The return of postmodernism

By Clint Burnham

The title of this essay contains a pun. Postmodernism may, indeed, return: but there are also financial or economic returns that one can gather from paying attention to that benighted form of architecture.
These thoughts are occasioned by images of two buildings from two very different societies: the GENEX or Western Gate building in Belgrade, Serbia, and the Vancouver Public Library in Vancouver, Canada. These buildings may indeed fall into that category of the postmodern: first of all, they feature visually eclectic styles mashed or collaged together.
While the GENEX tower is also Brutalist in style, such features as the odd bridge that joins the office tower to the residential tower and the keyholes in the sides of one of the towers, indicate a playfulness not always found in late modernist architecture.
And the VPL most obviously quotes the Roman Colosseum, a particularly egregious, if not belated, species of West Coast Eurocentrism (in this regard, see my forthcoming essay Late Empire). And while these visual aspects of the buildings are foregrounded in the Bitter/Weber artwork, we need also to determine some basic principles of postmodernism in architecture, such as the causes of this style, and its effects.
For this we can turn to the canonical pronouncements of Fredric Jameson. In his book Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson declares that architecture is the primary art form of postmodernism, which cultural period heralds a new form of spatiality as well as subjectivity.
Postmodernism, for Jameson, is the art that is made in the era of the simulacra, of the information age, of the rise of new social movements and the globalization of the economic.
The rise of cultural or literary theory, the fragmentation or disappearance of the monod or subject, the reaction to the institutionalization (in the academy, the market, the gallery) of modernism, and the rise of consumer society all combined, in the late twentieth century, to create a new art.
Photography was combined with forms of advertizing (lightboxes, text) and fiction was relentlessly self-conscious (metafiction); poetry was both more erudite (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/KSW) and less (spoken word, rap); most famously, the boundaries between high and low cultures were supposedly demolished forever.
A key passage in Jameson’s discussion of architecture lies in his analysis of the Bonaventure Westin Hotel in Los Angeles. His argument is that postmodern spaces – embodied in architecture – are a kind of hyperspace (drawing from Baudrillard, and before the rise of the internet), characterized by, as Sean Homer writes, “depthlessness and lack of distance, be that critical distance, metaphysical depth, or the discreteness of political and economic levels of late capitalism” (132).
The Bonaventure hotel is, according to Jameson, a populist building (unlike high modernism, postmodern texts and artefacts are claimed to be not elitist, but popular): both in the sense that it is liked, and that it respects the local vernacular (i.e., in the famous words of Venturi et. al., learning from Las Vegas; or, in the words of Bitter and Weber, learning from Caracas).
The glass skin of the building reflects or simulates the city around it rather like a traffic cop’s mirror shades; once inside, the building turns out to be almost unnavigable: the entrances are wrong, the signage (since corrected or modified) is confusing, and. For Jameson, the Bonaventure turns out to be a minicity, not connecting to Los Angeles but replacing it; “to this new total space, meanwhile, corresponds a new collective practice, a new mode in which individuals move and congregate, something like the practice of a new and historically original kind of hypercrowd” (40).
Jameson’s account has come under its own critique over the years (see my essay on postmodernism and gentrification); but I would like to examine this idea of the “hypercrowd” in Jameson’s text, and to determine what it means for architecture, and particularly for a resistance to architecture, or an invasion of architecture.
If Jameson is correct, postmodern architecture is fundamentally disorienting, and interpellates a fragmented subject that is no longer an individual, but part of a larger massified hypercrowd.
So let us break this down more concretely, and specifically in terms of how the VPL functions as a building that is also a trace of other, and sometimes older, crowds.
In the VPL building, the place of the architecture must be considered in terms of both the location of the building and its construction. Prior to its opening in 1995, two previous locations had served as Vancouver’s central library: the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings (from 1903-1957) and the library built by Semmens and Simpson in 1956-57 (see Kalman). The VPL’s new location anchored the gentrification of the Yaletown neighbourhood, a former warehouse district in downtown Vancouver that is the pardigmatic “uneven landscape” (Derksen and Smith 114): full of condos and gourmet shops but empty of schools or infrastructure.
In the VPL we find a combination of government offices, library, and mall: privatization carried out under a different name.
The popularity of the library and mall as public space, along with its multi-purpose functions and pastiche of Roman architecture, then both qualify the building as a signature postmodern form of architecture and ensure its place in the city at large. It is a ponderous building, an arrogant building, yes, but the postmodernist and populist in me has to grudgingly admit the VPL’s popularity, even while asking, What, precisely, is this popularity? Which is another way of asking, What is this hypercrowd? Is there only one kind of hypercrowd? The hypercrowd in the VPL is an antagonistic hypercrowd, one which embodies the dual nature of postmodern architecture: the formal and the economic.
For what the VPL instantiates, as anchor of Yaletown gentrification, are two economies, two architectures, two hypercrowds. To sum it up in an anecdote: in the late 1990s, a local bookstore, Duthies, had an outlet in the mall at the VPL (the mall is called Library Square, although it curves or wraps around the library proper). This co-habitation of bookstore with library, I would tell students, was not unlike having a prostitute living in your house: you could pay for sex (or a book) or have it for free. While the bookstore has since gone belly-up, the mall remains, thus confronting the stolid library patron with the spectacle of late capitalism (similar dyads now obtain in the Canadian political economy, with debates over privatizing medicine, or the move to build private universities).
And then the movement of the VPL over the past hundred years has also left crowds in its wake, other hypercrowds, other fragmented/massified subjects.
The Robson street just abandoned by the VPL some ten years ago is a more robustly consumerist crowd; it is also a globalized crowd, a hypercrowd seduced by the allure of the name brand stores and chains that line the former Robsonstrasse; this is a post Japantown New Tokyo, a Koreatown, a Chinatown that is in neither the inner-city DES nor the suburban Richmond. That is to say, the Robson street hypercrowd is a site of despatialized ethnicity, in the frenzy of full-bore hypercapitalism.
And there is another neighbourhood that was the site of the VPL for the first half of the twentieth century, a neighbourhood that is witnessing a much more brutal and resisted form of gentrification. This is, of course, the DES. Now, the hypercrowd in the DES is not monolithic, and it relates in manifestly different ways to the varied architecture of the neighbourhood, architecture that varies from Edwardian and commerical stock to condominiums and public housing co-ops.
A unique example of such a hypercrowd is the group of squatters who occupied the Woodward’s building in the fall of 2002. Especially as represented in such texts as the W.O.O.D.S.Q.U.A.T. newsletter and the Woodsquat issue of West Coast Line, this hypercrowd is worthy of neither romanticization nor neglect. Members of the community, including the anonymous “Native man” entered the boarded-up building.
In the man’s words: “The night before we moved in I had a hard time sleeping. It was the first time that I’ve done anything this radical. I felt proud to be part of it all once it all got going.
There were three of us. I’m the ‘native man’ as referred to in The Vancouver Sun. There’s the three of us and the dog. We had to wait across the street at The Metropole for the truck to show up. They’re the ones with the camping supplies, all the original camping gear that we took up with us, the two ladders that we used, and all the other tools that we needed to get our banners up and get into the building proper. I was kind of leery at first but then I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t any cops around. I guess they’re all up at the protest that we had planned. It came off pretty good. It took us about half an hour, not even half an hour – BANG! – we’re inside the building” (118).
Not so much “take back the night” as “take back the architecture”: the hypercrowd as activist, as resisting while cognizant of their interpellation: “I’m the ‘native man’ as referred to in The Vancouver Sun”, the hypercrowd taking the energy of late capitalism (are they not “venture capitalists” but without capital?), an energy itself siphoned off from the masses, taking that energy and repurposing it, recycling it, the return not only of postmodernism but of the masses, in a pastiche of activism, of the demonstration as Potemkin village.
The hypercrowd as not simply the effect of late capitalism, of postmodern architecture, but as their death-knell.

–Mount Pleasant, August 2006

Works Cited.

A Native Man. “They Think We’re Disposable but We’re not: We’re Recyclable.” Woodsquat. West Coast Line 41 (2003/04): 118-121.

Burnham, Clint. “Postmodernism is the Theory, Gentrification is the Practice: Jameson, Haraldsson, Architecture, and Vancouver.” In Fredric Jameson: A Critical Reader. Ed. Douglas Kellner and Sean Homer. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

–. “Late Empire.” In Vancouver Art and Economies. Ed. Melanie O’Brian. Vancouver: Artspeak/Arsenal Pulp P, forthcoming.

Derksen, Jeff, and Neil Smith. “Making and Breaking Neoliberal Spaces.” In Live Like This!, exh. cat. Vienna: Camera Austria, 2005, 110-121.

Homer, Sean. Fredric Jameson: Marxism, Hermeneutics, Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Kalman, Harold et al. Exploring Vancouver: The Essential Architectural Guide. Vancouver: UBC P, 1993.

Boulevards, Banlieues #3
Belgrade/Vancouver, 2006.

Cover of the print edition on the theme of architecture and disaster by Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber.

This edition, which includes a text - The Return of Postmodernism- by Clint Burnham, is commissioned by the Western Front Exhibitions Program as part of its ongoing series of artist projects in print.

The posterproject is part of the exhibition Architecture and Disaster
September 8 – October 14, 2006

The Western Front
303 East 8th Avenue
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada V5T 1S1