The debate: merits of postmodern architecture

Is postmodern architecture fostering and sustaining our societies or simply diminishing our history and draining our resources? The architect, urban planner and architectural critic, Leon Krier, and the British postmodern architect, Sir Terry Farrell, debate the merits of postmodern architecture, discussing whether it should be renounced in favour of a return to traditional classicism

Leon Krier is a Luxembourgish architect, urban planner and architectural critic. His designs include Poundbury, the classicist new town in Cornwall, UK, that was based on the ideas in Prince Charles’ book A Vision of Britain. He argues that modernism and postmodernism are damaging our architectural heritage, erasing our communal and cultural inheritance and compromising a sustainable future

The tragic degradation caused to traditional cities and landscapes by Modernisms, of which Post-Modernism is but a branch, is explained by the loss of crucial technical data and intelligence. This cataclysmic loss is not merely one of “history” and “historic fabric” but more importantly, of technique and language. A historic fabric is not just a product of bygone history but of timeless human technology: the technique of building and rebuilding with natural materials in harmony with land, climate, altitude and soil conditions, in short with traditional construction methods, culture and settlement patterns.

The loss of traditional architecture and urbanism is equivalent to the loss of language. Modernism is architecturally speechless, illiterate. It has replaced a polyglot world architecture of infinite variety with an Esperanto of synthetics

Leon Krier, Architect, urban planner and architectural critic

Even though modernist buildings may vary greatly in type, appearance and size, they have a common physical and technological base: they are derivatives of the fossil fuel industry. Always invasive, they do not complement but clash and replace. Though the design manners vary from Functionalism to Deconstructivism, via High Tech and even Traditionalist Kitsch, all require large-scale industrial processes, employing synthetic materials and consuming vast amounts of un-renewable fossil energies. Their chemical and physical properties, their production, construction, assemblage and fitting techniques bear no resemblance to traditional building arts and crafts nor to the properties of the natural materials that condition those.

The loss of traditional architecture and urbanism is equivalent to the loss of language. Modernism is architecturally speechless, illiterate. It has replaced a polyglot world architecture of infinite variety with an Esperanto of synthetics.

Technical Colleges, Universities and Academies around the world have abandoned the teaching of traditional building techniques. They teach and erroneously uphold modernist design, building and planning doctrine as the only legitimate instrument and expression of modernity, of democracy, of progress. Educated people, when aware of the fateful occurrence, conclude that there must be inexorable causes for the technological loss and humane scale sacrifice. Transcending political differences and regimes, the modernist agenda is triumphant everywhere, imposing itself against civic opposition. As a result the persistently strong market demand for traditional forms of architecture and urbanism in most developed countries can no longer be satisfied by the supply of authentic traditional products but merely architectural ersatz, by traditionalist Kitsch. Authentic traditional villages and towns, if not submitted to the rule of the bulldozers, barely survive like uprooted flotsam in a territory occupied and dominated by the polymorphous and all-powerful predator.

The mistaken common belief is that the future must of necessity be high-tech. In fact the biggest intellectual concept to grasp today is that technology is the logos of technique. Technology is neither high nor low –a differentiation which has little to do with intelligence, wisdom, progress or ecology. What superficially looks like high may be extremely low in ecological terms and vice versa. The tenet of permanent economic growth, on which the idea of modernism and progress are founded, is unlikely to be sustainable beyond Peak-Oil. How are we to pay for our accumulated global debt if the miracle of an equivalent energy doesn't timely materialise?

However brave science is in exploring the micro and macro scales, there is virtually no science of ecological civilization. How then are political representatives to take intelligent long-term decisions when lacking reliable resource data? The questions which science and technology have urgently to address and answer are … How many humans can live in given locations, regions, countries, continents, in given geo-climatic conditions, for how long, under what political economies and with what technical and biological inventories? And beyond, what can be our moral, aesthetic, technical and technological value systems in conditions of limited free-energy resources?

All attempts to overcome the drawbacks of Modernisms – Historical, Neo and Post – are doomed to failure if the causal conditions of its problems are not addressed.

Sir Terry Farrell is a British postmodern architect. He is best known for his projects in London such as the TV-am building in Camden and MI6’s headquarters in Vauxhall. He argues that postmodernism has evolved to meets the requirements of human progress in a complex, globalised world

The modernist city of the early- and mid-20th century – the city of Le Corbusier in particular – was based on the view that the city had failed and that a bigger-scaled, movement-based, new mega-metropolis was the essential and indeed only answer. But by the 1960s and 1970s another view, a counter view, emerged. Developments in ecology, anthropology, geography and genetics all cultivated a more holistic view of human settlement, where context and place have once again become leading priorities. As Jane Jacobs famously said, “Le Corbusier’s dream city was like a wonderful mechanical toy, but as to how the city works, it tells… nothing but lies.”

Decades later, it is interesting and indeed imperative to look back on this late-20th-century ‘postmodern’ era. There have been those who have argued that the only way forward was to reject the modern condition completely and return to a pre-industrial age, typified by Prince Charles in the UK and the so-called ‘new urbanists’ movement in the US. But there is no going back: the world’s population has doubled again and again since the pre-industrial 1800s and technological advances cannot and will not be dispensed with – so much of them are now part of the life of all global citizens.

Yet tradition was worth rediscovering, and had many lessons. The city is still made up of places: neighbourhoods, urban villages, town centres, in spite of high densities, mass transport and electronic communications. And cities are now recognised as an accumulation, over time, of the work of many hands. Even if relatively recently invented, modern cities like Dubai and Brasilia already have context and their own history. These rediscoveries, the postmodern legacies, all add up to ‘identity’, to the very rootedness of the idea and presence of place for us all individually and collectively. In this sense, the city is an accumulated work like other cultural manifestations or artefacts, and its value relies on how well and how creatively it is collectively planned and achieved.

The city of today is a product of postmodern times: it is perceived from the outset as complex, changing, diverse and always forming and reforming, and indeed is essentially different for different inhabitants and groups of inhabitants who use it and read it variously according to their interaction with this great artefact.

Postmodern planning from this viewpoint is as much about nurturing and stewardship as it is about technology invention and ‘vision’. We need both: vision relies on the leadership of ideas and awareness of the bigger picture as much as on, say, politicians. Nurturing is best bottom up; but bottom up only works if, like a jigsaw puzzle, there is a collective agreement and general understanding of what is the ‘picture on the box’. There are no single simple answers as was once offered by the modernist city or the classical city. Planners today need vision, but they need to work with others who also have vision. They primarily need to be ‘urban culturalists’ – the equivalent of gardeners but nurturing our non-rural domains where now over half the world lives.