Why do fashions in architecture change so often? Buildings, after all, last longer than jeans. But they seem to go in and out of vogue almost as quickly.
The question comes to mind because of a couple of recent omens that suggest we may be in for a revival of the style called postmodernism.
PoMo, as it’s known for short, was a movement that peaked back in the 1980s and then faded. It was a rebellion against architectural modernism, and it tried to be everything modern wasn’t. PoMo was colorful, fun, and popular, instead of bland, solemn, and elitist. Many modernist buildings looked like the crate the real building was shipped in, whereas the typical PoMo design looked more like a pop-up toy. And where modernism was often as lacking in visual interest as graph paper, PoMo was joyfully pictorial. Often a PoMo design included secret references, to be decoded by the architectural cognoscenti, to buildings of earlier eras.
The best way for a Bostonian to learn about PoMo is to check out the entrance façade of Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which opened in 1985. Designed by the most gifted architect of the PoMo era, Britain’s James Stirling, the Sackler includes all the typical PoMo motifs. It’s a colorful cartoon version of architecture. Like a child’s drawing of a house, it resembles a human face, or maybe a benevolent monster (the architect?) sticking out its tongue at us.
Is PoMo coming back? Well, in September, exhibits on the style opened simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is showing “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’’ through mid-January. In New York, the National Academy Museum, alliterating its P’s instead of S’s, mounted “Parabolas to Post-Modern: Architecture From the Collection,’’ which is on view through Dec. 31. And only a couple of weeks ago, a conference in New York - “Reconsidering Postmodernism,’’ in which I was a minor participant - filled two whole days.
I have no idea whether we’ll see a PoMo revival. But if it’s in the air again, it makes you wonder why styles seem to come and go, to be forgotten and then revived, with every generation. I can think of at least three reasons:
■The march of changing architectural fashions creates a graph of history. Architecture is a visual timeline. If you’re literate in it, you can walk anywhere and read the buildings like books, thus learning a lot about the era that formed them. In Beacon Hill, say, you can see in the Federal style of the early buildings the lingering power of British taste in its former colonies. A few years later, the Greek Revival tells you another story, about America’s growing vision of itself as a republic in the tradition of ancient Athens. Later yet, the Arts and Crafts style traces a rebellion against industrialization.
■Second, of course, there’s avant-gardism, the desire of every generation to undo and often ridicule the achievement of its parents. It’s what the philosopher Karl Popper calls “historicism,’’ meaning the tendency to judge every new idea on the basis of whether it’s helping to bring about some imaginary future utopia. Avant-gardism was a particular curse of the 20th century, and it’s still too much pursued by the media.
■Finally, change gives intellectuals something to talk about. Architecture is not, let’s face it, primarily an intellectual activity, but it’s taught in universities, and when a new movement or the revival of an older one comes along there’s often an outpouring of pretentious thought. Much of PoMo arrived originally in a rich cloud of jargon about semiotics and linguistics, topics that were then forgotten as quickly as they’d arrived.
A fine building can be done in any style. There’s no one “American Style’’ of architecture, any more than there’s an American kind of music or cooking or religion.
I recently ran across a quote that I liked. Writes Lawrence Biemiller in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “An enlightened, engaging, entertaining conversation among designs of different eras seems to me to [be] exactly what a 21st-century college or university could - and should - want from its buildings.’’
Change “college or university’’ to “city or town,’’ and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for architecture in a diversified world.
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at email@example.com.