Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal

Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal

I am proposing to research the reasons behind the deliberate selection of postmodern architectural materials when crafting cultural landmarks because I want to find out how they are used as a diplomatic tool of soft power. This will help my reader understand how architecture is harnessed to evoke a national identity on the world stage.

Puzzles, Schools of Thought, and Scholarly Debates

Postmodernism is a school of architecture that began to blossom in the 1980s as a reaction to the sleek austerity of modernism; its hallmark elements include the utilization of  classical motifs and unusual combinations of asymmetrical shapes—put simply, modernism thrives on simplicity, while postmodernism emphasizes originality and the blending of historical and contemporary flavors.[1] Scholars tend to agree on the value of postmodernism insofar as that it has successfully countered and infiltrated the previous hegemony of modern design, allowing for more incorporation of cultural elements rather than aiming for black-and-white, angular high-tech design.[2]

There is far less consensus, however, about which factors drive a nation to choose postmodernism versus other architectural styles for cultural landmark buildings. There are those scholars such as Charles Jencks who believe postmodernism is a tool used by a nation to impose cultural conformity, forcing its citizens and the rest of the world to recognize the elements that make up the nation’s urban fabric.[3] Scholars in Jencks’ camp diverge even further on whether this cultural continuity is a good thing—some, like Robert Venturi, argue that it allows generation after generation to acknowledge and respect the old while making space for the new;[4] others, such as Sarfatti Larson, say this forced obligation to historical elements is a façade, manipulated by the most powerful political actors in a society who choose which parts of history to highlight and which to erase.[5]

Those diametrically opposed from Jencks’ camp altogether believe that postmodernism is used as a tool of rectification—nations use it to display an ironic acknowledgment of its historical shortcomings, using whimsical interplay of color and structure to fuse old and new.[6] It is the work of these scholars, such as Jayne Merkel, wherein the puzzle lies: can nations truly recognize their historical failures—and rectify them—through architecture, and will other nations properly receive and translate this message?

Why This Matters

The current state of affairs where this topic can be identified most prominently is in China, where the Beijing National Stadium (known as the Bird’s Nest), built in the postmodern style, will house the 2022 Winter Olympics.[7] In arts research, Booth says the best primary source is the work of art itself.[8] Thus, one primary source I will find useful is the actual architectural plan submitted for the Beijing National Stadium (as well as the images of the finished product).[9] Using these, I can see how the scalar measurements, human flow, environmental concerns, and security requirements were taken into consideration and how they conform to, or diverge from, typical stadium design, and then begin to evaluate why those divergences might have been instrumental for the stadium’s particular cultural message. Another useful primary source are the wealth of news articles written in real time describing first impressions around the world of the Bird’s Nest upon construction. Some of these impressions are sharply contrasting: the LA Times wrote that “the stadium clearly represents China’s vast economic growth and status as a new world power,”[10] while Beijing artist Ai Weiwei told a local Chinese newspaper that the stadium was “a public relations sham attempting to cover up the true political nature of China.”[11] These visceral, in-the-moment reactions contribute to the puzzling nature of the topic even more: they show that no matter the intended message, people around the world will have vastly differing reactions and interpretations to what they think the message is.


The United States and China are engaged in increasingly tense competition, and this event—and the media, money, and praise it will attract to China—will only amplify these tensions. It is essential that we inquire about the significance of postmodernism so that global communicators, world leaders, and diplomats may understand the exact message a country may be trying to send with their use of this architectural style. Armed with this newfound understanding, these leaders will have a better idea of what their global counterparts seek to accomplish, and understanding the motives behind a nation’s particular behavior helps to de-escalate conflict and increase communication, which is imperative for our interconnected, interdependent world.


Research Questions

Generally, the question I seek to research is: what explains the popular choice of postmodern architectural materials and spatial configurations in the creation of buildings for global purposes? This is to say, what is it about postmodern design, specifically, that sends such a particular, coveted message to the rest of the world that countries around the globe are adopting it at such high rates? Why postmodern instead of modern, neoclassical, or revivalist?

If I were to research this question using a particular case as an example, my question would be: what explains the Chinese government’s choice to craft the Beijing National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) in a postmodern architectural style rather than Chinese traditionalist? This may seem like a fact-finding question with a concrete answer, but indeed, it is far more complex than that: the global visibility of the Bird’s Nest is widespread on an almost unmatchable scale. What message, then, does China seek to send by selecting postmodernism—from a wide range of potential architectural design submissions—for its most globally visible building?

[1] Amiri, Niki. “Modernism and Postmodernism in Architecture: an Emphasis on Characteristics, Similarities, and Differences .” The Turkish Journal of Design, Art, and Communications 6 (August 2016): 1626–34. 10.7456/1060AGSE/044.

[2] Cowie, Hazel. “The Contemporary Relevance of Postmodernism.” Postmodernism Now: Politics, Culture, and Context 22, no. 3 (2018): 256–59.

[3] Jencks, Charles. “Contextual Counterpoint.” Architectural Design (2011): 62-68.

[4] Venturi, Robert. “The Difficult Whole: The Politics of Postmodernist Architecture.” Sculpture Journal 25, no. 3 (2016): 381-400. doi:10.3828/sj.2016.25.3.7.

[5] Larson, Magali Sarfatti. Behind the Postmodern Facade. University of California Press, 1993, 23.

[6] Merkel, Jayne. “Not So Radical: An American Perspective.” Architectural Design 81, no. 5 (September 2011): 128–34. doi:10.1002/ad.1303.

[7] “2022 Olympics: Beijing.” Olympics. Accessed September 28, 2019.

[8] Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (4th ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 66.

[9] “Beijing National Stadium, ‘The Bird’s Nest.’” Design-Build Network. Verdict GlobalData. Accessed September 27, 2019.

[10] Kuo, Lily. “Beijing’s National Stadium Is on Thin Ice.” The Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2010.

[11] “China Artist Ai Weiwei Says He Regrets Designing Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest.” Yomiuri Shimbun, March 5, 2012.

2 thoughts on “Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal”

  1. Hi Rachel! I really liked how you grounded your primary source example in the ongoing debates in the field and began to hint at how you might begin to apply different architectural principles to Bejing National Stadium. One question I am still left with is how you are going to figure out the purpose behind the building’s architecture – is that something you can discern from looking at the architecture alone or do you need to see documents/gov’t memos/ or some of the other primary sources you list. And, if so, are you going to run into any translation/language problems accessing/reading the documents.

  2. Rachel — you’ve done a good job here in outlining the proposed research puzzle and substantiating the scholarly debate about architectural choices. With a topic like this that is so connected to ideas of identity, nationalism, patriotism, and more, you’ll want to be careful with wording (in some places you use “nation” where “state” or “country” would be correct). As you think about primary sources, news articles and similar sources that help you build the concrete list of instances that you could potentially analyze (your equivalent to Edelstein’s list of military occupations). The explanatory research questions that you conclude with will provide a good jumping off point for continued research, so keep reading and researching–I look forward to seeing how the project develops!

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