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What Is Postmodern Architecture?

The Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania

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The modern architecture of the early-to-mid 20th century was stark and streamlined, prioritizing form over function. Emerging in the 1960s, Postmodern architecture strove to be the exact opposite, rejecting sterile rectangular forms and minimalist appearances, breaking the conventional rules of building design, combining various sources of inspiration with fantastic creativity to invent an architectural style unlike anything that had been seen before. 

What Is Postmodern Architecture?

Postmodern architecture is an eclectic, playful style that embraced uniqueness, color, ornamentation, and artistry.

What Makes a Building Postmodern?

Architects associated with the postmodern movement felt that modernist architecture disregarded the need for public beauty, and that it turned cities into sterile, unremarkable landscapes. Postmodern buildings had decorative elements, asymmetrical lines, curved forms,  bright colors, architectural features borrowed from different eras, and sculptural design. Every postmodern building is unique, letting the architect’s creativity run wild, employing whatever aesthetic ideas and construction techniques they desire.

Some postmodern buildings use bright, unconventional colors; a stark contrast from the neutral tones of modernist architecture. In response to the boxy, modular shapes of functional modernist buildings, postmodern architecture incorporated curved lines and jagged angles, experimenting with novel shapes and construction methods in ways that were impossible before the 20th century. That’s not to say that postmodern architecture completely threw out the rulebook; even though it prized creativity, the postmodern movement incorporated elements from historical architectural styles, mixing and matching them in eclectic, original ways. 

Though postmodern architecture is defined by having no rules, there are certain characteristics these buildings may have that can help you easily identify a postmodern building.

  • Asymmetrical and oblique forms
  • A hodgepodge of colors, textures, shapes, and themes. 
  • Usage of various materials and elements from different eras
  • Splashes of bright color
  • Ornamentation and decorative elements
  • Classical elements like arches, domes, and pillars
  • Sculptural forms
  • Unconventional usage of methods and materials
  • Abstraction of classical motifs
  • Use of trompe l'oeil
  • Prioritizing function over form

History of Postmodern Architecture

Postmodern architecture first emerged in the 1960s as a reaction to modernist architecture’s “less is more” ideals; famed postmodern architect Robert Venturi described the movement as a mix of complexity and contradictions. Postmodern buildings blended modern day construction methods with visionary futurism and classical architecture, borrowing elements from rococo, neoclassical architecture, the British arts and crafts movement, the Viennese secession, the German Jugendstil, and notable historic design movements. 

Some famous postmodern buildings include:

MI6 Building, London, UK

mI6 building - post modern architecutre

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Designed by Terry Farell in the late 80s, the SIS or MI6 building has been the headquarters of the British secret service since 1994. Its design juxtaposes the great temples of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations with the forms of industrial architecture.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

postmodern architecture - guggenheim museum spain

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Frank Gehry is one of the few architects that has managed to become a household name, known for his madcap, whimsical designs that buck the traditional rules of architecture. Completed in 1997, Gehry’s design is daring, unusual, and unlike any building constructed before it. Following a free-flowing organic form, the museum’s titanium exterior is meant to catch and reflect light, transforming its appearance as the sun moves through the sky.

The Neue Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany

postmodern architecture - state gallery in Germany

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Built between 1979-1984, this  James Stirling-designed building melds modernist elements with classicism, juxtaposed materials like travertine and sandstone with industrial green steel framing.