Skip to Content

Reconsidering Postmodernism

Institute for Classical Architecture & Art
New York City
November 11–12, 2011

1981. Tom Wolfe, days shy from publishing From Bauhaus to Our House, was invited to the inner sanctum of New York’s architectural cabal, the high table at the Century Association, officiated by Philip Johnson. Wolfe’s invitation was anathema to the traditional modernists in the circle. Johnson, at the apex of his postmodernist turn, assured all that Wolfe, despite the barbs in his forthcoming book, was not a threat, his presence ironic. “We don’t read Tom for content,” Johnson said, “we just read him for the rhythm.”

Three decades later, at the opening night of the Reconsidering Postmodernism conference, Wolfe was again invited, this time not as bombthrower but as elder statesman. At the distance of 30 years, From Bauhaus to Our House appears as one of the last moments in which the debate over architecture’s course crossed from the profession’s cloisters into popular culture. Showing little interest in reflection, however, Wolfe instead restated his view that postmodernist architecture did nothing but reaffirm the orthodoxy that had subsumed US architectural practice since the European “White Gods” of modernism were imported in the mid-20th century.

The panel following Wolfe — Robert A.M. Stern, Michael Graves, Andres Duany, Paul Goldberger — could not settle the question of when postmodernism began (after World War II? in the 18th century?) or ended, or if it had ended. They agreed that the excitement over architectural history (whether sincere or ironic) that postmodernism had engendered was now exhausted in an architectural culture without unity or direction.

Indeed, Duany lobbed the grenade that middle-American architecture “need not have been such garbage” if the New York intelligentsia had paid attention to the hinterlands outside Manhattan. Instead, as Duany argued, postmodernism had legitimized a bland pseudo-classical and pseudo-historical vernacular entirely separated from the elite levels of practice. The entire US suburban and exburban landscape of the past 30 years, Duany said, was postmodernist, and in the most gruesomely vulgar way.

In attempting to learn from Las Vegas (which Wolfe proposed in his 1964 essay “Las Vegas (What?)” several years before Venturi and Scott Brown famously did so), American architects may have instead legitimized a new form of ironic classicism as our vernacular, and one whose builders view as entirely sincere. No irony is as dangerous as one that is not perceived as irony.