Metamodern architecture

The latest issue of MONU (Magazine ON Urbanism) features a series of essays dealing with the post-ideological condition of contemporary cities. Besides an interview with Wouter Vanstiphout and essays by, amongst others, Thomas Ruff, Brendan M. Lee, Michael Hirschbichler, MONU #15 also includes an new article by NoM founders Robin den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen. In ‘Metamodern Architecture’ they look into the ways in which the climate crisis, the financial crisis and the geopolitical crisis (will increasingly) affect contemporary ways of doing architecture.  You can browse the entire issue here. You can buy the issue here. Below are some excerpts.

Robin van den Akker & Timotheus Vermeulen (2011). Metamodern Architecture. In: Bernd Upmeyer (ed.) Post-Ideological Urbanism. Monu #15 (november 2011).

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‘When Peter Zumthor’s 2011 pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery opened in London’s Kensington Gardens it was received as a welcome change of course. Traditionally the temporary pavilions have been ‘attention-grabbing party spaces’ at ‘the intersection of art, glamour, corporate sponsorship, iconic architecture and property development’, as The Observer put it. This year, however, things were different. This year, the pavilion consisted of imposing black walls enclosing a tranquil garden, a hortus conclusus, designed for contemplation and introspection. With a sigh of relief, almost as if they would not have stomached yet another visit to yet another spectacular structure, the critics unanimously celebrated the fact that Zumthor’s design was ‘in stark contrast to’ and the ‘total opposite of’ previous pavilions and displayed a ‘completely different approach to architecture.’

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‘it is possible to compare the various aesthetic sensibilities of postmodern architecture to those of what we have come to call metamodern architecture. Of course we are aware of the natural – and perhaps even healthy – antipathy architects have against this or that cocky critic that is trying to group, classify and pigeonhole their creative work. Legendary, in this respect, is the interview Charles Jencks once held with Peter Eisenman. No matter what poor Charles tried – flattering, arguing and, even, intimidating – Eisenman was not to be convinced that his work could be labeled as Post-Modern.’

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‘Contrary to a Charles Jenks, we do not base our categorization upon one single trait or a limited set of stylistic conventions as that would result in a rather narrow definition of postmodern architecture as a Post-Modern architecture. We are referring, of course, to the architectural movement of the late 1970s and onwards that playfully criticized the Modern Masters by advocating the eclectic use of witty ornaments, historical referents and vernacular elements. In its stead, we feel more for a broader periodization of postmodern architecture, more in line with Frederic Jameson’s work, that includes all those canonized architectural forms that have somehow come to typify those postmodern years of economic boom, city-marketing and carefree consumerism. Seen through the lens of this admittedly sweeping definition, the architecture of the postmodern years seems to have been obsessed with frivolous statements over serious interventions, formal experimentation over functional limitations and, indeed, aesthetics over ethics. This pertains to the Post-Modern movement, but also includes, say, Derridaen deconstructivism, oddly shaped blobs, Deleuzean folds and, of course, the recent craze for iconic buildings designed by starchitects otherwise known as Bilbaoïsm.’

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‘Perhaps the clearest, most straightforward signifier of these discursive changes is the ever-growing chores line of those who sing goodbye to the days of the Icon. Nowadays it is hard to keep up with the number of articles, editorials and interviews in which it is declared that, in the words of critic Blair Kamin, ‘the age of the architectural icon—that extravagant, exuberant, “wow”-inducing building on a pedestal— is dead, or more precisely, in its death throes’. Of course this is not entirely true when we take the whole globalised market for architecture into account. Elsewhere on the planet the desire for the Icon, and its accompanying bragging-rights, has grown considerably as a direct result of recent shifts in the geopolitical economy.’

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Yet when we once more turn our attention from the East to the Western shores of the old continent and the not-so-new-world it becomes immediately clear that the other two aspects of the threefold crisis are increasingly leaving their mark on the built environment.

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The financial crisis, for one, is evidently inaugurating an era of austerity that doesn’t quite match with the frivolity, playfulness and exuberance of postmodern architecture. Within this context the recent interest – or plea – for a New Seriousness in architecture, associated with the likes of Caruso St. John, David Chipperfield and, indeed, veteran builder Peter Zumthor should not come as a surprise [...] For they share a preference for rather restrained, if not solemn designs (as opposed to flashy Icons), a respect for tradition (as opposed to pastiche) and an emphasis on craftsmanship (as opposed to starchitecture) [...] Of course these are not young practices, but as critic Tom Dyckhof observed, the New Seriousness ‘has been bubbling under for a decade’ only to come to the surface over the last couple of years.

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The climate crisis, for another, is resulting in a growing awareness of the need for a sustainable urban future. As a consequence, the increasing demand for sustainable design has caused an ethical turn of sorts in our attitude towards the built environment. This contemporary engagement with an agenda for societal reform however is neither a return to zealous commitment (modern) nor a continuation of calculated opportunism (postmodern) but something else entirely. Perhaps it can be best described, in the words of architect Bjarke Ingels, as a pragmatic utopianism or, more specifically, a sustainable hedonism. Related to this, it is interesting to note that architectural forms are once more held in check by functional requirements. For to be able to build ‘green’ architects need to adapt their designs to the environmental characteristics – sun, wind, rain – of a specific site. Again this tendency indicates neither a return to strict functionalism (modern) nor a continuation of boundless formalism (postmodern) but points towards new ways of doing, making and thinking that oscillate between these poles.

It is hard to resist the thought that the recent flurry of schemes that flaunt an aesthetic based on ecological imagery is somehow related to this newly found concern for the environment. Of late renowned architectural practices such as, say, BIG, Snohetta and Herzog & de Meuron have won critical acclaim with designs that do not exactly oppose ‘wow-inducing’ buildings but take iconic architecture in another, more contemporary direction. ‘We want to reverse the notion of a monumentality that is associated with physical impact’, Herzog & de Meuron once wrote, ‘and instead offer a vision of landscape that is monumental in its fragility and natural beauty.’

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Of course we could have mentioned other contemporary tendencies that promise to have an impact on our built environment [...] Taken together, however, the aesthetics of sobriety coupled to the ethics of craftswo/manship and the aesthetics of ecology paired to the ethics of sustainability are the most obvious pointers that the architectural landscape should no longer be described as postmodern. Whereas some of these metamodern ways of doing, making and thinking have long been anticipated, our crises-ridden moment presses the architectural community to respond with greater urgency to the challenges of our day and age. This might take some time. Unlike the relative flexibility of the other arts, and unlike the relative ease of putting up a temporary pavilion like the Serpentine, architecture requires patience – but respond it will.

Image ‘oh mighty green‘ courtesy STAR Strategies + Architecture

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  1. I guess I need to bone up on meta-modernism. I am trying to understand the various architectural philosophies that have come and gone, especially those that have had some legs. I have a website dedicate to residential architecture (the house) and have thrown up a few pages related to architecture history and philosophy and am now working on some basic design principles (like texture, scale, line etc.). Still, I am a novice and not immersed in the architects world. I would love comments from the authors and readers of this site, as I thrive on conversation and have been rather lonely on my new site. You might check out my section on postmodernism – http://www.house-design-coffee.com/postmodern-architecture.html and you can go from there to my section on house styles, which gets into history. Anyway, the idea is, please leave comments. Is this begging? Probably.

    BTW, I like the idea of the death of the icon, though I don’t believe it. Buildings are best when they work together and in concert with their surroundings and their culture. The icon is all about “look at me, look at me” and rarely about making the neighborhood a better place. I like the playfulness of postmodernism and despise its extremes where there is a contempt for the user. To put it simply – Eisenman sucks.

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Notes on Metamodernism, 2014