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Postmodernism Style Guide

Postmodernism, Post-Modernism, Post Modern and PoMo are all terms associated with the rather colourful and zany style of architecture that emerged in the late 1970s and which can still be seen in various guises today.

As an architectural label its origins can be traced back to 1945 when the Dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Joseph Hudnut, used it an essay entitled ‘The Post-Modern House’, in which he called for a humane and expressive architecture in keeping with the context of the neighbourhood. Also, at that time he was at loggerheads with his famous colleague, Walter Gropius over his teaching at Harvard and his Basic Design course which Hudnut saw as too formal and too technological with no understanding of history. In fact, Gropius abolished the teaching of architectural history while he was there. Hudnut wasn’t against Modernism and admired the key figures including Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and J. J. P. Oud amongst others, but he was critical of a slavish adherence to the doctrine of formalism and standardisation espoused by Gropius.

The term was picked up again in January 1961 by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in a lecture given at the RIBA entitled, 'Modern Architecture and the Historian or the Return of Historicism'. After looking at the current work of some of the icons of the Modern Movement, such as Pier Luigi NerviFelix CandelaOscar NiemeyerHans Scharoun, etc., Pevsner called their architecture post-modernist and anti-rationalist. He used the term to describe a new style of mid-20th century architecture, which was different to the pre-1939 world that he had inhabited. Earlier the architect Philip Johnson in a lecture at the Architectural Association in 1960, had described his philosophy as “one of functional eclecticism or of eclectic functionalism.”

In 1966 Hudnut, then in his eighties, addressed an alumni meeting at Harvard and called for a humanistic architecture and city, for history, spontaneity, contextualism, and individual concerns. This resonated with an audience, which was now more receptive, having become more critical after fifteen years of Modernism and seeing some of its failures, particularly in city planning. In the same year the American architect Robert Venturi, published, 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture', a key influence on the development of Post-Modernism. Venturi extolled the ambiguities, inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of the Mannerist and Baroque architecture of Rome, but also celebrated popular culture and the ordinary architecture of the American Main Street.

The failures in planning and the proposed destruction of neighbourhoods had also been highlighted in Jane Jacobs’ book, 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' (1961). Again, this was a critique of some of the tenets of Modernism and the dogmas associated with it.

In Britain by the 1960s and 1970s, there was a similar reaction amongst architects and planners. Modernism had begun to seem elitist and exclusive, despite its democratic intentions. The failure of building methods and materials (shown in the collapse of Ronan Point, a tower block in east London in 1968) and alienating housing estates had become a key factor.

Meanwhile Venturi followed up his earlier ideas in a later work, 'Learning from Las Vegas' (1972) in which he deconstructed the signs and symbols of the Las Vegas strip. He divided buildings into ‘ducks’, the sculptural buildings that embodied their message within the structure, and the ‘decorated shed’, which used signs to communicate its message. In practice, it meant the rediscovery of the various meanings contained within the mainly classical architecture of the past and applying them to modern structures.

But it is Charles Jencks in his 'The Language of Post-Modern Architecture' (1977) who summarised the various responses to the failures of Modernism and brings into a play a different architectural language, which he refers to as ‘double-coding’. Thus, emerged an architecture with a preponderance of symbols and metaphors, resulting in a slew of buildings which were eclectic, brash, bold, and sometimes subtle. But in his most recent book on the subject 'The Story of Post-Modernism' (2011), he refers to Postmodernism as an unfinished movement of five decades which is still contentious today.

What to look for in a Postmodernist building:

  • Classical Motifs
  • Literary allusions
  • Bright Colours
  • Structural variety
  • Variety of shapes and materials.

Explore these galleries from the RIBA Collections illustrating the main features of Postmodernism.

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Chiat Day Offices, Venice, Los Angeles

Bruggen, Coosje van (1942-2009)
NOTES: The Main Street frontage includes a pair of 4-storey binoculars by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

National Stadium, Olympic Green, Beijing

Herzog & de Meuron
NOTES: This building, also known as the 'Bird's Nest', was the centrepiece of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Stuttgart

James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates

Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Stuttgart: the main entrance

James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates

RMC Group headquarters, Thorpe, Surrey: the roofscape with vents in the form of chess pieces

Edward Cullinan Architects
NOTES: This office development was arranged around the landscaped grounds of three historic houses, Eastley End House (late 18th/early 19th century), Meadlake House (a Victorian stable block) and The Grange (late 19th/early 20th century). The retained existing buildings are linked by a series of single-storey structures, except for the executive dining rooms. See RIBA123088 for a black and white version of this image.

Vitra Design Museum and Campus, Weil am Rhein: the Vitra Haus by Herzog & de Meuron

Gehry Partners
NOTES: The Vitra Design Museum was founded in 1989, with the main buildng designed by Frank Gehry. Surrounding the museum is the Vitra Campus or architecture park, which was developed from 1981, as a showcase of contemporary architecture, after a major fire had destroyed most of the previous 1950s factory buildings on the site.

Social Science Research Centre (Wissenschaftszentrum), Berlin

James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates

Number 1 Poultry, City of London: the clocktower

James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates
NOTES: No.1 Poultry was designed in 1988 by James Stirling and built after his death by his architectural partner Michael Wilford in 1994-1998.