curators to process and chart paths for us through this democracy of material. And it is precisely this democracy that obviates a 'central' critical position. We are free to choose curators who aggregate images for us.
In the tricky postmodern era of the late 1970s and early 1980s there was no web, in fact there was no personal access to computers. Information came in books and magazines, journals and architects travelling the lecture circuit, showing their work, talking about their ideas. They still do that, but I'm not sure why given that we can find it all somewhere on the web if we really look. Metropolis started in 1981, a wildly exciting monthly tabloid-sized architectural newspaper from New York, not much distributed outside major US cities, but if you went to New York and found a copy, holy cow, it was such a shot of adrenalin. It was news from the centre of the earth. I'm just not sure that kind of thing exists any more – that sense that there is a centre, or even a pulse. Nonetheless, this was the climate that the postmodern Manhattan buildings, listed in the November 2014 Metropolis, grew up in. These were buildings that 'curated' the city.
Agrest and Gandelsonas's East 64th Street townhouse, above, was, quoting Diana Agrest, 'a hinge between two institutional buildings that had almost opposing styles—the Modernist Asia House by Philip Johnson and the Gothic Central Presbyterian Church.' This is classic architectural postmodernism in the best sense: the obligation of any building to its context, the city and the history of architecture as a conversational act. Architecture as a mediator.
Where did that go? I'm not sure, for although we now live in a socially and culturally mediated world where it is difficult to discern an original thought in the long curated lists of likes, most architecture remains out of sync with this role as a mediator. It is still, more often than not, a declarative act, viz. the newly opened Museum of Human Rights which conducts a rather shouty debate with angry excluded communities.
Or, perhaps it is the curators who assume we still want shouty debates, breaking news, cutting edges, heightened reactions, and, as always, the quiet side of the culture of architecture, such as the Agrest and Gandelsonas townhouse, is still seen as a minority interest.