The History Of The Postmodernist Movement Cultural Studies Essay

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This essay will analyse Postmodernism as to how and why it came about and also the specific features that made it a unique style. From Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, I will research The Strip, signage, buildings and casinos in Las Vegas and how they contributed to defining the Postmodernist movement. Venturi's Vanna Venturi House (1962) will then be examined, looking at the collaboration of materials and forms that identify the building as the first Postmodern piece of architecture.

Postmodernism is said to have become prominent from 1965 to 1980, with America and Europe entailing a majority of this style in their architecture. These places then spread it throughout world design. Venturi, Mies van der Rowe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn were the main contributors towards the rejection of Modernism. Venturi had a notable rejection towards the simplicity and resolution with style. It is evident that the Postmodernists wanted to produce architecture with more meaning. To achieve this, a selection of architects including Venturi, Rowe, Wright and Kahn began designing with a different approach. In their rejection of Modernism, one such approach included looking back at tradition. This new neo-eclectic architecture went along with both the historic preservation movement and the new urbanism movement.

"In turning away from "anonymous glass box" architecture of the International style, with post-modern design anything goes, and historical features tend to be widely exaggerated."

Postmodernists used combinations of historical styles as inspiration for their architecture as well as imitating numerous forms. These forms were simplified, intensified, as well as mixed. In order to create a memorable feeling, the architectural forms had an intentional discord or unorganised appearance. The 2003 Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia describes Postmodernism as entailing "individuality, intimacy, complexity, and occasionally even humour." The disrespect shown towards historical styles by Postmodernists produced a variety of responses. Anthony Vidler questions their validity with respect to design.

"Postmodernism's willingness to ransack history, as well as billboards, for its vocabulary revealed it indeed as fundamentally disrespectful of history, and even more disrespectful of the present."

The features of Postmodernism are further explained by Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas.

Throughout his book, Venturi explores the main road of Las Vegas, known as The Strip (see appendix 2). He gives an analysis of the functionality of The Strip and the signs, casinos and shops that it entails. The placement of structures and roads in Las Vegas feature a low level of planning. Buildings are virtually built outwards from The Strip, conveying its significance in the city as well as the eccentric organisation of structure in Las Vegas.

A majority of these buildings are in a sense, superseded by signs. The signs inflect towards the highway to present themselves towards the oncoming traffic. Due to a substantial amount of competition from other businesses, the signs have become more individual. Combinations of styles are used to attract consumers. Journalist Tom Wolfe passes judgement about this by saying:

" I can only attempt to supply names- Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral."

The signs show characteristics of Postmodernism in that they combine historic forms in many inventive, fun ways. Due to the size and eye catching design of the signage, the business buildings do not need to be as eye catching as the signs have already caught the consumers' interest. In this sense, the signs have become architecture. This has occurred literally on The Strip with a structure called The Long Island Duckling (post 1931). The building is sizeable like a sign, however the interior spaces are small, creating a contradiction between exterior symbol and architectural shelter (see appendix 1). This feature can be found in numerous buildings prior to Modernist architecture, further conveying that the signs have Postmodern qualities. The signs placed next to the road and the buildings display a number of individual characteristics.

Due to the high speeds of passing cars the buildings are separated by distances thought to be enough to allow each one to be seen. Instead of the front elevation being the most important, the side facing the traffic has become more important due to the traffic seeing mostly side elevations from the road. Thus, more emphasis is placed on the design aesthetic of the side of the structure. Also, most of the buildings are turned towards the oncoming traffic. The backs in most cases have little style because no-one sees them. People only park out the front and enter via the front; a factor most common with the casinos.

Due to the casinos being the most prominent pieces of architecture found along The Strip, there is a large amount of pressure on the architect to design a building that is individual and enticing to the consumer. Similar to the signs, the casinos employ the Postmodernism method of design by mixing a number of historical styles into one building. One of the most famous casinos in Las Vegas, Caesars Palace (1974) is a notable exponent of these characteristics (see appendix 3).

"The front colonade [of Caesars Palace] is San Pietro-Bernini in plan but Yamasaki in vocabulary and scale; the blue and gold mosaic work is Early Christian tomb of Galla Placidia (see appendix 4)."

The Strip has made a significant contribution towards the notion of Postmodernist form making, as has Venturi.

Vanna Venturi House (1962), designed by Robert Venturi and constructed at Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, can claim to the be the first piece of Postmodernist architecture. Venturi designed this building for his much loved mother. He disliked the plainness and design resolution that was characterised by Modernism.

"Where simplicity cannot work, simpleness results. Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore."

Venturi wanted to make a statement that architecture could evolve from this, to move towards a Postmodern era.

"Complexity and contradiction, which he argued made products of architecture more witty and less boring: more appropriate reflections of the complexities and contradictions of life, and more stimulating, intellectually and aesthetically."

From his study in Rome, Venturi was inspired by Mannerist and Baroque architecture. After at least six fully worked design drawings he finally allowed construction to begin. The overall form was influenced by the Low House (1887) in Bristol, Rhode Island. Vanna Venturi House has five habitable rooms making it appear to be large but it is actually relatively small (see appendix 8). In elevation the front is "a wide, symmetrical gable like a classical pediment" , and the main entrance is featured in the middle (see appendix 5). The pediment is related to the works of Sir John Vanburgh and Michelangelo. The placement of doors and windows are arranged unevenly however have a smooth balance. Outside the kitchen, a Modernist style ribbon window is used. The layering of voids also add to the uneven but smooth behaviour of the structure (see appendix 6). Venturi carefully places the porch, staircase and fireplace in a way that they appear to all want to be at the centre of the structure (see appendix 7). For the exterior colour Venturi continued the rebellion of Postmodernism by going against an unnamed famous architect's beliefs, and painting the exterior in green.

Through the combined use of several historical styles, as well as creating an awkward, sometimes disrespectful, yet memorable feeling though the architecture, the Vanna Venturi House is a proficient exponent towards the arrival of Postmodernist architecture.


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Appendix 1

Long Island Duckling

Venturi, R, DS Brown, and S Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas: MIT Press Cambridge, Mass., 1972, 17.

Appendix 2

The Strip

Venturi, R, DS Brown, and S Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas: MIT Press Cambridge, Mass., 1972, 22-23.

Appendix 3

Caesars Palace sign and Piranesi's Pantheon

Venturi, R, DS Brown, and S Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas: MIT Press Cambridge, Mass., 1972, 60-61.

Appendix 4

Caesars Palace

Venturi, R, DS Brown, and S Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas: MIT Press Cambridge, Mass., 1972, 56.

Appendix 5

Vanna Venturi House front elevation

Andreas Eglezos Tourogiannis, David Camillo Greco. "Robert Venturi, Vanna Vennturi House, Pennsylvania USA." RMIT, 2.

Appendix 6

Vanna Venturi House staircase view

Andreas Eglezos Tourogiannis, David Camillo Greco. "Robert Venturi, Vanna Vennturi House, Pennsylvania USA." RMIT, 3.

Appendix 7

Vanna Venturi House section

Vanna Venturi House sectionAndreas Eglezos Tourogiannis, David Camillo Greco. "Robert Venturi, Vanna Vennturi House, Pennsylvania USA." RMIT, 4.