postmodernism


postmodernism
   The use of the term ‘postmodernism’ in connection with architecture was not common until the critic Charles Jencks began publishing on the subject in 1975. Jencks described postmodernism as primarily a matter of ‘double coding’, by which he meant the simultaneous appeal to different publics. The new architecture owed everything, structurally, to the modern movement (see modernism), but at the same time its concern for the facade challenged modernist ideology about form and function. Meanwhile the facades themselves could be doubly coded, appealing to an ‘interested minority’, such as architects and critics, as well as the general public. In practice, postmodern architecture made use of modern building techniques—steel or concrete frames, curtain walling, lifts, mechanical servicing and so on—but allowed decoration to return to the facade. Above all, the playful use of the facade allowed postmodern buildings to respond to the styles in their immediate surroundings.
   Postmodernist treatment of the facade was ironic. Gothic, classical, or other forms were appropriated playfully, an approach quite distinct from the nineteenth century battle of styles, in which what was being contested though the style of public buildings was nothing less than national identity. Irony separates postmodern architecture not only from these earlier appropriations of style, but from the modern movement which was itself formally varied, and also late modern architecture, represented in Britain by architects such as Norman Foster (see Foster Associates) and Richard Rogers. Postmodernism was the dominant architectural mode during the 1980s, but there is little doubt that it has now been superseded. Before 1981, nearly all building described as postmodern had been American, for good reason: before 1981, nearly all building in Britain had taken place in the public sector, and all areas of this had been subject to strict ideological controls. Public sector architects brought up with the belief that architecture could be socially improving had no time for the exuberant facadism associated with the postmodern. There was, it should also be noted, relatively little demand for commercial architecture until the financial boom of the mid-1980s. Postmodernism in Britain is therefore closely associated with the changes of the first two periods of Conservative government after 1979, and as a result has tended to be described unfavourably by left-wing critics.
   Regarding postmodern buildings in Britain, it should be remarked first that some of the most significant projects (Canary Wharf, The Sainsbury Wing to the National Gallery, the Broadgate development in the City of London) were designed by American architects, or had substantial American involvement in the planning stages. Second, true postmodern architecture as defined by Jencks is generally only found in London. The economic boom of the 1980s benefited London and the South East much more than other parts of the country, and consequently the opportunities (or the will) to build exuberant architecture were much more limited.
   The Clore Gallery extension to the Tate Gallery, built by James Stirling, was probably the first major public example of the style to appear. Built 1982–6, it comprises an L-shaped extension built around a small garden. Its complex facade relates to the elements of the older buildings immediately adjacent, so it continues, but quickly modifies, the classicism of the main gallery building. There are a number of characteristic jokes, too: the bright green colour of the window frames is deliberately provocative, while a stone is deliberately left ‘missing’ at the junction of the old building and the new, as if to pretend that the building is not quite complete.
   A similarly chameleon-like building was the Sainsbury Wing extension to the National Gallery, built 1987–91 and designed by the American architect Robert Venturi and partners. Its five facades each relate to a different part of the surrounding environment. The Corinthian columns of the Trafalgar Square side continue, but modify, the main facade of the original building; the second facade, adjacent to this, relates to the more sober Canada House and the gentlemens’ clubs beyond.
   Terry Farrell’s vast office schemes at Vauxhall Cross (1989–92), now occupied by MI6, and Embankment Place (1991) are among the bestknown postmodern buildings, because of their size and their prominent sites along the Thames. The latter, which makes use of air-rights above Charing Cross station, is closely related in a number of ways to the surrounding environment. The scheme was linked to environmental improvements such as the pedestrianization of Villiers Street and the establishment of a direct link from the station to Hungerford Bridge. But more significant are the historical references the building makes: its main form is a giant arched roof, from which are suspended the office floors. Facing the river is a giant glazed front, punctuated by a round bay faced in stone. The effect recalls a Victorian railway station, yet this is deceptive; the arches do not contain the expected open space, but conventional offices. There are nautical references too, connecting with the ships moored nearby on the Embankment: the bay at the front of the building suggests the bridge of a battleship. Perhaps the most bizarre postmodern office projects was Minster Court (1988–91), built by GMW Partnership in the City of London The scheme is designed to look like a medieval cathedral, and is on the same scale; its central atrium is effectively a nave.
   Other British architects associated with postmodernism are Jeremy Dixon, for housing in Docklands and elsewhere; John Outram for a storm water pumping station in Docklands; and Campbell Zoglowitch Wilkinson Gough for housing in Docklands (including ‘Cascades’, a twenty-storey tower on a nautical theme). Outram has continued to design buildings with highly decorated, allegorical facades, but most major postmodernist architects have moved on: the later work of Farrell and Stirling is better described as a reconfigured modernism, and most younger architects seem to prefer this mode. The quotation of historical styles is still common, but Outram apart, this tends to be done much more soberly than before.
   Further reading
    Jencks, C. (1977) The Language of Postmodern Architecture, London: Academy Editions.
   RICHARD J. WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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