Thesis Defence: Brian Chen

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 10:00 am - 10:00 am EDT (GMT -04:00)

The Double Edge of Ironic Architecture

Brian Chen thesis image


During the postmodern era, which took place between the middle to the late 20th Century, irony became the predominant mode of cultural expression. This growth in the frequency and intensity of irony in culture has been thought of as a response to the cultural crises of the latter half of the 20th century. According to architectural historian Charles Jencks, the peak of this crisis took place in the year 1972, specifically on July 15, at 3:32pm, when Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis Missouri was demolished. This was a turning point that marked the end of the Modernist architectural project and the beginning of the Postmodern movement in architecture. The vision of the architect as a “form-giver” who could access the spirit of the age and manifest it in an architecture that was universally true, rational, and social progressive was no longer tenable.

One of the ways architects faced this crisis was by adopting an ironic attitude characterized by skepticism, emotional distance, and a self consciousness towards the notion of progress and truth. Irony was applied in a variety of ways. Irony was used to make futility and uncertainty humorous, it was used in parody as a form of criticism, some attempted to form new ways of understanding architecture that were based on earlier philosophical traditions of irony. Architects such as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Peter Eisenmann, Stanley Tigerman, Rem Koolhaas, Charles Moore and James Wines, were some of the well-known proponents of this ironic approach to architecture. Some of the features of postmodern ironic architecture are also present in architecture today, notably in the works of MVRDV, Bjarke Ingels Group, and FAT.

This thesis attempts to identify how and why irony is expressed in the architecture of the postmodern era and today by examining the rhetorical strategies and philosophies attributed to ironic expression. I argue that irony is an effective way to express uncertainty, to criticize ideas, and to propose provisional solutions. But irony is also problematic because it is inimical to common understanding, can easily lead to deception, and encourages emotional distance and ambivalence. However, these strengths and weakness are inevitable and necessary for ironic expression. I believe that irony is not inherently bad or good. Despite its attendant complications, irony possess unique semantic and pragmatic properties that enable it to effectively engage certain types of crises. This study of ironic architecture focuses on three aspects of irony: (1) The expression of ambiguous statements and multiple meanings through irony, (2) the use of irony in parody as mode of criticism, and (3) the use of ironic narratives to dramatize uncertainty and disorientation.            

The examining committee is as follows:


Marie-Paule Macdonald, University of Waterloo

Committee Members:

Anne Bordeleau, ​​​​​​University of Waterloo

Robert Jan van Pelt, University of Waterloo

External Reader:

Robert Wiljer    ​​​​​​​     

The committee has been approved as authorized by the Graduate Studies Committee.

The Defence Examination will take place:
Wednesday March 18, 2020, 10:00am.
A copy of the thesis is available for perusal in ARC 2106A.