American Postmodern

September 9, 2013

Essay by Jayne Kelley


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Panoramic photo of downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. © Bobak Ha’Eri.

No, in ten minutes, it’s history! At 4 o’clock I’m a dinosaur!
—Wall Street (1987)

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, one of the first things Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) does with his illicitly gained wealth is outfit a high-rise New York apartment to postmodern aesthetic excess: contractors layer fake brick on a wall only to cover it with plaster and reveal it again; decorator Darien Taylor (Daryl Hannah) glues gold and silver leaf onto new molding; a painter materializes a fresco from drywall. It’s no coincidence that Darien—Bud’s trophy girlfriend—is an interior designer who caters to clients in finance. In the film, architecture and interior design are marks of status, if not values; luxe postmodern style coincides with wealth and power. When Bud’s insider trades on behalf of his quotable, greedy mentor Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) are discovered, he’s forced to sell. For Bud, postmodern style is as impermanent as bad stock, its worth just as fleeting.

Wall Street’s characterization of contemporary design is canny in retrospect, but it also reflects trends in both architecture and general culture during the mid-1980s. The rise of postmodern architecture in the United States, and especially its quick adaptation to a corporate setting, occurred alongside vast economic expansion and a shift in economic activity. To generalize, credit cards, private equity, and venture capital proliferated at the same time that the country’s workforce moved increasingly into service-based industries. Wall Street exhibits a clear anxiety about the financial system’s loose ties to reality, even as it is fascinated by these abstract instruments and processes (and the lifestyles they enable). But while postmodern interior surface treatments are actually paper-thin, buildings—like the hulking postmodern office towers commissioned by corporations and governments during this time—are more permanent, undeniably real investments.

A significant percentage of the tallest buildings in a handful of medium-sized Midwestern cities were constructed between 1982 and 1992, during the height of architectural postmodernism. Six of the ten tallest buildings in Columbus, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis, five of the ten tallest in Milwaukee, and four of the ten tallest in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Cincinnati were built during this stretch. If a bigger city’s skyline can absorb its share of 1980s boom skyscrapers, these less dense and tall Midwestern cities have become inadvertent showcases of an outdated style. As unexpectedly massive traces of postmodernism, these prominent but unassuming skyscrapers are examples of how the image and identity of a city might be shaped, and perhaps unintentionally dominated, by a particular moment of enthusiasm within architectural culture and practice.

It’s true that the influx of investment in postmodernist skyscrapers during the 1980s extended equally to cities outside the Midwest. In Dallas, eight of the ten tallest buildings were built during this span; Houston, Atlanta, and Philadelphia have seven, and Los Angeles and Seattle six. But these cities are either parts of much larger metropolitan areas, like Dallas, or rely less heavily on a downtown or single city center to generate their identities. Stereotypical perceptions of these cities hardly hinge on their tallest buildings. In Midwestern cities, however, skyscrapers often have a way of solidifying and perpetuating a city’s status; they’re overwhelmingly visible, a point where people and money appear concentrated for a good reason. Without much else to compare to, and in a region where there are many medium-sized cities and few very big ones, a person can easily begin to identify with these relatively modest towers. “Even Indianapolis has a skyscraper taller than us now,” Nick Coleman, a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, complained in 2008, “us” standing in synecdochically for Philip Johnson’s 1972 IDS Center, Minneapolis’s tallest.1

Tall is also strangely relative in the Midwest, with the obvious exception of Chicago. (The average height of the tallest building in each of the seven cities listed above is 757 feet, roughly half the size of Chicago’s Willis Tower, tallest in the world for the 25 years after it was built.) On one hand, other Midwestern cities are simply smaller; with fewer residents and less powerful economies, they haven’t had the opportunities or means to build quite as high. But these cities are often set onto seemingly endless, wide-open flatness. Nothing around is tall, so all buildings above a few stories stick out above the horizon for miles around. In turn, they take on an outsized importance. “We only think of our tall buildings as tall because they are bigger than the corn cribs on grandma and grandpa’s farm and even taller than the fancy silo they put up in 1972,” Coleman explains. “But in the context of big buildings, we are still Little Houses on the Prairie.”2

Using Indianapolis, Columbus, and Minneapolis as case studies—the three cities where a majority of tallest towers were built during this span—it is possible to generate a sense of the development and aesthetic qualities of Midwestern postmodernist skyscrapers, and from there to extrapolate on their particular effects. Fittingly, most of the postmodernist towers discussed here were built as headquarters for banks and other financial service firms. Although corporations built some tall towers in these cities in the 1960s and 1970s, the economic growth of the 1980s—a 92-month-long economic expansion that took place between December 1982 and July 19903—prompted corporate reinvestment and speculation in downtown office structures at an unprecedented pace. (In Indianapolis, the Chase Tower was completed before the Postal Service could assign it an address or a zip code.4) Paradoxically, mergers and acquisitions by and of these tenants also means building names often change, leaving city residents unsure how to refer to the towers that define their skylines. One extreme case, the Capella Tower in Minneapolis, has changed names four times in the last twenty-one years.

That so many postmodern towers were built in this ten-year span was not only economic coincidence, however; postmodernism also fit the needs of these towers well. The controversy that Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building and Michael Graves’s Portland Building generated in the late seventies and early eighties had faded, giving way to a general acceptance of the style, especially by corporations eager to capitalize on its cultural currency. Showy but reflective of local context, postmodernism communicated with a public left cold by modernism, engaging audiences via (earnest or ironic) historicist reference. Its mannerist tendencies seemed of a piece with the consumerism and maximalist culture of the era (Wall Street’s excesses, but also Disney World’s vast, relentlessly cheery construction of new themed resorts). At the same time, postmodernism’s emphasis on the façade—the site for its communicative efforts—meant that tripartite towers could be more or less sheathed in the style, creating basic office floor plans covered in surfaces of varying depths and topped with faux-historical decoration.

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Building illustrations by Jayne Kelley.

Indianapolis’s Chase Tower (until 1995, the Bank One Tower; originally developed as the American Fletcher Tower), for instance, became the tallest building in Indiana upon its completion in 1990. Almost fifty stories tall, its dark-blue glass and neutral granite taper to a pyramidal point at the building’s peak, a reference to the nearby mid-1920s Indiana War Memorial. 300 North Meridian (1989), the city’s fifth-tallest building, is squatter, with a surprisingly asymmetrical side elevation. Like the Chase Tower, however, it also traffics in abstracted art deco: the planes of its greyish-red rectangular base begin to cut away as the building rises, clearing space for a glass protrusion capped by concrete faux buttresses that attach to a coppery pyramid above.

Columbus’s Huntington Center, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1984, cuts a very different profile. Although it is built from similar blush-colored granite, it seems to invert the shape of many other postmodernist towers. Two thin rectangular slabs loom upright on either side of the structure; shorter and shallower slabs are placed inside of these two edges, stepping inward towards its smallest piece, a bronzy-glass core. Far more typical is the boxy William Green Building (1990), at least in every aspect but program—its primary tenant is the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, a government agency. Here, the stacking of base, column, and cap is especially evident. Archways and oversize circular windows line the ground levels, and the highest element—another coppery pyramid—is perched lightly on top. Rather than emphasize the vertical, however, the windows between read as dark horizontal stripes, undermining the effect of the building’s chunky stepped-back corners and producing an almost graphic patterning.

Minneapolis’s Capella Tower (1992) introduces curves to the type; here, a squared-off, granite and glass office block attaches awkwardly onto a taller bright-blue-glass cylinder, topped with a circular piece Twin Cities residents have termed a halo. On its thinnest elevation, these two pieces appear equally wide, making the glass portion seem to emerge bluntly from the more regular tower. Out of all these examples, the Cesar Pelli-designed Wells Fargo Center—the city’s third tallest—makes most explicit reference to towers of the 1920s and 1930s, specifically to Rockefeller Center. The skyscraper (originally the Norwest Center) garnered attention in the national and international architecture press; in The New York Times, Paul Goldberger called it Pelli’s best tower up to that point, with “strong verticals and handsomely proportioned setbacks culminating in a top that evokes the jazzy rhythms of the 1930’s without ever becoming too literal.”5 Indeed, its vertical strips of glass and local Kasota limestone appear more attenuated and finely detailed than those of other postmodernist towers; they may be the exception that proves an aesthetic rule.

With these examples in mind, a relatively constant aesthetic of midwest postmodernist skyscrapers emerges, one that differs slightly from the wider postmodern movement’s garish colors and populist appliqué. Generally, the towers are muddied reds or tan stone paired with blue, black, or bronze-tinted glass—in other words, a self-consciously natural palette of midwestern stone offset with slick, contemporary sheen. Building stepbacks (or inverse stepbacks, as at Huntington) emphasize verticality and allow for additional corner offices, but these forms are often handled more brusquely or diagrammatically, their corners more bulky, than in the deco towers that inspired them. Ornament is abstracted enough to be read from far away, almost fusing with these stepback planes rather than living uncomfortably on their surface. When these formal characteristics accumulate in a skyline, the effect is curiously understated: for being so tall and vertical, the colors blend into a familiar, bland neutral, while the flourishes appear generic (especially to contemporary eyes), provoking little of the disorientation of the giant, eccentric ribbons affixed to the Portland Building, for example. The skyscrapers’ sheer size prevents them from being pathetic, but their shared aesthetic is surprisingly self-effacing. One easily forgets how uncommon their style is nowadays.

What happens when cities (or their residents) want to move past these traces, making a convincing case for urbanity without pointing to ruddy, dusty, thirty-year-old evidence? Tearing down these structures is almost unthinkable, especially for stylistic reasons alone. Rather, to move past this legacy, the towers can only be built “over”—literally, with taller towers, or figuratively, by developing new urban arrangements where the skyscrapers matter less. The former seems unlikely. Although populations in these three cities have grown steadily since at least 1990, corporations now often seek out qualities (and value) that skyscrapers may not provide. A 2000 article in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, for example, cited security, flexibility, and the need to accommodate technology as reasons behind a turn towards “fat boys”—“low-slung office buildings with huge floors”—and away from the “lofty tower perches with corner offices” of the 1980s.6 Without offices to define a skyline, hotels (as in Las Vegas) and mixed-use condominiums (as in Miami) often take on the mantle of building tall. In Indianapolis, for example, the only building over 300 feet tall built in the last twenty years is a JW Marriott.

At least until Indianapolis and other similar Midwestern cities become a major tourist destinations, then, there’s not much choice but to accept the continued quiet dominance of their postmodern skyscrapers. But there’s more than (already questionable) historical value in keeping these towers around. If eventually the center of gravity in these cities is pulled outside the area where tall buildings are, or other tall buildings go up beside them, maybe we can see these out-of-scale showpieces with fresher eyes. It’s probably impossible to ignore their visceral association with the 1980s upon closer inspection; the aesthetic character and tropes of postmodernism are just too ingrained in American culture. But, unexpectedly, the more residents might wonder about these bizarre insertions into the urban fabric—the more the towers’ ugliest details become removed from contemporary urban life, even surreal—the more architectural and urban power they might have. In this sense, postmodern towers could conjure an alternate, dramatic version of reality, one that’s both valuable for its distance from us but also more in keeping with the fluidity and impermanence of Wall Street than with the kitschy, dingy connotations postmodern architecture carries today.

1 Nick Coleman, “Capella Tower sports a cap, but it can’t topple the IDS,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 24, 2008, 1B.
2 Ibid. There also may be something quintessentially midwestern in the seemingly contradictory modest skyscraper. As Columbus Mayor Thomas Moody was quoted in the Chicago Tribune in 1980, “Though we may not be first-class in anything, we’re not third-class in anything, either.” Paul Gapp, “COLUMBUS Quintessentially Middle American,” Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1980.
3 Stephen K. McNees, “The 1990–91 Recession in Historical Perspective,” New England Economic Review (January/February 1992): 14,
4 “Across the USA: Indiana,” USA Today, January 24, 1990, 6A.
5 Paul Goldberger, “Architecture View; Cesar Pelli Seeks the Perfect Skyscraper,” The New York Times, January 15, 1989, Late City Final Edition, sec. 2, 30.
6 Jim McCartney, “A Tale of Two Towers; The IDS Center and the New American Express Financial Center, Former and Future Minneapolis [sic] Home for the Same Company, Are a Study in Contrasts,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, April 30, 2008, 1D.