Charles Jencks, “Post-Modern Architecture,” 1977.
Michael Hays begins his Jencks intro with this great tidbit: “Architecture theory owes the concept and category of postmodern to Charles Jencks.” So, the previous 305 pages of theorists, intellectuals, historians, and architects trying to explain their consciously postmodern era…just skip that.
Specifically, Charles Jencks defines the characteristics of what we now call Post-Modernism—a movement also notably summarized by Robert Stern—and not the entire postmodern “concept and category” of architecture that we know fosters a milieu of ideologies, tactics, and eschatological programs. Post-Modernism, according to Jencks, is a problem of subtly layering multiple codes into a nuanced, if schizophrenic, architecture. Those codes are already familiar to us: pop-cultural, consumerist, historical, architectural, linguistic, &c. The major points of Jencks’s category, however, are its nuanced distinctions from the already familiar; what is written between the lines is what merits the historical significance promised by Hays.
Jencks wastes no time getting to the meat of Post-Modernism. While giving us a number of Japanese examples of Post-Modern architecture—namely Minoru Takeyama’s Ni-Ban-Kahn—he also tells us that the true potential of Post-Modernism had not yet been explored. What he outlines is instead a kind of historical inevitability that was being hinted at by the younger work of the 70s and that would be fully explored by the next generation of architects.
Some of the work is that of Robert Venturi, whom Jencks uses as a rhetorical device to help sharpen our understanding of Post-Modernism—Venturi is a ‘what not to do’ illustration of Jencks’s Post-Modernism. To that end, Venturi’s concept of the “difficult whole” is most important, and is co-opted by Jencks to illustrate two distinctions that Jencks makes about Venturi’s own work. The “difficult whole” is a piece of architecture that successfully incorporates any number of codes into a piece of architecture—short and simple. But for Jencks, the codes incorporated into a piece are disparate in their meaning and language, and are mediated into a single nuanced construction, whereas Venturi’s work “unifies already homogeneous meanings and styles” without any attempt at resolving their conflicts. Jencks sees this as facile laziness on the part of the architect and as a failure of real Post-Modern potential.
The other distinction for which Venturi is most useful has to do with his trademark, and the trademark of much postmodern theory: irony. Irony recurs almost on a page-to-page basis in this anthology, mostly because it is a rhetorical device, a linguistic inevitability, and therefore an unavoidable entity in the Structuralist-Post-Structuralist divide. And while Irony’s primary power is subversive, it is necessarily incorporated into the “difficult whole,” which itself cannot leave open the opportunity for ironic subversion—irony must be part of the layered construct.
Jencks’s own mature version of the “difficult whole is alternatively called “Radical Eclecticism,” “Adhocism,” or “Multivalent Architecture.” “A continually renewed improvisation on themes coming from every possible source,” Radical Eclecticism is “variegated rather than homogeneous, witty rather than somber, messy rather than clean, picturesque but not necessarily without a classical, geometric order (usually it is made from several orders in contrast).” It “combines meanings imaginatively so that they fuse modify each other.” This is the same process as the “difficult whole,” but is more mature, more complex. Radical Eclecticism is essentially a mediation of multiple codes in the sense that Hays originally described in the introduction to the anthology—the transcoding of separate codes in order to produce a new, single code of meaning—and it depends on the same principles we are familiar with: communication, legibility, and signification. As exemplars we are offered Michael Graves, Charles Moore, and Lucien Kroll.
Specifically, Kroll’s work at Louvian University is described at length as an example of adhocism. He worked with teams of design students to develop a students’ residential block. The teams were each assigned programs to work with, then the students were rotated from team to team until each fully understood the nuances of all programmatic challenges. Then Kroll basically amalgamated all the proposals into a single schizophrenic whole (imaged above) whose primary value is the fineness of its materiality as a visual index.
Most fascinating is the role of simulation in Jencks’s evaluation of Kroll’s project: “The fact that a simulation of such piecemeal tinkering and pluralism can be built in from the beginning through such a process, should not be underrated.” This simulation was further engendered by encouraging the builders to improvise with materials during construction, and while “no explicit semantic modeling was used (…) the parts bespeak their use with a certain eloquence and mutual toleration.” Effectively, Kroll so thoroughly developed this pluralistic object that it is hard to tell the simulation from an unnamed real world precedent. (Presumably the goal was to simulate the necessity-driven evolutionary process of a favela, a vision not completely out of sync with, say, Safdie’s Habitat from 1967, which is also a kind of formal simulation.)
We may presume that the brilliance of this simulation is in the production of a single unified, if difficult, whole out of a variety of codes and the density and accidental nuance of its signs; it is multivalent architecture, comprised of piecemeal, half-explored directions. Hays calls this a “semiotics of the nonsynchronous,” and I am tempted to liken it to “fuzzy logic.” Jencks’s seems to imply that codes—with which we are familiar but which he declines to explicitly define—are naturally approximate, the density of their signs belying a hazy non-specificity that allows their rhetorical richness. Naturally, a construction of layering multiple codes would also be dense in meaning and semiotic interpretation, approaching the intertextuality of Diana Agrest’s Design-Non-Design world, but in a single architectural object.
Jencks finalizes his essay with an exploration of Antonio Gaudí as the visionary precursor of this Post-Modernism, someone capable of layering formal, cultural, and (for lack of a better word) literary (or, perhaps, symbolic) codes into a work of astounding singularity and wholeness. (Jencks’s example is the Casa Batló.) And while Hays points out that this results “in a kind of architectural Rorschach test (‘Now tell me what this reminds you of’),” it brings to light the underlying, lasting brilliance of Jencks’s category: it cuts across the camps of postmodern architecture. In Jencks’s “Radical Eclecticism” we see Minoru Takeyama and Charles Moore, but also Aldo Rossi and Michael Graves. The play of coding in visual semantics reaches a unifying maturity of theory in Jencks’s Post-Modernism. This is also the distinction between Stern’s Post-Modern architecture and Jencks’s; the former’s bears the mark of the reactionary, and therefore the immature (taking along with it people like Venturi), while the latter’s is explicitly non-reactionary.
Also, by way of an historical note, Jencks’s essay is rife with a tone that seems somewhat anachronistic to the body of the anthology. In the previous essays, we clearly experience the self aware, conscious march out of Modernism, the intentional closing of the Modernist period in theory, ideology, and practice. Nevertheless, Jencks spends at least one paragraph on odd platitudes regarding the professional atmosphere. It may be worth noting, then, that while the anthology (comprised of conference papers and journal articles) is mostly a catalogue of the postmodern vanguard, general practice—and, more likely, pedagogy—was still dominated by Modern purist ideology.