Tag Archives: POST MODERN

#90: THOSE WERE THE DAYS: POST MODERNISM AND ROBERT A.M. STERN ARCHITECTS

October 12, 2018

Arata Isozaki’s iconic rendering that inspired an entire movement of architectural representation. Created for MOCA, Los Angeles, California

At the simple age of 24, I was employed by the world-famous Post Modern architect Robert A.M. Stern in New York City. Post Modernism, the architectural movement of the 1960s to the 1980s, may not be the most beloved style of design today and even many despise it. But Post Modernism does at times stutter a comeback in different forms.

Roy E. Disney Animation Building, Burbank, California, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (photo by Xurble)

In my undergraduate years of the 1980’s at UC Berkeley, we enthusiastically studied and exhaustively examined Post Modernism. It was the significant philosophy of art and architecture. This style, in the most elemental explanation, posits the notion that good architecture should provide human scale, harmony and beauty. Sounds obvious? Not always so.

Provincial Capitol Building, Toulouse, France, by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. (photo by Matt Wargo)

Post Modernism, often called “Po-Mo,” reacted strongly against the many buildings of Modernism that preceded Post Modernism. Cold white boxes lacking life and a sense of place–these minimal Modern buildings of steel and glass appeared inhumane to some architects and most day to day users.

Post Modern architects connected their designs to visitors by offering the sense of feeling grounded—offering a building that was simply warm and inviting. The iconography of classical architecture, such as a Greek column or a Renaissance arch, created this grounding. Such traditional features captured what people thought buildings should look like.

Denver Public Library, Michael Graves, (photo from michaelgraves.com)

Establishing the Po Mo movement as a 180-degree reversal from the evils of ice-y abstract Modernism, Post Modernists also added wit and charm. They did so through the use of vibrant colors, by making columns extra tall or extra fat, or by abstracting traditional forms into simple geometry, such as a triangle in lieu of a classical pediment. Though appearing to be merely a campy game of the visual arts, the movement added intellectual irony, rigorous research of historical precedence and proportions, and academic strategies of references.

A battle of history and precedence vs. looking forward to fresh ideas, currently occurring at the AT&T Corporate Headquarters, New York, New York, by Philip Johnson (photo by Kevin Lafontaine-durand); Inspired by a Chippendale highboy chest (photo from 1stdibs.com)
Perhaps taking the concepts of color, geometry and irony too far, the famous Memphis design room by Dennis Zanone (photo by Dennis Zanone)

In my early twenties, I was a smug, obnoxious young designer, which is a trait of plenty of new and naive architects. We believed even at our young age, that we had talents bestowed upon us that would certainly deliver world peace, or something idealistic and absurd like that.

Within Stern’s office of 100 of the best and brightest, I worked with defiance and sometimes too much confidence. Senior architects rolled their eyes in discomfort every time I made a statement of delusion and self-aggrandizing. I don’t know if it is our industry’s competitive style that causes this kind of behavior, or me just being an ill-advised juvenile architect. Maybe it was the Post Modern education that made me brash. After all, the Post Modernists boldly tossed aside the accomplishments of a previous generation, and replaced the old philosophies with new ideas that were forged through poking fun and having fun.

Collage illustrating some of the most well-known Post Modernist designs (photo from dezeen.com)
Robert A.M. Stern (photo by Witold Rybczynski)

On my last day at the office in 1988, Robert Stern gave me words of advice as I was leaving to Cambridge to start my graduate studies. Bob, as he liked to be called, wished me luck with a grin, “Harvard won’t teach you anything about architecture, but they will teach a Californian like you how to dress appropriately.”

(Other essays on Post Modernism: Humor, Tribute to Michael Graves and Lecture on Love. )

#70: THE JOKE’S ON YOU: HUMOR AND WIT IN DESIGN

September 1, 2017

Yes, the façade is intended to look like it is crumbling. The “Indeterminate Façade” of the BEST store, Houston, Texas (photo from siteenvirodesign.com)

Architecture possesses this important and noble side, such as the design of the historic cathedrals in Europe, New York’s September 11 Memorial, or inspiring public schools . But what about humor? Can a building be funny?

Yes! Architecture can be a witty query or a laugh-out-loud punch line.

This International Style by Le Corbusier is certainly tasteful, but it is NOT FUNNY. Weissenhof, Stuttgart (photo by Andreas Praefcke

The 70’s and 80’s spawned Post Modern architecture, here and here. In response to the preceding Modern movement from the Bauhaus, the famous German design school, Post Modernism employed clever metaphors and satire—and even campy spoof. Bauhaus’ austerity in design and self-righteous seriousness had a philosophical challenger in Post Modernism, and the protest was loud.

The entire façade has lifted up to welcome you. The “Tilt Building” of the BEST store, Towson, Maryland (photo from siteenvirodesign.com)
An entry has been created by dislocating a corner of the building. The “Notch Building” of the BEST store, Miami, Florida (photo from siteenvirodesign.com)

Take for example the BEST Products stores completed between 1972 and 1984, designed by the New York design company named SITE. Throughout nine cities, this architecture firm designed large stores which were conceived not just as works of ironic art, but also tongue-in-cheek commentary on the big box stores. Though many critics argued that SITE’s one-liner jokes are vapid, the cleverness in the architecture raised design conversations to fresh new levels.

Piazza d’Italia, New Orleans, Louisiana (photo by Notes From Architecture)

The Piazza d’Italia stands as an iconic example of humor and irony. An endless lists of essays, blogs, books, exhibits, and lectures have both bestowed intellectual admiration, as well as unleashed hostile mockery on this project. This skillful and insane jam session of architecture apparently had inspiration from the Italian immigrant stories of New Orleans. For historicists, purists and contrarians alike, the architecture of this public plaza possesses every idea that floated into the imagination of the architect, Charles Moore.

upper left: A bust of Moore spewing water into the fountain (photo from devriesdesigndiary.blogspot.com); upper right: Angular Ionic column capital reimagined in facets of chrome stainless steel (photo source unknown); lower left: Fragments of history with layers of colors (photo by Polly Neill); lower right: Illuminated with neon (photo by Helena from flixster). Piazza d-Italia, New Orleans, Louisiana (photo by Helena)

Bizarre interpretations of everything from the Roman orders of classicism, to shapes that defy the Vitruvian rules of beauty, function and structural rationality, flaunt their bravado. Moore did not believe that “Less is more.” He supported the quote from fellow Post Modernist, Robert Venturi, “Less is a bore.”

At Piazza d’Italia, the visitor engages confusing references to historic temples, as well as modern materials like neon lighting and chrome. Arcs of water define column capitals in space and time, incomplete colonnades and arches suggest a work in progress, and De Chirico-esque clocks and long shadows critique the passages of life. This masterful work of Post Modernism is accompanied by a courage akin to a standup comedian.

Kitakyushu International Conference Centre, Japan (photo from rebloggy.com)

In these two examples from the earlies nineties, the observer might react with “WTF?” and “Has the architects lost their minds?” On the other hand, one could compliment architect Arata Isozaki’s facile use of geometries and colors to create sublime imagery.

For Kengo Kuma, what might appear to be nothing more than an aesthetic disaster, on further examination, the juxtaposition of everything but the kitchen sink (or maybe including the kitchen sink) has delivered something strikingly surreal and incomparable.

Mazda M2 Building, Tokyo, Japan (photo from ryanpanos.tumblr.com)

In-your-face jokes can be hilarious, but not always so with architecture, as is this unfortunate example of the “Big Basket Building” for the Longaberger Company, makers of wooden baskets. Designed by architects NBBJ, the seven-story headquarters is a basket, literally. At 160 times bigger than a typical picnic basket, the novelty is adroit and the engineering of massive steel planks and plates is fascinating.

Picnic basket (photo from polkcitylibrary.com)

Due to tax debt, the Longaberger had to vacate the property. After 24 months on the market at increasing discounts to the sales price, the architectural novelty had no legs in the real estate market. Unless you sell baskets for a living, no one wants to work in a giant basket.

Whether in architecture or literature, in painting or dance, creative forces can be profound, poetic and beautiful. And such forces can also be light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek and glib. Perhaps all of the above can occur at the same time. And that’s no joke.

Longaberger Company, Newark, Ohio
© Poon Design Inc.