It is improbable to fathom the impressions of postmodernism in the architectural discourse without first comprehending the negation caused by the supposed chastity of modernism and its ideologies of mass production and mass repetition since the 1960s. The most tactile critique and the eventual death of modernism date back to the Information Revolution in a Post-Industrial Society when work typologies changed substantially from brutal factories to tasteful offices and homes, instituting the requisite for a tailored architecture that communicates with the public. The destitute forms of glass and steel boxes for assumably-cliched user taste were, thus and so deemed alienated, predictable, functionally indistinguishable, inarticulate, and—above all—uncontrolled by the inhabitant, ergo wrecking the adamant dogmas of Modern Architecture.

Postmodern Architecture 

Postmodernism emerged in the 1970s as a reaction against the doctrines and dominance of modernism in all media forms—such as art, architecture, literature, film, and philosophy—to challenge its discouragement of the historic, uptight technique, monotonicity, pretense, austerity, and rationality and instead create a more intriguing, sceptical, complex, symbolic, and eclectic genre for individual interpretation and communication of cultural values. As a transcendence from modernism, postmodernism borrowed the fruits of modern technology while advocating the return of tradition and the universal grammar of classicism, juxtaposing them to develop a language the locals understand, propelling postmodernism as a widespread phenomenon. Through art, ornament, and symbolism, Postmodern Architecture became public art.

The Decorative Shed and The Duck

Robert Venturi—an American architect and theorist—was one of the first influencers of Postmodern Architecture and authored two books: Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas, to promote the subject and its new ways of thinking about buildings and facades, coining the famed pun against minimalism- Less is a bore, to make architecture unique and more appealing. In the latter, Venturi and Scott Brown profoundly analysed the Las Vegas Strip, comparing the typology of the Decorated Shed as a conventional generic building with applied signages against the Duck, a building inherently shaped as a symbol. Rich layers of form-based transference of meaning supplanted diversity and freedom in postmodernism, with the movement flourishing throughout the 1990s.

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The Big Duck _©Mike Peel

Exemplars of Postmodern Architecture

The manifesto of postmodernism was primarily assayed and cultivated by Robert Venturi’s Vanna Venturi House in 1964, wholly and wilfully designed to decry every modernist norm. This reimagined suburban house in Pennsylvania symbolises the imagery of a traditional shelter with its reinterpreted symmetrically-split gabled roof and an aggrandised chimney. The project matures with a central entrance and an assortment of contrasting windows juxtaposed with a composition of rectangular, curvilinear, and diagonal facade elements, disintegrating the equilibrium of the aggregate. Unconventional interiors with a whimsical flare of exaggerated fireplaces and mantels, decorative elements without function, minimal circulation, awkward angles, steep stairs, and squatty-proportioned wide and low doors shun modernist simplicity and homogeneity to add a dichotomic dimension of complexity and contradiction.

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Vanna Venturi House_©Steven Goldblatt

The pioneering building on a grand scale giving validation and tangibility to postmodernism in the public realm was The Portland Municipal Services Building by Michael Graves—an American architect, designer, and educator—designed through a competition victory floated by the City of Portland in 1979. Highly contested by modernists, Graves’ cheerful pink and teal monumental building was economically designed with reinterpreted Free-Style Classical elements such as a scaled-up keystone with ribbons, heavy blue and green pilasters, a two-story pedestal, and a sculptured maiden personifying civic hopes and virtues flying over the entrance, eventually capturing the citizens’ imagination.

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The Portland Building_©James Ewing JBSA

Following more postmodernist paragons through the late 20th century like Michael Graves’ Denver Public Library, Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore, James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, Aldo Rossi’s Bonnefanten Museum, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and many more, Wil Alsop’s distinguished The Share Centre for Design with its prominent pixelated black-and-white screen and twelve colourful legs emerges as a comparatively recent illustration of postmodernism from 2004. The new Faculty of Design as an eclectic postmodern design of a flying ‘table top’ stands 26 meters above the streetscape, generously providing an outdoor public space below with improved circulation while offering enduring effectiveness and iconic appeal.

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Sharp Center for Design_©Richard Johnson

Deconstructivist Architecture

Postmodernism wasn’t the only daring upshot of the brawl against the stereotypical homogeneity of modernism. Deconstructivism, a movement emerging from and against the postmodernist continuity in the 1980s, audaciously interrogated the characteristics of conservative architecture, its safe reality, geometric forms, compositional stability, structural purity, and unified harmony even further. A critical turning point in this advancement was through Russian Constructivism in the early 20th century, where tradition was crumbled radically and balanced hierarchical relationships between forms were disturbed violently, creating a network of conflicting axes and impure forms with the works of El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin as trailblazers.

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El Lissitzky’s painting on the principles of Suprematism_©2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkVG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

A portmanteau of the philosophical movement, deconstruction led by the French theorist Jacques Derrida, and Russian Constructivism, deconstructivism, and its interdisciplinary negotiations first hatched during the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988. The curators Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley featured the works of seven architects—Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelb(l)au—who, they argued, shared a similar inevitable radicality towards architectural modernist pastiche with their visual configurations of instability, disassembly, fragmentation, dynamics, distortion, and—sometimes—abstraction.

Exemplars of Deconstructivist Architecture

The most effective project from the early deconstructivist movement is the Parc de la Villette in Paris, designed by the French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi in 1983, crowned as the winning proposal for the international competition of an “urban park for the 21st century”. With a complex program of cultural amenities, Tschumi’s design—referring to early Constructivist works—superimposed the organisation of points, lines, and surfaces with 35 red follies placed in a 120×120 square meter grid as points of reference, intersecting straight and curvy promenades promoting movement as lines, and fractured topographies for activities, recreation, and greens as surfaces. Each deconstructed folly is an artistic composition of a fragmented cube, reassembled and manipulated through a system to form varying autonomous monuments with ambiguous functionality. La Villette—albeit receiving criticism for its vastness and lack of historicism—manifests Tschumi’s theory of ‘Architecture and Disjunction’ through a novel urban typology for the first time with a de-structured structure.

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Representation of the Parc de La Villette_©Bernard Tschumi Architects
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Exploded Representation of a Folly_©Bernard Tschumi Architects

Tschumi had also invited Peter Eisenman and Jacques Derrida to collaborate in the La Villette project to instigate critical architectural explorations in deconstructivism through discussions initiated with their latest works: Romeo and Juliet Project by Eisenman and the interpretation of Chora by Derrida as “the place where everything is received as an imprint” which became the primary scheme to create textual architecture on three sites by destabilizing time and place. Choral Works was a project that focused on the representation and figuration of chora, questioning traditional norms through layers of history, traces, superpositions, imprints, mass and void, scalings, and shifts in time and place.

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La Villette (Choral Works)_©Eisenman Architects

The Peak Leisure Club by Zaha Hadid—an Iraqi-British architect and artist—is a proposed horizontal skyscraper forming an artificial topography on the hills of Hong Kong, blurring the distinction between the artificial and the natural cliffs, depicted in a set of paintings inspired by the Suprematists. The project is a violent composition of four large linear beams conflicting with the strong geometric forms of the ‘polished granite mountain’, leaving their traces in volumes, disturbing the orthogonal subdivisions, buckling the walls, and splintering the internal grid, thus inventing fractures and unique geologies that appear to hover for different programmatic spaces of the high-life. Though never built, The Peak forces traditional modernism apart and remains Hadid’s pioneering deconstructivist architectural work exploring distortion, fluidity, and dynamics through overlaying elements.

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Drawing of The Peak Leisure Club_©Zaha Hadid Architects
Painting of The Peak Leisure Club_©Zaha Hadid Architects

Architectural Movements

Vital to the progress of architecture and classified as an assortment of styles, architectural movements are responsible for a legacy of historic breakthroughs and timeless structures in resonance with technology, time, and cultural ideals over the years. Postmodernism and deconstructivism emerged as reactions against the rigidity of the modernist precursors. With the urge for avant-garde typologies and the impulse to transgress intellectual capabilities, these cogent radicals—alongside other like-minded contemporaries—dared to find validity in contorting the traditional, thrusting architectural culture forward with zest and vigour.


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