May 1, 2007
by Daniel Fox

Event: Critical Modernism — Is It Possible?
Location: Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation (GSAPP), 04.09.07
Speaker: Charles Jencks — author, Critical Modernism: Where is Post-Modernism Going? What is Post-Modernism? (Wiley)
Introduction: Mark Wigley — Dean, Columbia GSAPP
Organizer: Columbia University GSAPP

Critical Modernism: Where is Post-Modernism Going? What is Post-Modernism?

Courtesy Columbia University GSAPP

On the cover of Charles Jencks’s new edition of What is Post-Modernism? (the first new edition in 11 years), the first director of the Museum of Modern Art Alfred Barr’s chart of modern artistic movements comes apart, literally, in the image of a windbreaker emblazoned with Barr’s interconnected bubbles being unzipped. Revealed beneath is the work’s new title, Critical Modernism: Where Is Post-Modernism Going? The book’s title change reflects Jencks’s new attitude toward the movement: “Post-Modernism, like old soldiers, died slowly.” And he mourns its passing.

Author, critic, and landscape designer, Jencks was one of the earliest exponents of Post-Modernism. Critical Modernism surveys the culture and politics of the movement, and chronicles its demise. The beginning of the end was the appropriation of Post-Modern architecture by the entertainment industry in the mid-1980s. “For a moment at least it was an interesting avant-garde,” Jencks remarked.

Critical Modernism, on the other hand, attempts to “face reality” when “most Modernism is uncritical.” Art and architecture is grounded in the actuality that: arctic ice is retreating; the earth is warming, modern economics is globalizing; political culture is breeding skepticism; and fear of terrorism is growing.

It is a movement of personal posturing (think Rem Koolhaas’s tough-guy persona), pluralism (James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie), black humor (Damien Hirst), and noble though feeble gestures (green architecture), in Jencks’s view. Ultimately, Jencks praises the iconographic and iconologic possibilities of forms drawn from science and mathematics — the square deformations in the Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery designed by Toyo Ito, FAIA, the images of DNA Jencks has incorporated in his own work, and the natural fractals in everything from pine cones to pineapples.

Elon Danziger, Assoc. AIA, is a project manager at Silberstang Lasky Architects. He studied architecture in Virginia and Mendrisio, Switzerland.

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