Tag Archives: postmodern architecture

RIP Charles ‘death of modern architecture’ Jencks (1939 –2019)

Charles Jencks was an American cultural and architectural theorist best-known for playing a decisive role in the historiography of postmodernism by publishing the book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) more than fifty years ago.

 Koyaanisqatsi (1982) featuring footage of Pruitt–Igoe

He was not the first to play a role in this historiography, Robert Venturi, who died in 2018, had published Learning from Las Vegas (1972) before him.

For me, Jencks’s death was a good occasion to score a copy of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture at my university library.

I got hold of a first edition, which is important because it features the introduction which is not part of subsequent editions (it’s not, for example, in the 2002 edition which I also lent).

This introduction is the one which reflects on the adequacy of the new term postmodernism in these words:

“The phrase ‘post-modern’ is not the most happy expression one can use concerning recent architecture. It is evasive, fashionable and worst of all negative – like defining women as ‘non-men’.”–p. 9

The second section of the book, titled “The death of modern architecture” has a poignant criticism on modern architecture, more particular a criticism of Purist ‘living machine‘ Corbusier style architecture. The critical analysis of this type of architecture, which reminds me of the progressivism-skeptic discourse of John Gray states:

“[The] Purist style, […] was meant to instil […] corresponding values in the inhabitants. Good form was to lead to good content, or at least good conduct; the intelligent planning of abstract space was to promote healthy behavior. Alas, such simplistic ideas, taken over from philosophic doctrines of Rationalism, Behaviourism and Pragmatism, proved as irrational as the philosophies themselves. Modern architecture, as the son of the Enlightenment, was an heir to its congenital naivities […] These shortcomings are now well known, thanks to the writings of Ivan IllichJacques EllulE. F. SchumacherMichael Oakeshott and Hannah Arendt.”–p.10

This second section also contrasts the “not the most happy” genesis of the term postmodernism with the happiness of being able to determine the exact moment of the “death of modern architecture”:

“Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt–Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.”–p.9

Jencks was not the first to criticize modern architecture and certainly not the last. “Machines for living” schemes such as the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, for various critics, including Tom Wolfe, illustrated both the essential unlivability of Bauhaus-inspired box architecture, and the hubris of central planning.

Incidentally, the death of modern architecture coincides with the death of the avant-garde.

But enough.

I leave you with a fragment of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) which features footage of Pruitt–Igoe and of its demolition (above).