“Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3:32pm (or thereabouts).” This oft-quoted pronouncement by cultural and architectural theorist Charles Jencks refers to the demolition of the Wendell O. Pruitt Homes and William Igoe Apartments. The fate of that short-lived public housing complex, better and more infamously known as Pruitt-Igoe, still holds rhetorical value in America in arguments against the supposed social-engineering ambitions made concrete (often literally) in large-scale postwar modernist buildings. Though the true story is more complicated, the fact remains that, whenever we pinpoint it, modern architecture was widely regarded as “dead.” What would come after it?
Why, postmodernism, of course. Jencks did more than his part to define modernism’s anything-goes successor movement with The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, in which he tells the tale of Pruitt-Igoe, which was then relatively recent history.
The first edition came out in 1977, early days indeed in the life of postmodernism, which in a video from Historic England architectural historian Elain Harwood calls “the style of the nineteen-eighties.” Its riots of deliberately incongruous shape and color, as well as its heaped-up unsubtle cultural and historical references, suited that unbridled decade as perfectly as did the elegantly garish furniture of the Memphis group.
In recent years, however, the buildings left behind by postmodernism have got more than a few of us asking questions — questions like, “Are they intentionally weird and tacky, or just designed with no taste?” That’s how Youtuber Betty Chen puts it in the ARTiculations video just above, before launching into an investigation of postmodern architecture’s origin, purpose, and place in the built environment today. In her telling, the style was born in the early nineteen-sixties, when architect Robert Venturi designed a rule-breaking house for his mother in Philadelphia, deciding “to distort the pure order of the modernist box by reintroducing disproportional arrangements of classical elements such as four-pane windows, arches, the pediment, and the decorative dado.”
An important theorist of postmodernism as well as a practitioner (usually working in both roles with his wife and collaborator Denise Scott Brown), Venturi converted arch-modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s declaration that “less is more” into what would become, in effect, postmodernism’s brief manifesto: “Less is a bore.” Venturi described himself as choosing “messy vitality over obvious unity,” and the same could be said of a range of his colleagues in the eighties and nineties: Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, and Charles Moore in America; Also Rossi, Ricardo Bofill, and Bernard Tschumi in Europe; Minoru Takeyama, Kengo Kuma, and Arata Isozaki in Japan.
Postmodern architecture flowered especially in Britain: “The irreverence came from America, the classicism from Europe,” says Harwood. “What British architects did was weave those two elements together.” As one of those architects, Sir Terry Farrell, tells Historic England, “the preceding era had been earnest and anonymous”; after international modernism, the time had come to re-introduce personality, and in a flamboyant manner. His colleague Piers Gough remembers feeling, in the mid-sixties, a certain envy for pop art — “they were doing color, they were doing popular imagery, they had prettier girlfriends” — that inspired them to “ransack popular imagery in architecture.” This project posed certain practical difficulties of its own: “You can design a building to look like a soup can, but the problem really comes when you put the windows in it.”
Renovations to many an aging postmodern building have proven difficult to justify, given that “irreverence and exaggeration are out,” as Brock Keeling writes in a recent Bloomberg piece. “Significant postmodern buildings like the Abrams House in Pittsburgh and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego have already been demolished,” and others are endangered: “Fans of the James R. Thompson Center — Helmut Jahn’s 1985 civic building, noted for its sliced-off dome facade and 17-story atrium with blue-and-salmon trim — fear it will deboned in preparation for Google’s new Chicago headquarters.” The true architectural postmodernism enthusiast also appreciates much humbler works, such as Jeffrey Daniels’ Los Angeles Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise that unintentionally evokes of both a chicken and a chicken bucket. Long may it stand.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.