Postmodernism

Architectural Style Guide

Postmodernism, Post-Modernism, Post Modern and PoMo are all terms associated with the rather colourful and zany style of architecture that emerged in the late 1970s and which can still be seen in various guises today.

As an architectural label its origins can be traced back to 1945 when the Dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Joseph Hudnut, used it an essay entitled ‘The Post-Modern House’, in which he called for a humane and expressive architecture in keeping with the context of the neighbourhood. Also, at that time he was at loggerheads with his famous colleague, Walter Gropius over his teaching at Harvard and his Basic Design course which Hudnut saw as too formal and too technological with no understanding of history. In fact, Gropius abolished the teaching of architectural history while he was there. Hudnut wasn’t against Modernism and admired the key figures including Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and J. J. P. Oud amongst others, but he was critical of a slavish adherence to the doctrine of formalism and standardisation espoused by Gropius.

The term was picked up again in January 1961 by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in a lecture given at the RIBA entitled, Modern Architecture and the Historian or the Return of Historicism. After looking at the current work of some of the icons of the Modern Movement, such as Pier Luigi Nervi, Felix Candela, Oscar Niemeyer, Hans Scharoun, etc., Pevsner called their architecture post-modernist and anti-rationalist. He used the term to describe a new style of mid-20th century architecture, which was different to the pre-1939 world that he had inhabited. Earlier the architect Philip Johnson in a lecture at the Architectural Association in 1960, had described his philosophy as “one of functional eclecticism or of eclectic functionalism.”

In 1966 Hudnut, then in his eighties, addressed an alumni meeting at Harvard and called for a humanistic architecture and city, for history, spontaneity, contextualism, and individual concerns. This resonated with an audience, which was now more receptive, having become more critical after fifteen years of Modernism and seeing some of its failures, particularly in city planning. In the same year the American architect Robert Venturi, published, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a key influence on the development of Post-Modernism. Venturi extolled the ambiguities, inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of the Mannerist and Baroque architecture of Rome, but also celebrated popular culture and the ordinary architecture of the American Main Street.

The failures in planning and the proposed destruction of neighbourhoods had also been highlighted in Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Again, this was a critique of some of the tenets of Modernism and the dogmas associated with it.

In Britain by the 1960s and 1970s, there was a similar reaction amongst architects and planners. Modernism had begun to seem elitist and exclusive, despite its democratic intentions. The failure of building methods and materials (shown in the collapse of Ronan Point, a tower block in east London in 1968) and alienating housing estates had become a key factor.

Meanwhile Venturi followed up his earlier ideas in a later work, Learning from Las Vegas (1972) in which he deconstructed the signs and symbols of the Las Vegas strip. He divided buildings into ‘ducks’, the sculptural buildings that embodied their message within the structure, and the ‘decorated shed’, which used signs to communicate its message. In practice, it meant the rediscovery of the various meanings contained within the mainly classical architecture of the past and applying them to modern structures.

But it is Charles Jencks in his The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) who summarised the various responses to the failures of Modernism and brings into a play a different architectural language, which he refers to as ‘double-coding’. Thus, emerged an architecture with a preponderance of symbols and metaphors, resulting in a slew of buildings which were eclectic, brash, bold, and sometimes subtle. But in his most recent book on the subject The Story of Post-Modernism (2011), he refers to Postmodernism as an unfinished movement of five decades which is still contentious today.

What to look for in a Postmodernist building:

  • Classical Motifs
  • Literary allusions
  • Bright Colours
  • Structural variety
  • Variety of shapes and materials.

Explore these galleries from the RIBA Collections illustrating the main features of Postmodernism to discover more images, drawings and photographs highlighting further examples of Postmodernist buildings and their distinctive style.

All of the images are available to download, purchase or license.

Features of Postmodernist Architecture

British Embassy, Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin

Variety of Materials and Shapes