Postmodernism- what is the V&A take?

Grace Jones in Jean-Paul Gode's maternity dress © Jean-Paul Gode

About 40 years ago, the Italians started re-designing the world. They invented Postmodernism, and everything from skyscrapers to catwalks and videos was visually transformed. That’s the story according to the big retrospective at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990– a must-see show on an epic scale.

But has the V&A got it right? What’s been left out, and what is in that maybe shouldn’t be? Where was the UK in all this? And does Postmodernism really close the book on style movements of the twentieth century, as co-curator Glenn Adamson suggests? (What about grunge-chic, trophyism and deconstructivism architecture, or Japanese ‘kawaii’ cute culture, for example- or are all they ‘postmodernism’ too, rendering the word’s meaning so wide as to become meaningless?)

The show starts with two events offered as symbolic Deaths of Modernism. In 1974 Alessandro Mendini, radical Milan-based designer and editor of architectural magazine Casa Bella, burned his sculpture, the Monumento da Casa, an uncomfortable-looking Lassú chair atop solid imposing steps. A magazine cover of the ritualistic event on a rocky slope (also performed elsewhere) is a headline without words. Just two years earlier, the dynamiting of the disastrous giant Pruitt-Igoe social housing project in St Louis had began. It was only 16 years old and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, later architect of the Twin Towers. Postmodernist guru Charles Jencks pinpoints that event as ‘the day Modern architecture died’. (Incidentally, the UK’s demolition of its own Corbusier-inspired sink estates would begin on Merseyside in 1979).

Vegas © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates 1966

So, after Modernist architecture, what? The show quotes Italian anti-monumentalist architectural theorist Bruno Zevi’s uncannily accurate prediction in 1967 that ‘whoever decides to abolish the modern movement can choose between Versailles and Las Vegas’. In a room called ‘Learning from Las Vegas’, after the seminal 1972 book by Robert Venturi (not an Italian, by the way), Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izemour, which analysed the city’s urbanity of glitz and parking lots, we see photos of Venturi and Scott Brown in 1966, beholding the Strip from the desert. There’s also a model of a suburban house Venturi built for his mother in 1964 that was shaped like a broken pediment. Using elements previously consigned to history would be at the heart of postmodernist architecture, so this house could claim to be the first postmodernist building!

Venturi and Zevi were not the only ones to reference Las Vegas in the 60s. Unmentioned at the V&A, the British architectural historian Reyner Banham loved the place, and it played a role in the provocative 1969 article Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom, written with urban geographer Peter Hall and visionary architect Cedric Price. They concluded that cities should reject planning, and imagined covering the English countryside with a neon-lit suburban sprawl. Interestingly, developers gained and city planners lost ground with Postmodernism.

What Venturi and co learnt from Las Vegas was the importance of symbolism and allusion, something that post-war Modernism had stripped away. Italian architect Aldo Rossi also argued against modern architecture in his great thesis L’architetta della Citta (1966), which saw the urban landscape as a physical embodiment of human memories. His 1971 design for the San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena reflects his thinking and is displayed as a key step into the postmodernism of the next room, called ‘Prescence of the Past’. Strangely, Rossi’s great cubical ossuary (where the remains of the dead are stored), with its punched window grid, is as stark and simple as if proto-Modernist Adolf Loos (equator of ornament with crime) had designed it 50 years earlier. Incidentally, Rossi’s building also looks uncannily like a template for the mammoth skyscrapers for financial services in places like Manhattan’s World Finance Center and London’s Canary Wharf by Cesar Pelli in the 80s, omitted by the V&A perhaps for their blandness- but we shall come to what was by then called ‘PoMo’ architecture later. Animations and drawings by Madelon Vriesendorp tie in with Koolhaas’ sensuous celebration of America and Art Deco in Delirious New York, published in 1978. That year, postmodernism was on a roll. Charles Moore’s ‘surprise’ Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans opens, the loudest and perhaps craziest example on show, a fantasy of classical Roman elements in shiny new materials set with neon. Postmodernism was creating a splash, and it was fun. And, as we shall see, it was then that Philip Johnson designed the biggest icon for it yet.

The most iconic re-cycling of a classical element for a new building was never built. Loos designed a skyscraper for the Chicago Tribune in 1922 that was a single Doric column. It would have been the mother of PoMo buildings. The Loos design became one of a line of actual columns in Hans Hollein’s display for the 1980 Venice Biennale, which the V&A have faithfully reproduced.

Walking through the column installation to the next room, called Apolocalypse Now, and the mood changes as a giant screen plays dark urban vistas from Ridley Scott’s 1982 Bladerunner. Chaos and decay enter design, with artefacts like Ron Arad’s 1983 Concrete Stereo, Bernhard Schobinger’s 1980 Hiroshima Mon Amour jewellery and Vivienne Westwood designs. Is the V&A saying that postmodernism now encompasses the post-punk aesthetic of nihilism in the concrete jungle? Maybe so- we make such labels and they soon lose focus.

Super lamp by Martine Bedin for Studio Memphis © V&A Images

With the next room, called New Wave, we’re definitely back on track with Italian names, and the language of playful colour-splash exclamatory postmodernism that is easiest associated with the word. Mendini is back with a design studio called Alchymia, founded 1978, and Ettore Sottsass set up Studio Memphis Milano three years later. They promote defiant new images through covers of the again-essential Italian design magazine Domusdefinite 60s echoes of the Italian architectural radicals Archizoom there, as well as the collage of Richard Hamilton. And they generate a wild explosion of product design, from ties suitable to brash around Wall Street to household objects where de Stijl meets Toy Story- check out Martine Dedin’s Super Lamp for Memphis- light bulbs on a blue half-circle on wheels.

PoMo made the Video Star- inside the Postmodernism show © V&A Images 2011

Postmodernism now steps easily into music and performance arts, with the likes of Leigh Bowery, Klaus Nomi (surely setting a visual stage for the Pet Shop Boys) and David Byrne all taking theatrical dress into bizarre but compelling territory.  Grace Jones wears the quintessential PoMo outfit, actually a maternity dressed to hide her bump, designed by Jean-Paul Gode for video- it even mounts an exclamation mark on her hat! Although the show doesn’t mention MTV, the 80s is its heydey, and the pop video a cutting-edge art-form, corrupted by money almost as soon as it emerges.

Glenn Adamson talked about postmodernism’s ‘Masters of the Universe moment’, and its ‘fatal encounter’ with money. The last section of the show is called Money, from the time when it no longer talks, it flounces and shrieks. It was almost as if Warhol had been waiting for this, and in 1981 his silkscreens of a huge $ sign, he is as sharp as when he commoditised brands and celebrities as art twenty years earlier. Karl Lagerfeld’s 1991 yellow sequin jacket for Chanel is on show, which would have actually suited Emma Peel in the Swinging Sixties.

AT&T (now Sony) Building, Manhattan, by Johnson/Burgee Architects (Photo © Herbert Wright 2005)

PoMo is an American word not found in this exhibition, but it’s vital. If anyone hadn’t noticed the arrival of PoMo architecture by the 80s, Philip Johnson’s 197m-high AT&T skyscraper in Manhattan flashed the news so big even the blind would get it.  Clad in rose-pink granite, with 20m-high barrel-vaulted galleria at its base and its famous broken pediment on the roof, it was doubly astonishing because Johnson had been an über-Modernist most of his career and was 72 when he got the commission. The building is seen as the ultimate in big corporate branding, although in reality AT&T were trying to rebrand themselves as a future-orientated tech company by the time it opened in 1984, and would later move out, to be replaced by Sony. Charles Jencks dismisses it as kitsch because Johnson had merely disguised a rent-slab office tower with a veneer of historicism. The V&A have included a fantastic architectural relic- a Johnson/Burgee original architectural elevation from 1978.

PoMo architecture broke the dull march of Modernist boxes across the world- at least for a while. The V&A show Terry Farrell’s 1983 TV-AM Building (it now houses MTV) with its roof-line egg-cups to catch the morning Sun, as well as a model of Shin Takamatsu’s Ark of the same year, for a Japanese dental clinic (like a long locomotive boiler, almost steampunk). The giant gold flame on Phillippe Stark’s 1989 Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo is very Vegas. As if to reflect yet calm the coke-rush high of Postmodernism, a clip from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsithe transcendental 1982 film of cities and streaming traffic and giant Moons setting, with its Philip Glass music, plays- a counterpoint to the doom of Blade Runner. Artist Jenny Holzer’s statement on the brash corporate/consumerist excess was spelt out in Times Square lights, and is here: ‘Protect me from what I want’.

Not to be overlooked in the exhibition, but again perhaps curiously placed as Postmodernism, is a room with 1985 Face covers by Neville Brody, and a little slice of what would later become Madchester in Peter Saville’s New Order artwork. Indeed, the show ends on an up with New Order’s 1986 video for Bizare Love Triangle, directed by Robert Longo- quick-cut edits of suited yuppies falling, the band, cities, and blocky digital shapes. Leaps in computing power would propel those blocky digital shapes into digital design, and this century’s phenomena like networked cyber-reality and the parametric architecture of Zaha Hadid and others.

You can’t fit in everything, even in a show as big as this. Nevertheless, politics gets scant mention and warrants more- Reaganomics and Thatcher’s entrepreneur-culture manured the ground for Postmodernism to bloom from. Maybe Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character is as postmodern as Grace Jones?

Perhaps the biggest omissions are in architecture. For example: in 1968, Richard Rogers designed an unbuilt home called the Zip-Up House– a flat yellow tube standing on pink legs. It could have been a structure from a Thunderbirds set, and it led to High-Tech. Like PoMo, High-Tech startled the world in 1978, with the opening of the colourful Centre Pompidou designed by Rogers and Renzo Piano. The Americans separated historicist PoMo from futuristic High-Tech, but they were both postmodernist. Crazy British 60s architectural experiments from Archigram and Cedric Price lay at the root of Rogers’ work and all that followed- perhaps they too deserve a mention in the show.

Postmodernism echoes and re-amplifies styles from Ancient Rome or Greece to de Stijl and the radical/groovy 60s. Its orgy of appropriation is not unique, though- just think of the eclectic Victorians, borrowing from history and global exotica to set their civilisation in stone and moral authority. But Postmodernism was completely different- it was flashy and amoral. Those Italians- Mendini, Sotsass, Zevi, Rossi- stirred up a mighty spectacle. Perhaps it was the biggest manifestation yet of ideas expressed in 1967 by French philosopher Guy Debord  in The Society of the Spectacle. ‘The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’, he said, and it ‘corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonisation of social life’. But Debord is a big bag to start unpacking now…

Somewhere near the end of the V&A show is a single item that falls out of the curators’ 1990 set period. Ai Weiwei’s 1994 Han Dynasty Vase with Coca Cola Logo has a Warholian simplicity in its message, and we’re told that the vase ‘became more valuable once he defaced it’. Adamson himself said that  ‘Dubai and Lady Gaga are more Postmodernist than anything in this show’. You could add lots more contemporary phenomena to that, from the billboard-façade architecture of FAT (an echo, incidentally, of James Wines’ work at New York-based practice SITE, although not his stuff included in this show) to the ever-expanding horizons of Consumerland across China, India, etc.

The Wonder World mini-mall, Hyderabad, India- photo © Herbert Wright 2011

Wall-blurb in the V&A describes Postmodernism as ‘often funny, sometimes confrontational and occasionally absurd’. The V&A’s trip through it isn’t the whole story, and maybe not always on the right path, but nevertheless it should leave you reeling.

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on
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