New York

“Postmodern Visions: Contemporary Architecture 1960–1985”

IBM Gallery of Science and Art

This traveling show, organized by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt and the Williams College Museum of Art, consists of more than 200 remarkable drawings, photographs, and models by more than 35 architects—remarkable for their quality, variety, and abundance. Unfortunately, they are presented in an exhibition that is equally remarkable for its lack of clarity, due to the absence of an original organizing idea (and the confidence of curator Heinrich Klotz that he’s provided one). Many of the drawings and models are dazzling individual statements, but the exhibition is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. The title, “Postmodern Visions: Contemporary Architecture 1960–1985,” implies an in-depth analysis of the evolution of architectural thinking and practice during that period. But the exploration of the idea of Postmodernism is thin, and when it does galvanize—episodically, at best—it frequently contradicts a point established elsewhere in the show. This is not a polemical exhibition, and as a didactic effort it fails to illuminate the emergence of Postmodernism as an alternative or extension to Modernist hegemony in the context of the developments of the past 25 years. More than anything, it is about architectural pluralism, with the concept of Postmodernism offered as an explanation for this diverse condition.

The exhibition is most effective in conveying new approaches to drawing, new attitudes about representation, and the symbiotic relationship between drawing and thinking. Some of the drawings seem as if they’d been made for the growing market for architectural objects, but many of them are urgent expressions of the directions that their makers think architecture should take. Here, drawing is a cathartic process, documenting where desire and intention part company with realization.

The design of the gallery space was both predictable and perplexing. The main area was transformed into a long “street,” off which many separate entrances, framed by colorful, prosceniumlike columns and pediments, led to individual chambers. It was like the Strada Novissima of the 1980 Venice Biennale, but with that installation’s many visions homogenized into one. In each area architects were grouped—for example, Peter Eisenman, Robert Venturi, and Michael Graves; Frank Gehry and Stanley Tigerman; Robert A.M. Stern and Charles Moore. The groupings were intriguing but may have forced some inflated notion of affinity. Gehry and Tigerman may practice west of the Alleghenies, but their individual investigations are very different. Graves, Eisenman, and Venturi have all brought an intelligence, a cultural sensitivity, and an art-oriented approach to architecture, but their sympathies are dissimilar.

Some of the work made a particularly strong impact in the context of this Postmodernist exhibition. There were a few unusual choices, such as Adolfo Natalini and Rem Koolhaas, given their clearly Modernist (rather than Post-modernist) predilections. Natalini’s work, represented by Superstudio’s visionary, consummate schemes for new cities and by his more recent proposals for the city of Frankfurt, shows a lively development of fresh and sometimes contradictory ideas. The work of Koolhaas and his Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) seems stronger with each encounter. This group is certainly the forerunner of the nascent alliance of neo-constructivists who have emerged in the ’80s; however, OMA’s ideas are far richer than most they have inspired. Of the true Postmodernists, some stood out above the rest. Ettore Sottsass’ “Future of Architecture,” 1973, is a series of drawings that are whimsical and prescient, qualities that he has maintained in his current work. And Robert Venturi’s leadership of this strange clan of Postmodernists was reconfirmed. There is an edge and immediacy to his work, quietly but unmistakably conveyed by precise, no-nonsense drawings. Venturi’s work continues to suggest a radical potential unrealized and underappreciated by subsequent practitioners.

The excitement of this generous exhibition comes from the cacophony of insights it provides—the result of an enlightened decision to avoid a more cohesive (and thus distorted) picture of architecture during the past quarter century. It was unrealistic, and even unnecessary, to try to fit such a multiplicity of visions into a single cultural principle. If, however, there was an investigative potential here, something other than the notion of Postmodernism might have proved more fruitful and more focused as a path of inquiry.

Patricia C. Phillips