Postmodernism, a historically referential, popular style, was a reaction to the ruling voice of the Modernist architectural establishment. By the ’70s, Modernism was almost unquestioned in terms of its design virtue, considered the beacon of good taste. Modernism was a response to noble social aspirations but, in many instances, the prescriptive approach failed to take into account the role of change, permanently stamping neighborhoods and cities with its "pure" design.
Postmodernism sought freedom from rules and from the idea of one “right” voice. Instead, employing a cut-and-paste approach and a mashup of eclectic styles, the buildings often appeared as collages of unexpected references and symbols. This move away from architecture as a universal object favored local and individual expressions of place-making.
While Postmodernism is a dirty word in many architectural circles – only a few bold, unabashed architects assume the title with pride – there is a lot to be learnt from a movement that was deeply representative of the times in which it emerged.
In Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown argued that the lurid neon lights, excessive signage and two-dimensional quality of the casinos on the Vegas strip should not be looked down upon through a smug Modernist lens as being tasteless and kitsch, but instead should be seen as an appropriate design response to the context.
The overt commercialism and commodification laid bare the imperatives of the developers – no guise, just naked intent. However, one must ask of this interesting critique, as Anna Winston did, “Should architects simply give the public – or, for that matter, deep-pocketed developers – what they want? If so, did that not make them complicit with power structures that might better be challenged?”
Whatever your leanings, Postmodernism has fundamentally informed contemporary architecture. The movement itself may have drifted to the wayside but, like most before it, its principles have been both challenged and absorbed. We have compiled 10 Postmodern buildings to showcase the tell-tale signs. From kitsch neo-classical motifs to more subtle manifestations, you're about to be wiser when it comes to deciphering postmodern styles.
Venturi House, Philadelphia, USA, 1964
This home, designed by two of the movements' trailblazers, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is widely considered to be the first Postmodern building, paving the way for the movement that would gain traction in the ’70s.
Challenging the status quo and veering off the beaten path, this home became a testing ground for the architects to explore their ideas about complexity and contradiction.
From the very first approach, there is something unusual about the home: the prominent gable roof appears almost like a classical pediment, combined with the weighty chimney poking out behind the slit in the facade. Contradiction emerges in the sense of scale. Inside, even more so than on the exterior, some things appear too big, while others are unexpectedly small.
The Portland Building, Portland, USA, 1982
While the Venturi house is considered to be the first Postmodern building, the Portland Building by Michael Graves is the key player that put Postmodernism on the map as a movement to be reckoned with.
Compared to its glassy modernist counterparts, this was a low-cost design that won the competition bid and four grand in cash. Colorful facades donning symbolic decorations and historical references ensued.
Classical elements have been appropriated left, right and center: keystones, pilasters, pedestals; the works. They all assume a unique and sometimes oddly over-scaled interpretation. In the words of Graves, architecture is “a symbolic gesture, an attempt to re-establish a language of architecture and values that are not a part of modernist homogeneity," and that's apparent right here.
The Piazza d'Italia Public Plaza, New Orleans, USA, 1978
Charles Moore’s designs were a bricolage of influences and references. He was interested in the question of how architecture should relate to history, how it performed as a stage set and how everyday objects and materials could be used in novel ways.
He toyed with the architectural establishment. At the time, everything was about restraint: what you couldn’t do. He was concerned with what you could do, replacing "no" with "yes."
The Italian baroque iconography can’t be missed: it appears almost like a stage set. But that’s not all – even the changes in level are designed to mimic the outline of the country. As Moore stated in his essay, Ten Years Later, “What could be a more Italian shape than Italy? And what more direct, and therefore effective, cultural reference in a piazza dedicated to the Italian community?”
Modernism wouldn’t be caught dead with this kitschy symbolism, but many Postmodernists wholeheartedly embraced it.
The Sea Ranch Condominium, Sonoma County, California, USA, 1965
While, this collaborative project, which came earlier in Moore’s career, is labelled a Modernist building, it highlights the evolution of not only Moore but many other Postmodern architects, most of whom began their career under Modernism.
However, more restrained than his later work, it is designed to unfold an interior stage for the inhabitants to act out their experience. Contradiction is rife: whimsy meets rationality, and the quality of discovery is central.
Moore implored architects to design buildings with the user in mind: to create a three-dimensional "user-experience," not an abstract and frozen two-dimensional "visual experience," as this house exemplifies.
Moore’s New Haven Home, Orinda, California, USA, 1966
Moore’s own home, featured in Playboy magazine, demonstrates an uninhibited penchant for all things theatrical and unexpected. The original weatherboard house was hollowed out and three two-story towers – each with their own nickname – put in its place, fragmenting the interior experience.
Super graphics (oversized Helvetica numbers formed in neon tube lighting), trompe l’oeil freezes (a dome and American stars) and other kitschy iconography are but a few examples that mark his signature style.
AT&T Building, New York, USA, 1984
The small detail – a partial circle, hollowed out at the peak of the multi-story building – may seem insignificant, but it was radical at the time.
Jockeying the Modernist establishment, Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s reinterpretation of a historical pediment emerges in the New York skyline, projecting a different voice – one which read and inscribed different meanings.
San Cataldo Cemetery, Modena, Italy, 1971
Aldo Rossi is but another Modernist architect who strayed from the self-professed "good" path to explore alternative ideas and a more historically referential style.
His poetic classicism isn’t applied with motifs or symbols but embedded in spatial language: the plan and the structure. The cemetery is built on the site of an even more ancient cemetery by architect Cesare Costa.
Rossi employs similar spatial types that reference and translate the past.
Room With Memphis Design Collective Furniture, 1980s
Okay, the next two aren't buildings per se, so forgive us. However, Postmodernism, like most movements, wasn’t solely architectural: it touted art, furniture, products and more.
This room is filled with the work of the famous Milan-based collective, Memphis Group, who designed ceramics, metal and glass objects, fabrics and furniture throughout the ’80s.
Drawing on the pop art movement, Memphis Group produced an array of quirky and colorful furniture that embodies both a nostalgia for 1950s kitsch and more futuristic leanings.
Proust Chair, Vitra Design Museum, 1978
The Proust chair is the Italian designer Mendini’s most famous design.
Vitra Design Museum, where the design is displayed, perfectly summarized the ideas that underpin his work: “On the one hand, design today must be aware of its position within a nexus of existing ideas and images; on the other, according to Mendini, it can only be expressed externally and on the surface of things, if it is to convey its messages to a trivial, fast-moving world.”
This chair was one of the first examples of what he called "redesigns." He would appropriate classic designs, reinventing them with altered shapes, materials and decoration. Combining a Baroque style with a hand-painted fabric that conjured images of Impressionist paintings, he developed this completely unexpected chair design.
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, 1997
Frank Gehry is one of the most well-known living architects and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao amongst his most well-known buildings. His designs demonstrate a contemporary evolution of Postmodernism, branching off to form a sub-movement known as Deconstructivism.
The unusual fabricated shapes defy the rational of Modernism in a new way, deforming the skin of the building with seemingly unintentional, non-rectilinear planes and forms.
Now that you're done with Postmodern architecture, here's everything you need to know about Modernism in 10 buildings.