The Landscape Guide

1.7 post-Postmodernism

Contents list

Giving names to periods is difficult. As cultural terms, "Classicism', "Neoclassicism', "Romanticism', "Impressionism' and "Post-Impressionism' are imprecise. Yet we all find the terms useful, and arguing over their meaning keeps many scholars in gainful employment. With regard to time periods, "Ancient World' is fairly secure; "Middle Ages' is becoming progressively inaccurate; "Modern Age' keeps moving forwards. "Modernism' is partly a cultural term and partly a time word. Should its time reference make "Modern' unusable as a cultural term, what might take its place? In art history, a case can be made for Age of Abstraction. In a wider context, "Age of Analysis', "Age of Reduction' or "Age of Science' might serve. Each highlights a key characteristic of twentieth century thought: the endeavour to analyse everything into essential constituents. Abstract artists reduced art to shapes and forms; music was reduced to tones; novels became streams of consciousness; chemists hunted for the smallest components of matter; physicists looked for a single explanation of the universe. It is too soon for us to know what period label will take the place of "Modern', but something will.

'Postmodern' may survive longer than "Modern' because of its very eccentricity. It could however be replaced by Post-Abstract if Age of Abstraction came into use. In the sixth edition of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Jencks takes heart from his critics' proclamation of the death of postmodernism and classifies them, deftly, as Neo-Moderns. This places them after modernism yet before postmodernism. Jencks sees their criticism as proof of architectural postmodernism's continued vitality, "for who is going to waste time flogging a dead style?' Actually, it is a very popular activity. Postmodern architecture can be seen as inherently trivial, glitzy and stunt-ish, appealing to the wallet, not to the mind and not to the soul. It belongs in shop windows and in cinemas, in Madison Avenue and in Tinseltown. No one who uses retail shops or watches movies should despise the great products of these great industries. But an "anything goes' pluralist approach to urban design gives us the equivalent of a junk shop with, perhaps, an empty chocolate box, a kettle and an old TV set (Figure 5). Alone, each might be elegant, stylish or beautiful; together they are jumble. As a direct consequence of pluralism, the postmodern city street resembles an out-of-step chorus line. If anything goes, then nothing goes.
[FIG 1.5 ]
But there are signs of post-Postmodern life, in urban design, architecture and elsewhere. They are strongest in those who place their hands on their hearts and are willing to assert "I believe'. Faith always was the strongest competitor for reason: faith in a God; faith in a tradition; faith in an institution; faith in a person. The built environment professions are witnessing the gradual dawn of a post-Postmodernism that seeks to temper reason with faith. Designers and planners are taking to the rostrum and the pulpit. Christopher Day has written a book on Places of the Soul (Day, 1990). Christopher Alexander's work is discussed at greater length later in this book, in essays on design methods and the Pattern Language.

As a youngster, Alexander was a mainstream technocratic modernist. When disillusion set in, he set forth on the road to San Francisco. Once there, he gathered a community of designers, read Taoist philosophy, and published books on the Timeless Way of Building (Alexander, 1979). Jencks classifies him as a postmodern ad hoc urbanist. Alexander, rightly in my view, rejects the label "postmodern' (Alexander and Eisenman, 1984). The pattern language rests on deep faith as much as it does upon reason. It is post-Postmodern, or pre-Modern. Alexander starts and finishes the first chapter of the Timeless Way with a traditionalist creed:

There is one timeless way of building.

It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it has always been.

The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the centre of this way.

To purge ourselves of these illusions, to become free of all the artificial images of order which distort the nature that is in us, we must first learn a discipline which teaches us the true relationship between ourselves and our surroundings.

Then, once this discipline has done its work, and pricked the bubbles of illusion which we cling to now, we will be ready to give up the discipline, and act as nature does.

This is the timeless way of building: learning the discipline -- and shedding it.

The "artificial images of order' that Alexander criticizes were rational, modernist and utopian. Postmodern "planning' was anti-planning. When the hoped-for urban paradise turned into a hated "concrete jungle', with streets in the air, criminal gangs, tall blocks and vacant open spaces, planners lost heart. Post-Postmodern planning is a sign of returning self-confidence. Traditions are being rediscovered. In place of the old singular zones, for housing, industry, commerce and recreation, a plural zoning, resembling a pile of rubber bands (Figure 6), is being founded on belief and sentiment. Plural zoning has a greater similarity to natural habitats than singular zoning.

[FIG 1.6 ] Singular and plural zoning

The waterfronts of the world are becoming Zones of Waterfront Character, with special regulations. Old high streets are now themed shopping areas, dominated by antique bistros. London and San Francisco have Chinatowns.

In New York City, these generative rules are legion: a special district controls the recycling of Union Square as a luxury enclave; new contextual zoning is abetting the development of the Upper West Side in a regenerated 1930s Art Deco format; while great parts of Manhattan stand cordoned off behind the boundaries of historic districts as large as Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side. (Boyer, 1990)

The zones are cultural, not functional (Figure 7). They overlap and there are other possibilities. Central Paris is a zone of low buildings. Bavaria has zones for timber buildings. Many cities now have ecological habitat policies. When London's Isle of Dogs was designated as an Enterprise Zone, it could also have become a "Willow World', using Salix as the major tree species. With dock basins and high walls of mirror glass, the willows would have been beautiful and the symbolism would not have been inappropriate.

[FIGS 1.7, 1.8 ] Cities can have many types of zone. This diagram shows city blocks in a waterfront town with names on the zones

New zones can be visual, historic, ecological, cultural, or they can give a spatial dimension to belief. Los Angeles has Koreatown, Little India, Little Saigon and