1980 in Parallax: Provincialising Post-Modern Architecture
In 1980 the first ever Venice Architecture Biennale entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ famously announced Post-Modernism as the international mainstream of architecture. It proposed a new canon that was to be more inclusive and polyphonic, and sought to embrace a diversity of narratives, a variety of styles, contradictions and irony. Yet despite these ideals, none of the case studies and architects presented at the Biennale went beyond the European and North-American context. Looking back – once again – in order to look forward, this series of essays addressing the question ‘Whose Post-Modernism?’ reconsiders the Post-Modern canon from the critical distance of 43 years to reinvigorate the pluralism suggested by the Biennale and Charles. It invites multiple voices to collectively remap the year 1980 from various geographical and cultural perspectives, while reflecting on its legacies today. First in the series, Stylianos Giamarelos looks at the Venice Biennale through the lens of a group of Greek architects who visited ‘The Presence of The Past’ exhibition and found a special connection with the past on the peripheries, beyond the walls of the biennale’s exhibitions.
From the vantage point of 2023, the heated debates around modern and Post-Modern architecture of the 1980s can come across as an inconsequential exercise in stylistic labelling. But architectural history is not a static object; it is a relationship that each successive generation cultivates by revisiting the material of the past from the perspective of the present. As I will show in what follows, starting from the same ‘canonical’ historic material of 1980, a new generation of architects and theorists can retrieve the presently more relatable approach of provincialising Post-Modern architecture from this prolific period. In the 21st century, the term ‘provincialising’ became more widely associated with a methodology for re-centring marginalised discourses, following in the footsteps of the pioneering postcolonial studies of Dipesh Chakrabarty.1 In the context of this article, however, I also deploy this term as it was used by historians and theorists around 1980 to refer to the emerging Western European and North American interest in ‘provincial’ architectural practices, catalysed by the first Venice Biennale exhibition dedicated to architecture.
1980 has by now been established as a milestone in the history of Post-Modern architecture. In the summer of that year, the first Venice Biennale of Architecture exhibition opened its doors to the public. Since then, it has been associated with the propagation of what became widely known as Post-Modernism (and pejoratively as PoMo) across the globe. The Presence of the Past, as suggested by the main title of the exhibition, was embodied in its centrepiece, the Strada Novissima. This imaginary ‘very new street’ pointing towards the future of architecture in 1980 was set up in the large indoor spaces of the old Arsenale (arsenal). It was composed of 20 façades designed by selected architects from North America, Western Europe and Japan. Their designs mostly reflected Robert Stern’s ideas on ‘traditional post-modernism’,2 as they proposed ironic reappropriations of pre-modernist Western European architectural elements, borrowed especially from classicism. Heralded as a curatorial masterstroke, the Strada Novissima amplified the message of the show, effectively becoming synonymous with Post-Modernism. Since then, broken pediments, gable roofs and stylised pilasters became the most recognisable words in the vocabulary of Post-Modern architecture across the globe. This was indeed the first time that the diverse reactions to the decades-long impasse of modern architecture in the Western world were finally unified, summarised and defined as a ‘very new’ language for the future of architecture.
For architects and critics who had been actively contributing to the multifarious developments of architecture after Modernism, such as Charles Jencks, this was both good and bad news. The good news was that the new language of architecture, which Jencks had been actively trying to define during the 1970s, had at least been established. As such, Jencks noted that ‘the first phase of Post-Modernism [was] complete’.3 The tables had turned, since Post-Modern Classicism, the architectural style that emerged from the Strada Novissima, became widely recognisable as the public face of Post-Modernism. From this point onwards, whoever wished to challenge it had to come up with a similarly solid counter-proposal. The bad news was that this new language veered much more towards classicism than other traditions that Jencks had included in his earlier formulations of Post-Modernism of the late 1970s, when he had proposed ‘radical eclecticism’ as the potential synthesis of the multifarious strands of architecture after Modernism.4 Post-Modern Classicism effectively overshadowed the more diverse attempts to grapple with the crisis of modern architecture after the 1960s. In this respect, Charles Jencks was unexpectedly allied with his rival Kenneth Frampton, the British architectural historian and theorist whose defence of significant aspects of Modernism against its wholesale critique ushered in the development of critical regionalism later in the 1980s.5 In April 1980, only three months before the opening of the exhibition in Venice, Frampton resigned from its international committee of invited critics. Because the show was ‘curiously partisan’ in its selection of architects promoting an ‘unstructured pluralism’, Frampton also concluded that the exhibition failed to fully document the spectrum of ‘the present reaction against the reduced categories of modern architecture’.6 It is for similar reasons that a new generation of architectural historians, such as Léa-Catherine Szacka, now interpret this first Biennale as a ‘hinge’ that marks not only ‘the end of the beginning’ but also ‘the beginning of the end’ in the history of Post-Modernism.7
This is the part of the story that attracted my attention when I started researching Post-Modern architecture in Greece in 2013. My early finding of a ten-minute Super-8 film roll, documenting a visit by collaborative practice Atelier 66 to the Biennale in September 1980, in co-founders Suzana and Dimitris Antonakakis’ private archive in Athens, seemed intriguing. Before watching the film, I expected it would be an opportunity to document this significant show in Western architectural history from an unanticipated perspective: that of Greek architects who visited the exhibition after a long period of cultural insularity under the military junta regime in their home country (1967–74). But after watching it, I became even more intrigued by the almost complete absence of the Biennale from the recorded scenes. The reel featured only instances of two projects related to the exhibition: Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo floating along a Venetian canal and the portal that the same architect designed to welcome visitors to the Arsenale (Figure 1). The Strada Novissima was nowhere to be seen in the film and Dimitris Antonakakis’s public statements upon the architects’ return to Greece testified their unanimously appalled reaction to what was on show in Venice.8 The duo’s critique of the exhibition was similar to that of Frampton and other modernist architects and thinkers of the period, who agreed that the project of modern architecture was in crisis, but also felt that the Biennale was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. More specifically, they did not subscribe to the view that the modern project and its progressive aspirations should be abandoned in favour of reconnecting with the masses in terms of political apathy, playful communication and regressive symbolism. In their own work with Atelier 66, Suzana and Dimitris Antonakakis had been working to address the crisis of Modernism by grappling with the presence of the architectural and urban past in a different way. For them, the age-old fabric of historic human settlements embodied the collective, cumulative wisdom of a community’s centuries-long engagement with the same territory. This long-standing wisdom could still inform modern architecture, not in the superficial terms of replicating specific forms as signs for communicating with the public, but on the deeper level of spatial configurations that facilitate dwelling in a specific environment.
What is documented instead of the Biennale in the short recording is indicative of this approach. The film is replete with multiple instances of the active presence of the past in the city of Venice itself, ranging from the urban fabric and the relationship that it establishes with the local topography, to the specific architectural configurations and features of historic buildings. Every time Dimitris turns his Super-8 camera on, he zooms in to capture not only the duo’s visits to Palladian villas and other architectural works of interest, but also random landings, pathways, alleys, courtyards, bridges, semi-enclosed spaces, thresholds, limits, boundaries and gradual transitions to privacy, and instances of everyday life in the city’s relationship with the water that surrounds its streets and public spaces (Figure 2). This was just the latest addition to their long series of similar explorations of mainland and island settlements in Greece since the late 1950s. Such architectural observations subtly informed the modern projects of Atelier 66 in the 1960s and 70s.
By 1980, the Antonakakis’ regional approach to modern architecture had become sufficiently distinctive to warrant critical attention. It was then that United States-based architectural critics Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre had been commissioned to write an essay on the two architects’ oeuvre for the annual review Architecture in Greece. Their critical text showed how their work constituted a form of ‘critical regionalism’ by combining disparate strands of regional architectural culture to show a way forward for architecture after the crisis of Modernism.9 The spatial configuration of projects such as the apartment building on 118 Benaki Street (1972–75) indicates how both the architectural and communal qualities of rural life in Greece could reintroduce a sense of belonging in the bland urban environment of modern Athens (Figure 3). For example, the flights of stairs that traverse the architects’ own flat on the first floor (Figure 4) to create several spatial clusters on different levels, the trajectory of sunlight across the apartment throughout the day, and the master-bedroom window that overlooks the double-height living room recreate the atmosphere of a small piazza of a Greek island settlement within the four walls of an urban apartment (Figure 5). With the gradual shifts and transitions from public to semi-public and private clusters throughout the flat, the indoor space is so enriched that it feels almost like a small town. In the critics’ words, the critical regionalism exemplified in the Antonakakis’ work was the ‘bridge over which any humanistic architecture of the future must pass’.10
Upon his resignation from the Biennale committee in 1980, Frampton also started pointing towards ‘the provincialism which has developed in three large cities (Vienna, Buenos Aires and New York)’ and ‘the work carried out in several provincial cities … for the last 20 years already’ to argue that ‘it is regionalism which shows the greatest promise’ to articulate a more appropriate approach for the future of architecture.11 His foregrounding of ‘provincial’ cultures suggested that the ‘centre–periphery’ framing of Western architectural history does not hold after the crisis of Modernism in the late twentieth century. Shortly afterwards, as Frampton admitted in an interview in the mid-1980s, he ‘borrowed’ the term ‘critical regionalism’ from Tzonis and Lefaivre to refer to his agenda of a more thoughtful reconciliation of modern building technologies with regional architectural practices whose longevity and communal bonds contributed to place-making.12 As such, he added Suzana and Dimitris Antonakakis to his favoured ‘provincial’ architectural practices to push his agenda forward through a series of public talks and publications.13 Expanding his list of ‘critical regionalist’ architects from other parts of the ‘First World’ throughout the 1980s, Frampton posited that the ‘periphery’ was not a passive recipient of ‘central’ architectural developments but an active generator of theory and practice that could also be relevant for practitioners in other parts of the world. In other words, ‘peripheral’ architecture was not restricted by the borders and specificities of each ‘province’.14
Frampton’s project of ‘critical regionalism’ can therefore be reinterpreted and updated as a methodology for centring marginalised architectural discourses and practices today. In this sense, the Venice Biennale that defined Post-Modern Classicism as the new ‘centre’ of architectural debate in 1980 inadvertently united the Greek architects and Frampton in their attempt to ‘provincialise’ the scenographic Post-Modern architecture of the Strada Novissima. In so doing, they provided a different response to the crisis of Modernism by re-centring ‘provincial’ architectural cultures and the ways in which these could reflectively enrich modern architectural approaches. As the most relatable legacy of the 1980 Venice Biennale for the present, this renewed notion of provincialising Post-Modern architecture is not limited to exploring the early history of critical regionalism from the vantage point of the ‘periphery’,15 or returning to the diverse, socially, culturally and environmentally conscious responses to the impasse of Modernism that were overshadowed by the media onslaught of the Biennale. These form only the tip of a Post-Modern iceberg still bounded by the narrow confines of the First World of the 1980s. In the intervening decades, postcolonial thinking has demonstrated multifarious ways in which provincialising ‘central’ constructs enriches cross-cultural understandings and promotes equitable ways of knowledge co-production that are better suited to the pressing challenges of the twenty-first century. Employed by architectural scholars, such approaches hold the potential to usher in nuanced, novel understandings of architectural Post-Modernity today. With anglophone architectural historiography currently expanding its scope beyond the confines of the twentieth-century First World,16 the process of provincialising Post-Modern architecture seems to have only just begun. And the milestone of 1980 lives on, as a new architectural generation builds on its subtle legacy as yet another ‘end of the beginning’.
Dr Stylianos Giamarelos is Associate Professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. His latest book Resisting Postmodern Architecture: Critical Regionalism before Globalisation (London: UCL Press, 2022) is freely available as an open-access PDF at: www.uclpress.co.uk/products/180529.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
Robert Stern, ‘The Doubles of Post-Modern’ (1980), reprinted inArchitecture on the Edge of Postmodernism: Collected Essays, 1964–1988, eds. Robert Stern and Cynthia Davidson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 128–46 (136–40).
Charles Jencks, ‘Post-Modern Classicism – The Synthesis: An Interview with Charles Jencks’, Architectural Design, 54.3/4 (1984), 61–63.
Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, (London: Academy, 1978), 127–32.
See Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980).
Kenneth Frampton, 3-page letter to Paolo Portoghesi, 25 April 1980, Fondo storico La Biennale di Venezia, Architettura, b. 658, Mostra internazionale di architettura, ‘Riunioni commissione architettura: regolamento’, 1980–83, 2.
Léa-Catherine Szacka, Exhibiting the Postmodern: The 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale (Venice: Marsilio, 2016), 183–241.
Dimitris Antonakakis, ‘Μεταμοντέρνα αρχιτεκτονική: Παρεμβάσεις’, Journal of the Association of Greek Architects, 8 (September–October 1981), 82–83.
Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre, ‘The Grid and the Pathway: An Introduction to the Work of Dimitris and Suzana Antonakakis, with Prolegomena to a History of the Culture of Modern Greek Architecture’, Architecture in Greece, 15 (1981), 164–78.
Kenneth Frampton, ‘From Neo-Productivism to Post-Modernism’, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, 213 (1981), xlvi; Kenneth Frampton, ‘Μοντέρνο, πολύ μοντέρνο: Μια συνέντευξη του Kenneth Frampton στον Γιώργο Σημαιοφορίδη’, Architecture in Greece, 20 (1986), 120.
See, for example, Kenneth Frampton, ‘Modern Architecture and Critical Regionalism’, RIBA Transactions, 3.2 (1983), 15–25.
Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, 327.
Stylianos Giamarelos, Resisting Postmodern Architecture: Critical Regionalism before Globalisation (London: UCL Press, 2022).
See, for example, Vladimir Kulić (ed.), Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society under Late Socialism (London: Bloomsbury, 2019); Florian Urban, Postmodern Architecture in Socialist Poland: Transformation, Symbolic Form and National Identity (London: Routledge, 2021).