Justin Beal

What is/was Post-Modern (or Never Take the Marble for Granite)


In 1977, in his ‘Language of Post-Modern Architecture’ Jencks declared the death of modern architecture. For many decades to come, in seven subsequent editions of this semial 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?’ Justin Beal explores the role that narrative and language plays in architecture and questions a clear-cut transition between Modernism and Post-Modernism.

In preparation for my first visit to the Jencks Foundation, I set aside some time to read A New Description of the Cosmic House, a neat pocket-sized field guide to the thematic content of each room prepared by the Keeper of Meaning, Edwin Heathcote. As I moved through the descriptions of the ground floor rooms, arranged in a heliocentric progression from Winter through Fall around a Solar Stair, my mind jumped immediately to Emil Antonucci’s logo for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York – a quartet of hand-drawn trees in pink, green, russet, and brown, printed on the matchbooks and menus of the iconic Modernist restaurant. It is a logical connection, but an awkward one, both because of the Seagram Building’s exalted place in Modernist history and Jencks’ well-known disdain for Philip Johnson (who was largely responsible for the Four Seasons's interior), but words can do that sometimes – little semantic slips can pull your thoughts in unexpected directions.

I went to the Four Seasons for the last time in the spring of 2016. In a few months, the restaurant would be leaving the opulent home Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson designed for it at the foot of the Seagram Building for good. I had just begun working on a book that was about, among other things, the American architect Minoru Yamasaki, and two weeks earlier I had made the first of several trips to Detroit to visit the regional headquarters he designed for the Reynolds Metal Company – a lavish celebration of aluminium, erected like a billboard on the side of a highway to draw the attention of automobile executives. To demonstrate the versatility of aluminium, Yamasaki explored the material in every possible permutation – thick and thin, perforated and solid, unfinished, painted black and anodised gold. This was a case where truth to material demanded dishonesty rather than authenticity and in his own clever way, Yamasaki had found a path to ornament, the ultimate Modernist anathema, through the demands of the programme. His critics were not amused.

Mies van de Rohe’s Seagram Building is the apotheosis of American Modernism, but it is also an imposter. Like so many towering figures on Park Avenue, its reputation is based on superficial artifice. The poorly kept secret of its flawless functionalism is that the singular element that gives it its incomparable muscle, the bronze I-beams that run vertically up its façade, are in fact ornamental – a bit of decoration tacked on to maintain the illusion of perfect structural honesty. People know this and no one particularly seems to mind, just as everyone seems willing to overlook the astonishing kitsch of the façade’s whiskey-tinted glazing (Mies’s building was designed to sell whiskey just as Yamasaki’s was designed to sell aluminium). The Seagram Building is not so much a perfect expression of structure as a perfect expression of the idea of the perfect expression of structure. In other words, it tells a good story.

Inside, the Four Seasons was more concerned with tasteful excess than material rigour – a spirit perfectly captured in the elegant chain curtains designed by textile artist Marie Nichols for the main dining room. As with so many details of Yamasaki’s Reynolds Building (which happens to have opened the same year as the Four Seasons), Nichols’s curtaining has no pretence of material authenticity – the linked strands are made of aluminium with the same anodised gold finish as Yamasaki’s intricate façade. The curtains were intended to allow light in and provide privacy on the interior. What no one had anticipated was the way in which they would gently ripple as warm air rose from the baseboard heaters beneath them. The effect was extraordinary, like a vertical plane of water reflecting the warm incandescence of the dining room. I like to think how often Yamasaki must have sat in this same room and marvelled at this detail. (When I left the restaurant that night, I saw a single strand of Nichols’s chain curtain that had come undone lying on the floor and quickly slipped it into my jacket pocket ­– they wouldn’t be needing it anymore).

Yamasaki had once been a devoted disciple of Mies. He considered Seagram to be the one building in the United States he wished he had designed himself and evidence of this infatuation with Modernism’s core principles is abundant in his early work. Among those projects were the massive Pruitt–Igoe apartments in St. Louis. Like so many of the public housing high-rises subsidised by the American Housing Act, Pruitt–Igoe was celebrated as a successful model for housing more people for less money – an adroit synthesis of clean, cost-efficient reform under the legitimising influence of progressive European planners. Like so many of his contemporaries, Yamasaki sincerely believed that architecture could deliver us to a more just and equitable society (that idealism, more than any formal characteristic of his work, is what ultimately made him a Modernist).

As construction progressed, however, the overall design was undermined by relentless value engineering and before Pruitt–Igoe was finished, Yamasaki was frustrated with how compromised the final project had become. In the years that followed, Yamasaki’s career took a different course. A brush with severe illness and a revelatory trip through Asia and the Middle East fundamentally altered his design philosophy and by the time he finally met Mies in 1956, Yamasaki had abandoned the international style in favour of a softer, more humanist design philosophy.

As time wore on, conditions deteriorated at Pruitt–Igoe. The total population of St. Louis, once forecast by city planners to increase steadily, plummeted and at partial capacity Pruitt–Igoe could not generate enough revenue to pay for basic maintenance. Endemic racism in the cultural and political fabric of the time conspired against the project’s success at every turn. As occupancy fell to barely 50 per cent and conditions worsened precipitously in the early 1970s, the Nixon administration presented the project as a symbol of welfare state socialism and profligate government spending and ordered it all to be torn down. When the first three buildings were destroyed by controlled demolition in the spring of 1972, dozens of photographers were on site to capture the iconic images of the tower block listing groundward in a cloud of dust and debris, with the crest of Saarinen’s Gateway Arch on the horizon like a setting sun.

With his preternatural instinct for architectural symbolism, Charles Jencks saw an opportunity in the spectacular images of Pruitt–Igoe’s demolition to declare a decisive end to the Modernist movement. When he published his hugely successful book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, its first chapter, ‘The Death of Modern Architecture’, opened with a grainy reproduction of the collapse and a detailed description of the definitive moment of Modernism’s downfall. A single short paragraph that is probably the most important three sentences in the history of post-war American architecture.

Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt–Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously, it had been vandalised, mutilated, and defaced by its black inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, trying to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.12

What makes this spread particularly remarkable is that, despite being one of the most frequently referenced pieces of writing in the history of architecture, it might also be one of the sloppiest. The photograph was taken in April, not July, and Jencks later admitted to making up the time of day for the sake of rhetorical flourish and impact (though he could have easily verified the exact details of the demolition with any of the dozens of press outlets that covered it). Further down on the same page, Jencks gets the height of the buildings wrong (they were eleven stories, not fourteen) and claims that Yamasaki won an award for the design from the American Institute of Architects (he did not).

So what do we make of this? Jencks was far too fastidious to make these mistakes unwittingly. I assume that his retelling was wilfully fictitious, his blatant disregard for detail a way of underlining the mythic nature of the event. A self-styled architectural semiotician, Jencks’ primary concern was architectural language, and Pruitt–Igoe was the perfect metaphor—the details did not matter because the photograph said everything.

History, particularly cultural history, tends to privilege narrative over fact. When you tell a good story, people tell it again. When Tom Wolfe (whose rhetorical and sartorial influence on Jencks seems to have been considerable) recounted the failure of Pruitt–Igoe in From Bauhaus to Our House, he repeated Jencks’ inaccuracies and embellished the scene with a mob of angry tenants chanting ‘blow it up’. The demolition looped endlessly in television programmes like Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New and Oscar Newman’s Writing on the Wall and the still photograph of the crumbling tower block became a symbol of Modernism buckling under the weight of its own ambition. The image of Pruitt–Igoe crashing to the ground allowed people the satisfaction of pinpointing what Jencks called the ‘precise moment’ (imprecise as it may have been) when the promise of a generation of architects to deliver a universal system of design collapsed into a heap of rubble.

I cannot possibly have been the first person to notice all of these inaccuracies and the fact that The Language of Post-Modern Architecture was reprinted with substantial revisions so many times without updating any of the Pruitt–Igoe details, suggests to me that Jencks knew exactly what he was doing. The more time I have spent with this passage, the more I have come to appreciate that its disregard for fact might be where its true meaning resides. It is, after all, an argument about Modernism’s failure to deliver a ‘univalent code’ based only on rational principles. How clever then, that the passage debunking the myth of a Modernist truth is so indifferent to objective reality. Here is a story based in fact, but wilfully shifted away from fact, as if to remind you that all the stories we tell ourselves about architecture are just stories. Indeed, Jencks gives his reader plenty of signals that they are being misled. On the following page, he makes his intentions plain –‘I will attempt a caricature’ and, if that weren’t clear enough, a ‘caricature is of course, not the whole truth’.3 It is an elegant bit of misdirection – the only way to destabilise the fallacy of objective truth is with a few strategically deployed untruths.

I saw The Cosmic House for the first time during a trip to London in December. When I recounted the visit to a friend in New York, he expressed a certain amazement at my enthusiasm. ‘I never thought anyone younger than me would ever care about Charles Jencks.’ It is a fair point. For a critic so invested in complexity, Jencks’ story of Pruitt–Igoe fails to account for the extraordinarily complicated economic and political forces that informed that particular group of buildings and the very real impact their demise had on generations of people who lived there. The city of St. Louis is still living with the consequences and Jencks, like the legions of professor and writers who took his paragraph and ran with it, deserves some criticism for reducing an event that forever changed the trajectory of so many lives to a rhetorical inflection point.

The Cosmic House itself can feel a bit out of touch too. I have an unusually high tolerance for the formal hijinks of Post-Modernism, but even I eventually felt a bit worn down by the onslaught of visual puns, trompe-l’oeil and clumsy one-liners (the best of which –‘if you can’t take the kitsch, get out of the kitchen’– could be posted on the door of 19 Lansdowne Walk as a warning to unsuspecting visitors). Still, the effect of the whole thing, the immersive experience of the total cosmic design is extraordinary in its completeness. Post-Modernism is more easily defined by what it is not than what it is, so it can be a hard thing to pin down, but here we get to see so many of its tricks at once – signs and symbols, historicity and humour, ducks and decoys, mock-marble and faux-finishes, puns and metaphors. That this incredibly illustrative explication of Post-Modern logic took the shape of the quintessential Modernist form—the Gesamtkunstwerk – was, no doubt, intentional as well.

Jencks began working on The Cosmic House while he was writing The Language of Post-Modern Architecture and the practical examples of the former are sometimes more satisfying than the rhetorical arguments of the latter precisely because they exist in physical form. We understand architecture by inhabiting it and our understanding of architectural language is predicated upon countless encounters with the most mundane components of built space. By destabilising those encounters – by pairing a doorknob with a phantom doorknob – Jencks transforms a routine action into something self-conscious. The point of plywood finished to look like stone is not to pass one material off as the other so much as to force the question of what ‘plywood’ and ‘stone’ mean. The hallucinatory effect of The Cosmic House is the way in which it reminds us of just how profoundly our embodied experience of the built environment is mediated by our use of language (if Jencks had a universal truth, it would be this). You walk back out through the Cosmic Oval into the streets of London and the city feels less like an assemblage of brick and glass, masonry, and hardware than so many signs and symbols stacked in unruly piles. A reminder that, at its best, Post-Modernism destabilises the way we read things, allows for multiplicities, and in so doing enhances the complexity of our experience of everything around us. Done well, it sharpens the senses.

A favourite example of mine occurs in the symmetrical soap dishes in the Cosmic Loo. On the left of the sink is a bar of soap that looks like blue marble. On the right is a piece of blue marble that looks like a bar of soap. It’s a joke, yes, but, like a good joke, it stays with you. I have not held a bar of soap in my hand since without imagining the cold weight of an equivalent mass of marble. It is a visual pun with haptic implications. Never, Jencks might say, take the marble for granite.

In his 2003 essay, ‘Junkspace,’ Jencks’ friend and former student Rem Koolhaas uses another literary analogy to explain the absurdity of architecture’s obsession with the Modernist narrative –‘we have been reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it would turn into a novel.4’ History has a way of doing that – championing certain moments while omitting others entirely (Yamasaki is a great example). The demise of Pruitt–Igoe is another case in point—a perfect metaphor, a footnote enlarged to absurd proportions by decades of rote repetition. An alternative history, one not far beneath the surface of Jencks’ Late Modern Architecture, might put the Seagram Building at its centre, suggesting that by the time American Modernism reached its symbolic apex, its rigour had already begun to erode. What had begun as an inherently optimistic, socially engaged movement had already been co-opted by the demands of corporate architecture long before Pruitt–Igoe was blown up.

I thought again about my friend’s scepticism of Jencks’ relevance as I listened to an old recording of a lecture given at Ball State University in Indiana in March of 1976. Midway through the lecture, Jencks describes the inevitable crisis of meaning that arose as Modernism turned away from its original, socially minded forms (schools, sanatoria, housing) and became the universal symbol of the corporate edifice. Sometimes, with Jencks, the most powerful ideas can be hard to see amidst a storm of showmanship and sarcasm, but this one line came through as clear as a bell: ‘If the architect can’t express meanings which are socially credible, he will start expressing meanings that are socially incredible and maybe the problem of architectural language is that credibility gap.5’ This to me seems like a far more compelling way of framing the end of a certain kind of architectural form-making and one that feels as urgent now as it ever has been.

Portions of this essay are excerpted from Sandfuture (MIT Press, 2021)

  1. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1978), p.23.

  2. Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, p.24.

  3. Rem Koolhaas, 'Junkspace,'October, Spring 2002 pp. 175 Cambridge: MIT Press

  4. Charles Jencks, 'Architecture 2000', Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning, March 29, 1976 available online here.

Justin Beal
What is/was Post-Modern (or Never Take the Marble for Granite)
What is/was Post-Modern?