Postmodernism and Disco: Together, Forever
Voltaire once wrote, “History is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.” Despite the philosopher’s wisdom, history often provides context for the flow of cultural evolution. But as Voltaire notes, history is often punctuated by events that begin, fascinate, then die; “crimes and misfortunes,” which burn brightly, briefly, and cannot not be sustained. Prohibition, “The War on Drugs,” even the explosion of religion in American life after World War II—all had explosively powerful moments. They were popular, until they were not.
These episodes were not hype, fads, or cults of personality. They captured a moment. In my lifetime there have been two cultural explosions that simultaneously offered alternatives to orthodox architecture and music, for just a decade in the 1970s and ’80s. Rather than start a new tradition or evolve, Postmodernism in architecture and disco in music thrilled and outraged those cultures, while also providing entertainment for many. And then just as suddenly as they appeared, their cultural magic dimmed.
Postmodernism in architecture and disco in music thrilled and outraged those cultures, while also providing entertainment for many. And then just as suddenly as they appeared, their cultural magic dimmed.
Unlike the separate eddies of folk or jazz in music, or Wrightian design or Brutalism in architecture, the disco and PoMo bubbles, once gone, eventually became embarrassments to many who once loved them. And these two cultural movements were nearly concentric, igniting in the 1970s and gone by the ’90s. Why? These twinned aberrations represented expressions of how the dominant paradigms cultures did not reflect how others excluded experienced it. After World War II, there was a lovely river of evolution in mainstream music. Music and architecture both have fascinations apart from their mainstreams, but pieces of swing, jazz, and the blues evolved into rock’n’roll, which slid into rock between 1945 and 1975. Similar to experiencing classical music, people began sitting down and listening to rock, whether it was the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, or Bob Dylan. This is not about live music, where movement was inevitable; record albums came to be a reason to sit and listen. This serious listening did have a drawback: it separated music from bodily movement.
But all music has a beat, a bass clef. As music technology feasted on electronic amplification that was both louder and more central than ever before in the 1970s, the connection between movement and the beat was undeniable. Disco became almost devotional, a continuous connection to the beat and melody of music, sometimes independent of any formal song.
Architecture had evolved into the serious appreciation of buildings as works of “cutting edge” art, often distinct from popular culture. But like the relentless beat in music, architecture always had the pull of decoration, the connection to history, and a vernacular expression that embraced local culture.
Architecture had a similar progression of its mainstream after World War II. The International School eased into the corporate modernism of the 1950s and ’60s—and, despite Frank Lloyd Wright, there was a “correct” way to execute architecture. Like FM-oriented rock, architecture had evolved into the serious appreciation of buildings as works of “cutting edge” art, often distinct from popular culture. But like the relentless beat in music, architecture always had the pull of decoration, the connection to history, and a vernacular expression that embraced local culture. In this world of midcentury modernism, history and decoration were, well, for uneducated design, not for serious, awarded, taught, and published architecture. Then something changed.
Starting in the 1960s, Vincent Scully at Yale connected the most creative architects of today with those of the 19th century. At the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote about the realities of popular culture that were all around us, blissfully ignorant of “serious architecture.” At Princeton, Michael Graves used fragments of the iconic and ornament to propose designs that purposefully used those triggers of our sentimental devotion to create a form of architecture.
Ivy League orthodoxy had conferred the intellectual legitimacy of ornament, humor, history, and popular culture as valid in serious architecture. Like the beat we feel in all music, our collective emotional response to the history and craft of building could not be explained away. At the same time, Baby Boomers bristled at the establishment reins in many parts of our culture, including architecture. Philip Johnson manipulated Chippendale and Palladian detailing into huge and gaudy commissions. Tom Wolfe wrote From Our House to Bauhaus. James Sterling won the RIBA Gold Medal and the Pritzker Prize, while Donna Summer lilted “Love to Love You, Baby” over a pounding disco beat. The same media explosion that hyped popular fads made disco and PoMo the darlings of their worlds for a moment.
Difference, however, is not change. Like the fins on a 1957 Chevy, the endless disco beat, and the tacked-on kitsch detailing of PoMo, those who loved those contrarian expressions overdosed on them. As quickly as they appeared, disco and Postmodernism evaporated within years.
History and hindsight has explained the death of disco as a reactionary, homophobic, racist act of against those who found the music a haven. Disco ceased to exist on most popular music radio playlists. Entire record labels devoted to disco music ended. In 1989, the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music defined Disco as “a dance fad of the 1970s with a profound and unfortunate influence on popular music.”
Something similar happened in architecture, too. The realities of humor, history, and popular culture in architecture became toxic in academia, publishing, and award consideration. Perhaps as magazine editors Walter Wagner of Architectural Record and John Morris Dixon of Progressive Architecture left their posts as the advocates of openness, they were replaced with a safer, more defendable, less-diverse representation of aesthetics, returning to the traditional Modernism that had choked out all others from recognition. Charles Moore and Stirling, who were beacons of diversity in aesthetic thought and leaders in both the academic and institutional worlds of architecture, died. Truly bad architecture, such as Philip Johnson’s International Place in Boston, and music, like Rick Dees’ painful “Disco Duck,” were incontrovertibly shallow and embarrassing.
Like the college romance we would rather forget, some architects professed complete ignorance of their once-fevered devotion to Postmodernism just a few years prior. Thomas Gordon Smith died last week, greatly lamented in his passing, a great human and brilliant educator. But some of us knew him from the amazing colors and columns of his 1984 Architectural Digest feature on a celebrated Postmodern home. Not a word was mentioned of Postmodernism in the vast majority of his obituaries. Instead, his devotion to Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and to “Classicism” was his legacy’s stylistic denominator.
On a 2001 cover in the now defunct Architecture, the face of Robert Venturi was shown, in an allusion to those testifying before the 1950s McCarthy hearings, stating, “I am not now and have never been a Postmodernist.” Ned Cramer wrote that this disavowal was because “many dismiss the [PoMo] movement as an unhealthy deviation from Modernism’s long march of progress.” Sounds like the requiems for the death of disco.
“If there’s one word that confuses, angers, beleaguers, exhausts and contaminates us all, then it is postmodernism,” declared Edward Docx in a 2011 article in Prospect. Why are these passions so desperately disavowed? Why is “dance music” lesser than popular music? Why is popular culture distinct from “Architecture”?
Why did these breaks from the orthodoxies of music and design have a bright flash of extreme appeal, burning out to a generation of regret and recrimination? In music, rap exploded after disco, and its impact has been transformative. Despite self-declared movements like “parametrics” or “green” design, none has definitively emerged. Maybe the only movement for architecture is not a style or even a technology. Maybe architecture as a diverse reality has been absorbed into the internet as a huge cultural cypher. No magazine, competition, or exhibit need apply (or judge).
The thrill of empowerment when any orthodoxy is challenged is palpable. But we can lose sight of what our choices mean. Mindless dancing to disco and the mindless xeroxing of architectural details were unsustainable. Life is richer than either of these things. We either learn from history, or we live as if it does not exist. I loved some disco music, and some Postmodern architecture. There, I said it. Am I condemned?
Featured image created by Duo Dickinson Architects.