Postmodern Architecture: Characteristics & Definition

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  • 0:00 Postmodernist Architecture
  • 0:39 Modern vs. Postmodern…
  • 2:29 Metaphor & Quotation
  • 4:05 Pluralism & Parody
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Postmodernism has been a major international trend in art and academia, and has had some lasting impacts on architecture. In this lesson, we'll explore this trend and see what it is all about.

Postmodernist Architecture

You may assume that we live in the modern world. There are those who would agree with you. There are also some who would disagree. Some prefer to say we live in the postmodern world. Postmodernism is an academic and artistic description of things that have happened in the second half of the 20th century, and which largely exist as reactions against the goals of the early 20th century. It's a broad category, one that resists definition in many ways, but which has had a profound impact on many forms of art, including architecture.

Modern vs. Postmodern Architecture

Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism, so the first thing we need to do is understand architecture in the first half of the 20th century. Modernism was an international style of architecture that was formal, austere, and serious. It emphasized function over form and was deeply connected to several philosophical ideas, notably that good architecture could improve people's lives. It was optimistic and idealistic. Postmodernism, however, says that's all a bunch of baloney. Postmodernist architecture, emerging in the 1950s and 1960s, rejected the formal and functional designs of modernism, as well as any idealist crusade to change the principles of human society through the arts.

So what does that actually look like in terms of architecture and design? Postmodernist architecture tends to be highly decorative and somewhat whimsical, focusing on design over function. Perhaps its most defining feature, however, is the refusal to draw inspiration from a single source. Postmodern architects incorporate design elements from several different architectural styles into a single structure, breaking down the boundaries between styles. Thus, it's one of the most eclectic forms of architecture, focused on the joy of design and rejecting formal rules of style.

That's a broad definition for a hard-to-classify style of architecture, but it serves to illustrate the general goals of postmodernism. In trying to further define postmodernism, the Victoria and Albert Museum of London held an exhibit in 2011 in which the curators were able to define four common aesthetic threads of postmodernist style: metaphor, quotation, pluralism, and parody. Let's take a look at these and see what postmodernism really looks like.

Metaphor & Quotation

Postmodernism is a design-driven style, drawing inspiration from a wide number of sources. This has led to a trend of metaphoric architecture, in which structural designs are based on non-architectural forms. One of the most famous examples is the Lotus Temple of New Delhi, India. This religious structure is based on the shape of a lotus flower, with the form of the building defined by petal-like components. Other famous examples include Australia's Sydney Opera House, based on the sails of ships, and the TWA Flight Center in New York, based on a bird's wing.

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