Charles Jencks

Death for Rebirth


Published to coincide with the sixth, 1991 edition of Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, this text was Jencks’ introduction to the special issue of Architectural Design magazine titled ‘Post-Modernism on Trial.’ This special issue cast a retrospective look at the Post-Modern movement in architecture, and re-opened debate about its first definitions and the later evolution of the movement. In this text, Charles Jencks reassesses the Post-Modern movement in the wake of the controversy surrounding Prince Charles’ Vision of Britain.

Charles Jencks, ‘Death For Rebirth’ in Post-Modernism on Trial, (London: Architectural Design, 1990), pp. 6-9.

Now that Post-Modern architecture has triumphed around the world, many people have declared it dead. This, the fate of all successful movements, is something to be celebrated. Born in a fit of love, they grow to maturity all too quickly, are vulgarised, mass-produced and finally assigned to the scrapheap of history. The same thing happened to Modernism so it is no surprise that those who arrived first at the morgue to certify the new Post-Modem corpse—and see it stayed buried—were none other than the Neo-­Modernists. This occurred in 1982, and the participants at this convivial wake brought along doctored photographs of Michael Graves' Portland Building blowing up, as if to reassure themselves of the truth.

By 1986—ironically, just when many of the world's largest architectural practices were shifting to a Post-Modern mode—the Italian magazine Modo announced with an air of revelation that the style was old hat. Not to be outdone at late discovery was the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who, in 1989, attacked the genre as ‘bimbo architecture’ and declared for the Year 2000: ‘we simply cannot go to the Millenium Ball wearing the threadbare rags of Post-Modernism.’ Out of fashion? If ever there were proof of a movement’s continued vitality it was these obituaries and attacks, for who is going to waste time flogging a dead style? As if to underline this, the President promptly apologised for his flagellation of the anti-chic and asked a major Post­Modern architect for forgiveness. Such are the vicissitudes of the Style Wars.

Inevitably, the life and death of an architectural movement, like civilisation, is based on a biological metaphor: but, this is only somewhat relevant to anything as complex as an architectural language. Columns and curtain walls come and go irrespective of cultural health. However, many people felt liberated from the dogma and strictures of Modernism when, along with Peter Blake and other architectural medics, I took its failing pulse in the 1970s. As John Summerson later wrote of these diagnoses: ‘in the 1980s it has become fashionable to declare the Modem Movement dead. As a serious statement this is arguable, but it is an interesting idea—perhaps the first really inspiring new idea since the movement was born. It is, anyway, liberating.’

The notion of death frees one from the tyranny of the prevailing orthodoxy and since Modernism had a virtual stranglehold on the profession and academies from the late 1930s to the 1970s, many architects and much of the public were exhilarated. Modem architecture was no longer a necessity, and the idea of the Zeitgeist and technological determinism—or, indeed, any determinism—was discredited. Architecture could again be based on context, mood, culture, ornament, or almost whatever mattered to the architect and client. And, it has to be added today, the ‘death of Post-Modernism’ produced a similar relief, for that also loosened the bonds of professional doctrine and tyrannical fashion, and increased freedom of choice.

Pluralism versus Monism

Thankfully, today no single orthodoxy dominates Western society: neither the Pre-Modernism advocated by Prince Charles, the Neo­-Modernism advocated by his adversary the President of the RIBA, nor the Post-Modernism caught in a cross-fire between the two camps. If any thing reigns it is pluralism—and that ‘ism’ is incapable of ruling since it depends on fostering choice. There is a paradox here because pluralism is the Post-Modern ideology above all others. How can this condition exist without the triumph of thePost-Modern style? Because, as even the remaining Modernists now grant, we live in a post-modern era (lowercase), the information age where plural cultures compete and there is simply no dominant cultural style or ethos. Or if, say, Deconstruction is fashionable in 1989, it is declared passé in two years—the average age of an architectural movement in the global village.

In the pre-industrial past, Traditional culture was the leading way of thought; during the industrial age Modernism became the most important episteme; while in the post-industrial period none of these competing cultures—High, Low, Traditional, Mass, Pop,Ethnic or other—speaks for the majority of urban dwellers. Most of the time in the huge megalopolis we are all minorities—yes, even those who have cornered what used to be called ‘the ruling taste,’ the Establishment. This can be alienating, and many people deplore the competition of language games and values, and the retreat into a previous orthodoxy, whether Modem or Traditional. But those with a Post-Modern sensibility enjoy the diversity, and know why it is necessary and positive.

What is at stake in this situation, what constitutes the new worldview? Fundamentally, it is the growing understanding that pluralism creates meaning; or put negatively in the cool terms of information theory, that ‘where there is no difference, there is no information.’ Variety of style and habitation generates meaning, because significance is generated by a field of tensions, or an oppositional system: a system concerned with much more than style. Any architecture signifies values and supports a way of life; and these are relational matters, as much as is any aesthetic.

Traditionalists and Modernists have one thing in common: they tend to dislike pluralism and suppress it. Consider Le Corbusier’s injunctions: ‘The “styles” are a lie… Our own epoch, is determining, day by day, its own style’—that is, a single one based on industrialisation and the Machine Aesthetic. Or compare this monism with Prince Charles’ norms of harmonisation. When he attacked the original scheme for extending London’s NationalGallery, he re-phrased the Modernist's plea for consistency: ‘I would understand better this type of High-Tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.’ The implication, with its heavy irony, is that a whole lot of aesthetically unified carbuncles would be acceptable.

The norm of stylistic harmony is upheld by architects the Prince favours—Quinlan Terry and Léon Krier—as much as it is by Late and Neo-Modernists. Lloyds’ of London, the Hongkong Bank, the Arab Institute or little-red-fire-engine pavilions at the Pare de la Villette in Paris are all confined to a unity of material, time and mood—whatever their style. And this despite the fact that they are equivalent in size to a traditional village! When the classical unities become this dominant, when large chunks of the environment housing thousands of people are built at a stroke in the same manner, one can speak of a totalising impulse still prevalent with the Traditionalists and traditional Avant-Garde. *Plus ca change, plus c' est la même integration.

The Post-Modern Paradigm

This is not true of Post-Modern urbanism. Large developments, such as the decade of building in Berlin under IBA, mix various architects, styles, ages and uses of buildings - sometime even on the same street. While common urban typologies such as the perimeter block are adopted, and some aesthetic rules of the game are imposed, various architects are also encouraged to produce difference, using oppositions within these frameworks. By the late 1970s, this became a norm which was demonstrated in the 1980 Venice Biennale: its Strada Novissima was composed as a system of differences. Soon thereafter, Robert Krier and the Berlin planners under IBA adopted the policy of hiring multiple architects for a district, and combined this strategy with infill building and rehabilitation. By the mid 1980s, the policy had disseminated to developers—Broadgate in London, Battery Park City in New York, the Faneuil Hall complex in Boston and downtown Frankfurt were typical commercial versions of the idea. What had started in 1961, when the first shot of Post-Modernism was fired by Jane Jacobs in her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities, had now become a mini-orthodoxy. At least one quarter of all mega-developers saw the point of diversity: mixed ages, mixed uses and complexity made economic as well as aesthetic sense.

It’s fascinating that the ‘Jacobite manifesto’ should fit in so well with the larger Post-Modern paradigm which was growing at the time, and that she should appreciate the fact: such self-awareness is rare. If one steps back from urbanism and architecture and looks at philosophy, literature and science, one finds the same general points emerging in the 60s: the interest in interconnection and symbiosis which characterise ecology; the preoccupation with diversity and difference which typify Post-Modem philosophy and politics; and the understanding of interrelated variables on which the new ‘sciences of complexity’ are built. At the end of her book, in a chapter called ‘The Kind of Problem a City Is’, Jacobs shows that urban questions are not particularly ones of ‘simplicity’, nor ’disorganised complexity’—both of which characterised Modem science from Newton to the development of statistics. Rather, a city is a problem of organised complexity like those with which the life sciences deal.

All the key Post-Modern sciences are rooted in this new episteme—ecology, ethology, biology, holography, the cognitive sciences, psycholinguistics, semiology, chaos theory, neural networks, and so on. Almost all of these deal with feedback, non­linear equations and sudden self-organising phenomena, whereas the Modern sciences, as Jacobs argues, deal with dual- or multi-variable statistical issues. The ‘sciences of simplicity’—Newton’s laws of gravity and the workings of the solar system are the prototypes—established the Modem paradigm, while the sciences of complexity—Noam Chomsky’s ideas of deep structure, or Ilya Prigogine’s of self-organisation are the archetypes—created the Post-Modern episteme. So we have an implicit consensus, or an overlap of thought patterns and heuristic models centring on pluralism and complexity. Organised complexity as idea, fact and style typifies the urbanism of Jane Jacobs, the architecture of Robert Venturi and the literature of Umberto Eco—which is why these disparate manifestations help sum up the Post-Modern paradigm. Indeed, Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 1966, is considered, after Jacobs’ book, the second major treatise to start defining Post-Modern architecture.

What is Post-Modern Architecture?

Post-Modem architecture is obviously concerned with more than pluralism and complexity, although these two key words begin to locate its centre. To suggest the wealth of concepts involved in its definition, I will briefly summarise and emphasise some of the essential definers.

The primary strategy architects have created to articulate the pluralism of culture is that of double-coding: mixing their own professional tastes and technical skills with those of their ultimate clients—the inhabitants. Double-coding exists at many levels and has done so in several periods: it may be an ancient temple which mixes abstract geometry and representational sculpture, high and low art. It may be the Post-Modem Classicism of James Stirling that contrasts monumental and high-tech codes; or vernacular and commercial codes, as in the case of Charles Moore. The dualities invariably contrast the local with the contemporary—hence the label Post-Modern. But whatever the combination, it is the concept of coding itself which is essential to this growing tradition.

Modem architects simply perceived and constructed the meanings they cared about in architecture. By contrast, Post-Modernists are keenly aware that architecture is a language perceived through codes, and that codes and therefore actual seeing differs somewhat in every culture. Hence the complex relation of the architect to the client—again partly explicable by an emergent science of complexity, semiotics: the theory of signs. This theory is one of the crucial ways in which Post-Modern thought differs from its predecessor; but this article is about a growing tradition of architecture, not its intellectual foundations. I have tried to give just enough theory here to explain the main concepts of architectural semiotics and drive home the point that, for Post-Modernists, the perceptual codes of the users are just as important as those of the architects—another reason for double-coding. Modernists and Traditionalists, by contrast, focus on the producers.

There is more to Post-Modern architecture than its conception as a multi-level language. If one were to list the defining characteristics they would extend far beyond the four or five stylistic categories that historians usually apply to a period—for instance, the four that Hitchcock and Johnson found in the International Style in 1932. Anthony Blunt, in a polemical analysis, Some Uses and Misuses of the Terms Baroque and Rococo as Applied to Architecture, finds the historian cannot work with fewer than ten definers. It could be worse! In my own attempt to classify Late, Neo and Post-Modem architecture, I found at least 30 important design ideas, ideological definers and stylistic preoccupations—and there are obviously more. Architectural movements are as complex to define as bird species are for the taxonomist, and demand the synthesising of many characteristics into a whole. The historian classifies overlapping sets of definers by family resemblances—as the philosopher Wittgenstein put it—and this is partly a global, and partly an inductive judgement.

The characteristics of the Post-Modem come from its attempt to cut across the spectrum of tastes with a variety of styles: thus it seeks a radical eclecticism, or a multiple-coding, as well as the double logic I have already mentioned. There are indeed more than 30 norms and forms which define the movement.

For other writers, the situation is somewhat simpler. In The Doubles of Post-Modern, 1980, the architect Robert Stem supports a ‘traditional post-modernism’ which is concerned with historical continuity and, like my own work, the ‘struggle for cultural coherence that is not falsely monolithic’: that is, one based on architectural ‘form as communicating sign’ which a wide public can understand. Elsewhere he mentions as essential an intense concern for ornament, context, and historical allusion.

Paolo Portoghesi, in Postmodern, The Architecture of a Postindustrial Society, 1982, not only places emphasis on the information society, but again on historical continuity and the role of city typologies in sustaining this. Thus Stern and Portoghesi, through their writing, architecture and exhibitions, have led the movement towards the historicism to which much of the public—sadly—reduces it. While their work often has a creative integrity, the genre which follows it is frequently commercialised rubbish.

The agenda is much larger and more important than the superficial facadism to which giant commercial commissions and the Disney Corporation have bent it. But there also is this weakness to a certain strain of the tradition. ‘Disney World Postmodemism’ and the kitsch versions of the genre, are the main reasons critics pronounce the movement dead while it still moves. It is true, however, that the other traditions show the same problems of overproduction; and these are systemic. The commercial and production viruses which contaminated Modem architecture are now attacking its child. ‘Fast-Food-Mega-Build’—to give it as horrible a name as I can—corrupts all movements, and as long as architecture is produced on the run, in too great volume, it will suffer these problems of overproduction. They are, once again, diseases of success.

Heinrich Klotz, in The History of Postmodern Architecture (Germany 1984, USA 1988) offers a slightly different focus than that given here. He takes up the communicational aspect that all writers stress and bends it towards ‘narrative content.’ Form does not just follow function, in his definition of Post-Modem architecture, but ‘fiction.’ The concern for Meaning in Architecture (the subject of a book George Baird and I edited in 1969) becomes the central preoccupation for Klotz, and this very wide concern allows him to include many architects—Rem Koolhaas, John Hejduk and Richard Meier—who I (and no doubt they themselves) would be much happier to see in some other slot, perhaps marked ‘Late-’ or ‘Neo-Modernist’. The three of them, like other New Moderns, have been attacking Post-Modernism since at least 1982.

Nonetheless, Heinrich Klotz is right to show the ambiguity of these practitioners—who all revise, ironise, and distort abstract Modernism—and in these weak senses are ‘post.’ But defining the movement by the single category ‘fiction’ or ‘allusion and association’, as he does elsewhere, is much too loose. All architecture has some representational and allusive meaning, even if it is to a previous abstraction or tradition of non-meaning (as in Hannes Meyer’s work). So, otherwise exemplary as history, Klotz’s definition of the subject is at once too wide in its inclusion of Neo-­Modernists, and too narrow, in its reduction to ‘fiction.’

All this dispute over categories and the intentions of a movement may sound academic, or irrelevant to architectural practice—but it is not. Differences of meaning create divergences in evolution—as we have seen in the Prince of Wales’ recent battle, first with the Modernists, then with the Post-Modernists.

The Failure of Prince Charles’ Crusade

In 1984, on the 150th anniversary of the RIBA, Prince Charles launched what he later termed a ‘crusade’—against the heathens, nihilists, abstractionists and all those who were building an anti­Christian, materialistic architecture in Britain. Characteristically, in this Holy War, he copied the example of Post-Modernists and my own use of metaphors to attack the sterile malapropisms of Mies van der Rohe and those who prefer abstract sculpture to significance. Mies’ proposed skyscraper for Central London he vilified and destroyed as a ‘glass stump.’ Other verbal missiles stopped the ‘monstrous carbuncle’ designed for the National Gallery, James Stirling’s ‘1930s wireless’ put forward also for Central London, and the ‘prison camp’ proposed by Sir Philip Dowson and Arups for London’s Paternoster site. As visual metaphors these exocets were wide of the mark, but as Royal bombs they were very effective. The Prince, surrounded by a coterie of Traditionalists and with TV and the newspapers egging him on, could not resist the temptation to sink the designs and reputations of England's finest professionals. He claimed in a Sunday Times article in 1989 that he did not have any real power, but the truth was that he did have great power to destroy.

The pity of all this is even greater. Prince Charles’ misdirected crusade embodies a lot of common sense and has a following even among Modernists. Indeed, everybody who watches television knew by 1980 that tower blocks were out, that abstract Modernism was usually boring, and that rapacious development was the main cause of city deconstruction. James Stirling and Sandy Wilson – two of the Prince’s victims – had been saying such things for 15 years; they were the clichés of the average professional. Furthermore, many architects were inclining towards pluralism and ready to accept the partial validity of his three Cs: Community Architecture, Classicism and Conservation. Ninety per cent of what Prince Charles advocates is beneficent, has been said before, and gains general assent; the problem is with the other ten per cent.

By attacking such humane and respected architects as Philip Dowson for being ‘inhuman’, by censoring his design for the St Paul's area as ‘a prison camp’ and calling it ‘watered-down classicism’ and ‘half-hearted’; by intervening to influence developers and manipulate a democratic process, he has sent two very clear messages to the architectural profession: that he holds their values in contempt, and that he is prepared to act undemocratically.

The pity, again, is that he usually favours such things as participation in design and an open process of choosing architects. But encouraging developers from America, Japan and Britain to come, cap in hand, to his country estate Highgrove to present their schemes behind closed doors—and trim them to a Classicist cut—is no way for a Prince to behave. That’s the style of the Old Boys’ Network and the Watergate plumbers. And this from a Prince who has supported community architecture and minorities. Of monarchy he has even said, ‘It can be an elective institution. After all, if people don’t want it, they won’t have it.’

This is rather how most architects felt by September 1989, the date of the Prince’s one-sided book and television film Vision of Britain, with its accompanying exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Before this, many in the design community, including me, felt that the Royal intervention had at least publicity and populism to recommend it. While architecture was becoming ever more topical in other countries, the popular press in Britain had not really taken it up before 1984; so the Prince could gain a certain credibility over time simply by being the pretext for provoking public debate.

Vision of Britain changed all that. While a popular success in viewing and rating terms, it was not a hit with journalists, critics, architects or the Establishment. A characteristic opinion, by a respected historian and writer on country houses—Mark Girouard—spoke for the informed minority. The Prince’s tastes were too predictably limited; like ‘Pavlov’s dog’, Girouard wrote, ‘when he sees a pitched roof, a chimney stack, a pediment, a column or a sash window, he wags his tail; when he sees concrete, or is deprived of his bowl of ornament, he barks.’ This was devastating, coming from a writer both eminent in the field and one who shares much in terms of values and background with the Prince.

Such opinions were confirmed at the ‘Official Debate’ I had the misfortune to chair at the V&A near the close of the exhibition. It degenerated into name-calling, and showed very clearly the kind of climate which the Prince’s attack had created in Britain. On my right, Lucinda Lambton and Léon Krier were pitted against Martin Pawley and Sandy Wilson sitting to the left. Once the debate started, I couldn’t help remembering the origins of ‘left- and right­wing’—categories architecturally determined by the seating positions of the two opposing camps in the Estates General at the time of the French Revolution.

I don’t remember who threw the first parallel that night at the V&A. In any case, Prince Charles was compared to Pol Pot, then a Modernist to Honnecker, then the Prince of Wales to Stalin, then a Modernist to Ceaucescu, then the Prince to Hitler, then... In hindsight, I should have declared the meeting closed at that point, for the next two hours brought little light and much blood.

The only real conclusion was the vote at the end of the evening, which showed that the audience of over 300 generally approved of the Prince’s intervention, but questioned his taste, and disliked his tactics. By an overwhelming majority they supported his focusing of public opinion on architecture; but by a vote of two to one they rejected his stylistic preferences, and by two and a half to one they disapproved of his methods of influencing planning decisions.

From his impregnable position of influence—with the BBC, Sunday Times and popular press giving him a virtual monopoly of the media-waves—he imposes his opinions and planning preferences and destroys reputations. The fact that, with many others, I agree with 90 per cent of what he says does not make up for the rest: neither the undemocratic tactics, nor the gratuitous slurs. The fact that with other critics, I may also indulge in Modernist-bashing, does not justify his insults either: whereas ours may wound, they may be answered in kind; but his have the power to kill (at least four London schemes so far). Such truths the professions have come to realise. Architects, planners, developers and journalists—precisely those whom the Prince should try to influence if he really cared about winning his crusade—are beginning to appreciate another underlying motive.

In a rare moment of self-disclosure the Prince once said that he envied the Pop musician Bob Geldof, and that he too wanted to lead a popular crusade—creating an equivalent of Geldof’s world-wide concert to aid the starving. No doubt in supporting the Traditionalists, and, later, the ecological movement, the Prince has found two issues worth promoting. Furthermore, his creation of a summer school for training craftsmen and architects in the traditional virtues, and his commissioning Léon Krier and others to design part of a town in Dorchester are very positive moves of his crusade. But, because of the overkill and his vindictive attacks over a period of six years, he has polarised and frightened his dreaded enemy to the point where—irony upon irony—it has now become unified and gained a credibility and purpose it previously lacked. Neo-Modernism has been turned into a professional mainstream by these attacks. It is not only the Old Cold War that thrives on demonology.

The RIBA, with its Neo-Mod President leading ranks of Born­-Again Modernists; youthful designers, whipped up into paroxysms of Royal-loathing by Martin Pawley crying ‘Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin’; and the average professional, confused in the crossfire—all reflect the impact of the Prince’s crusade. Oh, melancholic and misdirected Prince, if you really want to change Britain then change the hearts and minds of those who lead it: insults merely entrench and enhance your enemy.


What has all this tempest in a Royal-Isle to do with Post­-Modernism? First of all, it has taken media attention away from this tradition, which is a good thing, just at the point in the 1980s when it was becoming a major approach for most firms around the world. That decade, in retrospect, shows the simultaneous growth of at least three separate movements: Traditional, Modern and Post-Modern. The building boom in the West and the growth of pluralism have meant that, paradoxically, all sides have been winning the Style Wars. Usually in architectural history, different approaches wax and wane in opposition. But every now and then, when the economic and cultural conditions are right, there is a sudden, mutual flowering of different traditions, just as in evolutionary history there can be a simultaneous explosion of new species—all prospering for a time. This can be conceived, visually, as the expanding end of a trumpet.

We are entering a new period of world communications where literally hundreds of styles and ways of life will thrive simultaneously cheek-by-jowl: They may not appreciate or understand each other. But tolerance, a respect for difference, an enjoyment of variety are the attitudes suited to the information age, and pluralism is its philosophy. Post-Modern writers such as David Lodge have insisted on the truths of dialogue and ‘dialogic’; urbanists such asJane Jacobs have shown the economic and social benefits which flow from a varied city fabric; and semioticians such as Umberto Eco have shown how a plural field of discourse creates the precondition for meaning. Such philosophies, major ideas and practices are now in the air, if not dominant. We are well into the post-modern era whether or not the Post-Modern movement enjoys widespread favour in any particular place.

My own preference is that it remain one voice among many—that it not dominate a city or culture. When it does, at Disney World, the results are, to say the least, unfortunate and, hard to believe, even Modernist. True Post-Modernists really do believe in a field of tensions, in the necessity for Traditional and Modern approaches to flourish, in order to sustain all of their meanings. And so, opposed to the reigning ideologies of Prince Charles and the President of the RIBA, they do not want a crusade, or victory over the enemy. They realise the enemy is themselves in another mood and cultural situation, and that the system of oppositions must be supported as an end in itself. No difference? —no richness, no meaning.

    Charles Jencks
    Death for Rebirth
    post-modern, Post-Modernism