Architecture is in a constant state of near-neurotic obsession over its past. So this month, when the American Institute of Architects decided not to name a winner for its annual Twenty-Five Year Award, which recognizes buildings that have “stood the test of time for 25-35 years,” the profession and its critics took notice.
We don’t know exactly why the AIA jury of seven architects (along with a client and a student representative) declined to name a winner this year for the first time since the AIA codified it as a yearly thing in 1971. In a statement, the jury described 2017’s submissions as either architect-friendly or public-friendly, but none were both. The AIA declined to say how many submissions it received this year, but since applying is free, it seems likely that a shallow pool wasn’t the problem.
“Did the AIA Take a Pass on Postmodernism?” asked architect Duo Dickinson on Common Edge. On Curbed, Alissa Walker, Alexandra Lange, Diana Budds, and others suggested buildings that could have won, and on Twitter Dickinson offered a sharp call-out: “when #design juries edit history #propaganda happens.”
It’s possible the jury just didn’t receive enough submissions that stacked up this year. Still, the architecture world has long cast a skeptical eye on an era that did not conform to the doctrine of high modernism, and many of postmodernism’s most notable buildings are now under threat. In September, Fred Scharmen called this form of collective amnesia “Modernismwashing:”
When will architecture firms restore their late 90s POMO creations to their websites?!?!?
— ashi_red (@ashi_red) September 19, 2017
End Modernismwashing https://t.co/sSYl873cem
— Fred Scharmen (@sevensixfive) September 19, 2017
It’s worth taking a look at the award’s past winners to understand what kinds of architecture it tends to consider as enduringly relevant.
In the 1970s, the Twenty-Five Year Award went to names like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, and Eero Saarinen. In the 1980s, it went to many of the same names, since the most famous architects of the midcentury enjoyed long careers. Into the late ’90s, Saarinen and Kahn were still frequent winners of the award. In fact, if you take a step back and look at the full 48 years of the award, you’ll notice it’s dominated by a few mainstays across the decades: Saarinen & Associates (or some variant thereof) has received the award seven times, ranging from 1971-1993. Kahn has received it five times, from 1979-2005. SOM, which Gordon Bunshaft turned into a powerhouse of modernism in the ’50s and ’60s, has received it six times, from 1980-2015. Even in the late ’90s, when the award shifted toward the likes of Richard Meier and I.M. Pei, it’s easy to see the echoes of those big names: Meier, who has received the award twice, was deeply influenced by Le Corbusier, van der Rohe, and Wright; I.M. Pei, a four-time winner, was also shaped by Le Corbusier and Gropius.
We can see something in these numbers: That the award, and architectural history, tend to operate on a patrician model. A group of anointed Great Modernists gave birth to a family tree of descendants who worked within–or nearby–the value system established by the originals. Architectural historians, as well as awards programs, the publishing industry, and the educational system, have established this family tree as canon.
So why does that matter? It doesn’t, really. There are plenty of wonderful contemporary architects working outside and even in opposition to that tradition. But it does show us why postmodernism still gets stuck in architecture’s craw. Postmodernism makes goofy, sometimes biting fodder out of the formal, symmetrical systems of influence that has produced generations of modern architects still defined in relation to the greats. As Aaron Betsky perfectly put it in 2015, “that was what was the most important revelation of Postmodernism: the replacement of a notion of progress through styles towards utopia with experimentation.”
Take Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s Children’s Museum of Houston–which New York Times critic Paul Goldberger gushed about in 1993, calling the building joyful, gracious, and an “instant lesson in the idea of civic architecture and urbanism.” He asked: “Who could fail to smile at this building?” Or Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, which as a tribute to the city’s Italian Americans mashed centuries of classical Italianate architecture into a joyous, brightly hued spectacle.
This is not to say no postmodern buildings have been honored by the Twenty-Five Year award; the most notable is Venturi’s house for his mother, built in the early ’60s. But even that building, with its muted facade and clever nods to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, feels more tied to high modernism than many of postmodernism’s most eligible buildings.
Postmodernism is a wink, rather than a bow. It’s loud. It’s almost painfully self-referential. In some cases, it hasn’t aged well for occupants or for cities, some of which are acting to replace it. It can be hard to understand its value, compared to the much more obedient strains of modernism that came after it.
This may have nothing to do with the AIA’s decision not to give a Twenty-Five Year award for the first time. Maybe there weren’t enough submissions. Maybe the submissions were truly not great buildings. Who knows!
But it’s relevant all the same, as more aging postmodern architecture is threatened with demolition. Should we really try to forget an entire era, however flawed? Can we find value in design that doesn’t fit neatly into the model laid out by the greats?