Thursday, August 14, 2008

Postmodern architecture

Simplistically, postmodern architecture emerged in the 1960s as a reaction to the Modern Movement that had commanded world architecture since the mid-1920s. Its theories were first expounded by the American architect Robert Venturi and realized in his Chestnut Hill Villa of 1962. Within less than a decade, designers were willfully denying the pervasive geometrical glass boxes that Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson had dubbed the International Style. Ornament (which the modernists had once equated with crime), color, and texture were again accepted, rather embraced, by architects. Historical precedents were revisited and often transposed into the language of twentieth-century technology to become a new visual language, an architectural patois. Eclecticism, for years a pejorative term, became a basis for design. And at first it was just design, because architects made more drawings and models than buildings. Although it is difficult to choose from a plethora of examples, among the icons of this new way of making architecture were Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T Building in New York (1978–1984) and Michael Graves’s “flamboyantly decorative” Portland Public Service Building in Oregon (1930–1983). As one commentator has observed, postmodernism became “the style of choice for developers of commercial buildings” everywhere. It has the same kind of stylistic anonymity of “globalness” as the Modernism it replaced.

Johnson (b. 1906) received a degree in architectural history from Harvard in 1930 and immediately became and first director of the Department of Design at the New York Museum of Modern Art. In 1940, inspired by the work of the Dutch modernist J. J. P. Oud, he returned to Harvard and emerged with an architectural qualification four years later. He worked alone and with others and became widely known from the early 1950s for his puritanically modernist buildings—some consider him a clone of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—such as the Seagram Building in New York (with Mies, 1958) and the Glass House (1962) in New Canaan, Connecticut, until he formed a partnership with Burgee in 1967. Johnson then renounced Modernism (he had castigated Oud for doing that in 1946) and converted to postmodernism. His final artistic position was as an anti-postmodernist, leading the English architectural historian Dennis Sharp to opine that Johnson was philosophically fickle, with “more interest in [architectural] style than in substance.”

Be that as it may, the AT&T Corporate Headquarters at 550 Madison Avenue, New York City, is a milestone in the development of twentieth-century architecture, the first postmodern skyscraper and a key building in the popularization of postmodernism. The 600-foot-high (184-meter), bland rectangular prism covers its site. Perhaps in reference to nineteenth-century skyscrapers, perhaps to a classical column, the main facade is divided into three parts: an entrance at the base, a tall shaft of identical floors, and a wide band of windows near the building’s crown. The base, which originally enclosed a public open space, includes portals of epic proportion. A central 110-foot-high (33-meter) arch, surmounted by oculi is flanked by three 60-foot-high (18-meter) rectangular doorways. Some critics suggest it borrows from Alberti’s Sant’ Andrea in Mantua, of 1472–1494. Unlike the featureless window-walls of modernist office towers, the shaft, is sheathed in pink granite, and the fenestration is designed (like the early skyscrapers) to express the steel structural frame beneath.

The most controversial feature of the AT&T Building was the 30-foot pediment, ostensibly to mask mechanical equipment on the roof. Many regarded it as kitsch, and critics immediately dubbed it “Chippendale” because it evoked the work of the eighteenth-century English cabinetmaker. Indeed, the epithet was applied to the entire building, and Johnson interpreted the bestowal of a nickname as complimentary; otherwise he described his building as a “neo-Renaissance essay on the use of stone.” In January 1992 the building was leased to the Sony Corporation.

Graves (b. 1934), one of the most honored twentieth-century architects, trained at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard. His early practice was limited to mostly domestic buildings. Among the notable examples are the Hanselmann house at Fort Wayne, Indiana (1967); additions to the Alexander house at Princeton, New Jersey (1971–1973); and the Crooks house, also at Fort Wayne (1976).

The Portland Public Service Building was the first of his large-scale projects to be realized. With subsequent commissions including the Humana Building at North Carolina State University (1982–1985), the San Juan Capistrano Public Library (1981–1983), and extensions to the Newark Museum (completed 1989), it placed him beside Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, Frank Gehry, and Charles Gwathmey in the hall of champions of American postmodern architecture and design.

The freestanding fifteen-story municipal office building on Southwest Fifth Avenue, Portland, Oregon, houses the municipal Building, Planning and Design Review departments. It was the winning entry in a design-and-build competition sponsored by the city fathers. Johnson, as adviser to the jury and the client, was influential in securing the commission for Graves over the other shortlisted designs by Arthur Erickson and the Mitchell-Giurgola partnership.

Built on an entire 200-foot-square (61-meter-square) city block in the urban precinct, it is flanked by the city hall and county courthouse buildings on two sides, and a transit mall and a park on the others. To emphasize the association with other local government functions, Graves deliberately organized the facades in what he described as a “classical three-part division of base, middle or body, and attic or head,” an approach that Johnson adopted for the AT&T Building. Described as a “wildly innovative and controversial postmodern landmark,” the hefty building, rising from a heavy four-story base, has facades of diverse designs, clad with strongly colored tiles—brown, blues, and terra-cotta—against an ivory background. The square windows are relatively small, and they puncture the walls at regular intervals, another denial of the glass curtains of a decade or so before. The symmetrical park front has two huge seven-story pseudocolumns with boxy, floor-height capitals and flutes evoked by vertical bands of windows. Above the central main entrance there is a 40-foot (12-meter) hammered-copper sculpture of “Portlandia” (the female figure on the city seal) by sculptor Raymond Kaskey; it was added in 1985 at Graves’s initiative. Around the corners, the facade is adorned at the tenth-floor level with a stylized swag of blue ribbons, made of concrete: on one, they hang sedately in place; on the other they appear to be blowing in the wind. Inside the building, Graves used the same colors as the exterior (a decision that provoked some criticism); he also designed the furnishing textiles and other details for the offices. Since 1995, the building’s structural problems have become evident and are worsening. Despite costly repairs, the building may soon become unsafe to use.

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