The Postmodern in Architecture


In America, Postmodernism, as an art form, was first manifested in architecture, arriving as a new discourse about architecture as early as the 1960s. It is important to note that this discourse was architectural and not philosophical, although philosophy enters into the precincts of architecture by the 1980s. In the 1960s, it would be more precise to refer to the new thinking in architecture as anti-modernist or anti-International Style. In a very real way, the reaction against the forced invasion of tall glass buildings into traditional neighborhoods was paralleled by Robert Rauschenberg’s exploration of the urban landscape around Pearl Street and his interest in the “vernacular.”

One of the early harbingers of Postmodern thinking was a remarkable book written by Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961. Jacobs sounded the death knell of the Utopian dreams of Modernist architecture in which the architect thought s/he could save the world by razing the organically developed city and building a new urban world. The result of such architectural destruction, however well-intentioned, was a ripping away of urban fabrics and the neighborhoods that made cities live. Jacobs recommended an ad hoc, spontaneous approach to a more natural growth in contrast to urban planning that had paid no attention to the human life of cities. Jacobs began her section on “The Need for Aged Buildings” saying,

Cities need old building so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normla granary so far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year after year, are replaced by new ones—or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is , therefore, instantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types, This is of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture.

A decade later, in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas was published. This work of a trio of architects, Robert Venturi,his wife Denise Scott-Brown,and the late Steven Izenour, called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. His demand that architecture come down out of its ivory tower and to take note of the ordinary urban experience in the 1960s comes at the same time as Pop Art was dominating the art world. Venturi’s preference for the ordinary and his attention to the world—the environment—surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style. As the couple wrote,

Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down pParis an d begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another way is more tolerant: that is to question how we look at things. The Commercial Strip, the Las Vegas Strip in particular—it is the example par excellent—challenges the architect to take a positive, non-chip-on-the -shoulder view. Architects are out of the habit of looking non judgmentally at the environment because orthodox modernist architecture is progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian and puristic; is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.

In its quest to develop an architectural style suitable for the new materials and new conditions of the new twentieth century, modernist architecture turned its back on the past. Architecture of the nineteenth century had been an architecture of eclecticism, as exemplified by Charles Garnier’s Paris Opèra, dripping with past styles. It was an article of faith that modern architecture had to eliminate all of the surface ornamentation that crusted over the buildings. Austrian designer Adolf Loos famously characterized ornament as “crime.” Therefore, a building by Mies van der Rohre demonstrated that “less is more,” by stripping architecture to acts of construction/structure and by placing stress on the activity of making/building. “God,” as Mies would say, “is in the details,” in the precision of the angles and in the rightness of the materials. Mies was famously focused on corners of his steel-caged buildings.

Modernist architecture followed the thinking of Modernist painting—truth to materials, a focus on intrinsic properties, and an elimination of extrinsic aspects, such as decoration or ornamentation. Modernist architecture, in its pure whiteness ignores the environment and is independent of its surroundings. A building by Le Corbusier, such as Villa Savoye (1928-29), stood alone, aloof from its surroundings, majestic in its reductive purity. The Villa stood alone, surrounded by a green field rimmed with trees and it took in the environment through its long rectangular windows on its own terms. Like a sculpture the building was lifted, as if being placed on a pedestal, on pilotis, or columns. Modernist architecture was designed to make a statement of modernity, of newness, to dominate the aging landscape, to make a statement of difference. Modernist architecture is avant-garde, new, free of the past.

But the utopian dreams of Modernism had to confront the realities of the human inhabitants of the modern buildings. Modernist architecture before World War II was mostly manifested in private domestic homes, designed for discerning clients, such as the Villa or the homes for the Masters of the Bauhaus. However, after the war, modernist architecture became the International Style and there was enough money to build these very expensive glass and steel skyscrapers, such as the Seagram Building (1958). Awash in post-war profits, the corporations and their architects could realize the grand utopian dream of modernism—reform of the cities. But here is where Modernism theory began to fail in the face of reality.

Le Corbusier’s mass housing project (1949-1952) in Marseilles, unité d’habitation, was a prototype, not just for post-war mass housing but also for the New Brutalism (brut) style, due to its use of raw concrete. Mass housing was an efficient way to house the large numbers of people who lived in worked in major cities. Rather than leave individuals to their own devices or rather than allow the city to grow organically, the modern city and its buildings must be planned for purpose and located conveniently. Corbu, the master was reportedly dismayed when the people who lived in his exemplary work imposed their own needs upon the pristine building, as manifested by their varying uses of the exposed balconies. By and large, people made their peace with the idea of the roof of unité d’habitation being their outdoor landscape but the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Complex (1954) in St. Louis did not have a happy ending.

Conceived of as a place to house lower class populations, the buildings were unloved and were subjected to physical assault on the part of the residents. Remarkably the architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki had won awards for their work. Today the buildings remain as a potent memory, standing for the failure of modernist architecture and modernist arrogance that good architecture was good for society. According to architectural theorist, Charles Jencks, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe was the death-knell of Modernist architecture and its attempt to wipe out human nature and the vestiges of the past and the history of architecture. As Jencks stated, in a famous proclamation,

Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously, it had been vandalized, mutilated and defaced by its inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, bring to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.

The age of Postmodern architecture was brief one, dating roughly from 1970 to 1990 or from 1980 to 2000, depending on your source. In one of the most ironic and tragic coincidences of the modern era, the total destruction of another set of buildings is said to have closed the postmodern era when the World Trade Center—once again with Minoru Yamasaki as the architect—was destroyed. Precisely why Postmodernism lay beneath the ruins is two-fold. First, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers ended the sense that the West was the impervious center of the world and ushered in a realization of global conditions. Second, the modernization and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan by city planner Robert Moses and the Rockefeller brothers and the building of the World Trade Center was the quintessential act of Modernist arrogance and disregard for the organic city. As architectural critic, Paul Goldberger pointed out, after the site was rebuilt,

…it was Jacob’s via of the city, not Yamasaki’s or Austin Tobin’s or Robert Moses’s, that eventually prevailed in New York and in much of the rest of the country. It had become common wisdom, long before the towers were destroyed—so ouch so that it is hard to believe that he twin towers could have been built as they were had the project begin only a few years after it did. It is unlikely that all the streets in the sixteen-acre site would have been eliminated; it is unlikely that the efforts to preserve Radio Row would have been so completely ignored by public officials; an fit is unlikely that Yamasaki’s design would have been considered exempt from public reviews.

But whenever Postmodern architecture ended, it did end and today these buildings bear the distinct marks of what Postmodernism refuted—a signature style. In addition to a particular look that emerged over time, which will be discussed in the next post, Postmodernism in architecture was also an attitude or a particular approach to the built environment. Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism which broke firmly with the past. A building by postmodern architects would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to time period or consistency.

Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins, and creating an allegory, which is Postmodernism’s major characteristic. Even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure, each element of the allegory re-found by the architect retains its historical meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text for a knowledgable audience. Steeped in irony, bereft of idealism, Postmodernist architecture was an insider’s theoretical architecture and it was precisely that ironic attitude that collapsed with the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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See also Charles Jencks. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism. 2002

Paul Goldberger. Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. 2005

(Link to Learning from Las Vegas: Ironically the Las Vegas that the architects wrote about no longer exists)