In 1976 filthy, gobbing punks tore apart the sequined and gold-laméd world that glam rock, with its massive, alienating concerts and over-produced double (and sometimes, triple) albums had become. Early manifestations of an infant philosophy can be just as ugly as those of a dying one.
Arguably – pop art may have got there considerably earlier – postmodernism first emerged in architectural theory at the end of the 1960s. Whereas modernism was concerned more with principles like certainty, authority, identity and unity, postmodernism is often associated with difference, plurality, textuality, scepticism and wit. Like The Sex Pistols‘ manager Malcolm McClaren, who liked to laugh and jeer and would just a few years later, put the boot into glam, American architect and theorist Robert Venturi was prepared to play dirty and liked to joke. Famously – or infamously, depending on one’s point of view – Venturi lampooned modernist god Ludwig Mies van der Rohe by substituting the latter’s dictum ‘Less is more’, with his own ‘Less is a bore’, at the same time rather snidely drawing attention to the fact that façadism played a not insignificant role in Miese’s buildings, just as it did in that of the Las Vegas strip which he considered to be more honest architecture. But Venturi was essentially a theorist and built little.
At first punk, as an anti-establishment movement within pop and as an idealism, was contained and concentrated within only a few major cities – London and Manchester in the UK, New York in the USA but its out with the old, in with the new attitude insinuated itself throughout the creative world. As the 70s became the 80s and punk splintered, New Romantic became the dominant music and fashion trend. Vivienne Westwood – Malcolm McClaren’s partner in crime – who had created much of what became the punk dress code, became established as a leading UK fashion designer, subverting established ideas of beauty and elegance. Milan and Paris, had caught the punk bug a little later. It was these two mainland European cities respectively, that would engender the postmoderist Memphis Group, established in 1981, headed-up by architects Ettore Sotsass and Matteo Thun, and Philippe Starck. The world of fashion was just waking up to enfant terrible, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s, iconoclastic designs, which, though beautifully tailored, drew heavily on street style for inspiration. Mother superior of the postmodern, Madonna, would later wear the infamous cone bra Gaultier designed for her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour. Both Westwood and Gaultier went on to produce haute couture.
Sotsass, in calling the work of Memphis ‘The New International Style’, disagreed with the conformist approach of modernist design and challenged the idea that products had to follow conventional shapes, colours, textures and patterns. Fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld was to become a collector of the group’s work which was colourful, brash and loud, and took inspiration from Art Deco, Pop Art and kitsch, subverting established perceptions of taste. Also in the 80s, Alberto Alessi, head of the long-established eponymous Italian, quality home product design company, commissioned German postmodernist architect Richard Sapper – who had worked for a time with Gio Ponti – to design a kettle and later cutlery, that were a far cry from the modernist principle: form follows function. Sapper was the first of many architects and designers, including Spaniard Javier Mariscal – who had been invited to take part in the first Memphis exhibition – to work for Alessi. Extremely prolific, Starck, who went on to become probably the world’s best-known product designer of the late 20th century, designed his classic Juicy Salif Lemon Juicer for Alessi, who has described the role of his company as ‘attempting to create new objects, introducing a touch of transcendency, helping us decipher our own modernity’.
French graphic designer, illustrator, photographer and advertising director, Jean-Paul Goude (Born, 1940) now perhaps best-know for his campaign work for Chanel Egoïste and Chanel Coco, who had worked at Esquire magazine in New York in the early 70s and developed an interest in black street-style, began working with singer Grace Jones on her image, outfits, stage shows and videos, transforming her into the ultimate postmodern diva. Goude’s climax came when he was asked to design the French Bicentennial July 14th parade on the Champs Elysées in 1989. Author’s note: Having had the good fortune to be invited to this by Goude, I can only describe it as one of the most spectacular events I have ever attended. Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics, changing her look and style, dramatically for each new tour, as did Madonna, was the third queen of the postmodern music world. Divos included, The Human League’s, Phil Oakey, the band Duran Duran and of course the two great glam innovators who, stand the test of time, continued to make interesting music throughout the 80s and 90s: David Bowie and Bryan Ferry.
At least one of those who were to become know as postmodernists was already advanced in years. Not wishing to be left out of the party started by Venturi, conscious of the inevitable change that was coming, Philip Johnson, 74 in 1980, a great supporter of van der Rohe, and whose work echoed the master’s, completed New York’s AT&T Building – now The Sony Building – crowned with a Georgian pediment in 1984 that instantly became a postmodernist icon. Himself 55 in 1980, Venturi had only a few private houses and a lack-lustre addition to the Allen Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, finished 1976, to his name. Like a too-late Pop Art piece that didn’t quite come off, The Sainsbury Wing, an extension to the The National Gallery in London by Robert Venturi and his wife and associate, Denise Scott Brown, opened in 1991. Desperately iconoclastic: an odd montage of classicism, modernism and brutalism; it isn’t funny at all. Just around the corner and taking up a prominent position overlooking the Thames, Terry Farrell’s oversized, cartoon-like Charing Cross Station, opened the previous year and a little way up-river, known within the intelligence community as Legoland or Babylon-on-Thames, Farrell’s SIS Building, headquarters of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service was finished in 1994. His latest creation however – just opened, the Kingkey Finance Tower, the tallest tower ever built by a British architect, in Shenzen, southern China – from a distance showing clear signs of lessons learned from uncompromising modernist and survivor, Norman Foster, architect of London’s Gherkin, is a streamlined wonder.
Probably the world’s most famous postmodern architect, Canadian Frank Gehry, based in LA, is somewhere in amongst all of this. Gehry (82) certainly built and is still building but, has he just one idea and how much longer can he continue to sell it?
Researching this post I happened across the following: ‘Modern art no longer scandalizes its public. It has become the new academy, a new form of official art. Modernism and avant-gardism, are perceived today as elitist in comparison with postmodernism, in which high culture is no longer viewed as aesthetically superior to popular culture.’ Excerpted from Sociologist Diana Crane, PhD, professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania’s Postmodernism and the Avant-Garde: Stylistic Change in Fashion Design. The John Hopkins University Press 1997.
Time, in architecture terms at least, passes far more slowly than in say the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of fashion. Building projects that were begun over a decade ago may just be nearing completion. In bracketing postmodernism between the years 1970 and 1990, the V&A are either doing it for convenience or are trying to tell us that it has for some time been all over bar the fighting. Perhaps they are hinting heavily that the old postmodern guard, will certainly not be building for much longer. Have we for some time been witnessing the emergence of a new modernism: a more sensitive modernism, informed by postmoderism of its earlier deficiences; excited at the possibilities that the widespread use of computers, smart-phones and the internet have opened up; a modernism that has unceremoniously dismantled and dumped its brutalist, non-user-friendly past; a finely tempered modernism as seen in the fluid, sensual shapes of the architecture of Zaha Hadid and Herzog & de Meuron and the design work of companies such as Barber Osgerby? If so, I wonder what name we’ll give it?
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