Architecture Itself and Other Postmodern Myths is the name of the highly relevant show on postmodern architecture currently on view at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and part of its 40-year anniversary celebratory programme. Its curator is architectural historian, writer, and professor at Princeton University Sylvia Lavin. As she says, explaining the title of the exhibition, ‘One version or another of the idea of “architecture itself” has been used by architects to manage the encounters between things operating beyond individual control. The notion has been called upon since at least the early modern period, when the notion that architecture was a godly rather than human matter was invented, but postmodernity is what gave the idea the power of myth.’

In preparing and researching for this article, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the idea of history. ‘History is written by the victors,’ said Machiavelli (or someone else – fittingly, accurately attributing this snappy phrase is very much open to debate). But what about the person who actually writes it? In architecture for example, is it the architect or the historian who makes history? It would be giving too much power to the historian… But if the historian doesn’t make history, they surely historicise the events that will be remembered over time, and by the same token, if they don’t historicise certain events, they won’t go into history and the future.

The Titanic, 1978. Stanley Tigerman, exhibition print.
One of the big questions of the late history of architecture is why, after half a century, postmodernism hasn’t been yet historicised properly? As Lavin exclaims – out of the facts extracted from the objects and project’s documentation that constitute her exhibition – ‘Why don’t we know this already?’ This brought up the following question: who might be benefiting by not historicising postmodern architecture? We might find some clues in a book published in 2010, by another architectural historian from Columbia University this time, where Kenneth Frampton (born 1930) – one of the world's leading historians of modernist architecture and famous detractor of postmodernism – has been a member of its faculty since 1972. The book called Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again, is authored by historian Reinhold Martin (born 1964), who already warns us in his introduction that: ‘… this is not a history of Postmodernism; it is a historical reinterpretation of some of its major themes. Its subject is architectural thought (…) as much as it is the architecture itself.’

And I wonder, why this architectural historian makes a point of not wanting to historicise postmodernism? We’ll look into this later on. But most important and something that puzzles me: why is it that postmodernism is still such a hot potato? It’s something I’ve never quite understood, since I am a postmodern baby – born and raised in its waters. Because of it, when I learnt about the exhibition at the CCA I decided to make the trip to Montreal to go see it.

Guild House by architect Robert Venturi
I have to say that at first I found its title a bit cryptic. Personally – and I am an architect – I never heard of the phrase before, but as Lavin points out, it starts appearing in the early modern period (a bit before my time). So imagine my surprise in encountering it again, just a few days later, as I was starting to read Martin’s Architecture and Postmodernism, Again book. As I continued reading, it started to dawn on me that with his reinterpretations the author was maybe trying to make ‘American Architecture Great Again!’ and go back to the old modernist critique of postmodernism when it came out 60 years ago, rehashing the same old ideas and references.

As there are Holocaust deniers, there are also postmodernism deniers… Not deniers of the existence of it, but deniers of its importance, its real characteristics and its permanence. With his book, Martin seems to be attempting to efface postmodern architecture by defacing it – calling it a ghost of utopia, one of the main characteristics of modernism – and trying to ignore it or dismiss it as only an ephemeral or unlettered anomaly. This discourse, at the time, could be somehow understood as a fear response to a new order of things – and a lot of misunderstanding – but today it just sounds reactionary.

 Venturi's drawing of a TV for the Guild House

I haven’t asked Lavin and maybe I am wrong, but I have the feeling that this exhibition might want to counter this same old, same old, but prevailing discourse around postmodernist architecture so well exemplified in the very bias of Martin’s publication. I was infuriated while reading it and I am not an architectural historian…

Lavin’s exhibition deals with facts and objects – sometimes incredibly anodyne and bureaucratic – to try to dismantle postmodernism as a floating signifier, anchoring it in the real world of things. As she says: ‘… the presentation of these objects made to fabricate Architecture Itself, inadvertently made them available to be used today as myth deflating objects – which shows what these things actually look like from the back, which is not a very heroic object, but perhaps a more empirically describable and therefore potentially more useful description of what the facts might be.’ And the word ‘facts’ here is most important as opposed to academic theory.

Dismantling myths can be a messy business, but like the CCA exhibition, the best place to start is the beginning, and in postmodern architecture it all starts with Robert Venturi’s Guild House (1960-63) – competing for the honour with his Vanna Venturi House (1959-64), designed for his mother. Exhibit A is the building’s famous antenna. And here I’ll quote Lavin: ‘The Guild House is the first building in the history of architecture to be labelled postmodern, largely because of the fake gold anodised antenna that sat upon the building’s equally faux palazzo configuration, described in the literature as a giant pop art sculpture and ironic image exemplifying the postmodern triumph of images. The first sign of the theory of the decorated shed and according to Venturi: “A symbol of the aged who spend so much time looking at TV.” And it is with that last quote on TV that [Vincent] Scully presents Venturi as not lying: “Here neither good nor bad, but a fact.” Venturi had paid for the antenna himself as if it needed to be defended from accusations.

Slide comparison at Martino Stierli's lecture on Venturi's stay in the American Academy in Rome

‘The Guild House antenna,’ continues Lavin, ‘draws together virtually all the contradictory commonplaces of postmodernism: the interest in history / the reduction of history to images; the address to popular culture / the disdain for mass culture; the critique of pure functionalism / the abdication of social responsibility in favour of  autonomy; the rejection of technocratic professionalism / the embrace of a profession that operated as a small and obnoxious clubby group of men ideally from Yale.

‘What is remarkable about all this is not simply the divided opinion – because to focus on this apparent debate would be merely to reiterate the same questions posed 60 years ago. But rather that despite substantial literature, maybe even because of it, very little effort has been made to fact check the established facts of the antenna; which was not conceived as a functionalist sign, but rather as a fully operating information utility of a kind that was increasingly expected by rental tenants – particularly in the downtown Philadelphia Market area that was undergoing extensive urban renewal, and where a rapidly growing number of cable TV stations were playing a major role in counteracting the reluctance of national networks to cover the civil rights movement unfolding in the very neighbourhood in which the Guild House was built.’

And now let’s take a look at what Martin is telling us in his book about the Guild House: ‘Venturi and [Denise] Scott Brown effectively transpose modern architecture’s search for irreducible truths into the realm of ornament and signage. (…) And so if Guild House is indeed a decorated shed, it is only because the cognitive, spatial transparency, celebrated by historians like Giedion [Sigfried Giedion was the first secretary-general of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, know as CIAM] (…) three decades earlier and still sought by architects like Rudolph [Paul Rudolph, a modernist and brutalist architect and Dean of Yale for six years 1958-44] (…) had been transferred to the two-dimensional surface by architects like Venturi and Scott Brown. Rather than building spaces that verified the functionalist zeitgeist at the symbolic as well as at the practical level and thus be construed as authentic, Venturi Scott Brown essentially claim to be building authentic images.’

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Guild House perspective study, 1961–1966. © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

How interesting and refreshing was hearing Martino Stierli’s comments on the exact same topic during his January lecture on Venturi’s two-year stay at the American Academy in Rome (1954-56), which was part of the Soane Lecture Series held at the Union Club in New York. Stierli is the Philip Johnson Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art and himself an art historian from Zürich.

This was part of the Q&A:

Member of the public: You talked earlier about Venturi’s interest in space and the manipulation of space in his early writings when he is at the Academy, and you show examples of the influence of post-war Italian architecture on Venturi’s work, and we looked at the peeling facades, and the kind of surfaces in the architecture (…) Do you also look at the way in which Venturi creates this dialogue between the surface and the carved spaces in this architecture? Is this something that he was also engaged with through this intersection, either with the historic architecture in Italy or the modernist architecture that he was looking at?

Stierli: I think that’s a very important question. Venturi is very often actually seen basically as the façade architect – no interest in spatial exploration and so forth. I have not actually addressed this but I wanted to show that he actually comes very much from Giedion – from this very modernist thinking where space is God. And if you look at his floor plans, I think you will understand there is actually a great deal of spatial thinking.

To put it in Venturi’s own words: ‘It’s not either/or but both/and.’ 

You can understand better now the reductivist and sort of old modernist discourse that goes throughout Martin’s book, which honestly seems to have been dug out from a time capsule, putting blinders on everything that doesn’t further his cause and bending every single argument to sustain his thesis. The best-case scenario is that Martin has not understood much about architecture since the 1960s and the worse case scenario is that this historian is writing to further some sort of agenda. Naturally, I will leave it for you to judge…

I could go on and on, since all the book is like this, and much worse… He even goes on to call Venturi’s seminal publication Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture – probably the most important architecture book of the 20th century after Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture – as ‘…what appears to have been a series of informed (if dilettantish) musings of the formal properties of the architectural works selected.’

But why would you write about something you obviously don’t like or even understand? The book is obviously about modernism really, or better, for modernism. It feels almost like a crusade, specially directed towards Venturi and Scott Brown, the source of it all. Like with this example of the Guild House antenna. It’s not merely ornament or signage that is the mythology of it. In all Venturi’s work – be it with John Rauch or with Scott Brown there are constantly several layers of meaning interacting simultaneously. And that is Venturi’s genius and sophistication and also the reason why he has been so widely misinterpreted and attacked. Many interpretations and reinterpretations of his work lack that kind of depth and sense of irony, and get stuck in a single element – that in many occasions is even misunderstood, sometimes wilfully.

In that same lecture by Stierli on Venturi’s stay at the American Academy, he came to discuss the less explored connection of Venturi’s work with the (then) contemporary Italian architecture and the neoliberty movement, of which Casa Il Girasole by Luigi Moretti is the only example in Complexity and Contradiction. It was so eye-opening. Ernesto Rogers (a close friend of Venturi’s during his stay) and his architect fellows were already exploring a viable solution for modernism to dialogue with their historic architectural landscape: that is, their context. But you know what? The purist modernist architects, who in their idiosyncrasy rejected historical influence in favour of an industrial aesthetic, were very upset with this dialogue with history – like Reyner Banham (born 1922) who wrote in 1959 a famous article titled Neoliberty: The Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture. And do you know what was Banham writing about in 1986? A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture, 1900–1925, where he goes on to demonstrate the influence of American grain elevators and ‘daylight’ factories on Bauhaus and other modernist projects in Europe. No, you guessed it, he didn’t like postmodernism either.

 Madelon Vriesendorp. Freud Unlimited, 1976. CCA.

So coming back to the wonderful exhibition at the CCA, it is my hope that you will now understand the importance of this project, based on factual and up-to-date information, reflecting on some of the myths that plague this still controversial period. The exhibition presents salvage from the wake of this postmodern story of autonomous signs. Illustrating empirically describable postmodern procedures, the broad selection of material evidence – invoices, surveys, exhibition posters, reproduced models, travel photography, Xeroxed drawings – comes together with a series of architectural fragments to challenge some of postmodernism’s prevailing narratives. Fragments cast off from some of its most recognisable buildings, serve as primary source witnesses to the physical actuality that the myth of ‘architecture itself’ has long deemed irrelevant.

Throughout the CCA’s main galleries, the exhibition is organised around seven thematic groupings that each describes the shortcomings of an otherwise mythical aspect of postmodernism. Visitors encounter re-readings of the neutrality of architecture institutions, the inherent communicative abilities or architecture, the specificity of architectural research techniques, the postmodern architect’s independence from commercial interests and positioning as a humanist, and the artistry that is thought to have produced postmodern images.

If you can’t get to Montreal the good news is that Architecture Itself and Other Postmodern Myths will also be a book, serving as an extension of the counter-historiography of postmodernism presented in the exhibition. Original texts from Lavin and contributions from 16 other authors study the material evidence to dismantle the predominant narratives held against postmodern architecture and architects. Designed by Anna Haas (Zürich) and co-published by the CCA and Spector books, it will be released in English and French editions in June this year.

But to end this article I would like to quote Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt – curators of the first retrospective of postmodernism in the arts, design, and culture in general, called Style and Subversion 1970-1990 held at the V&A in London in 2011 – from their opening essay of the wonderful catalogue that accompanied the exhibition. The essay ends like this: ‘…why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday? Because like it or not, we are all postmodern now.’

Architecture Itself and Other Postmodern Myths, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, until 7 April, 

This article originally appeared in DAMNº71. 

DAMNº71: A Woman’s Work / Saskia de Brauw & Vincent van de Wijngaard / Wendy Andreu / Broken Nature / Cyber-urbanism / ecoLogicStudio / Geo-Design / Alexandre Humbert / Navine G. Khan-Dossos / Leonard Koren / Movie interiors / Radical Cut-Up / Miko Revereza / Klaas Rommelaere / SAVVY Contemporary / Shapereader / Thonik / Andrew Waugh

This article appeared in DAM71. Order your personal copy.