Is postmodernism of the cloned classicism variety, one branch of the 1980s architectural design trend that bedecked thousands of buildings with Roman and Renaissance bric-a-brac, waning?
Judging from projects submitted by architects competing for architectural design awards over the last two years, the number of buildings festooned with borrowed historical motifs -- keystones, broken pediments and Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns -- has fallen dramatically.
A large percentage of what architects designed, built and talked about 10 years ago was classically referential in form; today that percentage is diminishing.
Designers haven't stopped using ornamentation or details borrowed from architecture's classical language. Plenty remodeled shopping centers, store fronts, law offices and private villas wear newly installed antique garb. And lots of consumers continue to prefer the familiar, historical associations of traditionally styled homes and furniture.
Nor have designers abandoned the principles and precedents of classical and neoclassical architecture. History remains the essential source of theories and inspiration. But there seems to be less dependence on copy machines, on literal image replication and direct visual "quotation" of historical antecedents.
Fortunately, many of the same architects who may have slavishly embraced postmodernism, even in its most cliche-ridden guise, have moved on, as have some of their clients.
But what have they moved on to?
Judging from recent design award submissions, as well as from projects published in the trade press, architecture continues to go stylistically in several directions at once. However, one direction seems to be increasingly of interest to younger or more avant-garde architects: "constructivism" tinged by "deconstructivism."
Constructivism, the polar opposite of shopworn postmodernism, represents a return to ideas and motifs ofAmong the visual concepts explored in the 19th century and now is the idea of aggressively revealing, rather than concealing, diverse construction elements. the past -- but a more recent, modernist past. Its grammar of structural expression, its geometric abstraction, its celebration of materials, colors, patterns, construction systems and details of assembly, are decidedly 20th century.
Constructivists turn back the clock architecturally to the 1920s and 1930s when European avant garde architects, partly in reaction to the still prevalent Ecole des Beaux Arts litany, advocated a design ethic based on machine imagery and functional expression. This was coupled with compositional ideas derived from abstract painting and sculpture movements of the period.
And even avant garde modernism of the early 20th century had roots in the 19th century, the nascent age of industrialization during which many intellectuals came to believe that machines, with all their visually disparate but interrelated parts, possessed intrinsic unity and beauty.
Among the visual concepts explored both then and now is the idea of aggressively revealing, rather than concealing, diverse construction elements -- nuts and bolts, fittings, structural framing and mechanical or electrical systems necessary for erecting and operating a building.
But designers went beyond merely treating buildings as machines. Seeking new sources of delight as much as they seek commodity and firmness, architects saw the aesthetic potential of making building assemblages exploit two other visually innovative concepts: collage and collision.
Dissatisfied with just exposing parts of a logically assembled structure honestly and straightforwardly, designers could manipulate form to defy or deny logic. They could employ building "technics" primarily for formal effect and symbolic expression, irrespective of practical necessities governing construction.
Thus, they could juxtapose disparate elements not usually joined together; use angles other than 90 degrees; rotate walls, rooms or entire wings of buildings relative to dominant, orthogonal patterns of space and structure; incorporate materials and colors unconventionally; or create apparently random collisions between one part of a building and another, as if a collision had really occurred. Often one part would be the penetrant while another played the role of the penetrated.
The more disorderly and "deconstructed" a collage looks, the farther it marches away from the reposeful principles of conventional architecture and classicism.
Indeed, some constructivist-deconstructivists, viewing themselves as contemporary poets charting the spirit of the times, assert that their designs reflect metaphorically the technology-dependent, complex, disorderly state of society and culture.
Of course, a few simply admit to gut-level excitement about the undeniably dynamic, off-beat look of such compositions.
And one sure indicator of contructivism's increasing popularity is its frequent appearance, in lieu of Roman and Renaissance clones, on the desks of students in architectural schools around the United States and in Europe.
In Washington, constructivist concoctions, not surprisingly, are still few and far between.
When they do occur, they often appear not as whole new buildings, but rather as design themes applied to the interiors of restaurants, retail shops, showrooms or art galleries.
Constructivism also has influenced modern furniture design, the kind of furniture that you would see only in manufacturers' catalogs and showrooms and European design magazines.
As a strategy for furniture, constructivist composition often produces pieces that look like they were intended as equipment for exercise rooms.
With their hard edges, angular parts and protruding hardware, they sometimes work better as sculpture than as places to sit and relax.
Some designers and manufacturers of contemporary light fixtures -- table and floor lamps, wall sconces, and pendants -- likewise embrace constructivist philosophy.
Dozens of lighting companies in the United States and Europe offer product lines that include fixtures celebrating the imagery of technical assembly.
Certain materials -- metal coated in black, chrome or occasionally colored enamel, plus glass -- are typical.
Highly geometrical structural silhouettes and components, visually articulated fittings and connections, and high-intensity bulbs further characterize such fixtures.
Constructivism and deconstructivism are practically a way of life in Los Angeles.
But Washington is still a city most comfortable pursuing stylistic contextualism mirroring its neoclassical architectural heritage.
Nevertheless, signs indicate that, even in Washington, architects are beginning to try another direction, one that perhaps will produce another round of buildings that look machine-age modern rather than classical-age postmodern.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.