A Posteriori

In retrospect everything looks clearer
A column by Michael Erlhoff

In the mid-1980s things really happened. That was when Charles Jencks published his book “Postmodern Architecture” and caused a worldwide sensation. Suddenly everyone was talking about the postmodern era. In the United States this was founded on a fundamental desire to settle up with the Bauhaus (also influential there at the time) and the design forms it inspired. For example, at around the same time the magazine “October” very commendably published those infamous letters from Mies van der Rohe written in 1944 to the German Reich, in which he stated how happy he would be to work at the new Hamburg Institute on the “reconstruction of German cities after the Final Victory”.

In this respect and also as regards content this act most definitely also represented an important critical perspective in the debate on design. And it also inspired by many a misunderstanding. Essentially, the American discussion about the postmodern era totally ignored the very vehement European criticism of a biased functionalism and simple, linear architecture that had ensued in the 1960s in the context of “Architectura Radicale” and “Disegno Radicale” – and had been vociferously championed above all by archizoom, archigram, Haus-Rucker-Co, UFO and Superstudio. In addition, a stupid misunderstanding came about in Europe in the translation, because in the English language “modern” refers to (what there is so strangely termed) modernism, in other words, certain design forms since Art Nouveau around 1900, and in particular those of the 1920s related to Constructivism, de Stijl and Bauhaus. This is misleading, as in the continental European context the word “Moderne” is associated (and here the various disciplines disagree) either with “Modernity” and thus the Renaissance, or with the Enlightenment or – definitely the most plausible option – with the Romantic period, because the Romantic era did indeed (especially in Germany) highlight the contradictions of the Enlightenment and the consequences this had. In other words, the Romantic era put its finger on phenomena such as industrialization and the attendant new social problems – this would mean including someone like Karl Marx amongst the Beat Romantics.
Moreover, people have simply not properly taken into account – a failing perpetuated especially in Germany – that the English language (also in the United States) given its somewhat rigid grammar, hardly allows for any experimentation and (unlike German) tends to compensate for this by constantly inventing new words. Indeed, the English language boasts a great deal more words than say German. This would also explain why in the English language context new words and combinations of words are repeatedly being coined – which, continually give birth to new brands and branding – that are highly suitable for marketing purposes.

This conflict within architecture and design is now a good 30 years old, and had almost been forgotten when the term “post” once again crashed in on our notions of the present day. Last year the use of the post-prefix really did take off. But when 2016 in Germany “post-faktisch”  (post-factual or post-truth) was voted “Word of the Year” it became especially conspicuous. You might say as a tribute, from now onwards everything was drawn into this positive-sounding linguistic sphere. Now people talk about “post-industrial”, “post-social”, “post-neutral”, “post-radical” and possibly also about “post-democratic” and the like. Nothing is omitted, everything is shifted into some past or other, which supposedly then has nothing more to do with the present.

In addition, this serves to support a phenomenon evident in certain circles, namely a detachment or ignorance towards history and a rejection of reflection on it. Meanwhile, this trend is even evident in academic works, in that today they rarely cite or even take note of publications that are more than 10 years old.

To put it differently: History and especially its monuments are loved and revered as sagas and stories, in other words far removed from any kind of reflection or analysis. History is liked as a form of narration, but certainly not as an important topic for concern. As such the term “post” provides an excellent means of exoneration as it simply separates history and locks it away, so that if there is to be any kind of analysis it is only located in the present day.

The inflationary use of the term “post” has moreover unleashed another phenomenon, too: Suddenly, in light of the highly emphatically presented “post-truth”, you have to discuss why anyone can even assert that there is such a thing as “facts”. What were they anyhow? Mathematical statements? Although Albert Einstein made a point of insisting that mathematics is an artful instrument, and that the insights of physics should by no means be seen as definitive. Which is obvious given the many intentional or unintentional fake reports. Or are we to believe in historical facts, although it is generally known that inevitably historical facts are colored by the interests of the narrator or person passing them on.

Admittedly, somewhere in the landscape we find objects produced in particular by architects and other designers, but how they are perceived was always historically conditioned and never a handed-down constant. The situation is similar with the adjectives people so enjoy prefacing with the term “post”. As if there were universal agreement on what is meant by “industrial”, “social”, “radical”, “democratic” or the like. And, after all, this is always implied when the term “post” is applied in this manner. To all intents and purposes, anything that previously happened or was previously thought is thereupon simply discarded. Which ultimately paves the way for seriously tackling the critical debate and lively analysis of everything that is now defamed and destroyed by labeling it “post”.

Incidentally, a delightfully banal solution of this problem can be found in more recent discussions on the “post-modern era”: those that once propagated the term are already talking about the “post-post-modern era”. A practice that could be continued ad infinitum.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.