Postmodernity, Architecture, Jameson and Foster

Architecture is important in the understanding of postmodernist thought, Jameson notes ‘of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship’.(1.) He continues to state that it is ‘not surprising to find the extraordinary flowering of the new postmodern architecture grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it’.(2.) According to Jameson postmodernist architecture has a symbiotic relationship with multinational corporations. Postmodernist architecture arose due to the loss of faith and the end of the governmental post-war funding for housing projects. Significant modernist projects are the Park Hill flats in Sheffield, and Robin Hood Gardens, a council housing complex in London, both projects were inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. These projects failed significantly in their humanitarian, rationalist aim and this is argued to be a contributing factor to the style of the postmodernist architecture. Lyotard notes ‘the disappearance of this idea of progress within rationality and freedom would explain a certain tone, style or modus… a sort of bricolage’ [bricolage means tinkering].(3.) Charles Jencks, a highly influential postmodern architectural theorist, proposed the “double coding” style of architecture, which ‘entails a return to the past as much as a movement forward… tradition with a difference’ in essence a history and a locality, treated with irony.(4.) This style, similar to Kenneth Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism”, can be found in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans which replicates the local Italian community by referring to ‘the Trevi fountain, Roman classical arches, even the geographical shape of the country itself, transcoding their historical forms into contemporary materials [Steel rather than marble] as befits a symbolic representation of Italian-American society’.(5.) Postmodernist architecture is a “popularist” doctrine, which aims to bring the sublime into social environments, refusing to attempt to transform the inhabitants of a city to fit in ‘pre-decided rational schemes’ it aims for organic growth which transforms itself to fit the inhabitants of a city.(6.)

Charles Moore Piazza Italia New Orleans

For all the rhetoric of popularism architectural postmodernism suffers from the same elitism of style it accuses Modernism of exhibiting. As Hal Foster notes postmodernism ‘far from [being] populist (as is so commonly claimed) is alternately elitist in its allusions and manipulative in its clichés’.(7.) The ironic treatment of history is evidently a treatment only understood by those with architectural training however it could be argued that the fusion of highbrow allusions and lowbrow clichés is the degeneration of the high/low cultural divide that is seen as an important positive democratic aspect of postmodernism. Hal Foster continues to explain that ‘architectural postmodernism exploits the fragmentary nature of late-capitalist urban life; we are conditioned to its delirium even as its causes are concealed from us’.(8.) What this means is that postmodernism is but a ‘gratuitous veil drawn over the face of social instrumentality’.(9.) The local identity and history referred to in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia are but a cynical reference to the local culture, and traditions of that distinct area. The “Italian heritage” the Piazza refers to is a flat, arbitrary, almost racist version of what it is to be Italian. Rather than simulate and reflect the local culture postmodernist architecture reveals – unintentionally – that multinational corporations exploit the image and history of a neighbourhood without considerate understanding or care for the people. By reducing the neighbourhood into a flat image of “Italianness” the community is commodified, reduced into an image. “Italianness” is idolised; the problem with idolisation is that it reduces a Being into an image, an image that can be brought and sold: slavery. History warns us of the dangers of commodifying, idolising individuals with the suicides of “icons” Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain who broke underneath the weight of their extreme commodification or as it is often named “fame”.


Postmodern architecture, theorised by Jencks and Frampton, styled itself by a returning to the past ironically and with a regionalism that refused to fit people to architectural designs, preferring to fit the designs to the people. I noted that Moore’s Piazza d’Italia was rather a cynical simulation of a cliched sense of “Italianness”. Postmodern architecture is the aesthetic of an inconsiderate corporate ethos which reduces a community and its people into flat images which are easily reproduced and replicated. Rather than reflecting the surrounding community postmodernist architecture isolates communities, reducing their image into easily reproducible cogs; the transference of communities and individuals into commodities is slavery.

1. Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5.

2. Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5.

3. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1613.

4. Charles Jencks in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 15.

5. Linda Hutcheon in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 15.

6. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 17.

7. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, Perspecta, Vol. 21 (1984), pp. 145-153, p. 146.

8. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, p. 148.

9. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, p. 147.

Future Worlds: The Familiar as Future in Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Modernist architecture is noted for its elimination of ornament and simplification of form. An outcome of Modernist architecture is that it produced large estates with many buildings built externally and internally uniform. The central vision of many Modernist estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, were to produce easily reproducible identical living units which would satisfy and reproduce communities ravaged and displaced from their terraced estates by the second world war. Large sprawling streets were replaced with tall expansive high-rise apartment buildings. This style of architecture failed in many estates and rather than being a shining beacon of good planning the estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, have become run down poverty stricken and crime infested. The lack of ornament and the Modernist belief in aesthetic uniformity is used in Fahrenheit 451 to symbolise the fictional societies philosophy. Uniformity is cited as the reason why books must be burnt – without uniformity society is violent, passionate and uncontrollable. The contemporary modernist setting of Fahrenheit 451 is used as a site in which the fictional societies philosophy is foregrounded.

Another reason why Modernist architecture is used is to produce a sense of familiar. Fahrenheit 451is set amongst the Modernist architecture of the 1960’s – the Alton housing estate in Roehampton, South London. Fahrenheit 451 uses the Modernist estate to to produce a future world built from the contemporary fashion and architecture of the 1960’s. This ensures that the future is not really “when” but rather an extension or an extreme version of “now”. Science fiction has always used the future as a safe space in which to deal with the threats and concerns of contemporary society. However Fahrenheit 451 does not allow this act of distancing – normally provided by the setting of a different and unrecognisable future – because the vision of the “future” in Fahrenheit 451 is evidently still the contemporary world. What this does is produce a critique of contemporary society and life that is unavoidable and unmistakable.

Fahrenheit 451 creates a “future” where uniformity has become so important that is has removed all elements of humanity, however; as science fiction critiques the contemporary we can also infer that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing against the very same architecture it is using in the film. It could be said that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing that “ornament”, what Modernist architecture and uniformity removes, is that which makes humanity so interesting and inspirational. Fahrenheit 451 communicates that ornament is the aesthetic response to understanding humanity as impossible to simplify and that “simplicity” of form is the attempt to dehumanize humanity. Therefore Fahrenheit 451 could be seen as a critique of Modernist philosophy of architecture and other rationalising philosophies.