Thinking About Architecture by Larry Speck

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    Postmortem on Postmodern

    By lawrencewspeck
    Sep 10, '12 2:39 PM EST


    I am convinced that style has very little to do with the real success of buildings.  Although we as architects spend a lot of time and energy screaming about “modernism” or “regionalism” or “post-structuralism,” in the end, design genre does not make any guarantee about design quality or the ability of a building to make a real difference in its culture.

    This summer I had the opportunity to see two iconic works of postmodern architecture within a couple of weeks—the town of Seaside in Florida by Duany Plater-Zyberk and the Portland Building in Oregon by Michael Graves.  Both were deemed revolutionary in their era and provoked extraordinary discussion and controversy.  They are about 30 years old now—plenty of time to really judge their success.

    I made the trek to Seaside because Marlon Blackwell, who was speaking at a conference with me   in nearby Destin, commented that he had rented a cottage there with his family for a week.  I am interested in where really good designers go to make their own lives richer and more enjoyable when they have choices to make.

    Seaside did not disappoint!  The little streets and lanes have a wonderful, intimate scale that makes the town operate beautifully for pedestrians.  Even on a hot summer day, the mature trees made the pathways shady and cool.  The gentle cottages hid modestly behind the trees, also happy to be in the shade.  Porches and verandas abound, and people were out on them relaxing and even offering greetings when I walked by.

    The Portland Building provoked the opposite reaction.  The exterior has not weathered well and its flashy “look at me” color and patterning just drew attention to how hollow and meaningless it all seemed.  The huge and extravagant statue of Portlandia at the entry contrasted sharply with the dark, parsimonious places where people have to work inside.


    It seems irresponsible to write off certain genres because of the failure of some iconic projects, and it seems equally ill advised to somehow think that working in a “cool” genre is any assurance projects will have a better chance of success.


    • Thayer-D

      I guess it would help to hear your defenition of the post modern style becasue so many people use it in such different ways.  The Portland building is certainly postmodern in the way I use the term.  In other words, noding to traditional architecture as a caracture, almost ironic but unfortunatley not.  I refer to it as the transition style away from  modernism when some architects finally decided to stop listening to modernists and their constant hectoring against traditional styles.  My guess is that by the 1980's the historic aspect of modernism, which by then had been around for several decades, kind of undercut the modernist bias against history, besides being genuinly sick of the dreadful streets modernist buildings where creating.  But Seaside is an exsercize in town planning, not architecture.  There's a variety of styles there althogh the most common is traditionalism, which is way different than the cartoony postmodernism of Graves.

      Kind of like Fox News or MSNBC, you'll get a different perspective depending on what media one enjoys, but an honest assesment would say today's climate is eclectic, at least looking at what get's built in all the big cities.  Thank god! 

      Sep 10, 12 3:34 pm  · 

      I agree that style neither leads to nor prevents „good“ architecture – whatever that may be. Without knowing either of the projects very well, I'd rather say the problem is scale and not style. The question for is still: If it is not style – what is it, that helps us make „good“ architecture?  

      Sep 10, 12 4:38 pm  · 

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About this Blog

Although it may sound cliched, I live, eat and breathe architecture. I’m currently a principal in the architectural firm of PageSoutherlandPage and a professor, as well as the former dean, in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. My teaching and my blog are aimed at educating people on the importance of great architecture in contemporary American culture.

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