If Ewan McGregor, charming (and quite convincing) Scots narrator of the Open University’s animated approach to education Postmodernism: Design in a Nutshell is to be believed, “Postmodernism began at precisely 3 p.m., March 16, 1972.” It’s a date of detonations, one that sealed a long-running and impassioned debate about the death of the modernist movement. On that day, the St. Louis Housing Authority demolished the first of 33 buildings designed by Minoru Yamasaki, also the architect of New York’s World Trade Center, in the Pruitt-Igoe high-rise housing project. The buildings were manifestations of modernist design principles–function determines form, less is more. For many, the end of the emblematic buildings evidenced the end of modernism.
Arguably, the true advent of postmodernism dates back to 1966, when the Museum of Modern Art sponsored the publication of a manifesto by the young architect Robert Venturi, who declared: “I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.” And if Apple–and its recent adieu to the pomp and frills of skeuomorphism–is truly the design darling of our time, then it’s clear in whose favor the crowds are currently rallying in the ongoing battle of mo vs. pomo.
Venturi’s support for messy vitality, and perhaps Apple’s investment in cleaning up the mess, is at the core of postmodernism, as explained by one of the Open University’s six petite tutorials about key design movements of the 20th century. Postmodernists believed that “we needed as many references as possible,” says McGregor, “to challenge audiences and force them to ask questions.”
Even Picasso was staid, the animation illustrates, guilty of modernism because he created his masterpieces based on a set of preexisting aesthetic rules. Those techniques weren’t wild enough for the postmodernists, who advocated for collage, chance, anarchy, repetition–a pastiche of other pastiches, free-spirited and provocative.
The key is choice. Postmodernist sensibility dictates that we need as many references as possible to come to our own subjective conclusions. Modernism belonged to the post-World War II crowd; postmodernism belonged to their rebellious offspring. The video doesn’t clarify how (or if, really) postmodernism lives on today. But it’s clear that the movement’s tendency to prod, provoke, and antagonize the status quo synced well with the rise of mass media, and could be the core philosophy for disruptive new businesses, the Internet supplying infinite possibilities for lawless creative action.