Postmodern architecture is an artistic style or practice that emerged in the early 1960s as a direct response against the austere, stiff, and formless modernism, especially in the British style promoted by Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock. According to Johnson, “There are as few styles in art as there are people who want to take them seriously”. The same can be said for architecture. While some architecture may have a clear pre-modern or pre-classical pedigree, by claiming to offer something new and fresh it tends to marginalize, and sometimes actually subtract from, the other genres that have come and gone before. Thus, when confronted with a building that has certain classical qualities–a grand villa on a cliff in Tuscany with freshened, gilded panels and a floor plan dominated by the Vitruvian columns and arches of the Renaissance, for example–some will find its excesses both aesthetically and philosophically repulsive. But where there is beauty, there is also postmodernism.
It is, after all, a form of Modernism. Modernism, by contrast, is the movement that perceives the aesthetic value of the built structure as divorced from its relation to culture, science, and technology, a valuation that in contemporary practice tends to cast a larger than life form on buildings and their design. By contrast, postmodernists tend to deny the prior and subsequent importance of the natural world in building design and to elevate architecture to a status closer to art. A good example is found in the Futurist Architecture of Jasper Johns, who was famous not only for his striking ‘wildflowers’ architecture of the late twentieth century, but also for his rejection of the overabundance of concrete in building construction.
However, many of those who would label a style as postmodern do so without due regard to the variety and complexity of the architectural designs that can be found in this newer style of architecture. Some examples include Bauhaus, Postmodern and Noh Architecture. All of these have been characterized by sharp angles, unique geometric shapes, bare or polished surfaces, asymmetrical spacing, and other geometric design features that distinguish them from more traditional forms of architecture. They are also distinguished by their heavy use of multi-colored glass, tiles, mosaics, stainless steel, aluminum, wood, stone and ironwork.
The most obvious characteristics of postmodern architecture are its singular ‘postmodern’ appearance. This design style can be found in both residential and industrial settings. Urban areas have adopted this look to their design where industrial buildings with flat roofs and rectangular or square shaped concrete forms are being turned into restaurants, offices, shopping malls, art galleries and public spaces. In cities like Chicago, they are increasingly being used to create condos and lofts.
The distinguishing characteristic of this architectural style is the absence of ornamentation. Unlike the Premodern and Modern styles, there is no decorative element present in a postmodern structure. Instead, geometric forms and unique textures dominate the design. Postmodernists thought that ornamentation was distractive and served to muffle the appearance of information. This is evident in their use of color, for example, in building designs where different shades and hues of black and white are used to suggest motion, depth and other visual illusions.
Another postmodern feature is the distance between elements. This form is sometimes referred to as ‘apartness’. In this form, there is no clear demarcation between the inside and the outside. Elements may overlap, or one design may appear on the inside while another is on the outside. Since the primary objective of this form is to result in a feeling of space, this is often used in modern gardens.
Finally, this form is characterized by an absence of ornamentation. Elements that appear in modern buildings are those that are exposed. In a postmodern building, these elements are not visible at all. As a result, the form is quite aesthetically simple but is still very striking.
Because of its rejection of ornamentation, many believe that postmodern buildings are less ‘ergonomically friendly’ than typical modern structures. However, this is not entirely true. While a postmodern building may have fewer features, it also tends to be more basic in form and composition. Moreover, while ornamentation is less important in postmodern designs, surfaces such as wood and steel are still used. These surfaces, as well as materials, tend to be simpler, more durable and more environmentally friendly.