The difference between Modernism and Postmodernism has always perplexed me. Isn’t anything created today “modern?” And how could anything be postmodern? It would seem to me that everything that has yet to be created would be postmodern and therefore nothing would be postmodern. Is it not just another word for futuristic? Maybe I’m being too literal, and any architectural historian would probably tell me that these words describe styles and are not to be taken at face value. Fair enough, but I still think the guys that coined the term Modernism were being a little shortsighted and even a bit selfish in their use of the word.
To give you a little background, the architects Hitchcock and Johnson coined the term in their book for a 1932 MOMA exhibit on the International Style. The International Style, which has become synonymous with Modernism, was codified throughout the 1920s and 1930s and was reflective of post First World War thoughts and attitudes. Postmodernism was a direct reaction to Modernism and the Second World War. It evolved throughout the 1950s. Not exactly a “futuristic” style for those of us living in the 21st century.
So what is the difference? I think the simplest way to describe Modernism as it applies to architecture is practical. Modernists believed that form followed function. They completely rejected ornamentation and decadence in favor of the “machine aesthetic.” They believed that a building should be honest in its intentions and transparent in its structure. Modern architects also emphasized volume over mass and adopted “essential” materials, such as concrete and steel, as their materials of choice. The style is best exemplified by such works as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (France), Walter Gropius’ Bauhuas School (Germany), and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (NY). In a perfect summation of the style, Van der Rohe once said, “Less is more.”
My favorite Modernist building is Philip Johnson’s aptly named Glass House. I said before that Modernism is best described as “practical,” and although you probably wouldn’t want your home to be made of transparent glass, Johnson’s house was constructed on a privately owned 47 acre plot of land, so privacy wasn’t an issue. The house is really just a glass box. It is perfectly symmetrical with black steel pillars supporting the glass walls. It contains a living area, a sleeping area, some walnut cabinets for storage, and a central brick cylinder for the bathroom (even the best examples of Modernism couldn’t be completely transparent). The lucidity and minimalism “add” volume to the structure. (A smart man once asked, “which weighs more, a pound of bricks or a pound of feathers?”). They make the building appear weightless. Above all, this building is honest in its intentions. No tricks. No gimmicks. It’s all out there for us to see, and once we get past the idea that this house makes secrets hard to keep, it is actually pretty liberating.
Postmodernism was a direct response to the formalized structures of modernism. The movement brought ornamentation and color back to architecture. It unashamedly included form for form’s sake. Function was not a requisite. Styles of the past were humorously referenced and classical rules were disregarded. No materials were off limits, and no design was too outlandish. Postmodernism was playful, quirky, ironic, and just a wee bit rebellious. None of this is surprising considering the world had just emerged from one of the most violent and dispiriting wars in its history. This style is best seen in such works as Michael Graves’ Portland Public Service Building (Oregon), Johnson and Burgee’s Sony Tower (formerly the AT&T Building in NY), Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (LA), and Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum (Spain). In a perfect summation of this style and a play on Van der Rohe’s comments, Robert Venturi said, “Less is a bore.”
Disney World and the Las Vegas strip present two of the more interesting manifestations of Postmodernism. They are filled with color, ornamentation, and eccentric designs. They are anything but minimalist and decadent is a blatant understatement. They cause us to get lost in ideal worlds with only subtle references to reality and to the past. EPCOT itself stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Where else can you travel from China to Italy to Mexico in less than 30 minutes? The experience does not feel genuine, but it is this inauthentic simulation that is part of the charm. The genuine part of Postmodernism is that it makes no attempt to be genuine. Las Vegas, too, represents an authentically inauthentic experience. With such hotels as Treasure Island, Caesar’s Palace, the Venetian, and New York New York, Las Vegas overwhelms visitors with its over the top references to people and places past and present. Casinos, with their timelessness (no clocks), energy (extra oxygen), and excitement (never ending jackpots), are the prototypes for architectural hyperbole. In this way, maybe there is something to the literal definition of Postmodernism as a futuristic utopia. Either way, anyone that has been to Vegas knows that less is definitely not more.