Anywhere you look in the Nineties, you'll find the whimsies of Post-Modernism grinning back at you. Every mall seems to evoke the Forum Romanum, every apartment block the baths of Caracalla.
It's a clever sort of classicism, but not a rich one. With little money available in modern times for marble, let alone for craftsmen willing to spend their lives chipping away at acanthus leaves, the glory of imperial Rome is only hinted at.
Which, I gather, is exactly the intent. Post-Modern architects claim no allegiance to a particular style; their stated passion is to reintroduce the decorative element into architectural design, to abandon the idea of the city as a "machine for living" in favor of something that won't give us all nightmares.
Ironic quotations from the past would nevertheless seem to be an essential element of their designs; without them the architect would be vulnerable to the charge of bad decoration, or worse still, of dishonesty. (Stone is stone. Prestressed concrete isn't. "Form follows function," etc.) By impudently placing a column where no column could possibly be, Philip Johnson can justifiably claim to be as candid as Van der Rohe about the distinction between the structural and the "merely" decorative.
In any event, the products of more than ten years of Post-Modern construction are now all around us, and the surprising thing is that many of them actually seem to work pretty well.
On the University of California campus where I earn my living, most of the recent buildings are Post-Modern. With their porticos and exterior staircases, their friezes of semi-engaged columns or sunken windows set into beveled architraves, they resemble -- at least from a distance -- the modest public buildings of a state capital in the Midwest.
On closer inspection, the classical illusion is tempered by the realization that the columns are shells over steel beams, the architraves stucco over styrofoam; that the rooftops above the tiled eaves are burdened with roaring machinery and impossibly large exhaust funnels.
Nevertheless, with their exterior walls painted in shades of pink, sienna, and pale gray-green to match the eucalyptus trees which surround them, their staircases faced in polychrome Mediterranean tile, these pseudo-Roman exercises seem much more restful, more human, than the angular modernist monstrosities from the Sixties which stand beside them.
We're told that imperial Rome was also painted, that brick and tile were as much a feature of its public facades as marble. Crossing the grass quadrangle between "Physical Sciences North" and "Physical Sciences South," I'd like to think so. It would help explain why I can imagine men in togas standing under these porticos, or coming down these staircases, something which I could never imagine on the steps of the grand white palaces of Washington.
The illusion of less complicated times lingers for a moment, then I realize that if this were truly Rome, there'd be a long row of monuments to Republican senators along the edge of quadrangle, or perhaps an equally long row of crucified Christians. That, I suspect, would constitute more irony than the architect intended, or the public relations office on our campus would be willing to endure.