Sean Griffiths: "It's not the time to be indulging in postmodern revivalism"

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"Now is not the time to be indulging in postmodern revivalism"

Bringing back postmodernism, a style of architecture that thrived on irony, could be dangerous in today's political climate, argues Sean Griffiths.


"I have nothing to say and I am saying it." These are the words of John Cage, the American composer made famous by his musical explorations of silence. In recent weeks, it has occurred to me that certain architects might have something to learn from him.

I am referring to the latest purveyors of postmodernism, a style whose raison d'être is based on the far-from-established premise that architecture "speaks", that it has a "language" and can even convey "narrative". The latter term is one that the new postmodernists are wont to throw about all too promiscuously, perhaps not noticing the irony that it has long sat comfortably on its pedestal in the pantheon of management jargon. But in blatant disregard for this and other inconvenient facts on the ground, postmodernism it seems, won't shut the fuck up.

I admit that saying this might seem a little strange to those of you who know me as a member of the practice FAT, renowned for its unashamed advocacy for the aesthetics of the postmodern, but please, let me explain.

In recent weeks, I have found myself writing references for young American academics who wear bow ties and Bertie Wooster jumpers, and who write about architecture's relationship to literature on the internet in the style of David Foster Wallace. The Chicago Architecture Biennial is full of a renewed and apparently confident postmodernism, of a sort that seems just a little too respectable. The artist, Pablo Bronstein is plastering neo-Georgian all over the RIBA. And who today can switch on the television, read the newspaper or go online without the chirpy visage of Adam Nathanial Furman staring back from inside the 24-hour news cycle? And yes, these are all talented people doing interesting work, but something is amiss.

We didn't do pomo because we liked it. We did it because we hated it

In 1995, in homage to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, I wrote a column for Building Design magazine, heralding a non-existent postmodernist revival. The building was utterly loathed by architects and critics alike, and this had brought out the contrarian in me.

The column was largely self-serving. We at FAT had decided that the most radical position to take at that time was to embrace the style of architecture that had most recently gone out of fashion and which was now being condemned, often by the very people who had been its most ardent adherents. And so, in the spirit of exposing the relationships between fashion, architecture and taste, about which architects were in denial, we became postmodernists and cuddled up to the most reviled of architectural aesthetics.

By the mid 1990s, polite modernism had replaced postmodernism as the dominant architectural style. A perfect architectural backdrop for the age of Tony Blair, polite modernism sent out social democratic signals which, behind a thin layer of render, masked the hollow frame of unbridled design-and-build capitalism.

In this context, doing postmodernism, perhaps by dropping in a bit gold-coloured Baroque here and there, was transgressive. It certainly ensured that FAT got acres of press coverage, with the unexpected result that the practice began to spawn imitators. Even respectable architects of the sort who get to do things in Switzerland, started showing disturbing signs of having been influenced. Of course, nobody admitted it. Back then, postmodernism wasn't something you mentioned in polite architectural society. It was not so much a style as a disease.

And that, my friends, was the whole point – a point that I now suspect is being missed. We didn't do pomo because we liked it. We did it because we hated it. We were trying to challenge our own tastes. In telling us to "keep up the bad work", our hero, Robert Venturi, showed that he understood completely.

But nevertheless, it has to be conceded that deals with the devil bring with them extreme danger. And in FAT, I suspect a kind of Stockholm Syndrome took hold. Without realising it, we began to love our jailor. My appearance began to resemble that of a rotund Roy Strong. And by the end of the practice in 2014, the work was skirting a little too close for comfort to Arts and Crafts revivalism.

While Donald Trump means that golden Baroque remains transgressive, it is now transgressive in a bad way

But putting these relatively minor dangers to one side, 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.

If, as many have suggested, the present political situation is beyond satire, what hope for its gentle sister and queen of postmodernist tropes, irony? The answer, of course, is none whatsoever.

As all good postmodernists know, signifiers – the vessels that convey meanings – have a tendency to become untethered from their moorings. In less dangerous times we can delight in their floating free, revelling in the magical manufacture of meaning that the detachment of the signifier from its signified permits. But the artful twisting of meaning through the gentle massaging of signifier is less appealing when the gaps between truth and representation provide a petri dish for the fake news of the alt-right.

Trump, of course, bypasses all that semiotic crap, rendering it irrelevant. He just lies outright.

The situation we find ourselves in has repercussions for architectural expression. In times like these, home-spun aesthetics can convey only home-spun values. And if your building looks fascistic – and yes, I too have known the seductive charms of the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana – I'm afraid it is ripe for appropriation by values that are fascistic.

If your building looks fascistic, I'm afraid it is ripe for appropriation by values that are fascistic

A disavowal of postmodernism changes none of these facts, but celebrating the niceties of the postmodernist game seems, at this point in time, at best, decadent and at worst collaborationist. Perhaps it is also time to dispense with the spurious idea that architecture "speaks". Except for those buildings that are actually emblazoned with text, architecture is not a literary form. It can carry no "narrative". Being in a building is not reading a book. It is an enveloping multi-sensory experience involving vision, sound, smell and touch.

In the 1930s, a time with disturbing similarities to our own, and when a similar choice existed as to whether architecture should look backwards or forwards, Walter Benjamin called for architecture to eschew the optical in favour of the tactile.

"For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history, cannot be solved by optical means, that is by contemplation, alone. They are mastered gradually by habit under the guidance of tactile appropriation," he said.

Perhaps herein lies a clue as to how to proceed, perhaps towards an architecture that embraces the tactile and strives heavily to actively resist visual signification, that tries to disappear, that abjures meaning, an architecture that makes no attempt to speak and can tell no lies, an architecture of silence that has nothing to say and is saying it.

Photograph of Adam Nathaniel Furman's Gateways installation is by Hufton + Crow.