Just Don’t Call It a Revival: Adam Nathaniel Furman Defends Postmodernism
Architecture publications and websites have condemned the Postmodern revival since at least 2011, the year that London’s Victoria & Albert Museum mounted a major retrospective on the design movement. For Dezeen’s 2015 “Pomo Summer,” Sam Jacob declared the revival a trap. Not to be outdone, Sean Griffiths, Jacob’s former partner at the architecture firm FAT, followed up by calling the revival politically dangerous, a conclusion echoed in last fall’s Dean’s Roundtable at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan, when Ila Berman compared it to MAGA (Make Architecture Great Again). Yet this is one movement that seems to grow only stronger as the critiques pile up. By last year, Thomas de Moncheaux took to the pages of Metropolis to throw up his hands: If Joseph Rywkert pleaded for “No-Mo!” back in 2011, now it was time for “Mo-Po.” Rykwert’s quote came from a recently published book, Revisiting Postmodernism, by Terry Farrell and Adam Furman. Furman, a London-based artist and designer singled out as the face of the Postmodern revival by Griffiths, replied to my piece on the Dean’s Roundtable with a, well, spirited e-mail. So I called him up to hear his side of the story.
Nicolas Kemper: NK
Adam Nathaniel Furman : ANF
Why is the book called a Postmodernism revisit, instead of a Postmodernism revival?
It’s a little bit like it was a destination that was not allowed. It was a library that had been closed, and it’s a library that we’re once again allowed to revisit. It’s not a matter of reproducing Postmodernism, but of reincorporating it into the canon of what we’re allowed to study. So many architects turn it into something really controversial, when it’s not—it’s simply part of our body of knowledge. And you cannot fucking cordon off a whole area of knowledge from students.
Is there something pejorative about calling it a revival?
So, living in modernity—where the world changes at a rate that’s very difficult for humanity to keep up with—biologically means we are constantly in a state of nervousness. The byproduct of that is we are also in a state of nostalgia. Nostalgia is not optional—in modernity it is always with us, the question is how you manage it.
One route is reconstructive nostalgia: You pinpoint a golden era in the past, whether that be socialism in the 1960s for a lot of British people now, or it be neo-classicism of the 18th century, and you reconstruct it as being the ideal period in history where everything was perfect. That’s extremely dangerous. That’s revivalism. Through a nostalgic construction of an ideal past, it erases history and it erases the present. It’s a violent thing.
Partial nostalgia, on the other hand, approaches history in an impartial and reflexive way, which understands it cannot be repeated. Partial nostalgia is fragmented, self-aware, reflexive, and always incorporates the best of different periods. So that’s why to me the word “revival” is super-insulting and extremely dangerous.
Let’s take a step back. What is Postmodernism?
The canonical idea is those who design with a bent toward communication. They use the formal tropes as laid down by [Robert] Venturi and [Denise] Scott Brown. And then those formal elements make up a sort of recognizable language. That’s what you would say if you go on a tour around the city with a bunch of middle-aged people wanting to know, “What style is that?”
But then, on the other hand, there’s the fact that Postmodernism became an umbrella term that included, whether correctly or not, many other approaches. As a student, I was looking for ways that architecture could embody identity in ways not offered through the technophiliac and fetishistic phenomenological approaches then prevalent in British schools. And what I found had effusive skeptic expression, because that tends to be what happens when you are trying to embody complex issues visually. They were always rejected by my teacher as “shit Po-Mo,” “shit Postmodernism,” “fucking Postmodernism,” you know: “Don’t discuss that, get rid of that.” And it was all dismissed as sarcastic, ironic stuff.
You can still do the test now. If you take anything that is visually exuberant and happens to call itself architecture, no matter what it is, and you show it to a professor, I bet you that most of them will just dismiss it as Po-Mo, no matter the complexity of its origins.
In his article “Now Is Not the Time to Be Indulging in Postmodern Revivalism,” Sean Griffiths specifically calls you out, as well as this idea that buildings can “speak.” Can buildings speak?
Yeah, to be honest, in one way I agree with Griffiths. I don’t think that architecture is a language, and I don’t think it can be directly communicable in a syntactical manner. I just don’t. This is a very fundamental thing about me as an artist and a designer. And I’m very suspicious of symbols and signs, because they are a very specific and top-down way of defining content and meaning. So I agree with him.
But my conclusion is completely different. I profoundly believe that architecture communicates emotions and atmospheres on a very physical, sensual, and profound level. I think it can work as a text, if you’re an architect and you’ve been trained in Yale to read a building, you’re swamped in Rowe or whatever, but I don’t think anyone can ever actually get the same meaning out of it, unless they were trained by the same teachers.
I’m a bit more West Coast: It can communicate, but on a different level. And I am a very profound believer in that. Whenever you make a building, it does speak, or it hugs you, or it gives you an impression, no matter what you do. Particularly as an architect, you have to be in control of that. I think it’s impossible for it to say nothing.
I would rather talk, not about what my building necessarily says, but the impression that it gives should be — and then I have lots of dot dot dots. Does that make sense?
Yes. Although it’s a little bit evasive.
No, tell me how it’s evasive.
I guess you’re saying that you agree that it’s syntactical, that it can communicate, but it’s more about the impression than the—
No, I’m saying absolutely I don’t agree it’s syntactical, and I don’t agree it can communicate to anyone except those who are indoctrinated in the architect’s language from a specific tutor to read it in the same way.
But come, there are certain signs and symbols that, if you were to put them on your building, would draw a large response that you could more or less predict. Don’t you think that means that signs and symbols still have meaning and can communicate to larger society?
Yeah, you have a good point; there are a very limited and specific range of symbols, which still can communicate to wider culture, but they’re extremely limited nowadays. The only thing that people can really all communally understand are commercial logos, which is something pop artists pick up on and are critiqued by Venturi, Scott Brown—or very few things, like emojis. I’m a quarter Japanese, so I’ve got an interest in that.
Can you see how this might frustrate people who consider themselves to be politically oriented, because they want to have an explicit agenda with an explicit goal, and they want to think that they’re communicating to the public, and so to encounter people who say, “I’m producing work that does not communicate,” even though it uses lots of symbols—
Can I just give you an example? Have you ever been to a drag club?
I have not been to a drag club.
OK, that’s sad. You should. You’re in New York, for God’s sake.
Where is this going? Other than a drag club.
So if you go to a drag club, and there’s a long list of other alternative spaces that you can go to, people there actively spend their entire lives orchestrating and constructing identities. They express them, deceptively, through their environment, their ornament, their fashion, themselves, their bodies and their faces, but in noncommunicative ways that you would not call, or an academic from Yale would not call, linguistic or symbolic.
And yet, what do they do? They precisely embody incredibly complex, entire communities through individual approaches. And that is what prelinguistic is. The moment you get linguistic, you turn into Peter Eisenman, or Robert Venturi. And that’s not what I’m about; it’s not what I’m interested in, it’s not what my friends are about. It’s not what the fucking queer community in London is about—sorry I’m from North London, we swear.
It’s fine, no worries.
It’s not the weird thing, trying to avoid the issue, it’s just something that’s not been allowed to be present in academic or hierarchical approaches to architecture.
What then are the pitfalls of the overly linguistic, the Peter Eisenman approach?
Well, Robert Venturi and Peter Eisenman, it’s you East Coast people: Your frames of debate trap the way things can be understood sometimes.
So the prelinguistic approach, the drag clubs, and the linguistic approach, which I guess would be Colin Rowe and Peter Eisenman and Venturi. How do those two talk to each other then? Or do they just kind of have to exist side by side?
Well, in my work they talk to each other constantly. I’m sort of a theory freak; I enjoy it, but at the same time I’m impulsive. On a Versace level, I can’t stop drawing shit. I want glitter everywhere.
The former, the prelinguistic, has always been sidelined. It’s always been dismissed as camp, or as “fucking shitty Po-Mo,” or “that’s just weird Memphis shit.” Just because there’s some sort of visual parity or exuberance or something that they don’t like. Or it’s been dismissed as women’s work, or folk art, or there’s always categories which these things get put into even if people do pursue them. So I personally think there’s a wonderful dialogue that can—should happen.
There’s this thing that Peter Eisenman once said—I don’t know if it’s a proper quote, but apparently he once said, “There’s no way you could know what architecture is, you just smell it, you just feel it in your stomach.” There is a kind of understanding from most of the architects that I meet who are really good and I get on well with, that there is a level of design that occurs, which is not discussed, and it exists and you can also harness that.
At last fall’s Deans Roundtable, the moderator compared Postmodernism to MAGA—Make Architecture Great Again. What do you make of that strong reaction?
I can’t speak to the United States. It’s very difficult, because these things are so specific to academic environments. I have a horror of any students who pick things up uncritically. So my students are not allowed to pick up postmodern tropes. They’re not allowed to do bad and inadvertent comments just because it’s fashionable. They have to ask why, why are they doing it; they have to tell me why, why do they want to do it, what is interesting about it. Whether they’re researching a radical account of San Francisco and the Haight district of the mid-’60s and its spatial embodiment or they’re researching Venturi.
I don’t give a shit what they’re doing, if they’re doing it critically, with an understanding of why it’s compelling and interesting in relation to contemporary conditions and issues. Then why the hell would you ever stop anyone from doing anything? I just don’t get it. So it’s difficult for me to answer, because I don’t blanket ban things, and if students in a university are uncritically regurgitating things, it’s the fucking teacher’s fault. They shouldn’t just ban it; try to engage as to why the students are moving toward something in an uncritical way. But perhaps if they interrogated a bit more, perhaps there’s a bit more under the surface, and they can get to the depth of it.
What about the fear that Postmodernism is wasteful? That all that time and effort on ornament and multivalent identities means neglecting or sometimes even jeopardizing other priorities, such as sustainability or affordability?
I don’t think it jeopardizes, it does the opposite: Architecture that is aware of its own aesthetic construction can actively embody and render tangible otherwise abstract issues like those, make them real.
Where would you draw the line between what a traditionalist does and what somebody who is revisiting Postmodernism does?
Can you help me out a little bit with what you mean by traditionalist?
People who enthusiastically build a Georgian house, or—
Ah! How can you ask that question? They’re diametrically opposed.
They’re saying that this is a language that can be adopted and played with, they’re not literally reproducing, and they’ll point to lots of subtle things that they’re doing that are different than anything that’s come before.
To be honest I do have good traditionalist friends—I even gave a talk to Robert Stern’s office when I was in New York last April, and we got along well. But just on every level, I guess, I really, really oppose them. I mean, I’m a pluralist; I believe that does have its place, but I do find it extremely dangerous if we go back to reconstructive nostalgia. I do feel that there are those who want to reconstruct the past, a past that was never perfect and didn’t really exist, and they want to erase the complexity of the contemporary condition.
Does that only apply to traditionalists?
The funny thing is, I think that word “traditional” or “traditionalist” can equally be applied to a lot of people operating in a near-modernist mode. The mentality is very similar, the inability to deal with the complexity of the present, and the need to construct things for yourself.
You know, there are two types of ironies. There’s sort of terrible irony, as far as I’m concerned, which is a critical irony. This is where you don’t commit to what you do. It’s like a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge”—you don’t really mean that, but it’s the sort of placing of a façade on a building that is a sort of cynical critique of something. It’s like a cold distance that one has from one’s subject.
There’s also a generational shift away from that, and I think that there’s a move—and a leap, and it’s going to be a great one—toward poetic irony, which is what has always existed much more in the artistic realm. Which is the understanding of irony as things being able to coexist at the same time that don’t necessarily make sense together, but in some way maybe do contradict each other, and yet in some way they can coexist within a sort of multiple existence.
There is a move away from cynical, critical distance, which is just a very, sort of, postmodern ’90s, ’80s—you know, ironic distance—and much more toward a sort of earnest embrace of irony as a creative methodology.
How does irony tie back to the traditionalists?
I think with the traditionalists, there’s neither critical nor poetic irony. It’s just entirely earnest.
Why is it that so many Postmodernists became traditionalists?
Well, I don’t know, but I think you may be referencing the sort of really famous, canonical, American guys, of which there were not many. But I guess you understand that I am referring to a much broader field of radical practitioners who ended up not really having careers. I have huge respect for anyone who manages to get anything built and has any kind of cultural content or any kind of theoretical interest, because it’s such a difficult thing to do, but I’m not massively interested in the high Po-Mo guys, who then did whatever.
My last question comes from a friend of mine who told me I should always ask it, because she was tired of interviews with people where they always seemed really on top of their game. It’s not really related to the core topics, but rather your development and career. Could you talk about a moment of failure?
I’ve had multiple failures. I’ve got loads of failures. Left, right, and center. I got kicked out of high school. I flunked my A-levels, which is what you do when you’re 18 to get into university. I got the worst exam results in the history of my school when I was 13, which is another big exam. I tried really, really hard to be an architect in offices; I tried for eight years and was just shit at it. I applied five times to teach at the AA and then teach at the studio, and I never got it. I’ve applied to, oh, endless residency positions. In the end I got one—and come on, you’re an architect now, how many competitions have you done? I’ve never won a competition, and I’ve done a lot, never even gotten on the short list actually. How else am I a failure?
You are, though, acing this question.
Yeah, I’ve got a lot. You know, I desperately wanted to get into the Slade, which is the great art school at UCL; I failed to get into that. I really, really wanted to get into Bartlett; didn’t even get an interview. When I went to get a job initially, I think I applied to over 50 offices; didn’t get one. Yeah, I mean, multiple failures along the way. Oh, yeah, and then I had the office I tried to start back when I initially graduated, and that failed.
This is a remarkable streak of failures.
Yeah, but I’ve had a lot of good teachers. I’ve been really lucky, and I’ve actively sought out good teachers. And teachers who were not just teachers of architecture, but teachers of life in architecture. And teachers who’ve had a difficult time and who didn’t fit in.
That’s how you navigated, or you knew this was coming your way?
Yeah, I did, and to be honest I expected worse in many situations.
Even when you were 13?
No. I had bad learning disabilities. So they actually thought that I was highly underdeveloped at school. I couldn’t read or write until I was 8. So, yeah, I just—I had a lot of difficulty in school. That also prepared me to not expect everything to always go great and then just find things along the way that I could pat myself on the back with. I think when you’re really shit really early on, in order to be able to go on, you learn to find ways to tell yourself you’re OK. And to not always need affirmation in places where other people are normally getting it. You look in other places. And I think the way I used blogging and then social media was a way to circumvent standard architectural routes for success and ways of getting affirmation.
I had a tutor at the AA, Pascal Schöning, who taught the studio called “cinematic architecture,” where people would just make films for a year. You would present a film, and they laugh at you, and it would be shit, and you’d be like, “Oh my God, I was so bad, I can’t believe I showed that.” And you’d want to cry. And he would look at you—he was German, with a cigarette in his hand—and he’d go, “It is good. It is so terrible, it is good. Because you must fail, then you must fail again, and then you must fail better. But you must always fail.” And he would tell that to all of us. And he was basically saying: If you weren’t failing you weren’t trying to do something interesting or worthwhile.
Well let’s end there.
So, to just give a very quick summary: To me, the aspect of postmodernism that matters was the incorporation of otherness, alternative states of being, and aspects of politics, which can be embodied aesthetically in a liberal manner.
Got it. I’ll just write that down and forget the rest.
Featured image: the interior of Democratic Monument by Adam Nathaniel Furman. All photos courtesy of the designer.