Chicken McNuggets and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” urinal have one thing in common: postmodernism.
The Yale School of Architecture, in association with the Yale University Art Gallery, organized a symposium last Thursday and Friday titled “Constructed Objects: Architects as Designers in the 20th century.” The event focused on the commoditization of architecture, the role of architects in outfitting interior spaces and the relationship between the built environment and the objects that inhabit it.
The symposium aimed to revisit postmodernism and to understand its ongoing relevance as a movement coming back into fashion today, according to the symposium’s keynote speaker, Glenn Adamson, the deputy head of research and head of graduate studies at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
A 2007 exhibition titled “The Architect’s Table: Swid Powell and Postmodern Design,” by John Stuart Gordon, assistant curator at the art gallery, inspired the symposium. In 2007, the gallery received on long-term loan a vast collection of housewares, prototypes, drawings, sketches, plans, correspondences and other ephemera by leading architects of the postmodern era working for the architecture/design company Swid Powell.
Yet “Architect’s Table” served only as a jumping-off point for the symposium. The series of lectures explored what Gordon called “the cross pollination of architecture and design.”
This interdisciplinary concept encompasses how architects make objects, how buildings dictate the use and appearance of interior spaces, how traditional designers appropriate architectural details and the lasting power of architecture in the popular imagination, Gordon said.
The symposium dealt with the notion that architects can be involved in designing objects within buildings as well as the buildings themselves, and the history of that process throughout the 20th century, art history professors Edward Cooke said.
Adamson launched the event with a lecture on postmodernism titled “Substance Abuse: Making the postmodern object.”
In an interview, Adamson revealed his unconventional definition for postmodernism: “I always use the Chicken McNugget test to decide whether something is really postmodern or just the product of a designer trying to be a capitalist,” Adamson said.
The Chicken McNugget, he explained, is the pinnacle of postmodernism — a product that is simple, marketable and mysterious in content and origin. Essentially, postmodernism is typified by such pre-fabricated forms like the Chicken McNugget and, as such, it is an obscured production process with an emphasis only on the final, ready-made product.
So the fundamental question remains, Adamson said: why should we still be concerned with postmodernism, a style that began three decades ago?
As a movement, he explained, postmodernism is relevant now more than ever because it was born out of the economic recession of the ’70s and early ’80s, absorbing the ethos of creating with few means.
In a panel discussion, architect Calvin Tsao said that in this postmodern world, design inspires culture in an evolutionary and cyclical process. He cited a modern change in eating — a globalization of the palate and a trend towards smaller meals – which was reflected in his most recent collection of tableware. The design process became a matter of choosing traditional vessels from cultures around the world, rather than creating entirely new shapes, Tsao said.
Both Adamson and Gordon stressed that it is crucial for students to understand the “postmodern condition.”
Not only are Yalies graduating into a postmodern world, Adamson said, but students today have an affinity for the ’80s — the era is coming back into pop culture, he said.
“What you wear to a party is more than just a superficial thing,” Adamson said. “It’s indicative of how you think, how you see the world, how you create and how you contribute.”
Gordon said it is hard to predict artistic trends but hinted that “green design” and environmental consciousness might be the direction for art and architecture of the 21st century, citing Yale’s Kroon Hall as an example. The future lies in “do-it-yourself-ism,” an almost anti-postmodern idea since the contemporary trend of scrutinizing every step of the production process is the polar opposite of the postmodern ethos of focusing solely on the end product, Adamson said.
Correction: November 18, 2009
An earlier version of this article misattributed statements about the impact of design in modern culture. The statements were made by architect Calvin Tsao during the “Architect’s Panel” portion of the symposium, not by Marc Hacker in his lecture “Designing with Architects: The Creation of Swid Powell.” The article also did not give the full name of Yale University Art Gallery assistant curator John Stuart Gordon.