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In Search of Postpostmodernism

Feng Shui for the Masses
China has a very long history of architectural superstition

Architecture Straight from the Factory
Manufactured housing design can be a grassroots affair

Franchised Designs
Chains have nothing to lose but their sameness

  In Search of Postpostmodernism

Are you a sensual deconstructionist? Or a topological New Urbanist? Where does architecture go from here?

by Jack Neely

Just when we thought maybe we had a handle on what modernism was, along came postmodernism, which was, if not more modern than modernism, at least later than modernism. After a few years of seeing the retro, often whimsical, designs of postmodernism which have become commonplace in suburban America, we've gotten used to it.

Today, many architects are saying that postmodernism is dead. And for that, many are grateful. Now the big question, of course, is, What's next?

For those who've been snoozing the last few decades, here's a quick primer. Modernism is characterized by clean lines and modern materials, especially steel, glass, and concrete. It dominated American architecture for 30 years after World War II. (The nomenclature might seem unfortunate, because "modernism" is now older than rock 'n' roll, older than television, maybe even older than your grandma.) Some of the best examples of modernist architecture in Knoxville today are the Plaza Tower, Lawson-McGhee Library, and the City County Building.

Postmodernism popped up as an odd novelty in the 1970s, when bored architects began to add loopy details, often in the form of old-fashioned ornamentation, to otherwise modernist buildings. As startling as the new style was, it was even more surprising that it caught on as widely as it did.

Some of Knoxville's most conspicuous recent buildings are postmodern. Asked to name a couple of recognizable examples of postmodernism, UT Professor Mark Schimmenti mentions UT's new boathouse, which he calls "a nice example of what postmodernism can do...It has a form we're familiar with, but built in a completely different system than it would have been 60 or 70 years ago." He also cites the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. "It's typical in postmodernism to put a giant basketball or a giant something right on top of a building."

Not all postmodernism is quite that wacky. Award-winning Knoxville architect Frank Sparkman talks about the proliferation of postmodernist styles the same way people talk about strip malls—maybe because it's the dominant style in many strip malls. "The sad thing is that it's all copycat stuff. Another commercial box with yet another gable front. We need to stop trying to make things from the past. It really cheapens architecture."

What's next? Nobody we talked to shrugged their shoulders at that question. Though it might not be obvious to Joe Stripmall, things are happening in architecture, and there are lots and lots of theories about what buildings will look like in the 21st century.

If modernism is the stark extreme of purely simple forms and postmodernism is a retreat into the ornamentation of previous eras, are we destined to race back and forth between circa 1950 modernism and circa 1900 high-Victorian?

UT architecture professor Jon Coddington, for one, doesn't think so. "Each generation is sort of obligated to make its own contribution to the built environment," he says. "I think we need to speak in our own words, with our own voice."

"Modernism got us out of the industrial tenements. Modernism held that a building should have light and have air and have a healthful quality about it. Stylistically, modernism may not have survived the 20th century—but some of its tenets have."

Deconstructionism—Decon, for those in the know—is an architectural movement spawned by, of all things, a tortuously French theory about the study of literature. Sometimes characterized by a look of coming apart, deconstructionism seems to have disintegrated before it ever made its way into Knox County.

Another avenue Coddington cites is Supermodernism, a return to the ideals of modernism on a global scale. Coddington sees it as a reaction to regionalism, which supermodernists see as "a retreat from the realities of our global world."

The supermodernist ideal, he says is to produce work that can be anywhere, that has a muteness about it. "They resist the idea that any structure has to say something."

However, those who think architecture should continue to say something about its community still have plenty of champions. Asked to describe the future of architecture, Schimmenti first cites new urbanism as a significant architectural theory. "For the longest time, the primary goal was building just individual buildings," he says. "Today, a lot of architects are more concerned with building community."

Though it's based on old principles—New Urbanists would have approved of much of the look and function of Knoxville as it was a century ago—the deliberateness of it is new. "It didn't happen in an organized way until the mid-1980s," says Schimmenti. The Congress of New Urbanism, a convention of about 300 architects, planners, and politicians, met in 1996 to draw up a Charter of Principles they hope will guide architecture and urban planning in the new century. Under New Urbanist theory, buildings aren't built just to serve themselves, their owners and tenants, but to serve the community at large. They emphasize streetscape, pedestrian scale, and mixed-use buildings, especially those that combine businesses and residences. Citing its efficiency in saving time and resources, some adherents insist that New Urbanist principles, being applied in Chattanooga in recent years, will be the only way to sustain a growing population indefinitely.

Mentioning the apparent stillbirth of deconstructionism, Schimmenti says, "None of this lasts very long if it doesn't have a social agenda. That's my opinion."

When deconstructionism appeared in the '80s, some saw it as a reaction to the modernist school of structuralism, and called it poststructuralism. Deconstructionism may be over, but architects apparently like the sound of poststructuralism better, because they've found other things to give that name to.

Andrew Thurlow is an architecture professor new to UT, and has attended some recent conferences in New York that have attempted to confront the future of architecture. Thurlow speaks of a poststructuralist future. Structuralism was one generation of the modernist period; he cites his own building, UT's Art & Architecture Building, as an example of '70s-era structuralism.

He divides poststructuralism into two camps: sensualism, which emphasizes the affect of a building—he's pretty vague about exactly how—and the topologism, who has been getting the most attention just lately. "Topologists emphasize the use of a single-surface entity," he says. We think he means that topologist buildings don't necessarily have sides; they're warped and woven into globular structures that look like blobs, albeit often very attractive blobs.

"Today, architects are proposing things that are blobs—and getting them built!" Thurlow says. He compares modern architecture to the evolution of automotive design: air-flow is also important to buildings.

Thurlow cites a couple of famous examples: the new Yokohama Ferry Port Terminal, and probably the most talked-about building of our own generation, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed in the '90s by iconoclastic architect Frank Gehry: former postmodernist, former deconstructionist, now poststructuralist topologist.

It ain't your grandma's modernism. In the past, many architectural styles have been strongly influenced by new materials and technology; about a century ago, for example, steel-beam construction made skyscrapers possible for the first time. Technology is still driving architectural innovation, but this time it's new software rather than hardware.

Using complex three-dimensional computer models, Gehry designed a curvaceous building of a shape never before seen in this particular galaxy. Also, lasers can cut steel in ways that blowtorches never could.

"Given computer systems and laser technology, materials no longer have the resistance they once did," says Coddington. "Now everything is like butter."

Thurlow says the Bilbao museum falls into the large category of poststructuralism, and the subcategory topologism. "It's almost a return to the baroque, but with a modernist sensibility," he says.

It seems certain that we can count on more surprises, but few can guess when we're likely to see poststructuralism on Kingston Pike. In the meantime, Frank Sparkman seems to be resigned to the fact that we're likely to keeping seeing more variations on postmodernism in Knoxville before architectural clients tire of it. He's clearly looking forward to that day.

October 26, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 43
© 2000 Metro Pulse