A spotter’s guide to Post-Modern architecture

Post-Modernism in architecture was an international phenomenon, which can be defined by its relationship to the Modern Movement.

While embracing the technology of industrialised society, Post-Modern architects looked to previous traditions for style and embraced metaphor and symbolism.

Emerging in the 1970s, Post-Modernism was short lived and, as a result, surviving examples of significance in Britain are rare and predominantly found in London or the South East.

Exterior of Hillingdon Civic Centre
Hillingdon Civic Centre, RMJM, 1973-1977 © Historic England Archive DP183672

In Europe, Post-Modernism focused on urban context with abstracted references to classicism and the regional vernacular, while in the US the movement prioritised monumental architecture designed in the country’s architectural traditions.

British Post-Modernism used traditional materials and drew influence from architects like Lutyens, movements like Arts and Crafts, and the eclecticism of the Edwardian period.

Exterior of The Red House
The Red House, Philip Webb and William Morris, 1859-60 Photo copyright Ethan Doyle White

Modernism

In the 1960s, a sense of crisis in Modernism became apparent; architects were accused of enforcing unwanted, rigid doctrines and ignoring the needs of their audience.

Meanwhile, the emergence of a burgeoning conservation movement, the deregulation and globalisation of the UK’s financial services, decreased public spending and changing patterns of work and car usage also contributed to the emergence of a new form of architecture.

A view across the Thames towards One Canada Squarewith boats in the foreground
One Canada Square, Cesar Pelli, Adamson Associates and Frederick Gibberd Coombes, 1988-1991, with Cascades, CZWG, 1987-88 in the foreground © Historic England Archive BB94_04078

A new form of architecture

Whilst Post-Modernism is usually associated with the economic boom of the late 1980s, it really took root during the preceding era of economic stagnation; many early examples in Britain were realised on modest budgets.

Some early projects were also temporary – such as Terry Farrell’s Clifton Nurseries at Covent Garden (1980-1) – or remodelled existing structures, such as Farrell’s TV-am studios in Camden (1981-3).

© Copyright Mike Quinn
TV-am studios © Copyright Mike Quinn

Post-Modernism mostly fell out of favour in the early 1990s, experiencing a brief revival in the work of architects and designers like FAT and later Adam Nathaniel Furman, Camille Walala and Studio Weave.

The bright orange exterior of Islington Square, Manchester
Islington Square, Manchester, FAT Architecture, 2006 © Historic England Archive DP136574

Here are 5 excellent examples of Post-Modern architecture:

1. No. 1 Poultry, London

Exterior of No 1 Poultry
No. 1 Poultry from the south east © Historic England Archive DP131021

James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s unsurpassed example of commercial Post-Modernism, on a monumental scale was listed at Grade II* in 2016, just 22 years after construction began. On first impression its expressive use of colour dominates but, on closer inspection, it is scholarly in its references, particularly to the classical precedent.

2. St Mark’s Road and Cowper Terrace, London

Cowper Terrace © Historic England Archive DP195620

This scheme of housing, designed by Jeremy and Fenella Dixon for the Kensington Housing Trust in 1975, pays tribute to a London tradition – the use of eclecticism to express the individuality of houses. The terraces drew upon traditional urban street patterns and housing types, fusing traditional materials with historic references and straddling the boundaries between a romantic Modernism and Post-Modernism. It was listed at Grade II in May 2018.

3. Isle of Dogs Pumping station, London

Isle of Dogs Pumping Station
Isle of Dogs Pumping Station, Tower Hamlets, London © Historic England Archive DP195587

John Outram’s ‘Temple of Storms’ was built as part of the 1980s regeneration of London’s Docklands. Edward Hollamby was chief architect and planner to the Docklands Development Corporation and, rather than using his in-house team, hired a number of leading private architects including Nicholas Grimshaw, Richard Rogers and John Outram.

Built on a small budget, the pumping station is (typically of Outram’s work) heavy with complex iconography making extensive reference classical architecture and mythology. It was listed at Grade II* in 2017.

4. Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, London

Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery
Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery,Trafalgar Square, London© Historic England Archive DP183694

Completed in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing is the only work in Britain by Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi, arguably the founders of Post-Modernism. After a controversial competition, Venturi, Scott-Brown and Associates were selected to design the extension, using Post-Modern devices in response to context. It was listed at Grade I in 2018.

5. Homebase, London

Homebase, 
195 Warwick Road, 
London W14
Egypt in England
Homebase, Warwick Road London © Historic England Archive DP103884

Before he was the Naked Gardener, Ian Pollard enjoyed a brief career as an architect and developer, making full use of wit and irony in his Egyptianate Homebase in Kensington (1988-90), which was demolished in 2014. Supposedly Pollard chose the style to represent longevity and the forward progression of human creativity. One of the engraved Gods on the exterior wields a power tool, whilst any text was written in English, in a font named ‘Egyptian’.

Homebase, 
195 Warwick Road, 
London W14
Egypt in England
Homebase, Warwick Road London © Historic England Archive DP103882

 

Further Reading

2 responses to A spotter’s guide to Post-Modern architecture

  1. Surprised Stirling and Gowan’s Engineering Building at the University of Leicester not mentioned here. Completed in 1963 it’s generally reckoned to be the first post-modernist building in the UK.

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