Aaron Betsky on experimental architecture and Postmodernism

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Aaron Betsky opinion on Postmodernism

"Experimental architecture emerged to question Postmodernism's jokes"

Pomo summer: amid the joy and humour of the Postmodern movement, a serious and experimental form of architecture developed to offer both seductive and frightening versions of reality, says Aaron Betsky in his first Opinion column for Dezeen.


Postmodernism wasn't all fun and games. It was serious research and criticism, especially in the schools. In the places where students tried stuff out and teachers had the ability to wonder about what they were doing and why, experimental architecture emerged to question not only Modernism's clarity and clean lines, but also Postmodernism's jokes and revival revues.

Starting in the early 1970s, this strain of Postmodernism reacted to the architecture discipline's strictures. It was a period when western society, after several decades of growth and progress, had to re-evaluate both its history and the futures it kept proposing. To do so, Postmodernism did not reinvent the past. Nor did it jettison the future. It built forms out of fragments of time, mixing memory and projection, and the familiar and the unknown.

If there was one quality that marked Postmodernism as a whole it was one that you, depending on your mood, could indeed see as humorous – not sarcastic or ironic, but something producing joyful delight at the unexpected and yet just right flip of the familiar. But, you could also experience the weird amalgamations of columns and grids, pastel pyrotechnics and eerily familiar, yet oddly other forms, as unheimlich – a disturbance of what you knew into something you could not quite grasp, but that haunted you. That disturbance in the known and the expected was the leading edge of Postmodernism: experimental architecture.

Through collage and intimation of what you knew (historical or vernacular images and forms) and did not (the inventions and interventions of architecture as imagination) came a suspension of time. And that was what was the most important revelation of Postmodernism: the replacement of a notion of progress through styles towards utopia with experimentation.

This was a historically necessary position: after the failure of the best and the brightest to bring us a perfect society – evident in the early 1970s economic crash, the Vietnam war, and impending ecological disaster – and the dissolution of the various revolts against this planned Eden, architects had to find a way to build out of and with the ruins of what had been built and had failed. They also had to design in and out of the fragments of failed plans. Experimental architecture was the discipline's response to the Club of Rome report as well as Punk.

It was a nebulous movement, as anything such searching must be, but Lebbeus Woods gave the scenarios that were developed around core academic oases such as the Architectural Association in London and the Institute for Architecture and Urbanism (and later Columbia) in New York its proper name by founding the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture in 1988. It brought together everybody from former Archigram contributors such as Dennis Green to Libeskind disciples and early computer-aided design aficionados Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture.

Experimental architecture as Woods and his cohorts saw it was a replacement for the utopia that had assuaged the guilty conscience of architects who had for decades claimed that their compromises, their economic boxes, and their blandishments to clients were really promissory notes for a utopia they sometimes sketched in their free time. Instead of radiant cities or crystal mountains, mass-produced housing projects or pure forms dissolving in light, experimental architects drew (deliciously, in the case of Woods) skewed versions of the reality around them, exaggerated in form and function and made both seductive and frightening.

Out of Peter Eisenman's solipsistic grids and Gehry's use of cast-off materials, out of Libeskind's meaningless scribbles, Aldo Rossi's brooding memories, and Hejduk's enigmas, and in response to Manfredo Tafuri's proclamation of the death of architecture, they constructed worlds that were either exquisite ruins of failed utopias or construction sites for new ones that were already falling apart, as in Woods' great triad of Underground Berlin, Aerial Paris, and Architecture and War. They designed machines that crept through the city, like Neil Denari's early work, and, in the case of both Green and Raoul Bunschoten, mechanisms that measured, plotted and constructed something you couldn't quite define. Rashid's and Couture's Studio Asymptote used computers to fuse together forms and images both banal and exhilarating, bringing together bodies, objects, and buildings into forms that were bio – as well as anthropomorphic.

Experimental architecture was not just created by that kernel of people. OMA had been making their anti-utopias, such as City of the Captive Globe's (1974) vision of London, for years already, and Zaha Hadid was defying gravity in her paintings and early projects. Nigel Coates was spinning out cross-dressed versions of punk, and Morphosis was spearheading Dead Tech drawn with heavy graphite. Diverse and divergent in purpose, experimental architecture was just that: architects as mad scientists fiddling with what was around you, combining it, heating it up, cutting it up, and melding and crossing materials and forms to see if something would explode – or just settle into a plausible way to make architecture.

For some of those architects, the latter happened. Coop Himmelb(l)au burned architecture so that they could later build the European Central Bank Headquarters. But experimental architecture was also tailored-made for academia: it was not necessarily productive, it relied heavily on research, and outraged or least surprised viewers, which would not be a good thing when you were trying to convince a client, but would delight students and might get you tenure.

Several generations of experimental architects found refuge in architecture schools and taught the notion that you should not necessarily aspire to build, but should instead keep experimenting. As a result, the work became known as "paper architecture:" un-built and unbuildable. The P/A Awards and the AA's portfolios, with their parade of notional projects, became students' bibles.

Experimental architecture also disappeared into the dark box of the computer, coming out as blobs and parametric forms – some of which, again, turned out to be prototypes for large buildings, while others just kept morphing on computer screens. Academia provided the firepower by giving architects labs with all the necessary equipment, with companies such as Silicon Graphics in turn treating such sites as R&D labs for their own products. Paper architecture turned into Columbia's "paperless studio", which, together with SCI-Arc's experiments, spawned endless Rhino monkeys making developer's dreams of cities in Asia look believable, but also created architecture that we could never have imagined, let alone built, before we mastered those zeroes and ones into algorithms and "splines".

By now, experimental architecture is a marginal phenomenon, pursued by a few brilliant, but isolated figures: Perry Kulper or Bryan Cantley come to mind, but websites such as Socks Studio or Sucker Punch seem to find fresh experimenters all the time. There has also been a revival of the first generation of experimental architecture, evident in the work of designers such as Jimenez Lai and the other participants in the recent Chatter: Architecture Talks Back exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

All of this is personal for me. I grew up in the discipline with experimental architecture. When I went to school, the world was split between Whites and Grays: between those pushing further into the past and those who wanted to go beyond the future. It was also divided between those who believed in the profession and trained us to make boxes, and those who revolted and thought we should, too. After I graduated, I came into that time of suspension and the place of collage, where all of these positions mixed and matched into a continual brew of experimentation. Out of that pre-Cambrian explosion of forms, in turn, came the normative Postmodernism that today is our international style, in all its variations.

And yet, in the margins, on Track 9 ¾, and in the work of the best students who have not yet learned to conform, I still see experimental architecture holding up that warped mirror to our reality and showing me how it could be not better or worse, but certainly other – and that is what Postmodernism continues to teach me.

Top image is from Lebbeus Woods' Havana Projects, 1994.


Aaron Betsky is dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. A critic of art, architecture, and design, Betsky is the author of over a dozen books on those subjects, including a forthcoming survey of Modernism in architecture and design. He writes a twice-weekly blog for architectmagazine.com, Beyond Buildings. Trained as an architect and in the humanities at Yale University, Betsky was previously director of the Cincinnati Art Museum (2006-2014) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (2001-2006), and Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1995-2001). In 2008, he also directed the 11th Venice International Biennale of Architecture.