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Notes on the complexities of Post-Modernism.

By Charles Jencks.

Charles Jencks. (V&A)

THE POST-MODERNISM EXHIBIT now coming to an end at the V&A lost the track of the paradigm when it veered off into Memphis teapots and Club culture. Obviously you cannot tell the story of Post-Modernism with objects and style alone, but that is what they tried, resulting in a general confusion that attends Modernism when you tell its story simply through forms, styles  or objects.

Post-Modernism is a wide cultural movement (since the 1960s) which has its soi-disant variants in every field (including science and dance). It is a plural movement which defined itself to defend the local, regional and minority cultures of the globe against the hegemony of Modernism (largely a western and late-capitalist formation).  Post-Modern philosophers often don’t agree about definitions, but they typically support a “war on totality” that Jean Francois Lyotard proclaimed in 1979. Or a defense of plural cultures.

In discussions with Lyotard (related in my Critical Modernism, 2007, and The Story of Post-Modernism, 2011) we disagreed over the end of metanarratives, at first. When, however, I mentioned that it was not their “end” but their “proliferation”, and that the universe’s story (that science is unearthing, the narrative of 13.7 billion years) provides the general picture, he was more in agreement.

I THOUGHT THE TATE show on Altermodernism was an interesting attempt to redefine cultural pluralism, but it ended up showing these trends were really just extensions of PM around the world. Rarely does a fabricated neologism of a curator take hold of the imagination, and in this context it is important to remember E.H. Gombrich’s many discussions of the paranoia of labels. Most successful ones were forged in antipathy, and stuck because they struck a chord, certainly the case with the label Post-Modernism. It chose us. I hyphenate it, as it was in the 1970s-’80s, to keep its hybrid nature, and the basic agenda of pluralism alive.  PM is as a general cultural phenomenon the hybridisation of modernism with other cultural forces, hence its double-coding and radical mixing etc. The Post-Modern sciences of complexity, the deep reason for the movement’s health, have sublated the Modern sciences of simplicity. Now chaos, fractals, epigenetics, cosmology and another thirty or so non-linear sciences (illuminated by the computer) have become the sciences of the twenty-first century – as the Santa Fe Institute predicted in 1984. The self-organising universe is the basic metaphor behind this paradigm.

My argument in recent books (including The Post-Modern Reader, 2011, that includes many disciplines) is that, in architecture, the movement has returned after the Neo-Modernism of the 1990s in every way but by name. The world is now saturated by the confused labels of Modernism and Post-Modernism, but the streams of concerns to which these labels used to refer are continuing. That is apparent in architecture with the digital ornament (a leading movement), the iconic building (with its many marvellous and woeful examples), and the hybrid “time buildings” (that mix past, present and future architectural codes).

Even a Modernist like Sir David Chipperfield becomes an exemplary Post-Modernist at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

So, thanks to its superannuation as a label (and in spite of confusion), the agenda of Post-Modernism is thriving – in architecture and art.

* * *

An extended endnote: THE PARANOIC WAY LABELS and stylistic terms have worked in the past has been discussed by E.H.Gombrich, especially in his essay Norm and Form, republished in collected essays of that title, the section – “The Origins of Stylistic Terminology.” 1

As we know from “Romanesque” (an insult about the “–esque” way impurities were introduced into the classical), “Gothic” (bunch of barbarian Goths), “Baroque and Rococo” (both degenerate metaphors at the time of abuse), and so on through Post-Impressionism (“not even Impressions are painted”), attacks were turned by the defenders into compliments and banners.

Charles Jencks, The Garagia Rotunda, 1976–7.

The first recorded use of “Post-Modern” apparently was by the minor painter in London, John Watkins Chapman, sometime in the 1870s, to mean something like “more Modern than Paris, more Modern than Impressionism, more Modern than Modern.” But it didn’t catch on. “Post-Impressionism” did in the 1880s, and “Post-Industrial” by the 1910s. Two or three uses of “Post-Modern” in the 1930s and 1940s remained one-off attacks or defences of the term, and it was next used in the literary world to mean Modernism in decline, by Irving Howe and Harry Levine (1960s). Taken up positively by Ihab Hassan (in literature) and me (in architecture) – in the 1970s – the movement really started across all the arts and sciences. But they were not the same paradigm, and the basic split within Modernism continued in a new guise, that between Nihilism, Dadaism, and anti-humanism – and the Modern Movement of the Bauhaus, technology, and humanism. That is to say two Post-Modernisms resulted, the ultra-modernism or Late-Modernism that Hassan and Lyotard tended to support and the complexity paradigm that architects and the emergent sciences supported (but of course pluralism was held in common by both trends).

It  gets even more complicated, as I have shown in “Seventy Posts” 2 – that is, seventy different uses of the term PM in various fields, mostly from the 1970s to the 1990s.

If one despairs at this linguistic plurality and confusion spare a thought for poor old Vasari who, when writing the lives of artists during the Renaissance, had to remind his confused readers every other chapter, “by modern I mean the revival of the good classical mode” and not the more recent “Gothic”: ie, True Modernism in 1550 was Ancient, a revival, and its adversary was more contemporary (modern)!

Charles Jencks is an architectural theorist, landscape architect and designer. His books on the history and criticism of Modernism and Postmodernism are widely read in architectural circles and beyond. Born in Baltimore, he first studied English Literature at Harvard, then architecture at the Graduate School of Design, where he earned his MA in 1965. His PhD in Architectural History is from the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College, London. Dr Jencks has lived in Scotland since moving there in the mid-’60s. His most recent book is The Story of Post-Modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture.

These notes appear here as part of our selection of comments on the V&A’s exhibition, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990: Postmodernism at the V&A | Postmodernism and history, a review of the exhibition by Anthony Howell | Memphis comes to Kensington, a brief exhibition memoir by Keith Johnson


  1. Phaidon, 1966, pp. 83-6; pp 99-106.
  2. In What is Post-Modernism?”, 4th edition, Wiley, 1995 pp. 14-15.

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