How could postmodernism liberate us? Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman on its resonances, relevance and freedoms
Sir Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman are improbable collaborators. Forty-four years apart in age, Farrell is a knighted principal of a leading global practice and arguably the UK’s foremost architect planner and Furman is an exuberant designer and social media influencer. What they share is a regard for postmodernism as a liberating force.
Much maligned since its heyday in the 1980s, postmodernism has an uneasy status in architecture. It remains rejected as a formal style which catholically embraces a wide range of historical and stylistic influences, yet many of its central tenets, such as the contextual and pluralism in urban place-making, have been absorbed into everyday practice.
In the wake of the postmodern years, a McCarthyism has reigned in architecture that has led many of its protagonists to deny their initial allegiance. As Furman highlights in Revisiting Post-Modernism, which he wrote with Farrell, it was not until 2011 and Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 at the V&A that Denise Scott Brown felt able to come out as a postmodernist. We are, as Farrell proposes, simultaneously ‘All postmodern now’, and yet not quite ...
For Farrell at the end of the 1970s, postmodernism presented itself as a ‘new way of thinking about the world – bigger than architecture, encompassing poetry, fiction, cinema and history itself.’ In the work of those such as James Stirling, ‘modernism begat postmodernism’ and freed architects from the ‘phoney over structured rationalism of modernism’. Ultimately, it led Farrell to ‘a passion for the cityscape’.
When in 1985 Farrell was invited to appear at the Mansion House Square public inquiry into the posthumous realisation of the 1960s plaza and tower scheme by Mies van der Rohe, he presented his own alternative proposal. Building on the characteristics of the existing buildings, Farrell proposed retaining the handsome Victorian Mappin and Webb structure, and focusing on the pedestrian realm. In this way his solution for Mansion House heralded a new era of urban design, foreshadowing today’s more contextual approach to public space.
Postmodernism also liberated what architecture could be and do, and its relationship to popular culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Farrell’s flamboyant TV-am Building, completed in 1983 at Camden Lock. A renovation of a 1930s industrial garage, the studio’s crowning egg cups, TV-am signed facade and sunrise arch became iconic of breakfast television and a new commercial media culture. The global 24-hour nature of television was embraced in its interior spaces with bold themes from around the world and a central atrium that ran east to west following the sun’s path.
As Farrell highlights, it became a significant precursor to Google, pioneering the notion of workplaces being open and fun. It is no coincidence that Clive Wilkinson, job architect of TV-am’s interior at Farrell’s office, went on to become principal of his own practice in Culver City, LA, responsible for designing Googlepex in Silicon Valley in 2005. It was Wilkinson’s Googleplex design that first convinced Google to shift away from a conventional cubicle layout and embrace transparent workspaces, which have since become synonymous with tech companies worldwide.
For Furman, postmodernism also has the potential to open up architecture to richer and more diverse influences, to ‘ornament, expressiveness, narrative, history – everything that alludes to the contemporary condition’. It brings a richness that is otherwise missing says Furman: ‘Diversity and culture is too often banned from architecture.’ Postmodernism has absorbed his otherwise excluded ‘interest in exuberance, vigorous expressionism’.
Furman first encountered Farrell’s buildings when he was still at school: Alban Gate, SIS Building (MI6) and Charing Cross Station. In his late teens he discovered the excitement of the latter in the three-dimensional maze of the nightclub Heaven beneath it. Wild, drug-fuelled nights were intensified by its complex, rich forms: ‘Charing Cross is futuristically thrilling and dense – almost Asian in its complexity – which renders it current as well as contextual.’
At university in the early 2000s, Furman found that the instinctive pleasure that he encountered in the work of Stirling and Farrell ran counter to current architectural orthodoxy in terms of taste and approach. He recounts how tutors regarded it as their job to beat his delight for colour, pattern and ornament out of him. Even though he has since established an international following on Instagram and is engaged on prestigious commissions for his highly colourful and exuberant contemporary product designs and installations, his work still stands to the side of architectural culture. He believes it remains contentious in architecture to care about aesthetics, ornament and stylistic aspects of design, and to draw too plainly from the past. As Furman states: ‘Queerness, liberalism and multiculturism embodied in aesthetics are so, so, so important to me; the techniques and openness of that period.’
Postmodernism in its widest definition, spanning the 1950s to 1980s, allowed for this expression ‘for the first time,’ he says. The controls and strictures of current culture might be more nuanced and less overt than they were 40 years ago when modernism held sway, but they endure. For Furman, postmodernism prevails as a liberating force today – when it is even more pressing that we have a diverse range of aesthetic influences and attitudes explicitly expressed in the built environment.
Helen Castle is publishing director at the RIBA.