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Postmodernism: Use and ornament

Hugh Pearman

Two new books together cover postmodernism comprehensively, raising questions and making the reader think again

“Postmodern Buildings in Britain” by Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood (Batsford, £25) and “Revisiting Postmodernism” by Sir Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman (RIBA Publishing, £35).
“Postmodern Buildings in Britain” by Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood (Batsford, £25) and “Revisiting Postmodernism” by Sir Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman (RIBA Publishing, £35).

Brutalism has had its comeback. Now it is postmodernism’s turn, but you really need to look outside the UK to understand the movement properly. Here in the UK Nikolaus Pev­sner first applied what had previously been an artistic term to the vernacular-influenced Norfolk housing of Tayler and Green as early as 1962, and applied it also to what he saw as the personality-cult 1960s brutalism of the Smithsons and Stirling and Gowan. By and large, though, we came relatively late to the party in the 1970s and our view is skewed by the brief burst of commercial PoMo that took place, broadly speaking, in the decade from 1985 to 1995, with most of it happening in the ‘Lawson boom’ of the late 1980s. There were various reasons for that, among them the powerful combination of retro-culture encouraged by both Thatcherism and Prince Charles-ism which had the effect of favouring anything that did not look ‘modern’. It got mixed up in people’s minds with traditionalism, which is very different. That’s a shame because elsewhere – in Italy especially – subtler forms of PoMo emerged over a much longer period in the post-war years, from Ernesto Rogers to Aldo Rossi, say.

Revisiting Postmodernism and Postmodern Buildings in Britian are both written by expert pairings in their respective fields. The Franklin/Harwood book – published under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Society – confines itself to the UK, with illustrated overseas outings by Stirling/Wilford only (we get only the briefest mentions of the Dutch work of John Outram, or the Japanese buildings of Branson Coates). It’s an excellent catalogue with a wide-ranging (more international) introduction but it contains almost no surprises, beyond the inclusion of Benson & Forsyth’s Museum of Scotland of 1996-8 which for some reason I had never considered as PoMo, rather modern-historicist. And then there’s Demetri Porphyrios’ contemporaneous Three Brindleyplace in Birmingham – I’d previously filed that under neoclassicism. Perhaps it is the use of exaggerated effect in both that pulls them into the net, but if so, I don’t see why SOM’s massive Chicago-inspired commercial palaces in the City of London and Canary Wharf are dismissed in a few lines, with no photos. It seems that PoMo in its decadent gigantist commercial phase is regarded as beyond the pale: ‘Their work lacked the cutting wit and irony of the early, smaller trailblazers of the style,’ sniff the authors. Which is true, but they shouldn’t be ignored.

  • Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia, New Orleans, 1978.
    Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia, New Orleans, 1978. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Portcullis House, Janet Hall.
    Portcullis House, Janet Hall. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Retti Candle Shop, Keith Collie.
    Retti Candle Shop, Keith Collie. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Byker Wall.
    Byker Wall. Credit: RIBA Collections

It’s a matter of personal choice: I, for instance, would have definitely included Rogers’ Lloyd’s of London with its collage elements and straight reference to Paxton’s Crystal Palace, not to mention the exuberantly Baroque Channel 4 HQ and – of course! – Piano and Rogers’ 1970s Pompidou Centre, that paradigmatic colourful reaction against clinical modernism as much as it is against conventional cultural tropes and construction methods. For me these are just different architectural expressions of the alt.mod mindset of their time.

In contrast to the Franklin/Harwood book, Farrell and Furman’s offering does consider the high-tech crowd. Farrell (first half of the book) , places them in the fourth of his five PoMo categories as ‘the unknowingly but reformed modernists that adjusted everything they did because they could no longer remain aloof from, or impenetrable to, the influence of postmodernism’. Well, I’d say that Rogers in particular led rather than followed, and has always acknowledged the influence of his uncle Ernesto among many others such as Rudolph, Wright and Kahn, but this is a matter of debate: he identifies as a modernist of course. Others that Farrell includes here for various reasons are Chipperfield, Calatrava, Hopkins, and his former partner Grimshaw, Piano – but more for their ‘contextual and placemaking’ abilities than their stylings. So Farrell thinks Rogers has BECOME a bit PoMo. I’d say he always was. By the way, if you’ve seen Foster’s Bloomberg HQ you do tend to find PoMo touches in it, and I never thought I’d find myself saying that of him.

Revisiting Postmodernism throws its net globally in fewer pages than Post-Modern Buildings in Britain, making it a very rich, condensed primer. It is also highly unusual: rather than being authored by academics it is the joint work of a seasoned leading practitioner and a young enthusiast, himself a designer who works in architecture – and also a Rome Scholar, so no slouch academically. Farrell of course helped to define and build the era: Furman is one of those who – though he rejects the postmodern tag for his own joyful, allusive, highly coloured work – has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. Between them – one reliving the time, the other discovering it two generations on – they bring their own large personalities to the subject.

  • World Financial Center, Battery Park City, Lower Manhattan. Cesar Pelli, 1988.
    World Financial Center, Battery Park City, Lower Manhattan. Cesar Pelli, 1988. Credit: Adam Nathaniel Furman
  • TVam, London. Terry Farrell, 1983.
    TVam, London. Terry Farrell, 1983. Credit: Terry Farrell, 1983
  • Vanna House.
    Vanna House. Credit: Terry Farrell
  • Torre Velasca, Monica Pidgeon.
    Torre Velasca, Monica Pidgeon. Credit: RIBA Collections

Here there are more surprises. Peter Barber? The charming wavy-roofed, be-portholed project shown is convincing. Eric Parry? Increasingly so, especially his building in Piccadilly. Ditto Caruso St John for its Tate Britain interventions. And – because it is sometimes overlooked – it’s great to see Ed Jones’ 1987 Mississauga City Hall in the ­hero-gallery at the heart of this book. Good also to see a discussion of the ‘stratospherically stretched Gothic ogee-arches and ribs’ of Minoru Yamasaki’s 1971 World Trade Center in New York City, especially as it was the demolition of the same architect’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis that Charles Jencks famously described as the moment modernism died. Best of all, there are examples here from around the world, especially Bolivia, which I’d never seen before.

Farrell sees postmodernism as an expression of societal change, more bottom-up than the patrician top-down prescriptions of much post-war planning and building. Furman states that: ‘Postmodernism is at its heart an architecture that embraces the chaos and mediated, saturated, complex and global nature of the contemporary world.’ And of course it did not go away. Both books show today’s examples by emerging architects and established names alike. You need both books, but if I could choose only one, for its vigour and breadth of subject matter it would be Revisiting Postmodernism.

Revisiting Postmodernism by Sir Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman (RIBA Publishing, £35)


Postmodern Buildings in Britain by Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood (Batsford, (£25)