The wonderful thing about postmodernism is what Charles Jencks, the writer and designer who pretty much popularised it, calls “double-coding”. A good postmodernist building works on (at least) two levels. It bristles with architectural gags and knowing tricks, designed to appeal to the connoisseur and, particularly, other architects. But a good Postmodernist building is also populist. It might be brightly-coloured, decorated, fun, even. It aims to engage the public.
For the brief moment when it was the avant garde, “PoMo” became a way for architects to subvert orthodoxy, to rebel while demonstrating they had a grip on the fundamentals of both modernity and history. Having a decorated cake and eating it.
PoMo became ubiquitous in the 1980s. It was sometimes difficult to describe or define but, like that judge’s description of pornography, you know it when you see it. Bright colours, classical columns and porticos, oversized elements, fake stonework. Yet even in its heyday almost no one claimed the Postmodernist label. PoMo architects had to be outed, and even then they denied it. It had its own coding of deniability inscribed in its being. By the early 1990s, when it had become the default style of commercial buildings, it had become the most detested architectural style — bar none. It seemed impossible that anyone could have ever fallen for its kitschy schtick, its fake history and lurid colours, its collisions of classical symbol and corporate modernism.
Yet a new generation, more accepting of design deviancy, has embraced its pastel colours and its references, its humour and its irony. And now that some of its landmarks are under threat, architects are reliving past controversies, lining up to save or condemn the movement’s masterpieces (or perhaps its monsters). An exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum and a torrent of books has recently seen PoMo begin to surpass Brutalism on the bookstore shelves and classiest coffee tables. For years, major postmodernist buildings have been disappearing but there has recently been a backlash. Protests about changes to Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T Tower in New York have stymied the plans and the same goes for James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry in London. Historic England has just listed CZWG’s China Wharf and Cascades as well as MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s Shadwell Basin (all in Docklands). Jencks has ensured the survival of the interior of his Holland Park House (designed with Sir Terry Farrell in the late 1970s) as an archive and, surely, the spiritual home of the movement.
The Soane museum is itself a precursor of postmodernism’s magpie tendencies with its fantasy gothic, antique fragments and myriad references. John Outram, perhaps the most exuberant of practitioners, features heavily in the Soane show (his magnificent “Temple of Storms” pumping station on the Isle of Dogs was listed last year and his Judge Business School in Cambridge was listed this week). Farrell seems to have come to terms with his PoMo past, co-authoring a book (Revisiting Postmodernism) and having seen his MI6 HQ in Vauxhall become the PoMo supernova staple of James Bond pictures.
In some ways, PoMo never went away. What could come after PoMo? You can’t really have PoPoMo. It is the end-condition, the terminal event of modernity in which all styles become equal and coexist. We are, as Jencks says, all postmodern now.
In Britain an in-between generation of architects influenced by the intellectual as well as the aesthetic aspects of postmodernism flourished since the premature announcements of the movement’s demise. Chief among them had been FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) which in its very name acknowledged an unsayable secret — that design depends on fashion. FAT splintered in 2013 but former partner Charles Holland went on to finish one of the key landmarks of PoMo-revival with artist Grayson Perry, the lavish ceramic-clad House for Essex (2015). His garish folly for Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, has just opened. Former FAT partner Sam Jacob continues to mine the seams of 1980s architectural history (his most recent a design for a classically-influenced skyscraper in the Chicago Architecture Biennial). Another erstwhile partner, Sean Griffiths, made waves last year with an article in online magazine Dezeen dismissing the idea of a postmodernist revival and claiming that the reason they did PoMo was that they hated it. It was all a joke on a joke and he effectively said that the youth of today shouldn’t be doing it because they don’t understand it.
But they are. Especially in Britain, where it seems to hold a special attraction. Adam Nathaniel Furman has been experimenting with bright ceramics and elaborate technicolour explosions. Camille Walala has revived the vivid patterns and geometries of the postmodern interior (evoking the designs of PoMo original Nathalie Du Pasquier) and fashion brands have flocked to patterns by PoMo originals Memphis. Sam Jacob’s half-timbered T-shirt and insulation scarf (the latter woven with the wavy architectural symbol for insulation — sign and signified together, very postmodern) are, I think, particularly good. And there’s AOC, whose architecture blends a sophisticated modernity with a caricatured vernacular. Its Nunhead community centre in south London, with its blend of generic suburbanity and pop neo-Victorian, is a fine piece, as is AOC’s Wellcome Library interior. In the US, Andrew Kovacs has been making provocatively PoMo things and MAIO’s Barcelona apartment block boasts an almost insanely 1980s lobby.
Postmodernism was attacked in its time for its superficial eclecticism, irreverence and its acknowledgment of contemporary construction as a mere veneer overlaid on a generic structure. But now that some form of modernist revival has become the default of contemporary commercial development, postmodernism is able to make a reappearance as a radical critique and a populist statement — just as it did before. Its double-layering and its flattening out of history as a resource rather than an aberration is in tune with an Instagram age in which everything appears on a mood-board. History and art are a rich pick’n’mix, a dressing-up box, which we can all enjoy. Architects still struggle to acknowledge the reality that buildings are clad, dressed up.
The conventional narrative about postmodernism is that it was the Thatcherite, neo-liberal antidote to Brutalism, which had been the concrete architecture of the welfare state. Postmodernism is portrayed as a hedonistic, yuppie reaction to municipal dreariness. That is too simplistic and what is portrayed as a superficial appliqué architecture, while it produced some monsters, also spawned some of the most interesting thinking of the postwar age, ideas which attempted to reconcile culture, advertising, capitalism and new media with the human desire for decoration, urbanity and memory.
While postmodernism in Europe and the US is being reassessed in museums and academia, in the hypertrophying cities of Asia, it has long been the default style for statement architecture. While Big Ben in London is covered in tarpaulins, Dubai’s PoMo tribute, the 69-storey Al Yaqoub Tower, dwarfs it. And it is framed by super-modern, decorated filigree and neo-gothic towers, a catalogue of postmodernism. Astana, with its domes and cones, tents and pyramids, is a symbolic city, as is that of Mecca with its 120-storey Makkah Royal Clock Tower and Neo-Beaux Arts hotel. Dubai, Mecca and Macau are what Vegas once was — PoMo incarnate. It isn’t only skylines either. Postmodernism centres on the metanarrative, the stories within stories and, as truth in a post-fact era crumbles, these stories become ever more complex and contentious. It predicted this condition with its language of half-remembered and contested fragments. Postmodernism is simultaneously the language of an intellectual elite and the populist masses. More modern than modernism, it is good and bad taste wrapped into one, the cartoonish and the profound. And it is back.
‘The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture’ is at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, May 16 to August 27
Revisiting Postmodernism, Sir Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman, RIBA Publishing; Post Modern Buildings in Britain, Gearing Franklin and Elain Harwood, Twentieth Century Society/Batsford; Postmodern Design Complete, Judith Gura, Introduction by Charles Jencks, Thames & Hudson
Get alerts on Architecture when a new story is published