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History of Architecture (AP313) | Term Paper | 2013

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The Ocean of Postmodernism

Term Paper for History of Architecture (AP131)

Vandana Vishnubhotla
Roll Number: 02896901611
Sushant School of Art and Architecture

If I were to ask a few people what they knew about post modernism, no two answers would
be similar. Some say it is a return of ornate ideas and decoration while some say it is a
denial that objective truth exists, a denial that certainty can be achieved. Few others
describe it conveniently with the help of well-known architectural examples. What we all
agree to is the notion of reacting to the existing modernist style of architecture,
Postmodernism as an international style of architecture began to crystallize around the mid
decades of the twentieth century.
Postmodernism says there is no absolute truth. But the statement defeats itself because
the statement is absolute. The truth is not taken seriously enough. They talk about things
being relative in nature without proving they are not objective.
Said to be heralded by a return of wit, ornament and reference in response to the
international style of modernism. The trend of contextualism influences the ideology of post
modernists, Centred on the belief that architecture must be context-sensitive. Later the idea
was taken even further to say architecture that lacks historical and traditional context is
Postmodernism has its origins in the perceived failure of the soulless modern architecture,
attempting to explain itself often by quoting extensively from the past architectural styles.
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As quoted by Rossi One can say that the city itself is the collective memory of its people,
and like memory it is associated with objects and places. The city is the locus of the
collective memory.
Robert Venturi is known for incorporating stylized cultural icons into his buildings. He
helped redirect American architecture away from a widely practiced, often banal,
modernism in the 1960s to a more exploratory design approach that openly drew lessons
from architectural history and responded to the everyday context of the American city.
In his ground breaking book, complexity and contradiction in architecture, he challenges the
simplicity of modernism and celebrates the historic examples that nourished his outlook.
However over the years he has mentioned in various articles that interpretations of the
book insisting on post-modernism are completely misguided. It advocates an approach that
venturi likes to call mannerism. Not only a theorist, he is a critically acclaimed designer
whose ideas influence designers even today and is easily one of the most important figures
of the architectural history in the past century.
The classic Vanna Venturi house that he designed for his mother truly tested his beliefs.
The symbolic imagery of shelter made obvious by the exterior, the arch and beam situated
above the entrance, which structurally doesnt support any load but functions as a symbol
that signifies an opening, the exaggerated chimney poking from behind is easily detected.
The entrance located in the centre creates two symmetrical halves which is broken at the
same time due to the difference in the windows style which is based on the function in the
interior. The hearth of the home is where the interior begins to flow out from making it the
centre piece. Placed next to the staircase, which seems like it leads nowhere and hence
completing the core of the house. Venturi minimizes circulation space to provide for large
distinct functional rooms. He has interestingly experimented with scale by providing certain
elements that are too big and the doors for example that are too small compared to the
entrance. Vanna Venturi house is an example of juxtaposing architectural elements, a
definite manifesto of post-modernist architecture that invariably proves his belief in
complexity and contradictions.
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Many of his works or houses were small in stature, specific to the location, site and
historical context. Venturi tried to distance himself for the disengaging period of banal
architecture that prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century.
Complexity and contradiction at first seems to bash modern architecture but venturi merely
expresses his feeling that there exists architecture beyond the cold and firm expressionless
lines. Naturally modernists were not enthusiastic about his approach and he was
condemned for radical deviations from modernism. He attempted to disentangle what he
thought of as flaws when he wrote learning from Las Vegas, a critical study of the Las Vegas
strip. Despite the defects it helped him learn that the strip was there to stay. It was like an
existing landscape that he was appalled by and he was again stigmatized as revolutionary. In
an interview he said we were punished by the architectural establishment for being so
vulgar. But we used it as a vehicle to learn about symbolism.
Many architects find the vernacular of the middle class of America to be so repugnant,
distasteful, and unappealing that they have a difficult time in examining it open-mindedly to
discover its true functionality. (1) To understand modernism it is important to mention
Venturis theory of the decorated shed. A duck house is a building that is obvious of its
purpose, whereas the decorated shed has a hint of ambiguity, architecture without a sign,
hence decoration. This concept opposes the purity and clarity of the modernist era.
Postmodernists value ambiguity, complexity and contradiction in architecture and may not
be able to categorise everything into black or white. Calling for more richness and
ambiguity, Venturi proposed that architects should consider "black and white and
sometimes grey." Rebutting Mies, he declared, Blatant simplification means bland
architecture. Less is a bore."
The idea embodies mysterious architecture, the ambiguity teases us and lures us into
exploration but at the same time Postmodernism seeps into present architecture as well
and we as a generation are so used to it that it seems quite ordinary to the point of lacking
any excitement at all. Thus in a way the realizing moment of todays architectural era is
lacking or strayed.
Americans, as venturi believed, or humanity in general prefers homes that are nostalgic
echoes of the past rather than serve to manner and uncompromising statements of
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orthodox modernism. To be clear venturi has no intention of creating a signature style or
have his buildings thought of as remarkable monuments but they were undoubtedly more
successful than modernist monsters because they were simple and personal and everyday
people could relate to them. Tradition and historical context was never antiquated.
Simply put, good architecture is regional architecture
Architecture in the age of hype faces severe criticism. One example that has been subjected
to this treatment is Michael Graves Portland Public Services building constructed in 1983.
How this well established piece of architecture surmounted its rivals in a competition was
simply because it was a lot cheaper to build. Not that the design is uneventful,but the
manner in which a 15 storey high white elephant as it is mockingly called with its with
regular rows of square windows and over scaled classical elements squats is easily
The architect was asked to make a number of revisions. Many of his architectural elements
had been removed such as his roof top structures, a prime statue and some ornamentation.
The material was changed from stucco to concrete and structures needed revision as well
and despite a tremendous change in the design he managed to win the completion the
second time.
As the number of sleek towers in Portland began increasing, the manner in which this
building seemed to just squat set it apart. The ludicrous colour of the keystone meant to
mock the warm colours of the cities old buildings is what truly stands out. A pedestrian
colonnade that lines three sides of the base was intended to have a traditional feel of the
cast iron buildings meant to be practical as well as aesthetic. Unfortunately Graves columns
lacked any grace of its forbearer and was constructed to be extremely chunky with overly
broad proportions. The pilasters meant to support the keystone try to suggest the internal
program hierarchy. The reflective glass that surrounds the pilasters is yet another
unsuccessful element. It successfully defines the centre of the building but the extremely
flat and smooth nature creates a contrast to the strength of textures used on the exterior.
Even the interior has not provided much scope to the designer due to budget constraint.
The cool colours provide for an elegant entry and a double height lobby. Down lights placed
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on top of the column act as the capital. The first floor has an art gallery overlooking the
lobby and office rooms according to conventional specifications.
It is intriguing how a set of utopian ideas put together were misconstrued to create a
ridiculous exterior and an inconvenient interior even if they were based on a few constraints
such that the building was not well received even by the locals for whom it was meant to be
a landmark and image for reference that subsequently conjured memories!
Unfortunately the storm of public attention failed to transform this building into something
revolutionary. The Portland building lack a certain fluency, the accomplishment of its
ancestors but I feel all pioneering works are willing to risk this form of failure. None the less
the Portland public services building with these qualities has become a potent symbol of
It is indeed perplexing that one of Oregons most important buildings is also one of the most
detested. It is clearly Americas early piece of postmodern architecture, and at the time of
construction it refreshingly rejected modernism winning an award even. Apparently the
frustratingly small windows are a nightmare for the people who work there. Now that it
faces the threat of demolition, it is probably better to get rid of the banal structure than to
spend an enormous amount of money on its deficiencies says the local government. Local
architects must definitely be worried about its future. Determining the value of a
postmodern piece of architecture, it is worthy of historic preservation.
Bernard Tschumi was determined to find a way for architecture to be used for the creation
of society itself, as opposed to the metaphysical hegemonic ideals. He begins by concluding
architectural space to be politically neutral outlining two primary strategies. In the Guerrilla
Building, architecture that rejects the value of form in order to emphasize on the use of
rhetorical act shows that a capitalist organization of space destroys all collective space and
acts not merely the realization of an object for itself, but also the revelation through
building of realities and contradiction of society. (2)This strategy relies of a heavy
understanding of urban structure and not specifically architectural. He opens by trying to
locate political operativity in architecture and the political motivation behing Tschumis
writing and investigation is evident.
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Modernism as a movement fully accepted abstraction which Tschumi refers to as
disjunction. A process which splits the subject, serves as the link between the signified and
the signifier.
In his book Architecture and Disjunction he rudimentarily develops a theory for two forms
of ethico-political architecture but goes on to conclude in the very end that that isnt
architecture. The search for autonomy inevitably turned back toward architecture itself, as
no other context would readily provide for it
Parc de la villatte is a grand project that is no less than the first piece of deconstructivist
architecture. His aim was to create a park that can be experienced by each visitor in his or
her own unique way. But in a culture that already retains shared perceptions it is
questionable, while respecting his intentions.
After years of teaching theory, Tschumis engagement with parc de la villette began with his
participation in a competition in 1976. Displeased with his entry, he tried another time as a
fresh approach seemed necessary. In addition to the obvious requirement of open spaces
he provided for a multitude of interwoven cultural facilities. A complex program appealed to
Tshumis ideology of layering and conflict. For years he had been working with literary texts
and admits a part of his debt to film theory as well. A grand strategy, a framework that
pulled the uncertain destiny of elements together made his entry undefeated. He developed
a unique mix of layers with points, lines and surfaces that is seen in the key drawings
published. Not only does Tschumi claim for this to be a remarkable piece of deconstructvist
architecture, he is also backed up by a long theoretical essay by Jacques Derrida, the
founder of deconstruction. A single dominant meaning meant unsustainability, something
not worth aiming for , not to say the place intended to have no meaning is what make sit
purely deconstrucivist. It is entirely up to the users own interpretation, according to his
sentiment and enjoyment. Deconstructivist theory becomes increasingly unfathomable as
one attempts to explore it in depth.
Not interested in form or the synthesis or form and function separately, Tshumi attacks the
system of meaning, the possible combinations of different elements such as space and
movement and stands for the idea of structure and syntax.
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Without high order syntheses, the three orders of points, lines and surfaces overlaid simply
presents to us parc de la villete a destructured structure. Lack of emphasis upon the
constitution of three spheres, the way they collide and interact is the cause for a desired
effect of deconstruction. For example the space frame that lies beneath the supports of the
canopy waves up and down rhythmically for three and a half meters with every suspension
rod of a different length. According to Tschumi there is no rhythm, no synthesis, no order.
The users perception copes well with such visual conflicts because it seems parallel to the
way different rhythms are set against each other. This is indicative of the fact that the
collisions and disjunctions are what Tschumi seems to relish. It is not that he doesnt not
want a formal identity to exist, but presents the possibility of a cinematic and striking scene.
In his attempt to explain, he sometimes over stresses the productabstract notations,
metaphysical elements, frozen image, constant transformational process cultural baggage
and traditional context is something that Tschumi prefers not to talk about. What Im trying
to say is that the whole argument is about significance, an effort to avoid cultural
complications and stress on creating meaning out of the memory of architecture.
In his essay space violating bodies he talks about the power of architecture on bodies and
the violence it therefore inflicts. The place your body inhabits is inscribed in your
imagination, your unconscious, as a space of possible bliss. Or menace. What if you are
forced to abandon your imaginary spatial markings? A torturer wants you, the victim, to
regress, because he wants to demean his prey, to make you lose your identity as a subject.
Suddenly you have no choice; running away is impossible. The rooms are too small or too
big, the ceilings too low or too high. Violence exercised by and through space is spatial
torture. (2)
As an architect Aldo Rossi gained from the post war opportunities in Italy. Several buildings
were destroyed and there was a high demand for architectural projects. There was however
high competition as well. His inspiration Andrea Palladio, had studied the past and analysed
contemporary needs at the same time. Thus Rossi was inspired to analyse architecture in a
scientific way as well. He used primary shapes and realized his city needed appropriate
architectural rebirth.
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The Segrate town square inspired by the architecture of the enlightenment was built to
express public space as a celebratory space for community life. His thought and imagery is
well reflected in this monument. Soon Milan commissioned Rossi to build Gallarattese
quarters, in the outskirts, as the citys need for housing increased. Constructed in a working
class district, it was standard for architecture to be taken military barracks. In The
Architecture of the City Rossi asserts a similar popular urban spirit of the traditional
European city as an embodiment of a collective history and memory. He notes: One can say
that the city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory it is associated
with objects and places. The city is the locus of the collective memory. (3)


1. Venturi, Robert. Learning From Las Vegas:: the Forgotten Symbolism of
Architectural Form. Philadelphia : the MIT press, 1968. ISBN 026272006X.
2. Tschumi, Bernard. Architecture and Disjunction. New York : The MIT Press, 1994.
ISBN 9780262200943.
3. Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City. New York : The MIT Press, 1982. ISBN

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