POST MODERN LANDMARKS
Metropolis Magazine’s inclusion of my 1985 partial renovation of Columbia University’s Schermerhorn Hall in its November 2014 Postmodern Watch list – spaces and buildings from the 1970s and 1980s proposed for landmarking –has prompted me to revisit the architectural discourse of that decade and my position within it. The variety of buildings and spaces selected by Metropolis’ editors makes it clear that postmodernism was not, and is not, a style, as Frederic Jameson pointed out in his influential essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Rather, it is a particular approach to culture, history and tradition. It is a rejection of the modernist idealization of the individual artist with his (or more rarely, her) supposedly unique, clearly identifiable style.
Disturbed by the blurring of boundaries between avant-garde culture and popular art, along with other opposing structures of Western thought, academics bent on preserving their monopoly on transmitting and interpreting high culture to the initiates accused “postmodernists” of philistinism. Jameson took a different tack, famously identifying pastiche as one of postmodernism’s practices. Like parody, it involves mimicking other styles, but Jameson established an important distinction. While parody calls into question the “private nature of … stylistic mannerisms”, pastiche is a “blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor”. In Metropolis’ list we see examples of both parody, with its ironic humor, and pastiche — a kind of mimicry that doesn’t get its own joke.
Schermerhorn Hall had already become a palimpsest after the savagely insensitive 1939 Intervention, and I approached the commission with great concern. My design method was already well developed by then (see “Teaching Design” in this website), and it involved a rejection of “style” as a point of departure, choosing instead the construction of an analytical framework. Among the several strands that were involved in the design process, I wanted the one that was concerned with esthetic meanings to enter into a dialogue with the language used by Charles McKim, the building’s designer and an authoritarian Beaux-Arts ideologue.
Like other original Columbia University campus buildings, Schermerhorn Hall stands for one entire block of the utopian city that is the campus itself. The building’s robust, muscular proportions are part of a Classically inspired system that related small and large features to the whole: doors and windows to walls and each building floor to the entire volume of the building. All parts were related to one another until the 1939 Intervention broke the system down. Classical ornament– decorative quoins, capitals and cornices – were also used in the façade to support the proportional system. I believe I got the commission because of my interest in integrating the new design into the underlying proportions and conceptual matrix.
Richard Oliver, curator of Design at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, had written that I was attempting to keep History “at arm’s length” in my work, meaning that I hadn’t surrendered to the use of Neo-Classical-inspired languages, as some of my Columbia University academic colleagues were doing (and teaching). But I felt that, if I was to stand my ground, my response to McKim’s stylistic tics had to involve parody, albeit in a sympathetic way. My intent was not to ridicule the fakery of Classical ornament, but to take a critical stance toward it. Hence the obvious non-structural columns supporting the custom-designed lighting fixtures, or the articulation of pilasters defining seating alcoves off the main corridors that run the height of the building’s interior as the quoins do in the exterior. My design emphasis, however, was resolutely programmatic, as I wanted to create a spatial support that would encourage the conviviality that is so often missing in academic settings. I consider the design of a new lobby (not included in the original commission) the most difficult and perhaps best resolved space in the design. It involved an exceedingly difficult negotiation with the Psychology Department to relinquish the two offices that were needed to create the new space. These were the days of drawings made with ink on tough, Mylar plastic, impervious to the abrasive assaults of electric erasers; yet we put a huge hole through that plan because of the psychologists’ endlessly changing demands they wanted to trade for their space.
Pleased as I am with the recognition given in the Metropolis list, I think of this as my most academic project. The conversation with the ghost of Charles McKim was not particularly enjoyable, because I knew he would have dismissed me for being a woman in his day. With the distance of thirty years since the renovation, I believe I was able to communicate with his work, stand my ground – and, hopefully, create a space worth remembering.
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