Postmodern architecture has always been divisive, so how should we approach the preservation of this roundly unloved style described by everything from “kitsch” to “neoliberal”? Some experts would prefer to simply tear it down.
BERLIN — How do those charged with preserving historic buildings approach postmodern architecture? It seems they avoid it if possible. In Weimar, a city in central Germany, professors from the Bauhaus University and historic buildings experts debated the idea of “postmodern heritage” for three days – and could not agree which examples of postmodern architecture were worthy of protected status.
The conference’s media partner, online magazine moderneREGIONAL,set out to establish which examples of postmodern architecture might be classed as architectural heritage. But is the modern era of architecture even over? And have we seen the end of postmodernism? Aren’t both styles still flourishing alongside each other? At least when it comes to postmodernism, the conference’s organizers concluded that it was “not over yet and not likely to be over soon”.
What counts as “postmodern” in architecture? Of course, there was the clear break away from what is simplistically referred to as the Bauhaus style of white cubes, glass walls and flat roofs. The shift away from machine aesthetics, functionalism and rationalism. Suddenly facades were daubed with color, embellished with pillars, gables, canopies and cornices, and windows and doors gained ornamental details.
The clean, geometric lines of modernist cubes were livened up, embellished with poetic and historical elements. Buildings became approachable (some experts referred to a new “architecture parlante”), jokey and ironic – often leaning towards exaggeration, towards the carnivalesque. “For me it meant a new freedom of thought,” a white-haired participant at the Weimar conference said apologetically. He had experienced the architectural revolution as a student.
Even then, in the 1980s, the new style came in for criticism. In his era-defining bestseller The Language of Postmodern Architecture (1978), American architectural historian Charles Jencks made the bold claim that Bauhaus modernism was over, which many German architects saw as an attack on the modern period and the modern world itself.
The end of modernism?
When Heinrich Klotz, director of the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, announced an exhibition on “Revision of the Modern” (1984), many writers reacted strongly, calling it “confusing”, “a crisis of direction” and even “nonsense”. Around the same time, the International Building Exhibition in Berlin, run by Josef Paul Kleihues and Hardt-Walter Hämer, put on the first spectacular exhibition of work by postmodern architects from Germany and abroad – an undertaking that aimed at nothing less than revolutionizing architecture and town planning in Germany.
moderneREGIONAL’s conference “The end of modernism?”, which took place about six months ago in Weimar, showed that these debates are still very much alive. The speakers turned the tables and instead attacked postmodernism as an “unloved era” that was “uncomfortable,” “neoliberal,” “strongly bourgeois” and even a “conservative backwards step”.
Unloved – but by whom? While experts may have disliked it, postmodern architecture was popular among its “users”. Participants at the Weimar conference were surprised to find that the public prefers postmodern architecture to the modernist post-war era. Can it be torn down – or should it be protected as part of the country’s cultural heritage?
As soon as postmodern architecture began to emerge, critics made every effort to denigrate it as “ironic kitsch”, eclecticism, a style that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Before it had really got going, it had already been declared dead in books with titles such as Farewell to Postmodernism. This was followed by claims – which persist until this day – that postmodernism could not develop any of its own stylistic markers.
A failure to protect architecture
Postmodernism was referred to as “second modernism” or “late modernism”, then “world modernism”, and finally “transmodernism” or, as the journal of the German Architects’ Union called it, “latest modernism” – all attempts to deny the fact that it stood in opposition to “true modernism”. The Weimar conference clearly showed that even those responsible for preserving historic buildings have not managed to move on from categorizing architecture as either “loved” or “unloved”.
People were given free rein to renovate historicist buildings.
This is reminiscent of the failure to protect examples of historicist architecture, which was also disparaged as an “unloved style” at first. People were given free rein to renovate historicist buildings as they saw fit and many were ruined, the embellishments on their facades removed in the name of rehabilitating an area – all with the approval of the historic buildings commission.
This trend reached its peak in the post-war period, when even the most magnificent facades that escaped the bombing were consigned to the scrapheap. It wasn’t until pressure came in from the Europe-wide movement to preserve historic buildings – which came to wider attention during the European Architectural Heritage Year in 1975 but had started at grass roots level with civil action groups and squatters – that the self-proclaimed guardians of moral standards in architecture finally managed to distance themselves – reluctantly – from the proclamations of their patron saint Georg Dehio.
With its rehabilitation of history, its romantic exuberance and its exact reconstructions of entire old towns, postmodernism continued the tradition of this counter-movement. Now it is seen as a neohistoricist, “unloved era”.
Glass front of the Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany
Now, even “experts” are realizing that those responsible for preserving historic buildings are failing in two ways. Buildings from “unloved eras” are expected to retain the scars inflicted by all kinds of unsympathetic renovations. Nothing is allowed to be returned to its original state, because it is now classed as a “historic building”.
However, houses built in the Bauhaus style are scrupulously protected – from their facades to their front doors and even door handles – and original features are either retained or reinstated when they have been damaged by use. Think of the Bauhaus complex in Dessau, Bruno Taut’s “whip crack” curved row of houses on the Argentinische Allee in Berlin or Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, which was rebuilt from the ground up.
“Interestingly, when it comes to early examples of modernism, widely accepted principles of architectural conservation such as the Venice Charter are… often not applied,” architectural historian Daniela Spiegel noted at a symposium in Dessau around six months ago. “Instead the aim of restoration often seems to be not only to remove later changes but to give the building – or at least the exterior – a fresh new appearance, as if it had only recently been finished.”
The same bias is at work in the Weimar debate. While the historic buildings commission has protected prefab estates, the banal computer center in Potsdam and even new brutalist architecture, classing them as “early examples of modernism”, the postmodern elements that Heinz Moll thoughtfully weaved into the Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe (1982–89) have already been largely destroyed in the renovation. According to curator Ulrike Plate (Esslingen), the historic buildings commission has given up on protecting existing features.
It includes not only individual buildings, but also whole towns.
At the conference in Weimar, architect Andreas Hild – who is renovating the Neue Pinakothek in Munich – called for a “softer architectural heritage classification”, so that he would have more freedom to restore it how he saw fit. He said that the building – which was completed in 1981 and so far is not on the protected list – is “extremely important” and “optimized from a technical perspective” but also “extremely complex” and “resistant to renovation”.
He saw the architect Alexander von Branca as a “difficult figure”, saying he had been ridiculed for his “castle-like architecture” at the time and had “not been rehabilitated” – clearly sufficient reason to meddle with his work.
The loss of idealism
It has never been clearer that the approach to preserving historic buildings is becoming more and more biased and placing growing emphasis on ideological standards, rather than qualitative characteristics. This means many exceptional works that do not conform to the Bauhaus template are at risk of being substantially changed.
Postmodern architecture includes not only individual buildings such as James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, but also whole towns, such as the charming Potsdam-Kirchsteigfeld, designed by Rob Krier, and the “New Berlin” presented at the International Building Exhibition 1984/87, as well as the architecture of German reunification, which has not yet been fully analyzed.
This architectural heritage has left its mark on cities across Germany, and those marks endure today. The generation that lived through reunification hoped it would bring a lasting change in architecture and town planning. Today, this idealism has been lost.
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