It is entirely possible to love the current exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion at the V&A and find in it a sign of why Post-Modernism is at a dead end. Much as Postmodernism is being offered to us as a design strategy that will help on a political level deal with the current economic system this exhibition charts why that cannot and happen. For whilst the cover of a recent architecture magazine proclaimed a Radical Postmodernism and Charles Jencks contended again with ever diminishing impact, that we are effectively living in an cultural landscape of multiple postmodernisms, in fact what this superb exhibition opening at the V&A shows is that far from living in a culture where historical or popular culture references are somehow radical they are in fact a dead-end and particularly in the world of architecture.
What is most striking is that the apparently most ephemeral works – graphic design such as Peter Saville’s work for Factory records and Vaughn Oliver’s work for 4AD have aged far better than the models of Charles Moore or even Arata Isozaki. The mannerly appropriation of historical design tropes is as much to do with the death of the future as it with the a strategy of coping with the dominance of capital. As Diogo Seixas Lopes has identified, the Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena by Aldo Rossi is an acme of this sense of dislocation with the future. The phenomenal theatrical power of the project arrives from a double melancholy – a death of an attitude to death. Rossi’s use of renaissance perspectives in his drawings for this project merely highlight the impossibility of calling that idea back into life. It is an incredibly personal vision and one which gives this exhibition its charge, but, it is also a melancholic moment. We can only pretend for a moment that we still look at the world this way.
Indeed the game Postmodernism plays with the past is more complex even than the games of quotation we know. A post-modernist project like Moore’s Piazza is an argument with an imagined version of Corbusian urban planning. Post-modernism takes no account of what Colin St. John Wilson called the Other Tradition of Modern Architecture. Only if we utterly discount the ideas of architects like Alvar Aalto can we say that post-modernist planning reintroduced the ideas of human scale, and the pre-eminence of the pedestrian. As Frederic Jameson noted the historicist turn in postmodernist literature was prefigured in architecture. It can’t be Postmodernist if it doesn’t play with the past.
And once you play with the past, what a strange unhappy land you find yourself in. This exhibition is shot through with an air of melancholy – the loss of a childhood innocence in relation to an object accounts for the odd charge that Memphis’s design artefacts still have. The sound of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman seeps through the entire installation. The shooting of Zhora in Blade Runner becomes its most powerful moving image. Through obsessing on our own memories as the anchor of our humanity, those memories themselves become illusive. This is why the curators claim Blade Runner as a postmodernist text par excellence and initially sceptical I left convinced. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion portrays an artistic strategy that communicated alienation as much as it did a self-awareness.
This melancholy actually works well in graphic design and music videos. That quality of popular music which as Neil Tennant makes you feel happy and sad at the same time. Postmodernism is revealed to be something rather adolescent: an awareness that one is not in control of the world’s values but is part of the world. This feeling permeates the two dimensional design work of that period. Architecture though must provide more. It must express more than a sense of detachment from the world. It can’t be the equivalent of a New Order video as wonderful as they are. It operates in constructing the future and is celebrating its own failure if it is somehow alienated. That this should actually attract designers to it as a philosophy today is an indictment of their ambition.
This exhibition also shows how architects themselves are partially to blame in creating the problems we have today. We may deride the way that he or she has lost her place within the practical system of delivering a building but then the narrative arc of this show also contains moments in which designers are clearly exchanging their role as social visionary for his 15 minutes of fame. Through architects creating design artefacts we see rising our existing system of exceptionalism – where architects are given carte blanche with grand projets but curtailed in the quotidian business of designing schools and hospitals.
There are a whole raft of architects who still operate as modernists. They tend to be our most thoughtful designers as well. I’m probably alone but I think that OMA and that offices spin-offs such as REX operate within that modernist tradition. Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works has expressed a belief which this exhibition bears out: that Postmodernism is a blip in the trajectory of Modernism. They are aware that their architecture operates in a mediated way as well as a real one but they are more interested in the real. Indeed their architecture is a result of considering systems of architectural production as much as media representation and therefore re-asserts an idea of the real. Postmodernism’s main positive contribution was to allow structures to comment on their own history. This is fine but it isn’t radical and it doesn’t determine the direction architecture. It is far more radical today to assert ones modernity than ones postmodernity.