The Neoclassical movement had arisen with the advent of the ‘age of enlightenment’ in the 17th-18th centuries, where reason and science had been given precedence over faith and superstition. This was followed by utopian ideals of society and radical ideologies of Modernist thinking of the 19th century. Modernism also meant that it was a complete step away from tradition and religious thought, which was seen as something that hampered the betterment of society. These ideas have also been reflected in the style of architecture of those times. Neoclassical hence was a revival of classical architecture that condemned ornamentation. Modernist architecture went a step further; buildings were strong cuboidal forms with little to no ornamentation or detailing.
With all its structured and formal ideals, modernist architecture had standardized the landscape – all the built forms were functional blocks which did not take into consideration the context or the users. For all its perfectionist ideals, modernism was quite flawed when it came to fulfilling the very purpose it had come into existence – to cater to human needs and activities, due to the inconsistencies between the requirements of a user and their role in a community. Shared community buildings that were designed per the same, were losing their relevance, particularly the Pruitt-Igoe, where living conditions began to decline to such an extent that it was demolished in the 1970s. This event for most historians is termed to be the decline of modernism.
Therefore, the mid-20th century saw a shift – to a newer movement, as a reaction to modernism. One of the first pieces of architecture that demonstrated the same was the VannaVenturi House, designed by Robert Venturi and constructed between 1962 and 1964. The house is designed as a single floor plan for his mother, the client, and the first floor for the architect himself. Covered with a pitched roof and a chimney that is intentionally placed asymmetrically, the house is designed in elements that were unconventional for that time. Venturi’s ideas of the house and the architectural style of ‘Postmodernism’ were first discussed in a book called ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ that was published in 1966.
The book was presented as a ‘manifesto’ of Post-modern architecture – where he examines the historical architectural styles, including the one that was prevalent in his era. Ideas of what architecture could be were suggested in the books, where he talks about complexities and contradictions in formal expression, rather than the simplistic and minimalistic forms and façades of modernism. While the book did not explicitly mention it, it was a turning point for the conception of post-modernism as an actual architectural style.
This was revised and better explained in the book that he co-authored with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in 1972, ‘Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form’. Ornament, according to the book, was an integral part of buildings and acted as signage for the function of the building. In comparison, all the built forms and façades had standardized during the advent of modernism to such an extent that it was difficult to separate one from the other. This meant that buildings during this time relied solely on structural strength and size for differentiation of typologies. There was little to no importance to cultural context and such a building could just exist anywhere – like a replicable machine, as Le Corbusier described a building (‘A house is a machine for living in’).
This book essentially separated the architectural community between the more progressive architects who appreciated the book and the traditional modernists who were not in agreement with what the book entailed. These two factions can also be termed as the ‘Greys’ and the ‘Whites’ respectively.
Around 1977, Charles Jencks wrote ‘The Language of Post-Modern Architecture’ which examined the transition between modernism and postmodernism in detail. This was also the first time that post-modernism was coined as a term, borrowed from its usage in literature where it was an established change.
While it seems that postmodernism originated in America, there were architects all around the world deviating towards it around the same time, with architects like Aldo Rossi and ArataIsozaki bringing about designs and ideas of the movement in their own countries. Another thing to take into consideration is that a movement does not come into existence overnight – and is a rather slow process. Some architects had already started incorporating some newer techniques in predominantly modern designs. Even Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson had worked on projects that were different from what modernist architecture had dictated.
All in all, post-modernism architecture was a movement to counter the shortcomings of modernism and make the new buildings more animated from the blocky grey structures that they had become under the aegis of modernism.