Postmodernism: the antidote to London's apathetic architecture?

Amid the capital’s characterless answer to the housing crisis and the narcissistic steel-and-glass megaliths of the City, postmodernism in London is in full-scale revival. Now, a new book explores how architecture can be functional and fun

London has become the global epicentre for postmodern architecture – just see Peter Barber Architects’ Holmes Road Studios in Camden, AOC’s Nunhead Community Centre in Southwark, or Short & Associates’ School of Slavonic and East European Studies in Bloomsbury

7 May 2020

Owen Hopkins is less than impressed with the state of much of London’s architecture. “Just look at the buildings that have gone up over recent years – they’re cheap, generic rubbish, put up to make money, not with a view to the contribution that architecture can make to a city,” continues Hopkins, an architectural historian and author of new book Less is a Bore: Postmodern Architecture. “It’s all play-it-safe architecture. Where are the big bold expressions? Where’s the interest, the meaning, the fun in buildings?”

Hopkins might well look to a number of buildings around London as examples of what we might have instead: the likes of Charles Jencks’ Thematic House in Kensington, Piers Gough’s China Wharf in Southwark, Rex Wilkinson’s Cascades on the Isle of Dogs, or MacCormac Jamison Pritchard and Wright’s Newlands Quay in Shadwell Basin. What do these all have in common? Aside from having been added to the UK’s listed buildings register in 2018, they’re all post-modern buildings. Indeed, they’re among 17 postmodern buildings that were added to the register.

Top image: the McGrath Road project, Startford, by Peter Barber Architects, copyright Morley von Sternberg
This image: Kindergarten Wolfartsweier, Germany, 2002, by Tomi Ungerer and Ayla Suzan Yöndel, from Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore

State of Illinois Center, USA, 1985, by Helmut Jahn, from Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore

“We tend to associate postmodernism with the look of the 1980s, with rampant consumerism, and it’s been tainted by that association,” says Hopkins. “The backlash against it only grew in the 1990s. But the pendulum I think swung too far and there’s an equilibrium that’s now being found. In fact, go around architectural school degree shows and you see all sorts of echoes of postmodernism now from young architects who weren’t indoctrinated against it. Some of it is just fashion. But much of it is much more fundamental. And I’m all in favour of it. It’s time our cities saw more competing architectural styles, rather than the mono-culture we’ve had.”

Certainly postmodern architecture is not to all tastes. Often characterised as a counter-reaction to the austere, practical forms of modernism – with its attempt at an ahistorical timelessness, at creating some final word on how buildings should look – postmodernism was, and is, always a random mix of aesthetics. Around the world it played with decoration, with colour and with shape, outlandishly appropriating and re-working details of classical architecture – pediments and columns, for example – in a way that was light and a little ironic. 

Duncan Hall, USA, 1996, by John Outtam, from Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore

M2 Building, Japan, 1991, by Kengo Kuma, from Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore

For some the result was entertaining – a bright spot on an otherwise grey concrete or glass-fronted landscape. For others it was gaudy, silly, kitsch, at its extreme: the likes NBBJ’s Longaberger Building in Newark, Ohio, which mimics a wicker picnic basket, the stuff more of theme parks than of civic pride. This is a design ethos that gives us a storm water pumping station that seems to come to the Isle of Dogs by way of ancient Egypt (and architect John Outram).

But postmodernism also, as Hopkins stresses, “came up in times of flux and transition, in times of a shift from one political/economic order to another, and we’re going through that shift again now.”

Might it be time for postmodernism to make a return? After a couple of decades in the wilderness, postmodernism has popped up again. More recent years have seen the likes of Peter Barber Architects’ Holmes Road Studios in Camden, AOC’s Nunhead Community Centre in Southwark, Short & Associates’ School of Slavonic and East European Studies in Bloomsbury, and Grayson Perry and FAT’s House for Essex, in Wrabness. 

The Green community centre by Architecture studio AOC, Southwark, featuring herringbone-patterned brickwork

Peter Barber Architects has created the 33-unit 95 Peckham Road, south London, as a modern interpretation of the traditional tenement block

The same is being seen internationally over the last decade, too: check out the likes of WAM Architecten’s Inntel Hotel in Amsterdam, which seems to stack up a number of traditional Dutch townhouses, or Soeters Van Eldonk’s De Piramides housing complex, also in Amsterdam; Adnan Saffarini’s Al Yaqoub Tower in Dubai, which looks akin to a Lego version of Big Ben; or ARM’s Swanston Square Apartment Tower in Melbourne, which has a portrait of an Aboriginal elder integrated into its facade. There’s a freshness to such buildings, one that seems to chime particularly well with this pick ‘n’ mix digital era of endless sampling and re-mixing. And small wonder. 

“On the one hand postmodernism isn’t hung up on any moral agenda that suggests architecture must improve the world,” says Hopkins of the high seriousness demanded of supposedly ‘proper’ architecture. “But it’s also a style that’s interested in maximum aesthetic. It’s happy to be populist, to mix high and low. It’s happy to embrace the complexity, contradictions and disorder of the world and run with them, which has also happened with other architectural styles through history, from baroque to mannerism, in the buildings of Hawksmoor, Nash, Gaudi, Soane, Kahn and so on. The same idea pops up at different moments.”

Indeed, it’s popping up in interiors and design. Again, as an echo of the past: while postmodern architecture of the 1980s was dominated by the Americans – who saw the aesthetic leach into everything from ident design for MTV to the interiors of Baskin Robbins ice cream parlours – it was avant-garde Italians the likes of Alessandro Guerriero’s Studio Alchimia and, most famously, Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis Group, that saw the same approach could be taken with furniture and decorative objects.  

Take the work of Camille Walala by way of example. The East London-based multi-disciplinary designer’s work has included the likes of full facade murals on office buildings in Shoreditch, the transformation of South Molton Street in Mayfair via the creation of a suite of street furniture, as well as work abroad from Brooklyn and Mauritius. What unites it? A love of pattern, shape, texture and primary colour.

Reinterpreting Victorian-type back-to-back housing, Peter Barber Architects has arranged a block of 26 shared-ownership homes around a central courtyard in Stratford, London.

Cascades in the Isle of Dogs, designed by Rex Wilkinson of CZWG, was one of 17 postmodern buildings join the UK's listed building register

“I grew up in the 1980s and my father was an architect who had a few postmodern pieces, and Memphis was always part of my world as I was growing up. And what I love is the fact that postmodernism doesn’t take itself so seriously,” says Walala. “It’s design with a simple, childish element to it – and that’s a good thing as so much design is bound by these unspoken rules. It’s not scared of exploring geometry or really bold colour, and that in turn makes you smile. You only have to see how people react to postmodernism to understand its appeal.

“Perhaps that alone is why postmodernism wasn’t taken seriously for a long time, because it refused to follow rules, though attitudes to it do seem to be changing for the better now,” Walala adds. “We’re getting beyond the idea that postmodernism is something that’s stuck in the late 1970s and 1980s and grasping that it was, in fact, an evolution of prior ideas in design, much a postmodernism today is an evolution of that which came through 30 or 40 years ago. It’s bringing a little joy to a design world that can seem a little stiff.”

Walaha is not alone in her views. Adam Nathaniel Furman is the founder of the Postmodern Society and co-author of another recent book re-assessing postmodernism, Revisiting Postmodernism. He also speaks of the taboo against postmodern in architectural and design circles now slowly being lifted, of how a characteristic of postmodernism – its ability to respond to the here and now, to revel in the moment rather than play a part in some idealised future – is making it all the more relevant again. The UK has, he says, gone from being a nation that dismissed its postmodernist heritage to arguably being the nation that does most to protect it. Indeed, Furman led the campaign for the first postmodern building in the UK to be listed – Sir Terry Farrell’s Comyn Ching scheme in Covent Garden. 

“Postmodernism has really always been about multiple approaches to design – from the academic to radical practitioners – and about expressing many different identities and cultural positions. But what brings it all together is that it’s always valued the visual, or what has typically been dismissed as superficial,” explains Furman, whose work has included furniture, textiles, sculpture and homewares, ceramics for Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and, forthcoming, public art works for Croydon Council. 

“The style has never had that intellectuality that’s defined morose minimalism,” he adds. “It’s remarkable really that whenever there’s some list of the ‘ugliest buildings’, as voted for by architects, they’re nearly all postmodern buildings. And yet there’s never been a period when postmodernism has been so popular with the public. Why? Because while postmodernism can be quite hard to define, it does have this incredible ebullience and vibrancy. And it speaks to a very human need to decorate and embellish. That’s something we did with the inside of caves. It’s something that, deep down, we still want to do.”

‘Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore’, £29.95, Owen Hopkins, uk.phaidon.com