Preface: Mari Hvattum
The re-enchantment of history
Jan Digerud and figurative postmodernism
”My world is in fragments, smashed into pieces so fine I doubt I will ever re-assemble
them” wrote the film director Derek Jarman in 1987. The statement tends to pop up whenever postmodernism is attempted described or diagnosed.
Jarman seems to pin-point the dystopia of postmodernism: Utopia is dead and
the only thing left is the ironic play with fragments. Or could Jarman’s fragments
be understood differently? Did postmodernism’s cultural re- and deconstructions
amount to, not just a dystopic critique but also a cornucopian projection of new, imagined totalities? Looking at the work of Jan Digerud one gets an inkling that that may be the case.
To be sure: postmodernism in architecture was posed, first and foremost, as a critique – a break with an abstract and elitist modernism and a reconquest of the historical figure. With thinkers such as Pablo Portoghesi andChristian Norberg-Schulz at the helm, postmodernism was a call to arms, a double warfare on utopian high modernism and impoverished late modernism alike.
In Stanley Tigerman’s photo montage, Mies’ IIT-building sinks into the sea like a modernist Titanic, while Leon Krier’s fat, red cross annuls Le Corbusier’s green city for eternity. The siege culminated in Charles Jencks’ iconic announcement
of the death of modernism on the 15th of July 1972, ”at 3.32 p.m. or thereabouts”, illustrated by stills from the demolition of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis.
The multifarious and decidedly postmodern work of Digerud does not fit comfortably into this critical and polemical tradition. For him, Mies never sank, neither did modernism as such. Instead, it was taken down from its purist pedestal and subjected to a rich and playful interpretation – a historical and aesthetic re-contextualization, so to speak. As far as Digerud was concerned, postmodernism was a creative practice rather than a theoretical critique; it represented as much a reinterpretation of modernism as its blanket rejection. The cubists’ multifaceted collages; the purists’ intense studies of primary forms and their interrelationships; modernism’s free plans and complex spatial compositions: All of these issues were pursued vigorously in postmodern architecture, not least in the work of Jan Digerud. Digerud was not alone in developing this approach, of course. Studying Colin Rowe’s Collage City, Michael Graves’s ingenious variations over Corbusian themes in the Hanselmann House, or Robert Venturi’s crafty play on the desires and taboos of modernism in Mother’s House, one sees similar hermeneutic desire at work. ”I prefer ’both-and’ to ’either-or” Venturi wrote in his gentle manifesto Complexity and Contradiction. Digerud learnt much from Venturi and subscribed no doubt to this Winnie the Pooh-like formula. Yet whereas Venturi eventually got caught in a play of signifiers, Digerud went beyond semantics, developing an inclusive postmodernism which was undogmatic yet not devoid of edge. More than a critique of modernism, his work represented an open-minded reassessment of modernism’s rich store of forms and ideas, placing modernism itself back into a long but obliquely observed historical continuum. It is in this perspective of creative reinterpretation that Digerud’s work should be seen, I believe, both his own work and that done in collaboration with his
previous partner Jon Lundberg. Opposed to other European postmodernists such as Jencks or the Krier brothers, Digerud’s work never became an illustration of a theoretical program. Inspired as much by Le Corbusier as by Borromini,
and by Louis Kahn as much as Palladio, Digerud’s forms and spaces come across as rich and ambiguous, with multiple layers of associations and significances. It is an interesting and multifaceted work that deserves to be
studied, not primarily as an example of postmodern critique, but rather as a re-enchanting interpretation of modern architecture Today, when architectural historians queue up to write the history of postmodernism,
it is important to keep this re-enchantment in mind. The most enduring achievement of postmodernism was not the academic critique it directed towards modernism but its move towards a new creative practice where the
pure and the impure, the straightforward and the distorted, the banal and the
sophisticated could be explored with equal legitimacy. Contemporary architecture is unthinkable without this creative coup, even though few practicing architects today would subscribe to the label ‘postmodern’.
The postmodern critics of the 1970s and -80s tended to lament the fragmented state of the modern world. Jan Digerud did not, and still does not, despair. Instead, he confronts the fragments with unparalleled enthusiasm, continuing to incorporate them into new, imaginative constellations. It is a cheerful work, devoid of pretention but full of vigour. ”My world is in fragments, smashed into pieces so fine I doubt I will ever re-assemble them” complained Jarman. “That’s
fine”, I can imagine Digerud answering, planning a new collage while Miles Davis’ trumpet sounds in the background.
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