postmodernism, did i say that out loud?

2 4 6 house morphosis
2-4-6-8 House, Morphosis 1978

For those of you who may not be a student of architecture, or even an enthusiast of architecture, then the word (or movement) named Postmodernism may not cause you to twitch or react like any architect who is over forty years old, or better yet any architect near or over fifty who attended their architectural schooling in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Just for fun, ask someone who lives in Portland their opinion of whether the Portland Building should be restored or destroyed. You’ve been warned.

In the most recent issue of Metropolis Magazine, they graciously included a survey of Postmodernism as it has made the news in several journals for many reasons. You’re welcome. If you’ve studied or tolerated this quirky movement of architecture (and literature, philosophy and art), you’ve been blessed with a myriad of flavors from our friends in California (who deny such a moniker), like Gehry, Moss, Frank D. Israel (the other Frank) and Mayne. Chicago had its own elite group (Tigerman, Jahn, Beeby, and even Ross Barney) as did several European countries. We’ve been fortunate to have these treasures littered about all over the globe.

No, I’m not going to give in to the senseless debate of who is or who is not a Postmodernist.

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708 house, Eric Owen Moss 1982

Neither are we going to continue this name-dropping expedition, but change lanes, get off the exit and discuss it on a more personal level – my level. I don’t consider the work I did in school part of the Postmodernism movement or any other movement, but I suppose that remains a subjective argument as no one ever wish to bear a label. In other words, the school work I present below is NOT intended to be labeled as postmodernist.

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chapel, 4th year studio project, Lee Calisti

However, as I look back at my work, I see a young kid searching, questioning and wondering about architecture with a fearless response to each studio problem.

In 1986, I transferred from Cedarville College to Kent State University, after a year of taking pre-engineering classes (no, never considered engineering) from 1985-86, so I could later transfer to another school. Long story. As I landed on campus of this Northeast Ohio university with a well-known past, I had no idea what architecture really was, nor was I prepared for what was ahead. I was prepared, but it sounded better to write that.

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chapel, Fourth Year studio project, Lee Calisti

If you’ve read more than one post of mine, which places you in elite, sad small group, then you probably read somewhere that I’ve always wanted to be an architect. However, when I grew up during pre-internet, Saturday morning cartoon, play-outside-all-day generation, I had little exposure to architecture beyond a library book or two and the house-of-the-week posted in the real estate section of the newspaper every Sunday.

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furniture showroom, Fourth year studio project, Lee Calisti

After investing a year at a school where both my sister and my best friend attended, I discovered the hard way that despite my full transfer of credits, I was staring down the barrel of five more years of school and not given permission to attend day-time studio classes. What? As a transfer student, I came in the back door by taking my first year of design studio (Theory of Architecture I and II) with evening classes that were offered to third-year interior design students. This turned out to be the best thing – ever. See, I had an adjunct professor, Vince Leskosky, who worked as an architect during the day on real projects, who turned out to be the most influential professor I had in my five years in this small town, big university. If you’re wondering, last year, I met up with him for lunch in Cleveland to catch up and to personally thank him for the influence he had on my career.

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Hudson City Hall, Third Year studio project, Lee Calisti

The school, this professor, this class quickly immersed me in architecture and without any type of censuring, allowed me to see everything that was going on at the time. It was like an architectural acid trip while consuming endless Milky Way candy bars and cases of Mt. Dew (Monster drinks and Red Bull didn’t exist yet) and a developing coffee habit. Wow, what a rush. I was in the library every day to search for something new.

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Industrial School Housing Unit, Third Year Studio Project phase 1, Lee Calisti

Let me be clear, there was MORE than Postmodernism. That’s just a vehicle to characterize this era in my journey and open this conversation.

  • We had the New York Five (life was simple then)
  • We had Postmodernism (Graves left the white grids for cake icing blue and pink and Bob Venturi – why when you nailed it with the Hanselmann House in 1967?)
  • We had Deconstructivism (in its infant stages), Coop Himmelb(l)au were blazing architecture
  • Eisenman
  • Competitions were experimenting with crazy graphics as the computer was just joining this choir
  • Steven Holl came and lectured while he was still theorizing about mile long bridge buildings and pool houses.
  • Sottsass + Memphis, even Arquitectonica – have you ever seen Miami Vice?
  • Anthony Ames, a Meier disciple lectured with the coolest, but tongue and cheek images.
  • Thom and Michael were still buddies doing small, weird stuff before they split up.
  • Hollein, Ando, Maki, Jahn, Zumthor, Murcutt, Botta, Isosaki, Koolhaus, and Zaha paintings
  • KPF, Philip Johnson, Kevin Roche, Charles Moore, Rossi, and Stirling (great axons)
  • Of course, we had the pure Modernists Corbu, Mies and Wright, Breuer and Schindler and those who preceded all of them.

At this point, you’re either in a feverish quest to Google these architects trying to catch up, or you’re so lost you may not care anymore. I’m thinking about creating an updated version of Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire” with names of architecture.

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Art Center, Third Year Studio project, Lee Calisti

Simply put, Postmodernism and its other ‘ism friends allowed me to breathe. Yes, breathe. The experimentation allowed  formal excursions to be taken that gifted a degree of freedom to a generation of designers to ask important questions.

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Kent Courthouse, Fourth Year Studio project, Lee Calisti

Am I glad it passed? Uh, yeah, but I have no regrets of it any more than I don’t regret wearing peg-pants (we rolled them up), barefoot in loafers and bright shirts unbuttoned to show our white tank tops underneath.

Thinking back, I was given a free pass after I survived Schidlowski’s militant second year studio to explore, study, test and think, yes really think about architecture. This nutty period in architecture gave me an inspiring ticket to deep thought, conceptual teasing, and weird ride down a roller coaster education that set me up well for practice. Thank you Thom Stauffer, Conrad McWilliams and Chuck Graves.

As I scrolled through my portfolio years ago (you’ve been seeing images throughout this post), I concluded that I never really cared about the design problem. OK, strike that, I did care about the design problem, but my mind was so far beyond the design problem, that I had to solve a bigger, more important set of issues. As I noodled through solving the problem at hand to satisfy NAAB’s requirements to give me a diploma, my mind was wrestling with a deeper conceptual issue that could explain the formal response beyond what was cool and what was popular. I used school as a vehicle to study architecture on my terms. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t immune from fashionable influences, but I was also writing an essay for each project that I would include on my drawings or append to my submission. All drawings were done by hand for the most part, so I’d type these up in a small Mac computer in some obscure computer lab on the other side of campus on a Saturday night when everyone else had gone to dinner – or had gone home for the weekend. I’m grateful Amy waited for me.

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Institute on War, Revolution and Peace, Fifth Year Thesis Project, Lee Calisti

The world was different between 1986 and 1991.

I cherish the era I attended school and it’s one of the few things that occurred so long ago, yet I remember vividly. It was an intense, unique, freakish experience that I daydream about with fondness and horror as I flip through the years in my mind and through my naïve precocious projects. I couldn’t imagine going through school during the recent period in which I spent a dozen years teaching.

I’ll never ‘defend’ Postmodern architecture like I’d defend my son or my wife, but I’m also glad it occurred.

I began to breathe in 1986 and I’ll never be the same. Oddly now I prefer to balance minimalism with a bit of sass.

Postmodernism, yes, I said that out loud.

house for Beethoven competition, Fifth Year final project 1991, Lee Calisti
postmodernism, did i say that out loud?

3 thoughts on “postmodernism, did i say that out loud?

  1. First, You had an excellent school portfolio! In my opinion, none of your projects are overtly Po Mo. Having been in school during the early 80’s (PoMo Hey day) I think a lot of good came from the PoMo movement, and much of today’s “Neo-Modern” owes a nod to Po Mo Influence. Modernism had become very stale by the end of the 70’s. I can point out at least 10 mediocre skyscraper projects in Chicago by SOM (who was considered a major player with skyscraper design) during this period. These buildings are monotonous, anti-urban, lack human scale, drab, without color or variety. Po Mo brought back the well articulated base; addressed issues such as urban context; gave us color, scale, and variety, and could be fun! In the suburbs, the average building (strip shopping center, spec house, school) became better (better proportions, richer materials, some attention to detail) because of Po Mo’s influence! Do I like every Po Mo building, Heck no! But, I appreciate what the architects were trying to accomplish, and I do not fault architects with a “What were they thinking?” mentality as I firmly believe today’s neo-modern evolved largely from PoMo! Certain PoMo period pieces should be preserved – as mid-century modern, but I would only say a few deserve that type of intervention. Po Mo period pieces should be celebrated for what they were, a thoughtful response to a mundane problem.

    1. I understand your point of view and I’m not arguing against the influence of the movement, but I must say while in school we mocked it, yet were equally influenced by it. Hypocritical at times. Pretending it didn’t exist and wishing to remove it from history is equally as silly as ignoring any other time period.

      As I shared what it did for me, it gave permission to do “something else” than what had been the norm prior to that. There are so many bad modernist buildings from the post WWII era, that those actually take away the power and serenity of modernism as much or more than what PoMo buildings do of the time periods they reference.

      Part of me misses the “isms” at times as today’s focus is seemingly only on saving our planet. That’s a formidable task, but architecture is still made for us, for people. I just can’t tolerate the blue and pink icing that Michael Graves put on his Disney buildings and the ENDLESS use of EIFS throughout the land. Thanks Ed, I always appreciate your contributions.

  2. Michael Watts says:

    a great article…I derived a more simpler explanation and view of all of the subjects you mentioned. I remember school…was so good, and then so bad and frustrating. I had that militant studio professor I should have pushed my intentions and my own path/direction for my thesis, but, I grew tired and wanted to graduate… Thanks for the article. Have you always had the gift of writing? Michael Watts, AIA, ASLA Principal Michael Watts; Associates 2485 Madroncillo St. San Diego, California 92114.

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