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Post-Modernism and Intelligent Design

January 11, 2012



Looking at the end sheet of Architect magazine, the successor of Architecture, which in turn devoured Progressive Architecture, which in turn created the P/A Awards “back in the day,” I began to, once again, think out loud in my head about where the creative brain latches onto its religious beliefs.

In that page was the Fargo-Moorhead Bridge – – a seminal project by Michael Graves that won a civic competition in Minnesota and catalyzed the upbeat sense of color, geometry, material and allusive aesthetics that were a driving force in creating, (at the time), a new, open sensibility.

“Post-Modern” is now a denigrating put-down for most architects. Its viewed as a quaint temporary delusional fever, soon felled by good taste and transcendent aesthetic theology. In giving a talk about the origins of Post-Modernism, Brutalism and Solar Architecture (appropriately enough for the New Haven Preservation Trust)

I was compelled to re-think the origins of these fairly aberrant, brief moments of insurrection against the overwhelming dominant paradigm of Modernist architecture whose pre-eminence is approaching a full century since its breakthrough into academic acceptance.

Clearly, the Neoclassicism of the L’École des Beaux Arts, the Wrightian riffs of the Taliesin cult, and, arguably, the International Style hegemony of mid-century Ivy League American architecture schools not only reflected the contemporary professors’ distilled prescriptive wisdom, but it also applied that prescriptive wisdom at a time when all students at any time in history are at their most impressionable, especially in the Fine Arts educational crock pot.

Fine Arts education ineluctably combines fact and faith.  Those facts and the faith are almost completely blurred, where the canons of whatever theological aesthetic is being taught distorts those art-blind facts-in-evidence – such as a belief that a flat roof can be made an effective barrier against water intrusion or that glass walls provide efficient insulation against temperature change.

But it’s not just posturing professors that distort the actual factual nuts and bolts of buildings into a lock-step harmony of “correct” aesthetics that make academia such a potent force – any self-referential internally-buttressing, closed-loop reality, unless challenged, becomes the exclusive input into young minds that are virtually aching for aesthetic direction, confidence and expression.

New students in design are terrified of looking foolish, unsophisticated or just plain stupid.  When older, wiser heads present an entire system of rationalizing arbitrary stylistic preference, and it becomes a “movement” (like the International Style), students can “hit the beach” of their aesthetic expression with a zealotry that is virtually akin to the extreme convictions of any military exercise.

But where does that leave my generation?  We Boomers felt, or at least most of us did, that the social wallpaper of racism, sexism, and the white male-dominated, Mad Men culture that it served was so heinously distorted that it was virtually a parallel to the absurd historic pastiches applied to iron and steel superstructures so artfully advocated by the last self-sustaining worldwide movement – Neoclassicism.

So it’s with an ironic twinge of self-doubt that when I saw Graves’ Fargo-Moorhead project, my heart fluttered a little bit in gleeful note that at one time, Questioning Authority was the norm.

Sadly, questioning our present norm, – cyber-generated sculptural expression in extremis – is as sacrilegious as the little boy noting that the Emperor was an unwitting nudist. Questioning any academic norm is scandalous when professors invest so heavily in the justification of their advocacy – but in fine arts education where affect grotesquely outweighs objectivity, aesthetically incorrect questions indict the questioner. There are judgments made about those questioners that would be illegal if they were made about those with actual intellectual or physical handicaps.

This level of disdain is only possible when intellectual insight and expression is as shallow as it is for the desperately unsure minds for students grasping at the straws of plausible vehicles for their unsure baby steps of design.  So clearly much of what I do was pre-positioned by geniuses of organic architecture, Ulla and Greg Lesnikowski and honed in the woodworking shop and intricate brain cells of Louis Mackall but ultimately it was formed with the contrarian counterpoint of being at Cornell during the 70’s, where Richard Meier came back with a triumphant lecture to mass ascent and dozens of professors still promoted the transcendent virtues of Modernism even after the “massacre of the Texas Rangers” (three uber-International Style Modernist professors who were purged from Cornell the year before I arrived).

Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man was painted, full size, on the wall of the Freshman Design Studio that all our desks faced. Prior to those professors being purged, many students were compelled to create their projects based on the Corbusier’s dimension/proportion system of the Modulor.  In the complete and slavish mimicry of the affects of an architectural style, that style was not just dogma but morphed into the factual, literal Truth with a capital “T.”

My personal (and now unpopular) truth – a more open, humorous, experientially-based truth devoted to the expression of materiality, bobs on the present overwhelming sea of abstracted, formalist sculpture. This present dominant paradigm is as self-referential as any McKim, Mead and White, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Michael Graves design could ever hope to be.

The question for me and every Boomer designer remains:  Was my being formed in a relatively dynamic, open-ended educational process where the contrarian contrived expression of paper-thin Post-Modernism was probably given too much credibility worse than having no large-scale, counter-cultural, oppositional Alternative Truth for students?

In other words is it legitimate for academia and most of aesthetic journalism to conceptually equate Post-Modernism with Creationism?

Should the Body Architecture aggressively assert that any alternative to the status quo is the aesthetic equivalent to Intelligent Design or Geocentricism?

Or is Architecture confident enough in its essential truths to embrace a variety of conceptual alternatives equivalent to the Steady State, Expanding Universe, Big Bang and Dark Matter postulations in astrophysics?

Everyone reading this knows that question is simply not asked.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Alexandra permalink
    January 11, 2012 10:34 am

    Maybe I haven’t had enough tea yet, but I just can’t get what you’re driving at here.

    “In other words is it legitimate for academia and most of aesthetic journalism to conceptually equate Post-Modernism with Creationism?”

    I’m not up on current academia, but what do you mean by “conceptually equate Post-Modernism with Creationism?” Are you saying that current architectural academia has now done a 180 degree turn since the 80s (when it was late to the party as usual, in terms of general academic thought) and regards Post-modernism as not merely useless, but hopelessly simplistic and antiquated? Because I’d say it wasn’t “simplistic” at all, but mind bogglingly convoluted, pretentious and based on very shaky ideas about history. Sort of like the Post-modernist literary criticism it tried to emulate. 😉

    Every era in architectural academia has its orthodoxy. I started at Cornell the year before you, and the International Style was still the unquestionable dogma. (I remember in my youthful naivete asking why they kept calling it the “International STYLE” while simultaneously insisting that it wasn’t a “style” at all and getting very stern looks.) I guess they have to have dogma because there is no single aesthetic truth, just practical truths like “roofs shouldn’t leak” and “entry doors should be connected to ground level,” and academics who don’t have any “truths” to offer other than the ones that sensible people can find out for themselves don’t get to wear the funny bowties and bellow at other people.

  2. Alexandra permalink
    January 11, 2012 12:47 pm

    “Is Architecture confident enough in its essential truths to embrace a variety of simultaneous conceptual alternatives equivalent to the Steady State, Expanding Universe, Big Bang and Dark Matter postulations in astrophysics?”

    This analogy doesn’t work because the things listed aren’t “conceptual alternatives.” “Expanding Universe, Big Bang and Dark Matter” are all aspects of ONE theory, whereas “Steady State” is a discredited alternative to the Big Bang theory.

  3. February 14, 2014 1:55 pm

    Per your comment to Architecture, it may have something to do with academia itself and the relationship between teaching and publishing. As you’ve often pointed out, there is an aesthetic that the architectural media prefers to publicize and promote. Much like the evening news, if you can tell a story about groundbreaking innovation, challenging some perceived status quo, or about an underdog or outsider in triumph, that energizes the reader more than pointing out all the sensible design decisions that make up a humbly successful building that is both charming and practical.

    Academia on the other hand (not just in architecture, but academia in general) relies on publishing to justify what is right, correct, decide what is progress, achievement, etc. The very concept of peer-reviewed work is engrained in the academic profession and bleeds into every corner of the university world. So in order to justify to a department head or to a university president that our faculty is prestigious and a thought leader, one need look no further than their record of getting published. It is the universal way to show off to someone who doesn’t understand your discipline whether or not you are worthy to teach the subject you teach. And in universities, if you go high enough in the management structure, eventually you get to someone who has authority over you and knows nothing about what you do.

    So there you have it. If you teach, you must publish. If you must publish, you must shout loudest the slogans of what the publishers wish to publish. After all, the only reputable publications are the ones that are “peer reviewed”.

    So how do we arrive at what drives the architectural press? What are the stories they like telling? The outsider, the innovator, the challenge of the classicist status quo. Unfortunately, the view of outsider architects is that it can basically consist of anyone NOT doing neo-classical buildings and instead anything that resembles a modern sculpture or generally lacks ornament and also has lots of glass and a flat roof. And tells some other tale of energy use and sustainable materials or something.

    But how has the chip on the shoulder about challenging the classicist status quo lasted the better part of a century? Is it really still relevant? Resoundingly, the answer is YES. Buildings from a bygone era are very much still in use and existence and it chafes the modernist designer that the uneducated plebians outside of architecture insist on calling these ornate relics “beautiful”, “charming”, “lovely” and various other adjectives that would suggest that humans of average intelligence enjoy looking at them and in fact go out of their way to do so en touristic masse in cities around the world.

    The problem for architecture is that in essence, architects define themselves as different than regular people. Better. Smarter. More educated. So how can we have similar tastes? The architectural press provides a river of new work being done for people who view themselves as superior to the masses to latch on to and make their own so they aren’t lumped in with the idiots that prefer pretty cathedrals, pop music, and McDonalds.

  4. February 17, 2014 1:39 pm



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