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Trent Kampel-Sierolawski - 1129805 1

Postmodernist rejection of Modernism: Contradictions as explored through Architecture

Trent Kampel-Sierolawski

Student Id:1129805

Tutorial VV

Tutor: Jenny Jimin Sung

November 23, 2010

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The postmodern movement and concepts that underpin postmodernity are

complicated to articulate and difficult to define. There are those who describe post-

modernism as an antithesis to modernity and the modernist movement; however,

consideration of post-modernity in contrast with modernity suggests that this position is self-

contradictory, as illustrated with examples of modernist and post-modernist architecture.

Modernity’s roots can be found in the age of Enlightenment between the late 1600’s to

late 1700’s – an age of exploration, innovation and forward thinking. As such, it is a solid,

defined, exclusive movement away from traditional systems and social values. It embraces

empiricism, objectivity and scientific thought and holds itself high up in the ether as the new

way of the future. Terry Barrett, an art critic and professor of art education at University of

North Texas, in his book entitled “Modernism and Postmodernism” credits the modernist

movement with events such as the American and French democratic revolutions, the First

and Second World Wars, and the thinking of many today. Barrett (1997) indicates that “The

major movements and events of modernity are democracy, capitalism, industrialization,

science, and urbanization.” (p.75)

Architecture fulfils people’s basic needs in providing a place to live, work, play and pray.

Over time architecture has evolved through the combination and modification of styles as

influenced by culture, geography and religion. In the end we have sculpted our environment

into an architectural collage of various forms. This constant recycling and layering of ideas

and beliefs was challenged by modernism and its rejection of tradition, culture, and history.

Mies Van Der Rohe was a pioneer of architectural modernism from the mid 20th century

who sought to define the look of the new modern world. He created a minimalist style of

skyscraper that is now a prominent and well known sight in many cities around the world.
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Mies and other architects of his era were inspired by the Sullivan (1896) “Form follows

function” (pp.403-409) term attributed to the pioneer skyscraper architect Louis Henry

Sullivan and his own “Less is More” van der Rohe (1959) mantra. It states that the form and

shape of a building should reflect the intended use of the building. A notable modernist

structure designed by Mies was the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain for the 1929 Barcelona

International Exhibition - a building (de- and re-constructed) which people have extensively

studied and continue to visit to this very day. In 1958 in New York his Seagram building was

completed and immediately acclaimed by critics. This building may not look very special

these days, as there are knockoffs spanning the globe, but compared to traditional buildings,

such as classical Victorian architecture, it was truly an amazing contrast.

In “Postmodernism comes to Montreal” Mark London (1991) comments on van der Rohe’s


In modern architecture, forms became simple and abstract. The aim was to
purely reflect the building’s function, to clearly express its structure, and
nothing more. Mies van der Rohe offered the ultimate distillation of
Modernism, an elegant, multi-purpose, black box virtually identical
wherever in the world it was located and whatever function it housed”.

The modern architectural movement was taking over the western world, and demolishing

historic buildings and neighbourhoods in its wake. London (1991) writes that “A single

building, with one function, designed by one person and built in a year or two might cover a

whole block, and replace dozens of older buildings erected over time with their rich variety

of materials designs and uses.” (p.134)

It soon became apparent to many individuals that this new age was exclusive and uninviting.

What was once marvelled at as the wave of the future and the ascendance of a new world

vision soon became a burden on the human spirit. It was apparent that something needed to
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change. In his book “The passion of the Western mind: Understanding the ideas that have

shaped our world view” the philosopher and cultural historian Richard Tarnas (1991)

comments on this need for change:

“Most generally, whether in philosophy, religion, or science, the univocal

literalism that tended to characterize the modern mind has been increasingly
criticized and rejected, and in its place has arisen a greater appreciation of
the multidimensional nature of reality, the many sidedness of the human
spirit, and the multivalent, symbolically mediated nature of human
knowledge and experience” (p.407)

Postmodernism was term coined by Jane Jacobs, a Canadian writer and social activist, and

Robert Venturi, an American architect, during the 1960s, to describe the growing reaction

against the modernist movement. Postmodernism was dubbed “Anti-Modernism” by authors

such as Terry Barrett in his book “Moderism and Postmodernism” Barrett (1997): “Post

modernism does not merely chronologically follow modernism; it reacts against modernism,

and might better be called anti modernism.” (p.17)

Architects such as Philip Johnson – initially a modernist architect - were leading the way

to salvation with postmodern architectural projects such as AT&T building in New York City

during the 1980s. This building was truly unique, looking like a giant Chippendale highboy

piece of furniture, and nothing like classical buildings that came before it. Around the same

time period, Johnson was designing plans to build the RPG place building in Pittsburgh. RPG

place looks as though a glistening crystal castle had draped itself overtop of a skyscraper. In

his book “Postmodernism comes to Montreal” Mark London describes this approach as

“Xerox architecture” London (1991):

“…architects would just copy bits and pieces of old building designs and
collage them onto the facades of their buildings. Perhaps the architects,
trained in the modernist period and never having learned the design
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principles of traditional architecture, used the Postmodernist label to

excuse their poorly thought out designs” (p.136)

Instead of dropping modernism and turning completely in another direction, in many cases

postmodernist architectural elements were being appended to otherwise modern buildings,

somewhat like a clip on tie - neither comfortable nor attractive.

Postmodernity acknowledges complexity and embodies skepticism. The postmodern

movement, in contrast with modernism, is inclusive rather than exclusive. By its nature,

postmodernism embraces all movements, including modernism itself – a contradiction to one

of its early definitions as “anti-modern”.

London (1991) refers to Robert Stern, an architect known for his skill in adapting

historical styles into a modern context, as “One of the first postmodernist architects to come

to Montreal preaching the gospel of the new movement...” (p.135)

Stern was a firm believer that modernism was the downfall of architecture and elaborates

on many occasions through books and speeches upon what he thought modernism was doing

to our society London (1991) : “In an Alcan architectural lecture in 1976, he blasted

modernism for destroying all that people held dear in their built environment only to replace

it with abstract and inhuman manifestations of the machine age.” (p.135)

At one time it is clear that Robert Stern was notably an antagonist of modernism, and a

protagonist of post modernism. Perhaps over time he has come to embrace the inclusive and

subjective nature of postmodernism which includes even modernism as part of its domain.

The website of Stern’s architectural firm further describes his views Robert A.M. Stern

Architects, LLP:

Our firm's practice is premised on the belief that the public is entitled to
buildings that do not, by their very being, threaten the aesthetic and
cultural values of the buildings around them. We do not believe that any
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one style is appropriate to every building and every place. We do believe

in the continuity of tradition and strive in our work to create order out of
the often chaotic present by entering into a dialogue with the past and with
the spirit of the places in which we build. (first paragraph) November 23,

There is only one universal truth about post modernity, and that is that it cannot be

defined with a universal truth. It has many different factors that define it in many different

ways. Post modernity includes everything from the past and the present as a continuously

shifting and growing entity, its philosophical meaning and understanding shifting as well. In

architecture, it includes the streamlined minimalism of modernism combined with traditional

values. However, there are examples that reach far beyond this combination. This places us

in a sphere that is actually between tradition, modernism, and post modernism. To define the

essence of postmodernity is an almost impossible undertaking. The main themes and issues

are all present and to deconstruct them into intelligible knowledge is a forever and ongoing


A comparison of modernism with postmodernism reveals a number of stark differences.

Modernity is exclusive - associated with concepts relating to objectivity, scientific thought,

reason and the belief in universal truths, principals and rules based upon empirical evidence

and the rejection of tradition. In contrast, postmodernity embraces plurality, tradition, as well

as feminist and minority histories and influence in addition to patriarchal histories and view

of the world. The constraints and boundaries of objectivism are rejected in favour of a

subjective view of the world acknowledging that there is no “right” concept, methodology or

approach. It is the very inclusiveness of the postmodern movement and postmodernity that

contradicts the “origins”of the movement claiming to be “anti-modern”. A movement

claiming to be subjective and inclusive must, by nature and definition, accept modernism as

simply another way of viewing the world.

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Barrett, Terry. (1997). "Modernism and Postmodernism: An Overview With Art Examples"
in Art Education: Content and Practice in a Postmodern Era.
Edited by J. Hutchens & M. Suggs. Reston, Virginia: National
Art Education Association, Pages 17-30

Demchinsky, B. (1989). “Grassroots, greystones, and glass towers : Montreal urban issues
and architecture. Montréal: Véhicule Press .

Famous Architects. Retrieved November 21, 2010.

[biographies of famous architects]

Galinsky – People enjoying buildings worldwide.
November 21, 2010.[various architectural photos and

London, Mark. (1991) "Postmodernism Comes to Montreal" in Grassroots, Greystones &

Glass Towers: Montreal Urban Issues and Architecture. Edited
by Bryan Demchinsky. Montreal: Vehicule Press, pages 130-

Mies Barcelona. Retrieved November 21, 2010.

[discusses Barcelona pavilion designed by Mies van der Rohe
for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition].

New Views on Complex Issues.

Retrieved November 21, 2010 [glossary – postmodernism].

Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP. Website –. First paragraph.

Retrieved November 22, 2010

Sullivan,Louis Henry.(1896)."The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." Lippincott's

Magazine. March No. 57, Pages 403-409

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). "The Postmodern Mind" in The passion of the Western mind:
Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1991, pages 395-410

van der Rohe, Ludwig Mies.(1959) Speaking about restraint in design, the New York Herald
Tribune, 28 June