Is Postmodernism the new MAGA? It was an unexpected connection Ila Berman, Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia, posed: “Is this just another, ‘Make Architecture Great Again’ moment, that’s aligning with what’s happening politically?”
Berman was moderating the recent Dean’s Roundtable, an annual gathering of educational leaders in the northeast, orchestrated by the Center for Architecture, who frame it as a discussion of “current directions in architectural education.” The event came after an Architecture and Design College Fair held earlier that day—two parents and their college-aged children sat next to me—lending the discussion a slightly promotional air. Nevertheless, Berman did a good job of confronting the participants with some uncomfortable questions.
She warmed up with a softball, the impending midterms: “It’s an extremely scary time, given the mounting racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia in this country. Two years ago, immediately after the election, everyone was saying it was uncertain. Now I think we’re a little more certain about where things are going.” So, she asked them, how do we educate our students to be responsible and ethical leaders? How do architects have an impact in areas like “spatial justice, environmental justice”—without compromising on design?
The Deans replied with good news: more diverse schools with increasing numbers of immigrants and ever improving financial aid; curriculums concerned with not just, as one dean quipped, “How to make the best beach house in Southampton, but also how to be better citizens”; students skilled in the ways of Instagram and social media who, as the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s (GSD) Toshiko Mori, put it, “come out with values and the ability to communicate them.”
Only Evan Douglis, the Dean at the Rensselaer School of Architecture, was less optimistic: “Students are still comfortable being passive—the teacher is the mentor, and that’s deeply unfortunate.” He contrasted these attitudes with those from the 60s: “I remind the students: the parents have fucked up, and it’s their children who have to take the country back.”
Berman then took the conversation into less comfortable territory: diversity and the #metoo movement. “I am looking around, and we’re at about twenty percent,” she said. Of fifteen at the table, only four were women. One was Asian. Most of the deans were nevertheless upbeat.
“We moved swiftly, because we had the largest number of people on that list,” said the GSD’s Mori, referring to the infamous “Shitty Architecture Men” spreadsheet that circulated earlier this year. After consulting the students, she described two measures the GSD implemented: since the students did not trust their administration, the school set up a parallel, independent structure to adjudicate harassment claims. Similarly, visiting professors often did not know the harassment protocols already on the books, so the GSD set up a test on those protocols for both visiting professors and faculty (you need at least an 80% to pass).
“The elephant in the room,” said Andrea Simitch, the Dean at Cornell, “is our own school was supported by Richard Meier.” Architecture’s most prominent man to fall, the Pritzker Prize winner Richard Meier, had been both a Cornell alum and a generous supporter of their program. The day after the New York Times article on harassment issues in his office, Cornell cut ties, returning a gift Meier had given to name the Chair of Architecture in his honor.
“We were once thought of as the school of old white men,” said Joel Sanders, representing Yale in Dean Berke’s stead, noting that for the first time the school’s dean is a woman, along with 65% of the student body. Robert Kirkbride, Dean at Parsons New School of Design (student body 70% female), emphasized diversity and excellence go together: “No one wants to hear they were hired [for their race or gender] – they were hired because they are the best.”
Several deans also made the point that diversity and harassment are not the same thing: just because the demographics look good does not mean behavior has changed. Kevin Hom, Dean at the New York City College of Technology, differentiated between the culture of powerful and therefore sometimes predatory designers, who can be readily outed, and microaggressions, rooted in societal attitudes, for which we are all culpable.
Hom, the one Asian Dean at the table, was more direct about the work left to be done: “Do you know how many Asian academic Deans there are at CUNY? Two. And that’s at a school with 240,000 students. How many principles are women at major architecture firms? Just a handful. I think we have to say: ‘We’re pissed off. This is not right.’ So we have to agitate. We have to make it a thing. We do not accept this in the academic realm, we do not accept it professionally. And we have to let the students know they should not accept it either—and that they should go forth and make a stink.”
Amidst this activist fervor at the table—the insistence that all were arm-in-arm with the resistance, Berman brought the conversation to its unexpected conclusion, the Postmodern revival: “The marker, or signifier for me, was when Rem Koolhaas curated the Venice Biennale and the topic was ‘Fundamentals.’ And it was about the elements of architecture, and a flash went off in my brain, and I thought, Oh, it’s coming—this retrenchment.”
Julio Fernandez, Chair at CCNY’s Spitzer School of Architecture, had first broached the topic, suggesting some schools had lost focus. His evidence? “Many schools here have moved to a re-evaluation of Postmodernism, why? Our school is not a lab for Neo-PoMo. We have better things to do.” Suggesting it could eclipse the activist possibilities of the resistance, he concluded, “I don’t want this moment to be lost.”
In this context, Postmodernism seemed like a non-sequitur, given our precise moment in history: when California is burning, liberal democracy is in peril, authoritarian impulses are on the rise, and affordable housing remains unaffordable.
In this context, Postmodernism—an affinity for patterns, colors, basic forms, for ironically quoting history by including, say, a non-load bearing arch or an unnecessary pediment—seemed like a non-sequitur, given our precise moment in history: when California is burning, liberal democracy is in peril, authoritarian impulses are on the rise, and affordable housing remains unaffordable.
To understand why it came up, we have to look at 1960s, the last time architecture students were filled with this much activist energy and the formative years for most of the Deans at the table. It is an irony of architecture’s current establishment that many trace their own authority to the toppling of the last establishment: The 1968 dissolution of the ur-architecture school, Paris Ecole des Beaux Arts, was an event for which Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas both claim to have been present. At one point, demonstrating students locked an administrator inside a glass parking booth while the students, Tschumi wrote, fed him “a number of tracts and copies of the revolutionary newspaper ‘TOUT’ to read.” Eager to stay out of that booth, today’s deans go to great lengths to show they’re on the side of the activists.
The Postmodernists, arguing such activism was just show, eschewed it. Robert Venturi, who in his 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, suggested that the activism might have even distracted architects from making good buildings: “The architect’s ever diminishing power and his growing ineffectualness in shaping the whole environment can perhaps be reversed, ironically, by narrowing his concerns and concentrating on his own job.” In the 1980s, Venturi and his acolytes took the schools – and then the firms and eventually the zeitgeist – by storm. While the Postmodernists and their mostly corporate clients threw a party across the skylines of America, the Reagan administration stripped funding for the federal housing and environmental programs which had been a mainstay for socially driven architecture.
It is a stretch to say the Postmodernists birthed Reaganism, but at the Dean’s Roundtable, Berman drew the connection: “I was around in that moment between the 70s and 80s and watched how all of the environmental and social issues fell off the table…”
It is a stretch to say the Postmodernists birthed Reaganism, but at the Dean’s Roundtable, Berman drew the connection: “I was around in that moment between the 70s and 80s and watched how all of the environmental and social issues fell off the table, and architects were operating within a different sphere. I’m concerned when I see it happening again.”
In naming PoMo the enemy of progressive values, the Deans embraced a position articulated by Sean Griffiths, in a Dezeen article from October 2017: “There is one big reason why now is absolutely not the time to be indulging in Postmodern revivalism. Its name is President Donald Trump. And while Donald Trump means that golden Baroque remains transgressive, it is now transgressive in a bad way. Bigly so, to coin a phrase.”
Michael Young, representing Cooper Union, chose this question as the time to make his first comment of the night. Acknowledging that his school has a reputation for precisely the sort of pure architecture and back to basics that Berman fears, he argued that everyone is nevertheless on the same page: “When I see a going back to basics, when I see a Neo-PoMo, when I see this kind of return, it freaks me out.”
If this seems like a team missing his opponent, it was. Venturi’s acolyte—one of his first proponents and a sometimes Postmodernist himself—has been gone from the roundtable since he stepped down as the Dean at Yale in 2016.
If this seems like a team missing its opponent, it was. Venturi’s acolyte—one of his first proponents and a sometimes Postmodernist himself—has been gone from the roundtable since he stepped down as the Dean at Yale in 2016. “Bob Stern,” Berman said, “is not sitting in the room anymore, but for years was always the advocate for ‘architecture is just the art and practice of building.’” Or as Robert Shibley, the Dean at Buffalo, added: “Everyone spoke to the next edge they were pushing on, all the way around, year after year”—and Bob Stern pushed back.
Young, however, still offered a little opposition: “We have to understand one of our strongest political positions is within aesthetics. It is what we do. We alter the background of what people assume to be the way the world looks.”
Here was a statement in the spirit of Venturi, a call away from conflating a slogan or set of statistics with architecture. Yet instead of Stern’s call to architecture as building, it was a call to architecture as the more malleable “aesthetics.” It put Young in line with John May, a partner in the firm MILLIONS and professor at the GSD, who recently authored an essay in Log entitled, “Everything is Already an Image.”
In it, May argued that what architects make now are not buildings, or drawings, but images. In that sense, this put him in line with today’s Postmodernists, who have built almost nothing. Most of their work is student graphics, exhibits, models, or competitions.
If it was once the activists versus the builders, now it’s the activists versus the image makers. Of course, to frame the matter as a simple opposition is to impoverish both sides. Berman was clear from the onset that she would rather see no such opposition. Indeed, she concluded with a line that could have come from May’s argument: “Architects translate fictions into reality on a daily basis, that is an incredible power.” That is to say images—especially potent ones—rarely stay just images.
Featured image: Bolivian architect Freddie Mamani, via ArchDaily.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misrepresented the new policies and protocols put in place by the Harvard GSD.