The Postmodern Plan

David Knight

First published in Architecture Today Issue 221, September 2011.

In his essay ‘London Subversive’, Jon Savage, the historian of punk, gives a bleak but compelling portrait of the city in the mid 1970s:

‘Whole streets are shut off by walls of corrugated iron. Decaying squats lie cheek by jowl with old factories surrounded by fly-tipped waste. A speed hangover merging into an apocalypse. But in that there was also a sense of possibility that new ways of thinking and being might grow from this emptiness-like the scented buddleia on the bombsites.’

This landscape, and the literal space it offered for experiments in freedom, was the legacy first of wartime destruction, second (to quote Savage again) of ‘the blunt tool of planning policy’, and third of the money running out to fulfil the dreams of the second. Friends of mine who have lived in London’s East End since the late 1960s recall whole terraces of empty homes, their occupants decanted to the edges of the city, their doors still open and their drawers still full of inherited cutlery, abandoned in the rush to Thamesmead, to Harlow New Town, to wherever the future was. This outward push, the legacy of Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan, left behind the urban landscape that Savage brilliantly portrays – a tangled mess not only of metal sheet and sooty Victoriana but also of frustrated compulsory purchases, half-finished parks, estates of pre-fabs that were left intact for so long that people grew to love them, tacitly accepted and socially-minded squats in the centre of the city, and a general sense that the Utopianism inherent in postwar architecture and planning had come a cropper: a collapsing ideology, an unfulfilled planning document, and an empty bank account.

This is a London-centric account of the failure of modern architecture and town planning: a slo-mo alternative to the one given by Charles Jencks in The Language of Post-Modernism. Jencks chose the near-instantaneous and spectacular 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St. Louis, Missouri as his ‘death of modernism’ moment, and famously used this as the catalyst for his version of postmodernism. As birth-myths go however, I prefer Savage’s account because it centres not on the cleared and levelled blank site of a failed building, but on the complex, bureaucratically and spatially tangled landscape left behind by an incomplete project. But substituting Pruitt Igoe with Jon Savage’s apocalyptic hangover is just one instance of how we might re-evaluate postmodernism’s contribution to the built environment, where it came from and what it tried to do, and in the process pull new lessons out of architecture’s recent but well-buried history. This is timely given the retrospective of postmodernism which is about to open at the V&A in London, a sequel to the museum’s blockbusting ‘Modernism’ show of 2006.

The period from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s saw a number of diverse re-evaluations of practice in the complex aftermath of modernism, notably from sociologists like Herbert Gans at the University of Pennsylvania, who saw the failure of the style as a failure of determinism; the belief that architecture could ‘solve’ social ills at a stroke. At roughly the same time, Philippe Boudon was documenting the adjustments and corrections made by residents of Le Corbusier’s model dwellings in Pessac for his book Lived-in Architecture and Venturi & Scott Brown were drawing speech bubbles on Levittown to draw attention to the symbolism of the domestic whilst getting their hands dirty in grassroots community planning in Philadelphia and Texas. In the UK, Walter Segal was developing a self-build system which directly referenced the mock tudor and which would later provide homes on sites deemed impossible to develop by the slum-clearers of Lewisham council. Farrell & Grimshaw were finding imaginative ways to retrofit Paddington’s dilapidated 19th century speculative housing as student hostels and bringing these lessons to bear on new-build residential towers. Students at the Bartlett were ringleaders in the squatted Tolmers Square in Camden, which resulted in the site’s proposed use changing from commercial space to social housing. And Ralph Erskine and his team led the participatory planning of the Byker Wall estate from offices housed in a 19th century funeral parlour in the centre of the development site, a small relic of the site’s past which they painted with an optimistic air balloon motif and which remains embedded in the estate today.

In their commitment to social reality, these and many other projects revealed that modernism’s key failing, when applied at an urban scale, was its disinterest in what modern life is actually like. Each found something lacking in the blank-faced platitudes of the recent past, and instead of recoiling from architecture’s sudden impotence in the face of society, jumped in to have a go all the same, in the process creating a more layered built environment than their predecessors, what could be included in Robert Venturi’s earlier definition of an ‘architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience.’

Even when postmodernism entered the high-capitalist phase for which it is more broadly known, it was still interested in getting its hands dirty with an existing condition, partly through its capacity to play more than one game at once. One Embankment Place at Charing Cross is as much a complex network of tunnels, bridges, streetscapes and pubs – the kind of thing Ian Nairn might rhapsodise over – as it is an air-rights office block. Meanwhile, Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans was intended as a court in the centre of a redeveloped urban block but in time has proven equally successful as a figure in a car park, now cared for and used by an adjacent Italian-American cultural centre. Building, in both cases, dissolves into city, achieving a more dynamic relationship than modernism ever achieved. And, contrary to postmodern architecture’s shoulder-padded image, these examples show that it can form a language that effectively resists and reformulates the pure number-crunching of developer-led construction.

What such projects also share is an awareness that architecture is at heart a contingent, improvised and entrepreneurial practice. They all reach beyond architecture as object and toward something incomplete, uneven, operating knowingly and boldly in a context of doubt and uncertainty. They speak in different voices to different groups, playing strategy games with the planning department with one hand while making balloon animals for the kids with the other. Solving nothing but achieving a lot, they make places more complicated and more interesting than when they started rather than aiming at tidy resolution. They are adept at dealing with the kinds of places left behind by the stalled or absent project of post-war development, what Terry Farrell has described as ‘the residual evidence of history.’ As can be seen in the few examples already mentioned, part of this skill involves stepping outside of the conventional role of the architect and engaging in the things that it is contingent upon: planning, politics, communication, law and finance. In this respect, my beacons of early postmodernism owe something to the work of John Nash, whose wheeler-dealer, improvised and ruthlessly financed work for the Prince Regent is one of the masterpieces of London planning, an echo of which can be found in Denise Scott Brown when she writes: ‘as a planner the vision of the world I’d like to be part of creating is pragmatic, not Utopian.’

Such realism seems useful in a today’s deterministic development sector in which it is believed that we can predetermine and legislate our way to better places, however much history tells us otherwise. Indeed the scented buddleia of postmodern practice continues to suggest that the eclectic, the contradictory and the popular might increasingly form points of resistance to today’s neoliberal world, not just at the scale of architecture but also at the scale of planning.