I recently interviewed architectural theorist, critic and writer Charles Jencks for a book review I wrote for the Irish Times. Here is the full transcript of the interview.
Modernism' remains the dominant discourse in most architecture schools, yet postmodernism. often seen as "joke architecture”, is such an important movement in the story of the 20th and 21st century. What would you say to architects and designers who would 'turn their nose up' at a book like this?
”Get over it, remember the lesson of Mackintosh and Gaudi.” The latter was resurrected from the footnotes by Mr Modernist, Nikolaus Pevsner, as he put the Christian term. This resurrection was after excluding him from his two main, bestselling Penguin books: “The Pioneers of Modern Design”, 1936 and “European Architecture.” He called Gaudi a “fantast” and worse, but then recanted because of Gaudi’s growing popularity in the 1960s (nothing like fashion to turn the head of a style-man). Pevsner also supported Modernism because, as he described it in 1936, it was “totalitarian.” Now fashion (or fascism) made him change that last term of praise to “universal,” but recanting is what people used to do when the Inquisition went after them. By the 1970s Japan thought Gaudi was a great architect, and many Modernists have now come around to the same opinion.
C.R. Mackintosh was popular in Glasgow (not London where he was condemned as leader of the “Spook School”) up until circa 1908, when all the Glasgow banks and corporations more or less decanted to London, for various reasons. Then Mac followed them with his wife, got a few small bedrooms to design, and ended up by the late teens, arrested as a German spy…. and a very good watercolourist in Southern France, where he drank too much and died of cancer. Anyway, from circa 1910 to 36 he was out, verboten. But Pervsner looked at him (the Germansd always did, the Viennese gave him keys to the City)…and it wasn’t until 1965, that the Mac revival set in and by the late 1970s he was declared the greatest British architect who ever lived (better than Christopher Wren). And this poll was published in BD. Soon he was declared a Pioneer of Modernism, and soon Mockintosh, as every airport did a version of his design.
Moral of story? In 1900-1910 there were 4 or 5 very dynamic modern movements, not one. Modernists today have to be more aware than to think there is one modernism at any time (even in its totalitarian mode it made distinctions) and today the dominant is Late-Modernism (a different thing altogether), with its several lesser variants like Neo-Mod and minimal-Mod, and the biggest movement, Classicising-Mod (the default mode for getting jobs). There are also the several traditions of Post-Modernism including contextualism by contrast, the iconic building, and the Time City (the layered palimpsest from even Chipperfield to Herzog & deKoolhaas). To Modernists:
Postmodernism, albeit in a more diluted form, has recently begun to manifest itself in those normally associated with 'high modernism'. I am thinking about the likes of Herzog & de Meuron. Why do think there are some who have made this kind of postmodern 'mini' turn?
I don’t think Herzog & deMeuron are diluted anything, but certainly you are right, they have swerved outwards towards pluralism since they embraced ornament, and later symbolism and the Time City – with La Caixa and Elbphilharmonie and many more approaches. But, Postmodernism has been absorbed since the late 1980s, and become one among several genres and recognisable channels of the wide river of Modernisms. It can be intelligently practiced in its values, style and urbanism, not to mention the many other aspects, by writers, dancers, geographers, philosophers, fashionistas, film producers, Pop stars, and the unconscious, without being worse (or better) than the other global approaches. That is to say, with global culture now very present (if not totally dominant) PM can resist the dominant again. A single universal biscuit is what NBC wanted for 2 billion people in 1960: sound familiar? Talk to Zuckerberg, and remember hard what Gore Vidal called “The United States of Amnesia” (well before the Big Five produced their mind-biscuit).
In cosmic terms we are beginning to understand the relationship of information to the laws of the universe, to energy, matter, consciousness and other mainstream modernist insights. Information not only informs all of life via DNA, but forms the relationship at the surface between all areas, from quantum to the Black Hole. Also the digital is being extended, as binary bits are ending their dominance. This is as we are beginning to replace the transistors (those binary on/off, 0/1) with new materials that are called memristors (which can operate and program data at the same time on seven layers, and do not suffer the von Neumann bottleneck of heat overload). Information and complexity are leading the pm sciences of complexity, and the understanding of economics and biology as self-organising systems. Pluralism, of nature and culture, are now accepted: Russian capitalism is quite different from American and Irish.
So, PM continues and mercifully not as it was in the late-1980s, a dominant and inflationary approach of Mickey Mouse and Entertainment Architecture. Never forget the words of Walt Disney himself: “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Sound familiar?