Charles Jencks

Post-Modern Classicism – The Ironic International Style


In this extract from The Story of Post-Modernism (2012), Charles Jencks looks back on the first Venice Architectural Biennale of 1980. Entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ and directed by Paolo Portoghesi, this first iteration of the Venice Architectural Biennale set up the terms of debate about Post-Modernism as an architectural movement, as well as announcing its main proponents. Jencks was part of a group of architectural critics that formed an advisory committee to Portoghesi, ultimately influencing the selection of participants for this seminal event in the history of Post-Modernism. With the benefit of historical hindsight, this extract explores the pluralism of voices and the intellectual debates that have contributed to this moment in architectural history, as well as its legacies in the present.

Extract from Charles Jencks, Post-Modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012)

By the late 1970s Post-Modernism had been named, fêted, built and attacked, particularly by Modernist critics. The Zeitgeistian paranoia of these critiques had, as I mentioned in part one, ironically redoubled the fury of the storm. Yet by 1980 pluralism had found its styles of Radical Eclecticism and double-coding, and the city its exponents of urban contextualism. A point of self-consciousness was reached when, a year after my book appeared, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1977, the Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi asked me to help organise an exhibition on Post-Modernism. This was to be in Venice, as the first architectural Biennale, and housed in the Renaissance Corderie dell'Arsenale, an old rope-making factory of the old shipyard that was being converted into a monumental hallway over 300 metres (984 feet) long. This Renaissance structure was held up by a giant order of primitive columns. Like a utopian sketch by Léon Krier it felt gloomily prophetic, and, like Ricardo Bofill's monumental housing somewhat intimidating.

Paolo Portoghesi, a historian of Baroque architecture, was also an interesting architect experimenting with a contemporary version of this style carried through in planar concrete. A member of the venerable Accademia di San Luca and connected with the scene of power politics, he was well placed to become the impresario of the nascent movement. After a visit to Rome and our discussions he wrote about our collaboration on Post-Modernism, and put together the team of critics which included Christian Norberg-Schulz, Kenneth Frampton, Robert A.M. Stern and the historian Vincent Scully. We debated through the winter to spring 1980, choosing 20 main architects to define a new representational street scene; and another 55 to exhibit their work upstairs overlooking the main Corderie. Each of the 20 designers was asked to design a street facade on the Strada Novissima, an exemplary face that would announce to passing visitors what was on offer inside.

According to the ancient definition of the word the edifices were for edification, but they were also Pop expressions of a new attitude to architecture meant to communicate. Some of the 20 architects I had espoused were anti-Classical — such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas — who, notwithstanding their suspicion of tradition, also wished to communicate with a larger public. Several architects were eclectics such as Hans Hollein, Michael Graves, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Arata Isozaki and Robert Stern. Some were revivalists, such as Allan Greenberg and Thomas Gordon Smith, and some were in the rationalist camp, such as Ricardo Bofill, Oswald Mathias Ungers, Franco Purini, Costantino Dardi and Aldo Rossi. Rossi was actually not included in the top 20 but instead given the honour of designing a Renaissance theatre that floated into Venice. Called II Teatro del Mondo, it was a severe, vertical box surmounted by his characteristically cheerful roof. Also he designed the temporary front door to the exhibition. Thus SS Post-Modernism was launched on the Grand Canal, and in an old rope factory. Diversity was sought by the organising committee and the pluralism made explicit, but some on the jury were disaffected. Among them was Kenneth Frampton, who dropped out to become the scourge of the movement. He slated Gehry and Venturi and condescended to Koolhaas. The critic Bruno Zevi, also committed to Late Modernism, continued his vilifications in the Italian press. Feelings ran high at the opening of the Biennale and one day, as I crossed Gae Aulenti's path in a Venetian piazza, she cursed me as the devil and gave me the hex sign. (This was a few years before she designed the exemplary Post-Modern museum in Paris at the Gare d’Orsay, about which more anon). When a new architecture goes public, there are the usual swings of mood and flip-flops.1 An important one concerned the title of the exhibition, which was to give Post-Modernism a slightly anachronistic flavour.

As a student of the show has written, the title carried five variations on Post-Modernism until it reached its final designation, ‘The Presence of the Past2’. Adopting T.S. Eliot’s definition of tradition, and led by Portoghesi and Stern, the argument shifted from communication to historicism. It became even more passé as the exhibition travelled to Paris the next year (where it was called La Présence de l'Histoire: l'Après Modernité) and San Francisco the following year. This public branding – Post-Modernism as a return to the past – has continued to plague the movement, especially among those who impugn any reference as pastiche. But since these interpretations were relevant only to a small number of exhibitors, I stayed on the committee and accepted the shift in title. It did, at least, refer to one-sixth of the PM agenda, the acknowledgement of architecture's DNA. And pluralism, especially with the inclusion of Gehry and Koolhaas, was the visible message, and my particular angle in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, that is, communication in general.

The 20 facades did communicate competitively like stores on Main Street, and they also reflected the Grand Canal's heterogeneity. The columnar order and cornice height provided the unity of the Strada Novissima while market pluralism provided the variety. The Koolhaas shop sports its surrealist pin, white biomorphic sail and neon sign. This last spelled OMA one way (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) and AMO the other, the name of his think tank and research unit established 20 years later. Like Gehry’s exaggerated display of studs as a voided wall (‘the stud wall as American Realism’), the facade is meant to displace and disrupt the gathering consensus, Post-Modern Classicism. Most shopfronts sport this latter mode – Venturi, Graves and Stern most conspicuously and Bofill I and Grau most heavily. Right next to the hanging billboard ‘VENTURI, RAUCH & SCOTT BROWN’, a flat painted facade in Mickey Mouse Doric, was Léon Krier’s severe vernacular house with real oak braces. Modernists understandably damned the former as ‘Potemkin's village’, Venturi’s negative irony. The stage sets were indeed assembled by a film studio. But these attacks missed the larger point.

The modes of architectural communication had returned: polychromy, reference, ornament, metaphor, convention, sensuous material and irony. These relatively unfamiliar qualities inspired a large audience of 2,000 visitors a day, unique at the time for an exhibition on contemporary architecture. The mass media followed suit. Gone was the black and white International Style and with it the taboos, as Portoghesi pointed out in his essay on the ‘end of prohibitions’. For him this liberation from European repression was a key motive.

The most convincing façade, by Hans Hollein, was an essay in communicative irony which ironically broke the rules Portoghesi had set up. It exposed the existing columns of the building, a rule explicitly forbidden, and played on them recalling the new title ‘the presence of the past’. Under a neon arch the cornice was held by the real primitive columns of the Corderie. Then the right-hand one morphed into a growing tree-column, and from there to a hanging false column (for the doorway). Then it turned into the famous Chicago Tribune Column of Adolf Loos (itself a double pun), and then a version of Bramante's brachiated column-trunk, and finally it returned to the real thing. Hollein revealed these references in his interior collage, and showed several of his own experiments with a semantic Order. Thus, like the large genre of Post-Modern novels termed ‘meta-fiction’, the narrative included the narrator and a miniature of itself, a self-referential sign system.

Ironic play on the real and fake is a recurring trope in contemporary literature and it lies at the heart of Umberto Eco's famous definition of Post-Modernism. James Stirling, the architect oddly missing from the 1980 Biennale, was to exploit such oppositions between artifice and reality, in one of the key buildings we will look at shortly. Along with Hollein's paradoxical play with columns, it brings up the distinction between positive and negative irony, its mature versus cynical use. Robert Venturi cites and underlines the mature use, and it becomes a part of his argument for Complexity and Contradiction; that is, the movement from the childlike view to the tragic outlook of the adult, where plural truths are acknowledged as well as their incommensurability. 3This is the fundamental Post-Modern position defined by writers and philosophers, from Isaiah Berlin to Jean-François Lyotard. Irony and tragedy are to be valued for their superior depth and breadth of view, because of the way they include more aspects of reality, the way they allow contradictory propositions to be asserted at the same time. They urge the viewer to choose and balance opposite views; they include in their purview even hostile comment. Unlike propaganda and simpler works of art, they can absorb the critical attack without sustaining lethal damage. This is why I include opinions hostile to Post-Modernism here: opposition is not the enemy of complex meaning. Inevitably, however, irony has a possible downside. The double-coding which asserts and critiques a message at the same time, can be used to lie. Duplicity and kitsch can attend negative irony, one reason why its positive use by Hollein should be carefully distinguished from cynicism.

The Venetian Biennale, as it travelled to France and the US, put Post-Modernism on the global map and the diversity of architects demonstrated that it was a pluralist movement with an overriding style, Post-Modern Classicism. If Modernism had announced the International Style with the exhibition of real mass housing in Stuttgart 1927 designed by the major figures then, for the electronic age Venice 1980 brought in Post-Modernism as a media event of filmic facades.

  1. Some of the best debates on 'The Presence of the Past' are contained in Architectural Design 52, 1/2 (1982) on Free-Style Classicism, an edition I edited. See 'Presents of the Past: Revisiting the 1980 Venice Biennale', pp. 4–24, where debates with the protagonists Portoghesi et al are very open, and Bruno Zevi and Vittorio Gregotti, among others, put their misgivings. Particularly the latter well expresses the revisionist view of the Modern Movement to Léon Krier.

  2. Lea-Catherine Szacka, 'Historicism versus Communication: The Big Debate at the 1980 Biennale', Architectural Design, vol 81, no 5, 2011, pp. 98-105, on Radical Post-Modernism. She writes that the title of the 1980 Architectural Biennale 'varied between "The Architecture of Post-Modern", to "Dopo l'architettura moderna" ("After Modern Architecture") to "Postmodern Architecture" to the very simple "Postmodern" to "La Mostra sul Postmodernismo" ("The Exhibition on Post-Modernism") to an emphatic pronouncement, "POSTMODERN". Finally it adopted the title 'The Presence of the Past', inspired by the famous 1919 essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' by T.S. Eliot. The reason for that was that the organisation committee, led by Robert A. M. Stern and Paolo Portoghesi, deliberately chose not to use the term 'post-modern' at all and subsequently bent the message of the exhibition toward historicism. Stern, the inclusivist, radically embraced many things, especially the past. Charles Jencks, as he has told me, went along with this shift in emphasis while the unswerving Kenneth Frampton, committed to a revisionist modernism, did not. He resigned at an early stage because of the formalism of certain architects and because he thought the exhibition was more anti-modern than post-modern. On the other hand, Robert A. M. Stern, the inclusivist, radically embraced many things, especially the past. The French version of the exhibition, called The Presence of History: After Modernity, ran from 15 October to 20 December 1981; the San Francisco exhibition, at Fort Mason, from 20 May to 29 July 1982, reverted to The Presence of the Past so in all three versions, history and the past were given the major emphasis.'

  3. Robert Venturi, 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture', Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture 1 (New York, 1966).

Charles Jencks
Post-Modern Classicism – The Ironic International Style
Venice Architectural Biennale 1980