Multiform and the Legacies of Post-Modernism
In 1977, in his seminal book ‘Language of Post-Modern Architecture’ Jencks declared the death of modern architecture. For many decades to come, in seven subsequent editions of this seminal book, he kept refining, mapping and diagramming his theory of Post-Modern. To revisit Jencks’ definitions of Post-Modern and debate their relevance to today’s architectural and broader culture, we have invited a number of authors – scholars, architects, curators, and writers – to respond to the question ‘What is/was Post-Modern?’ In this essay Owen Hopkins detects the connections and divergences between historical Post-Modernism and some contemporary tendencies in architecture that he defines as ‘Multiform’.
There’s a recurring theme in architectural history of styles being defined by their antagonists rather than their protagonists. The Gothic, for example, had little to do with the Visigoths who sacked Rome in AD 410, yet was a convenient epithet for the Renaissance architectural theorists who wanted to recast medieval architecture as uncivilised. Similarly, the Baroque, etymologically usually seen as deriving from the Portuguese word barroco(misshapen pearl), began as a term of abuse, only being recuperated as a stylistic descriptor in the late nineteenth century. And it was a similar case with Post-Modernism, despite Charles Jencks’ energetic and longstanding attempts to prove otherwise.
For Aldo van Eyck, Post-Modernism was ‘A violation of sanity; in short, treason.’1 Richard Rogers saw it as ‘the superficial aesthetic of shoddy commercial design…. obsessed with money and fashion.’ 2In his 1982 Royal Gold Medal Address Berthold Lubetkin declared Post-Modern architecture to be ‘a transvestite architecture, Heppelwhite and Chippendale in drag’, while Reyner Banham followed a similar line, infamously declaring that ‘Postmodernism is in the same relationship to architecture as female impersonation is to femininity. It is not architecture, but building in drag.’3
It is fair to say these latter two characterisations have not aged well. And there has always appeared to something a bit off in the way Post-Modernism has never been able to shed the popular impression that it is frivolous, but also too knowing, vulgar and overtly commercial. And today anything smelling vaguely of Post-Modernism can still provoke the most viscerally negative response. This was certainly the case in a recent article in The Architectural Review by Catherine Slessor, who spent two whole paragraphs digging up the corpse of Post-Modernism and beheading it just to make sure it really was dead, before turning the knife on the Multiform movement by describing it (in her eyes at least) in the most damning of ways as ‘Continuity PoMo’.4
Multiform had only emerged blinking into the world six months before in a special issue of Architectural Design (AD) edited by myself and Erin McKellar. In the Jencksian tradition, it was both an attempt at putting our collective finger on an emerging trend in contemporary architecture and to provide some kind of critical and theoretical context for it. Multiform, we suggested, was ‘the perpetually provisional architectural articulation of the complexities of the contemporary world … less a style than a common tendency manifested in the work of a range of architects practising today … [and] manifested through expressive uses of ornament and decoration, formal reference and quotation, stylistic eclecticism, symbolism in form, material and ornament.’5
So far so PoMo, as Slessor saw it, for these are design tactics synonymous with the style. For sure many of the architects and designers included under the Multiform banner are inspired by, or at the very least follow, similar paths to their Post-Modern forebears. It is impossible, for example, to look at Camille Walala’s exuberant colour patterns without thinking of Memphis in general and Ettore Sottsass in particular, or of CAN’s celebration of ad-hoc formations without bringing to mind Gehry’s early work. Then there’s Office S&M’s celebration of everyday materials, Studio MUTT’s interests in sampling and remixing and the joyful architectural expressions of AOC – classic Post-Modern tactics. Beyond the UK, there’s the urban eclecticism of Bovenbouw, Jennifer Bonner’s use of fashion trends as a way of thinking about (as well as designing) architecture, and Paradigma Ariadné’s ideas about how to deal with the built legacies of modernity – all of which have Post-Modern echoes.
Yet we were careful to distinguish Multiform from straightforward Post-Modern revival, neo-Post-Modernism, or ‘Continuity PoMo’ as Slessor put it, trying to write off Multiform as the simple continuation of tactics and approaches that in her view were tired relics of the past. To be clear, it’s not that there aren’t connections and parallels between Multiform and Post-Modernism – aesthetically as well as ideologically – as we readily acknowledged, but there are much deeper and more fundamental differences too. For starters, Multiform reflects comparatively recent though deep-rooted structural changes in how architecture is consumed. Where Post-Modern architecture depended on and in many ways was conceived through the printed media characteristic of the 1980s, as Léa-Catherine Szacka has contended, Multiform is a child of the era of social media, and specifically of Instagram.6
This is not just about the primacy of the image in the dissemination of architectural ideas, which is hardly new, of course, but about Instagram itself and the particular way it works as a platform for media consumption. It has become commonplace to read critiques of Instagram’s effects on architecture, lamenting its apparent superficialisation and reduction of architecture to a set of self-selecting aesthetic tropes that guarantee likes.7 Yet Multiform’s success on social media, and Instagram in particular, suggests that, far from leading to conformity, the competition for attention that defines these platforms instead has the potential to help foster a bolder, richer and ultimately more meaningful architecture by forging connections with the world as it currently exists. More on that later.
For now, it is important to add that Multiform’s social media savvy is naturally partly a generational thing, another key difference with Post-Modernism. Multiformers are for the most part children of the 1980s, and so trained when the most overt aspects of the 1990s reaction to Post-Modernism – the style that must not be named – had for the most part subsided. An important trail was blazed by the practice FAT, who we unfairly described in the Multiform AD as the ‘Banquo’s ghost of Post-Modernism’, despite all three members being alive and well and doing great work as solo artists. What we had meant to acknowledge more clearly was the vital role that FAT played – as practitioners, commentators and also educators – in carrying the flame for Post-Modernism at a time when architecture had retreated to ascetic Neo-Modernism, during which time they also taught several architects now associated with Multiform.
For all this, Multiform is still subject to accusations of being simply the reflection of superficial taste and fashion, of the wheel of taste turning, as it always does, back to what was previously maligned – ‘a frolic on the margins’, as Slessor would have us believe. Yet to take this view betrays a willful ignorance of history. Looking back, we see multiple examples when moments of social, political, economic and technological transition saw the emergence of new and competing architectural ideas and formations. We saw it 50 years ago with Post-Modernism’s early ‘radical moment’, which took place against the final unravelling of the post-war social democratic consensus and its replacement with the politico-economic order, variously described as neoliberalism. And we saw it 50 years before then, as Jencks himself long maintained, in the battle between the different -isms that characterised early Modernism.
Today, we are in the midst of another such moment of transition. The ‘great crash’ of 2008 provided irrevocable evidence that neoliberalism had run its course, opening a Pandora’s box of competing ideologies and interests. At the same time, rapid technological change – the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as some call it – is altering the very essence of collective and individual existence. ‘Smart cities’, the Internet of Things, AR, VR and the Metaverse – it’s easy to get lost in the terminology and write these things off as fads. But we are already beginning to see their implications on politics and society. The question is how to make sense of them.
Architecture has long played this role, helping us find our feet at moments when the ground is rapidly shifting beneath us. And it’s here that Multiform’s debt to Post-Modernism comes properly into view. Beyond the level of form and aesthetics, in their embrace of the complexity of the world (rather than attempting to negate via the imposition of order) both tendencies manifest ways of negotiating moments of profound social, economic, political, technological and environmental flux. Instead of looking for comfort (and conformity) in the past or using architecture as a tool to bring about an imagined (and by definition unachievable) future, Multiform, like Post-Modern architecture before it, is defiantly of its time, aiming to crystallise the present in all its myriad complexities. But where Post-Modern architecture had one ultimate referent in the form of Modernism – a clue was in the name – Multiform has multiple referents – again, a clue is in the name. As a result, it is easier to define it through common actions rather than common characteristics, as we put forward in the Multiform AD: ‘Multiform is the perpetually provisional architectural articulation of the complexities of the contemporary world.’8
Looking back from this vantage point to the 1970s and 1980s, the way Post-Modern architecture, reflected, at least in part, a broader post-modern philosophical and cultural movement is easy to see. Today, however, there is no equivalent cultural or philosophical system from which Multiform emerges. Our present world is seemingly too fluid, too fragmented, too chaotic to support one. But even if it could, there are strong arguments that this in itself should be resisted. From the perspective of architecture, Post-Modernism’s overthrowing of Modernism obscures the fact that in terms of their philosophical underpinning one universalising system was arguably replaced with another one. This is not to say that Post-Modernism did not decisively draw to a close the era of the grand narrative as a way of making sense of the world. It clearly did. Instead, it’s the notion that post-modern theory was of universal applicability, that we were – and according to some observers still are – living through a post-modern age, are inherently universalizing propositions. Post-Modern architecture always aimed to be a style among many. But post-modern culture, while less rigid and less conforming than those that came before, unavoidably constitutes another universalising system, one that, like all such systems, entrenches existing power relations, whether political, economic, racial or environmental.
That Multiform has emerged and exists without reflecting an underlying (quasi) universalising system reflects a fundamental difference between it and Post-Modern architecture. We might even go so far as to say that if Post-Modernism constituted modern architecture’s ‘transcendence’, as Jencks held, then Multiform could very well be the transcendence of architectural Post-Modernism. All this leaves Multiform quite literally free to take multiple forms and accommodate different states of being and existing. So while today Multiform is associated with a particular aesthetic or formal approach, as a tendency it actually stands more broadly as an argument for an architectural culture of pluralism and the transformative possibilities that offers. And it is in this sense, rather than through any aesthetic dimension, that Multiform is Post-Modernism’s true inheritor.
Jencks had a lot to say about the role of the critic, famously describing himself as a ‘critic who architects.’ He meant this in relation to the practicalities of designing and building, which he saw as helping ‘my criticism by testing certain ideas. … [and] also gives me greater respect for the difficulty of the building profession.’9 But we might also view this in terms of his – and the critic’s role – in shaping the course of architectural progress. The critic is, to make an anthropological analogy, a participant-observer; by writing about, drawing attention or attaching a label to something, they unavoidably change it. This can often be for the worse: depending on how it is done, drawing attention to something too early may stifle or smother it. But it can also be for the good: identifying a latent tendency and making it manifest allowing it to grow and develop in ways that would have been impossible without the intervention.
Important at the best of times, this role becomes decisive at moments of flux and transition. As Jencks himself observed looking back in 1991 on Post-Modernism’s rise and apparent fall, ‘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.’10 We are at one such moments; the question we face today, like the one Jencks began to answer half a century ago, is how to ensure that the architectural eco-system continues to thrive. Multiform’s celebration of architecture’s inherent potential seems a good place to start.
From Robert McCarter's monograph Aldo van Eyck (New Haven: Yale University Press , 2015).
Quoted in Historic England's Post-Modern Architecture: Introductions to Heritage Assets (December 2017). Available online here.
Quoted from Lubetkin's Royal Gold Medal Address at the RIBA in 1982 and from Banham's book A Critic Writes: Selected Essays by Reyner Banham ed. Mary Banham, Sutherland Lyall, Cedric Price and Paul Barker (Oakland: University of California Press, 1999).
Catherine Slessor, ‘Outrage: Multiform movement making’, The Architectural Review (27 July 2021). Available here.
Owen Hopkins and Erin McKellar eds., Multiform: Architecture in an age of transition, special issue of Architectural Design (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2021)
Léa-Catherine Szacka, ‘Writing “from the Battlefield”: Charles Jencks and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture’, Jencks Foundation website (2022). Available here.
For example: Will Jennings, ‘Should architects design provocatively ugly architecture that does not conform to Instagram’s aesthetic conventions?’Dezeen (5 September 2019. Available here.
Owen Hopkins and Erin McKellar, eds. Multiform Architecture in an Age of Transition, Architectural Design vol. 91, no. 1, (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2021), p. 7.
From A + U [Architecture and Urbanism]. Special edition: Charles Jencks, 1986:1, (Tokyo : A + U Publishing Company), pp. 9-44. Available here.
From Charles Jencks, ‘Death for Rebirth’ in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1991).