Postmodernism’s emergence and proliferation was a direct response to the rise of art movements like modernism, a style that discouraged the use of historical reference in architecture. As modernism grew in popularity, notable structures in major cities underwent extensive renovations. This often resulted in historic buildings being demolished and replaced with stilted versions that held little regard for the artistic characterizations of surrounding buildings.
In the 1960s, architects began fighting back against the demise of history and culture that they saw taking place in areas such as New York and Chicago. As explained by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi in their book, Learning From Las Vegas, “Postmodern artists created an eclectic movement that fully represented the constantly changing landscape of today’s modern world.”
Here, we take a deep dive into the characteristics of postmodern architecture, explore how modernism influenced this trend, and showcase some of the most iconic buildings that emerged from the movement.
What is Postmodern Architecture?
Postmodern architecture was an international movement that focused on free-thinking design with conceptual consideration to the surrounding environment. These considerations included integrating the design of adjacent buildings into new, postmodern structures, so that they had an element of cohesiveness while still making an impact. This careful consideration can be seen in The Neue Staatsgalerie by James Stirling and Michael Wilford, who fused neoclassical elements with a touch of postmodern flare.
While postmodern buildings were meant to serve a function—as with modernism—postmodernism encouraged creativity and strayed from the rigid rules of modern ideals that dictated simplicity, abstraction, and simple shapes. By mixing a variety of architectural motifs and elements from the Arts and Crafts movement, classicism, neoclassicism, and many other architectural styles, postmodern architecture looked to create buildings that not only honored their local history, but had a unique visual appeal as well.
One of the main criticisms of postmodern architecture is that the work does not fully integrate with its surroundings, as the architects rarely designed buildings to work cohesively with nearby structures. This remained a reason that many refrained from celebrating postmodern work; however, the idea of what constituted acceptable design began to shift over time. Eventually, postmodernism began to take hold, and the cosmopolitan ideals of the movement were touted as those that celebrated the future, rather than paying homage to the past. This shift in public opinion helped propel postmodernism into a widespread phenomenon.
Postmodern Architecture Characteristics
With so many variations of postmodern buildings, the criteria for what defines postmodern work is slightly blurred. Historian Mary McLeod defined the movement as “a desire to make architecture a vehicle of cultural expression.” Postmodernism abandoned the idea of adhering to a specific set of rules and instead encouraged artists to get creative and ornate with their designs.
In direct response to the stifling techniques of modern design—including simplistic design and geometric shapes, postmodernism was a contradiction of all the movements that came before it—borrowing inspiration from a wide range of cultures and design elements to create work that had never been seen before. In the case of the Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky, designer Michael Graves integrated techniques from a variety of movements to make a statement about preserving history, while encouraging a progressive approach to design.
Asymmetry was a pillar of the postmodern movement because of its ability to capture attention and create unique buildings that stood out. Sloping pillars, walls, and contrasting structures were commonplace in postmodern works and offered new perspective on what it meant to be a functional building. The juxtaposition of these angles and lines captivated audiences and helped establish postmodernism as a movement to watch. The Groninger Museum showcases this asymmetry through its use of varying shapes, colors, and mediums throughout each of its three main pavilions.
Both humor and camp, an ironic movement of gaudy art that was perceived as beautiful, were used interchangeably throughout the postmodern era, particularly in the United States. And while the postmodern movement began as a rebellion against the rigidity of modernism, camp postmodern work took rebellion to new levels. Theatrical buildings, like Hotel Dolphin (1987) in the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, were famous for their use of humor and overindulgence. By reaching the extremes of what a building could look like, camp architects challenged formality and encouraged creativity in new construction and design.
Postmodern architects were known for creating fragmented buildings that, while still connected as one building, took on the appearance of several different buildings that served various functions. This is epitomized by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, as titanium, the medium used to create this work, changes color depending on the surrounding light. This helped bring new life to the building depending on the time of day that the structure is viewed, offering a totally different aesthetic in daylight than in the evening.
Complexity can be used to describe all postmodern works, as the integration of a variety of colors, textures, shapes, and themes construct the framework of these unique buildings. Complexity was used to pivot away from the uniformity of modernism and establish a new style of design. Frank Gehry’s Dancing House is the perfect example of complexity in postmodern architecture; the use of varying mediums and lines helped to create an otherworldly structure.
Noteworthy Examples of Postmodern Architecture
Piazza D’Italia (1978)
Charles Moore’s Piazza D’Italia was constructed in 1978 in New Orleans, Louisiana. This public square is home to a variety of outlandish Italian architectural landmarks including fountains, canopies, and columns. Hailed as an architectural masterpiece, the structure was restored in 2004 to correct deterioration that had occurred due to lack of development in the surrounding area.
The Portland Building (1982)
Created by designer Michael Graves, The Portland Building in Portland, Oregon was one of the first postmodern pieces to rely on more traditional materials such as reinforced concrete and fibreglass. While many postmodern buildings of the time used glass to invoke a sense of mysticism, Graves’ work implemented a variety of unique design techniques on each side of the building. In showing a new way to display the same characteristics, Graves helped to cement postmodern designs as a long-term movement.
Bank of America Center (1984)
Drawing on both gothic and postmodern elements, the Bank of America Center (formerly known as the NationsBank Center) was built in 1983 by Johnson-Burgee Architects in Houston, Texas. The building is fragmented into three towers, topped with gable roofing and spires to create a medieval-inspired theme as well as to keep birds from gathering on the building’s many ledges. By blending function with exuberant design, this building serves as a reminder of the varying styles that postmodern design drew inspiration from.
The Neue Staatsgalerie (1984)
Often touted as the “epitome of postmodernism,” this building by architects James Stirling and Michael Wilford has neoclassical ties with industrial finishes. In order to keep the overall framework of the building in harmony with its surroundings, traditional elements such as warm colors and natural textures were used. The postmodern spin comes from the industrial and neon elements incorporated throughout. This mixture made for a groundbreaking structure that could stand with historic buildings while having its own touch of flare.
Thompson Center (1985)
Built in the mid-1980s in the heart of Chicago, Illinois, the Thompson Center serves as a government building that stands alone in sheer size and shape. Designed by German architect Helmut Jahn, the circular building covered in glass is said to represent the government’s commitment to innovation and openness to the community.
Wexner Center for the Arts (1989)
An excellent example of postmodern ideals of fragmentation and contradiction, the Wexner Center for the Arts was designed by Peter Eisenman and Richard Trott. Commissioned for Ohio State University in 1989, the building serves both the visual and performing arts. By using a plethora of materials and styles, the building took on a multidimensional look and helped to define American architecture during this period.
SIS Building (1994)
Standing on the grounds of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the SIS building was built in 1994 by Terry Farrel and serves as the home base for the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence agency, the Secret Intelligence Service. As the United States served as the primary breeding ground for the postmodernist movement, the SIS building is one of the most notable examples of postmodern architecture in Europe. By combining various shapes, mediums and themes, the SIS is a daunting and jaunty building that stands apart from other structures in the U.K.
Binoculars Building (2001)
Also known as the Chiat/Day Building, the Binoculars Building was completed in 2001, and incorporated larger-than-life artwork by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. By using the arch of the binoculars as an entryway, this postmodern structure strikes a balance between camp and function.
The postmodern movement granted designers permission to draw inspiration from a variety of genres and eras, influencing the diversity of modern skylines. The innovative leaders of the postmodern era encouraged architects to step away from traditional rules and experiment with what a structure could look like, which serves as the basis for many artistic expressions today.