We’re all postmodern now

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The architects of modern companies are repeating the errors of the architects of modern buildings. Perhaps it is time to develop a theory of post-modern management?

Architecture today is generally described as post-modern. It rejects the values which inspired the modern architecture of the 1950’s and 1960’s. You can see these values all over London. The buildings are tall, grey, neglected and awaiting demolition. Never before has the construction of an era been so short-lived.

Yet the architects who devised these buildings were not stupid or untalented people. The finest buildings of the founders of modern architecture – men like van der Rohe, Gropius, and le Corbusier – display genius to match the great architects of any era. But they were gripped by a theory of modernity. A theory encapsulated in le Corbusier’s famous remark that ‘a house is a machine for living in’. That philosophy reached its high point in the unités d’habitation le Corbusier designed in the outskirts of Marseilles – the world’s first tower block. We now call them tower blocks.

The theory of modern architecture began by distancing itself from the past. For hundreds of years, architects had been constrained by principles of classical design, inherited from the Greeks and Romans. In this tradition houses are recognisably houses, whether Palladian villas or highland crofts, whether built by the Emperor Hadrian or George Wimpey. Any child asked to draw a house will immediately sketch an object with symmetrical windows arranged around a door beneath a sloping roof.

Modern architects, aided by modern technology, felt able to challenge all that. The only constraints were those of the imagination. It was time to rethink the purposes of a building from first principles on an entirely rational basis: literally from the ground up. So modern architects assumed for themselves a leadership role. They were the harbingers of a new age. While Vanbrugh or Robert Adam had been tradesmen, sympathetic but marvellously skilful interpreters of the needs of their wealthy clients, the objective of the modernists was to drag us all kicking and screaming into the technological future.

And then there was an emphasis on functionality. Buildings were to be stripped of anything that was not directly useful. Ornament was superficial, wasteful, and in the end dishonest. Buildings should be true to their essential purpose. And in these requirements – modernity, rationalism and functionality – modern architects were resolutely supported by modern politicians and modern planners.

We now know that all this was a ghastly mistake. The leading theorist of post-modern architecture, Charles Jenks, dates the end of the modern era from 1972, when the city of St Louis decided to demolish the apartment blocks for which it had received architectural prizes only seventeen years before. Since then, municipalities and firms all over the world have followed their example.

The point, of course, is that houses are not just machines for living in. They are homes and parts of communities. To serve these needs demands respect for conventional – even banal – aesthetics and for the structures of social relationships that make homes and communities. The tower blocks, with their emphasis on functionality, earned so little respect from their inhabitants that they urinated in the lifts, painted graffiti on the walls, and quickly destroyed even the prized functionality.

Now no-one would make these mistakes today. Or would they? If you want a clue as to who might, take a look at the buildings erected by modern corporations: rational, modern, functional and almost uniformly undistinguished. The greatest post-modern corporate headquarters are probably those of AT & T and HSBC. Exceptions which prove the rule built by firms which have been able to stand back a little from the pressures of competitive markets. Perhaps the only recent UK corporate headquarters of any architectural interest is the Lloyds building, and thereby hangs a tale. No British company today has the self-confidence exuded by the massive piles which ICI and Unilever erected between the wars on the banks of the Thames.

Gropius and le Corbusier would feel strangely at home in today’s boardrooms. Have you ever heard a chief executive emphasise the need for a company to distance itself from the past, and rethink the nature of its activities from first principles? Have you ever heard a chief executive say it is no longer enough to lead from behind, that it is no longer enough for leaders of modern management to understand the evolution of their organisation and exemplify that evolution: that today it is necessary to define a vision and lead everyone in the company towards it? And have you ever heard a chief executive say that the modern company must be lean and mean, and that any part of it that cannot be justified in strict functional terms must be eliminated? Come to think of it, have you ever heard a recent speech from a chief executive that has not said all of these things?

Now maybe there is a difference between the architecture of buildings and the architecture of organisations. Maybe it is true that the functionality of buildings depends, in the long run, on the intangible aspects of the relationship between the buildings and the occupants, things which cannot be easily articulated but had been learnt from generations of experience: but this is not true of the functionality of corporations. Maybe it is true that we can destroy communities when we restructure them without regard to the wishes of their members this is not the case when we restructure corporations.

Or maybe there are no such differences, and the architects of modern companies are repeating the errors of the architects of modern buildings. Perhaps it is time to develop a theory of post-modern management?

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