The bright orange exterior of Islington Square, Manchester
A spotter's guide to Architecture

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.

Post-Modern architecture emerged in the 1970s as a critical reaction to Modernism and its ‘less is more’ principle.

The style is an essential strand of late 20th-century architecture.

Often colourful, eclectic, playful and bold, Post-Modern architecture is increasingly valued for its architectural and historical significance.

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

Photograph of the exterior of Hillingdon Civic Centre, a large complex brick building.
The Grade II listed Hillingdon Civic Centre in Uxbridge, Greater London. © Historic England Archive. View image DP183672.

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

Postmodernism vs. 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 to 1991, with Cascades, CZWG, 1987 to 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 to 1981), or remodelled existing structures, such as Farrell’s TV-am studios in Camden (1981 to 1983).

A photograph of the exterior of a building with yellow and orange stripes and circle shapes on the side.
TV-am studios. © 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. View image DP136574.

Here are five excellent examples of Post-Modern architecture:

1. No. 1 Poultry, London

A photograph of the exterior of No.1 Poultry, a multi coloured brick building in London centre.
No. 1 Poultry from the south east. © Historic England Archive. View image 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

A photograph of terrace housing with bright blue features.
Cowper Terrace. © Historic England Archive. View image 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

A photograph of the exterior of Isle of Dogs Pumping Station with Egyptian features on the pillars.
Isle of Dogs Pumping Station, Tower Hamlets, London. © Historic England Archive. View image 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

A photograph of the exterior of the National Gallery, a large white stone building.
Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London. © Historic England Archive. View image 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

A photograph of the exterior a Homebase store, with Egyptian style pillars and green décor.
Homebase, Warwick Road, London. © Historic England Archive. View image 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 to 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’.

Exterior view of the south-east elevation of Homebase showing Egyptian hieroglyphics and figures in sunken relief.
Homebase, Warwick Road London. © Historic England Archive. View image DP103882.

Further Reading

4 comments on “A Spotter’s Guide to Post-Modern Architecture

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    Post Modernism in architecture……..the new embraces the old

  2. 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.

  3. Pollard’s Homebase was a) part of Sainsbury’s interesting programme in the 80s and 90s to hire individual firms to design some of their stores (see Grimshaw at Camden) and b) emasculated by one of the Sainsbury brothers before opening, which is why the column capitals have been painted white. Other elements were also removed.

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