Exhibition Review: Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths
A highlight of my student years was meeting American architect Michael Graves. Not just meeting him, but spending significant time with him. The date was September 1985 and a bunch of us were on a study trip to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), following the Alvar Aalto symposium in Jyväskylä, Finland. Considering his absolute superstar status at the time, Graves was pretty relaxed with us. He roamed the streets and sketched buildings like a regular guy; we all sat together on the bus, leaning over seat backs so we could talk as a group. Graves regaled us with stories of visiting the Reagan White House; he was particularly delighted when a Soviet architecture student had never heard of him, clearly loving the moment of anonymity. And at the USSR-Finland border, where we were detained for many hours, he did a sketch in that classic MG style in my sketchbook. To this day, it remains one of my most precious possessions.
Personal memories like these from the 1980s make me feel right at home in the current exhibit at the CCA, Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths. Including 420 objects and images, there’s a memory trigger from 1965-1990 around every corner.
Apart from sparking my own nostalgia, this show is big and it includes some big objects. For example, a Peter Eisenman stair (shockingly bright green) and his railing from House I are here. Next to the railing, in the middle of a gallery, is an oval window from the now-demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg in Chicago. There’s also a reconstructed kiosk from the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. In a nearby corner are some colourful carpets that Graves designed for the Disney corporation.
Images included in the show, if not large in size, had a big impact in their day. We know Madelon Vriesendorp’s illustrations from the cover of Delirious New York. A map from the Learning from Las Vegas studio reminds us that the book originated as a course. Frank Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica is represented in two models, illustrating how model-making is anything but an objective copying of a building.
This cursory inventory of Architecture Itself may give the impression that the exhibit is a mere assemblage of random building fragments and famous images. Nothing could be further from the truth. Architectural educator and curator Sylvia Lavin has carefully arranged the exhibit into six galleries that together articulate a complex argument debunking fundamental myths of postmodernism. Each gallery has an innovative theme, illustrating that postmodernism is not what you thought.
For example, the gallery dedicated to “Bodies Return”—with the railing and the Goldberg window—shows how postmodern buildings contributed to progressive reforms such as abortion rights and women’s architectural education. In the superb audio accompaniment for this gallery, Lavin explains how clients and other stakeholders in this period saw themselves as part of the architectural production team. Over in “Signs and Signals,” Lavin shows how Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and others designed for technologies such as cable television and early computer systems. In the most academic gallery, “Little Things of Knowledge,” the exhibit highlights the considerable overlap of architectural practice with the rise of architectural history in professional schools. In this gallery, a room-length table shows off “postmodern instruments of knowledge production”—also known as books-in-box-sets, field notes, 35-mm slides, photographs, and university theses and dissertations. (My university office is full of stuff like this, although I don’t generally think of it as potential material for museum exhibitions.)
All to say that Lavin’s themes contribute enormously to our understanding of postmodern architecture, which until now has been mostly known through a handful of books. Lavin takes a material history approach that juxtaposes the icons with behind-the-scenes, everyday items like typed letters, bills, patents and posters. The message is that postmodern architecture was not just about pretty pictures, but also about real-life concerns such as building codes, profits and getting tenure.
Another gem from the brilliant audio guide, for example, is Lavin admitting that one of her favourite objects in the show is Charles Moore’s bill to a client for $23.11, as commission for furniture he bought from Knoll. Similarly, a letter from James Stirling to gallery-owner Leo Castelli reveals the architect’s worries about about how his work would be shown. These guys really sweated the small stuff. Who knew?
Especially courageous is Lavin’s look at the contradictions in postmodern architecture. California’s Sea Ranch, for example, often pitched as an early foray into ecological design, is here shown as exclusive, gated, and car-dependent. In a gallery next door, Mike Reynold’s “earth ships” made from beer cans are the centrepiece for complicated real-estate arrangement of time-sharing rather than house-buying—a culture we associate with fancy golf courses more than with off-the-grid hippy living.
The exhibit is a powerful teaching tool. What a treat for students to learn from these provocative objects and to probe the meaning of architecture designed by their parents’ generation. Less effective parts of the show are the sections on postmodern exhibitions and the role of the art gallery, including the CCA itself. Lavin makes the point that the museum hosting the exhibit—the CCA—shaped postmodernism by its neo-neoclassical architecture, its early influential exhibits on figures like Eisenman, and its collecting of gems like a Piranesi drawing. So, the CCA is hosting an exhibit about how other CCA exhibits were important. It’s a bit too self-referential—but very postmodern!
Another challenge for visitors is that sources for the myths debunked in the show are not identified. The presumption is that we all think about postmodernism as autonomous, and that the exhibit shows a different way to see it, as connected. Who or what made us think about postmodern architecture as autonomous? I asked Lavin, and she responded: “The framing of architecture as autonomous, and therefore as a thing in itself, took place through the way architecture was drawn (as contextless axonometric for example), when buildings were described as ‘immaterial,’ or as images.” The keenest of current architecture students will understand this. But ultimately, this show speaks most clearly to me and my generation—those of us who grew up on this stuff. We thought this way. These things make us remember. And in looking back, Architecture Itself convinces me that postmodern architecture was anything but just itself.
Annmarie Adams, FRAIC, jointly appointed in the Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture and Department of Social Studies of Medicine, McGill University, teaches the history of postmodernism to first-year architecture students.
Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths is on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal until April 7, 2019.