The claim that cities have entered a ‘postmodern’ stage in their development

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Postmodern, refers above all to the exhaustion of modernity (Lyon, 1994). It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain the phenomena of modernity, however modernism is from where postmodernism begins. It is a complicated set of ideas, it emerged as an area of academic study around the 1980’s and is extremely difficult to define. It appears in a variety of disciplines such as art, communication, music, film, architecture to name a few and it is hard to determine where postmodernism embarks on.

Regarding the city, postmodernism signifies a break with the modernist idea that planning and development should focus on large scale, metropolitan-wide, technologically rational and urban planning (Harvey, 1989). This is the functionalist side of modernism, whereas postmodernism emphasises urban design including an array of architectural styles, soft edges, consumerism and an urban fabric which is fragmented. Cities are hubs for an assortment of tastes and opinions, cultures, religion, fashion and ethnic groups. The features of the modern city are of it being specialised, uniform and standard.

Identity would no longer be found in the local community leading on to a ‘society of strangers’, (Lyon, 1994). If modernity was the product of the Industrial Revolution, maybe it is the Information Revolution that has pushed us into the postmodern era. The development of the communicative society, with the use of the world wide web, television, satellites, mobile telephones and digital web cam devices which have the potential to liberate, might instead be bringing a disintegrative and destructive essence to human relationships.

If the postmodern communication experience is leading us into an increasingly fragmented ‘community’, it might be the base as to what is occurring in LA. The city today must cater for a selection of experiences. But in no way has the local community become closer, as we can see in LA, where the wealthy live in neighbourhoods hidden behind walls, secured by private police and electronic surveillance. They are separated from the surrounding poor neighbourhoods by battlements and moats, LA is a perfect example of how architecture and police have joined to further aggravate the community problem.

I am not suggesting that the reason for this partition is the communication phenomena of the postmodern stage, but there is an escalating sense of distrust between people that live in the same city as we do. Whereas modernism sought to build parks, and pubic spaces enjoyed by all, postmodernism locates these public spaces in new megastructures and super-malls privatizing the public sphere into an architectural invention (Krasnitz, 1995). Some postmodern tendencies in architecture might be a revolt against the plain and monotonous architecture of modernism by the reintroduction of decoration, the mixing of styles and a pop art tendency.

This can be seen in Barcelona before the Olympics of 1992 where extensive building and bulldozing took place in order to serve the high expectations of visitors around the globe and to present the city as highly cultural. It is here where the old Barrio Gotico clashes with the new Puerto Deportivo or in London where the London Wheel or the Millennium Dome contrast with the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben. The revolt can be seen where truly modernist buildings such as the past industrial use of the buildings in the London Docklands have been transformed into museums and cultural buildings like the Tate Gallery.

It could be said that there is the intention to preserve the hopes and ambitions of modernity in the age of post modernity (Bauman, 1992). If we take into account the description of modernist town planners, designing a ‘closed form’, ‘mastery’ of the metropolis as a ‘totality’, (Harvey, 1989) then the city of Brasilia in Brazil, built from scratch around the 1960’s would fall into this category. However even in Brasilia there are characteristics of postmodernism, such as the design of the National Congress building.

This is the type of blur that exists between modernism and postmodernism. Brasilia was designed to make it easy for car ownership to be the norm, in this sense the modernist idea can be distinguished from the postmodern as postmodernity emphasises an ecological nature, where urban functions are provided within compatible and pleasant walking distances a component that Brasilia unfortunately does not possess. Like Brasilia there are many cities around the world which were built to serve as the new capital, like Chandigargh in Punjab, India or Baghdad in Iraq to name a couple.

Before the modernist era, cities were sedimented in tradition, history and the arts, with famous buildings and landmarks. When the modern era begun, high rise functional buildings, and the economic feel of the city arose and the postmodern city arises from the joining of these two observable facts, embarking on a return to culture and style. The newly built cottages found most commonly in the suburbs are a copy of the traditional housing, so heritage is being called upon even in the postmodern time.

Buildings made to look old, by using building materials that imitate chipped bricks and used floors recall the premodern era. The postmodern city is therefore much more image and culturally self-conscious; it is both a centre of cultural consumption and general consumption where everyday life and leisure activities are influenced by the postmodern simulational tendencies (Featherstone, 1991). Postmodernism erodes boundaries of a specifically social-structural domain and promotes the effectivity of cultural processes (Postmodernization, change in advanced societies, Crook, Palinski and Waters. However we can see how this description is not true, taking LA as an example. Modernism was meant to make a better standard of living, however poverty still endures in today’s developed cities. This is mainly due to the pollution and inner city problems which caused the middle classes to move to the suburbs, and with them eventually the flight of jobs. This created pockets of poverty in the inner city and a high prevailance of inner city poverty.

This has lead to the rethinking of predominating postmodernist attitudes which further separate the rich from the poor such as those practised in LA where the famous Angel’s Flight funicular road linking Bunker Hill to Broadway was eliminated, where the benches in all bus stops and parks were changed to small sized benches where the homeless are unable to sleep on, where buildings use reflective glass to promote the divide, and where the automatic watering systems in parks are set at intervals during the night to sprinkle and disturb the homeless, (Harvey, 1989). Is this an element of the postmodern city?

The social production of space is central to the debate on the crisis of modernity and its passage to postmodern stage. Internationalism and perceiving new cultures, the ‘absurd’ concept of for example acquiring a passion for Chinese food in a German city has created new needs in the cities, to the extent that the Harbor Place in LA attempts a postmodernist atmosphere of leisure sprawled around modernist scenes (Postmodernization, change in advanced societies, Crook, Palinski and Waters) or China Town in London which has an incredible number of tourists visiting the area.

In Las Vegas, they have replicated the Eiffel Tower from Paris, the Big Ben and the Sphynx from Egypt allowing the tourist to make an artificial tour of the sites losing touch with reality. There is a haze in the postmodernist era between what is reality and what is not reality. The forging of new cultural sensibilities, how the city looks and how its spaces are organised forms a material base which a range of possible sensations and social practices can be thought about, evaluated and achieved.

Postmodernism holds an eclecticism of styles, ‘history as a continuum of portable accessories’, where constructions recuperate a place where identity might be reclaimed even in the midst of commercialism, pop art and modern life which connotes a theatrical feel like the Piazza D’Italia in New Orleans does. There is an emporium of styles making the city appear like a theatre rather than a rational planning centre (Harvey, 1989) If cities have entered the postmodern stage what comes after that stage?

Postmodern is a term that sounds like the final change cities are going to go through, where in fact they are still under construction to reach the postmodern stage. Cities are in the final stages of modernism as in no way are they ecological and sustainable, the car is much required as retailing and other needs are not in walking distance although of course this is variable from city to city depending on their size. The notion that cities are culturally diverse and that there should be a good social integration ingredient is a postmodern idea and this is not visible in most cities, where separation of class and ethnic background persists.

However I cannot judge purely from the architecture and the new design which cities are experiencing, whether the city has entered a postmodern stage or not. Only if these new architectural buildings modify the way in which leisure and entertainment and many other social interactions are come about. The term postmodernism involves so many facets and interactions that in my opinion it cannot be used as a term to describe cities, only as a vague term and in cities found in developed countries as the term in not applicable to other cities in developing countries.

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