One of the impulses and gifts of Postmodernity in architecture was that it successfully questioned the universalizing, problem-solving and ultimately dictatorial proscriptiveness of Modernity. One only has to think of LeCorbusier’s Modulor or type-needs, the Existenzminimum of the Bauhaus or the ranting of planner Edmund Bacon in the recent film My Architect. Modernism, like its political cohort Progressivism, wanted to solve the world’s problems – a noble goal – but it wanted to do it from above, by the fiat of experts. Like the old Second City routine where the college kid shushes the urban resident with a condescending: “I’m an Urban Affairs major at Northwestern University. I think I know a little bit more about your problems than you do?!”
Postmodernism trashed those assumptions, which was just as well. The Modulor wouldn’t stop evolving and radio and television did the same to the Existenzminimum and every NIMBY quick citizen took a page from Jane Jacobs and told Ed Bacon where to stick his plans. You can’t be a problem solver when problems don’t stand still. PostModernism, like Punk, reveled in nihilism, safe in its conclusion that Progress was a big joke.
Preservation was a piece of that. It was a piece of Jane Jacobs and it was a key facet of the response to Modernist planning – why did we need to throw everything out in the name of Progress? Preservationists, recognizing the flimsy obsolescent apparatus of Modernism, threw a punk flag on the floor of Progress, exposing the end of days implicit in its universalizing.
The Postmodern mood took this approach and changed architecture thirty years ago, giving us buildings like the Harold Washington Library, three-quarters preModern pastiche and one-quarter exposed backside, dropped trou of steel and glass. We can’t build them like we used to and even if we pretend to we will let you in on the great rock and roll swindle.
So why do people still hang onto Progress? Sure it makes sense for the cultural wings of the perverse right, but why does everyone else buy in? Because we see real progress in each successive Ipod or every Microsoft update? Clearly not.
It is almost as if PostModernism inured us to commodification and marketing, and we gladly snap up the latest technology not for the Modern reason that it is better and faster and more wonderful but for the PostModern reason that it is funny and ironic to just do what consumers do and sure we know better but – punk it all – there are no other choices so let’s just do it and smugly know how silly we look doing it. “Oh god, look at me I live in a brand new gated community – isn’t that hilarious!!”
Sure, preservation is a piece of Modernism but its artifacts are mostly pre-Modern, which does not protect them from marketing or commodification but it does shield them (at least the pre-1945 ones) from obsolescence. Nothing snide or flippant about masonry bearing-wall construction, no matter how it was sold.
Preservation was Modernism without the faith in Progress and thus it was the necessary philosophical precondition for PostModernism, BUT it had a rock solid artifactual underpinning PostModernism did not.
Of course, now we want to preserve Modernism itself – and that is a technical challenge because a lot of those buildings were built like CDs, designed to last only as long as the fashion trend.
The most permanent result of this 40-year upheaval has been this. We helped get people into community planning. That is a procedural, democratizing shift that doesn’t rely on product. Hard to make it go away too – very hard to take power (rights) away once people have got them.
Now the enemies aren’t the government planners (most of those left with the rest of the public sector years ago) but the developers, since only they have the staff to do it.
PostModern planning – developers are the new municipal experts and citizens are still citizens, but they have more of a voice than they did in Modernism
– and it doesn’t even have to sound sarcastic.