Imagine only being able to color with a No. 2 pencil, then suddenly being able to use a full Prismacolor set. That’s what the transition from modernism to postmodernism was like. With its vibrant hues, wild shapes, and historical winks, postmodern architecture rejected the stoic rigidity of its predecessor. Liberated from modern architecture’s preoccupation with formal purity and “honest” materials, postmodern architects were free to use every bit of their creative imagination. The results were often mind-boggling, as the new book Post-Modern Buildings In Britain (Pavilion 2017) shows.
Today postmodern architecture is having a moment, as this fairly recent movement–which flourished from the late 1970s through the 1980s–is increasingly viewed through a historic lens. At the same time, it’s at the center of several fierce preservation battles. Buildings from this era are finally old enough to be considered for landmark status, yet developers are keen on renovating them for modern tastes. Such is the case with the AT&T Building, in New York, which is currently steeped in controversy over a Snøhetta-designed plan to convert the lower floors into glass. Similarly, there’s pressure to update many of Britain‘s postmodern buildings for 21st-century tastes.
Post-Modern Buildings In Britain aims to raise awareness about these architectural treasures by introducing readers to their inventiveness.
Take architect John Outram’s 1986 design for a pumping station in London. While the building has the elements of a classical Greek temple–a triangular pediment, symmetrical facade, and columns–the proportions are exaggerated and Outram emblazons the tops of the columns with whimsical colors and patterns. An exhaust fan smack in the middle of the pediment looks like an ominous all-seeing eye. The structure appears as if it was pulled from a pop-art painting. A similar nod to history mixed with jolts of color also appear in a the China Wharf Building, a waterfront apartment building by the firm CZWG. Completed in 1986, it references an Art Nouveau train station in Vienna, with a facade of mostly bluish glass except for a brick-red arch tacked onto its front. Sometimes architects mined other disciplines for inspiration. At his home in Scotland in 1988, designer and historian Charles Jencks created a staircase that climbs a hill and zig-zags to look like DNA’s double helix shape.
“The built works of British post-modernism, always in the minority, are today fast disappearing–hence this book,” authors Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood write in the book’s intro. “But the post-modern movement’s guiding principles and strategies–chief among them pluralism, context, narrative and subversion–have never been more relevant to contemporary architecture.”