Quick, name a famous architect. If you’re like most people, Frank Lloyd Wright is the first name that comes to mind, and for good reason. The American architect designed his structures to be both livable and in tune with their native habitats. Many of his buildings are iconic, like Fallingwater (above) and the Guggenheim Museum. Much of modern architecture is not as organic and spiritual as Wright’s work. In its heyday modernism expressed the spirit of the space age with its optimism, precision, symmetry, and clean lines. “Form follows function” was the mantra of the movement. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s many modern buildings hardly seemed modern at all. They looked dated, cliché, and sterile. Take, for example, the county courthouse in Salem, Oregon (below). The best word I can think of to describe the building is “soulless.”
Postmodernism, on the other hand, has a soul—indeed, sometimes too much soul. It’s asymmetrical, dissonant, and witty. Some of it—the kind I like least—looks quirky, deformed, and kitsch.
Dancing House, Prague Czech Republic, Architect Vlado Milunić
St. Coletta School, Washington, DC, Architect Michael Graves
Perhaps the most famous American architect associated with postmodernism is Frank Gehry. He designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA., one of the most striking and in my opinion aesthetically pleasing buildings.
Speaking of Disney, one of the best contrasts between modern and postmodern styles are two hotels at Disney World in Orlando: the Contemporary and the Swan and Dolphin respectively (below). When it comes to these two styles it’s not hard for me to decide between the function of the former and the fun of the latter. I prefer fun, especially if I’m on vacation (though there is something really cool about a monorail speeding through your hotel).
Of course, modernism and postmodernism are not only styles of architecture; they are expressions of two very different philosophical outlooks, which have affected everything in society, even religion. Modernism conceived a scientific approach to faith and even gave birth to new rational religions, most of them now thankfully extinct. It taught us to examine the Bible objectively and scientifically and see God not as fickle and humanlike but transcendent and unchanging. Based on Aristotelian logic, it forced us to choose between scripture and science, making us either fundamentalists or modernists.
Postmodernism is creating new ways of looking at faith. It’s still too early to tell where it will lead, but there are definitely emerging trends. Postmodernist religion is less dogmatic and more pluralistic. It’s less concerned with propositional truth and more interested in lived experience. Openness and dialogue are replacing apologetics and confrontational evangelism. Postmodernism allows believers to embrace plural truths; science and scripture can both be true in different ways. God’s emotions and changes of heart in the Bible do not have to be explained away as figures of speech. Like its architectural counterpart, postmodern theology can be colorful, witty, and fun. It can also appear confused, twisted, and irreverent.
For some people, postmodernism is dangerous heresy. For others, it’s liberation from the straightjacket of modernism. If forced to choose between the two, I choose . . . both . . . and neither.