There is a certain irony in the return of postmodernism to, if not respectability, then at least a level of grudging respect. The resuscitation of a movement so obsessed with the ruins of the past brings to mind the monsters in horror movies that never die. Postmodernism was never meant to last forever. Now it is like the ghost of a ghost, a spectre forever hovering over modernism’s feast.
Unlike brutalism which has also recently returned to popularity, postmodernism was rejected more by architects than the general public. While its tropes were always ripe for reappropriation by the fashion and design industries, the architectural establishment felt that postmodernism’s interest in colour, decoration and ornamentation was flippant and inconsequential. Which makes Historic England’s recent listing of 17 of its most high-profile buildings an important turning point.
Because of its unpopularity, postmodern buildings often get lumped into a single box, one usually marked tawdry and vulgar. But there were several different strands to it and it is worth looking through these recent listings in order to unpack them.Top of the heap in terms of dividing opinion must be Sir Terry Farrell’s MI6 building on the banks of the River Thames. Undeniably bombastic and incorporating abstracted classical elements, art-deco detailing and even a whiff of Futurism, MI6 is big on presence despite being a home for spooks. When part of it was blown up in the James Bond film Skyfall I suspect many architects cheered.
The MI6 building is very different to the taught ambiguities and subtle mannerisms of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery. This was the building that really did for the Venturi’s reputation in the UK though, tainted as it was by Prince Charles’ decisive intervention on the previous scheme by ABK. Unfairly, it has been used as a stick to beat them ever since. Its complex façade and affectionate tributes to architects ranging from Soane to Lutyens were like an unrequited love letter to London. Which no doubt makes its new Grade I-status taste all the sweeter.
There is more affection for the work of John Outram, who is honoured with two new listings for his Judge Business School in Cambridge and an office building on the McKay Trading Estate. Outram’s version of postmodernism was deeply personal and part of a coherent, if highly eccentric, reading of the history of architecture. His designs are underpinned by an attempt to invent a symbolic grammar and syntax around the realities of contemporary construction techniques. The resulting buildings contain an almost frenzied amount of decorative detail but are also solid and muscular in their massing.
CZWG have no fewer than four buildings on the list: Cascades (the bizarre Docklands apartment block designed by Rex Wilkinson), China Wharf (Piers Gough’s orange-framed Thameside offices), the arts and crafts-inflected Bryanston School, and the faux jazz-age Aztec West offices in Gloucestershire. These four join the already-listed The Circle, Gough’s curving, owl-eared set piece of blue-glazed brickwork in Shad Thames. It is a remarkable achievement for buildings once considered rather throw-away.
There are other, subtler buildings on the list too, ones by architects who embraced postmodernism with a sense of reserve. Colquhoun and Miller’s Hackney housing scheme incorporates historicist forms and Mackintosh mannerisms into a pared-back, broadly modernist composition. Dixon Jones’s St Marks Road housing in West London is more colourful and extrovert but is still far from the caricature of brash façades that PoMo normally conjures up.
Appropriately enough, the only other building to be granted Grade I-status is Charles Jencks’ Thematic House in Holland Park. Jencks was the definer and chronicler of postmodernism during the 1970s and ’80s. He didn’t coin the term, but did make it his own. The Thematic House is a conversion of a large, mid 19th-century villa, a collage not just of styles but of architects, too. Jencks collaborated with a number of architects and artists on the house, including Terry Farrell, Eduardo Paolozzi and Michael Graves. Rem Koolhaas designed a fireplace and Piers Gough contributed a Jacuzzi based on an upside-down version of a dome by Borromini.
The house contains everything that is both loved and loathed about the movement. It is exuberant and witty, obsessed by history, full of visual puns, and sometimes silly. It attempts to square architectural ambition of the highest order with a desire to pull the rug from below such dreams. Like postmodernism more generally, it turns this contradiction into art.