Post-Modernism and Whatever Comes After It, in One Building in North Yorkshire

Like a lot of people, I’m convinced that post-modernism is dead. However, I can’t say why it died or what killed it. It didn’t simply pass out of fashion. Nor can I definitively point to what has taken its place. The best term I’ve found so far is “Internet culture,” but I can’t say what this means beyond a lot of cat videos and teenagers’ Facebook status updates.

At any rate, this building, I think, illustrates why post-modernism is dead. It’s a newly constructed building, albeit with a 10-year-old design. It’s the first structure in the Community in a Cube project (CIAC). Located in Middlesborough, England, the building was designed by the British architecture firm FAT. 

image from static.dezeen.com

The point isn’t that the building is ugly, which it is–dreadfully so. What’s instructive is why it’s so jarringly ugly. In 1989 this building would have seemed self-evidently cool. In 2013 it demands an explanation, like creating an AOL email account.

FAT director Sean Griffiths tells Dezeen, “The idea was that it was like a little urban village. It was about assembling disparate elements you would think of as incongruous into a collage that has an expression of community.” He explains, 

You have a thing that looks like a Swiss chalet on the ground floor, which was going to be the the local community pub. Then you have housing on the roof that taps into local culture. They’re not exactly ordinary houses, more of an aesthetic expression you’d be more likely to find in New England or Kent, but they become very odd because they sit on top on an apartment building.

While he doesn’t use the term post-modernism, all the trademarks are there: juxtaposition of disparate elements, playful historicism, contextualization–in short, all the elements missing from modernist architecture.

image from static.dezeen.com

But none of these propositions square with the current state of mechanical reproduction. Essentially the CIAC building is a bricolage of images from the history of architecture. In the post-modernist era (say 1960 to 2000), the image repository from which FAT drew was scattered in books, monographs, existing and imaged buildings. These images still bore traces of their historical contexts, hence the power of post-modernist historicism. One of the remaining powers of the decentered post-modernist subject was his or her ability to create something new out of the shards of a fragmented culture. 

Now that images have been digitized, they are much more readily accessible than they were in analogue form. In the 1960s Roland Barthes spoke of the image store, by which he meant something like a visual version of the langue. Since then images have been digitized and indexed and thus ready to be summoned in search results. The image store has become something actual, if not tangible. Furthermore, images in digital space have taken on a life of their own, forever recombining themselves into new combinations. Images no longer wait to be seen. They are integrated into algorithms that determines their fate. The post-modernist bricoleur is too slow, too partial. Images aren’t special anymore. Every search result is a slightly strange collage of words and images. Decoding a collage, once the height of modernist sensibility, has become a mundane task necessary for making sense of the lived world.

I can’t say how the subject appears in the algorithm, but I can say that we’re looking at a different subjectivity than the post-modernist bricoleur playing with found images. The post-post-modernist subject would shrug off incongruous juxtapositions as a Google oddity. Unlike her post-modernist predecessor, she would be more interested in seeking traces of the subjective than traces of the historical. 

As for community, nowadays architects don’t try to symbolize a community. In 2013 architects try to involve communities in design decisions. Instead of playful inversions of the functionalist idea of the bench, an architect working now is more likely to poll people on where, in a perfect world, they would want a bench to rest because gas is $4.50 a gallon so it’s too expensive to drive to the grocery store. For a community staggering out of a post-war era apartment block, the vision of a chalet unexpectedly appearing underneath an apartment block might be unexpectedly welcoming. But a rational community in the post-real estate boom would never choose to place a drop an apartment block on top of a chalet. Incongruity is something that can be cleared up with a Google search, not something offering a glimpse into a new social formation. 

Post-modernism was carnivalesque, toppling the rigid high culture/low culture polarities of modernism. The world we live in now is grappling with a far more powerful polarity of the offline and the online. The FAT team wanted an oblique, and characteristically post-modernist, reference to Kentish vernacular architecture for people who live in Middlesborough, which is in North Yorkshire, quite far from Kent. But for the people who move into CAIC, North Yorkshire can vanish with a click of a mouse, yet remain stubbornly real when they go to work. 

The way images are reproduced changes the way we see the real world. Theorists of the post-modern learned this lesson from Walter Benjamin very well. But images change when they’re digitized and reproducible on demand in the palm of your hand while you’re eating lunch in a North Yorkshire McDonalds, and the world looks different as well.

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