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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
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.
A metaphor in architecture is based on non-architectural forms, but postmodernists also like to draw inspiration from other structures. Many revival movements are explicitly based on capturing a past aesthetic, but postmodernism takes this one step further. Quotation involves the direct use of elements from other buildings in a new structure. Think of it this way: architects generally draw inspiration the way you may paraphrase someone else's speech. Your friend told a story, and you adapted it to fit a different audience. However, if you quoted your friend directly, you'd be telling an exact portion of the story. A great example of this is the Harold Washington Library of Chicago. As a way to celebrate the famed architectural legacy of the city, this library incorporates direct designs taken from some of Chicago's most famous buildings, including the Auditorium Building, the Monadnock Building, the Marquette Building, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Postmodernism is all about combining designs from multiple styles together into a single structure. That means that postmodern architecture is inherently pluralist. Pluralism refers to the adoption of multiple basic principles at once. In architecture, this means rejecting a single stylistic worldview and utilizing elements of each simultaneously. One place we find this is the Louvre Pyramid, a structure of the Louvre museum in France. The Pyramid is shaped like a traditional Egyptian pyramid, recalling the earliest architectural forms, but completed in modern materials of transparent plate glass and metal. It stands out against the formal and historic buildings of the Louvre, celebrating the many forms and style of art within the museum.
Postmodernism is often a whimsical genre that delights in poking fun at the seriousness of the architectural profession. In Tokyo is a structure called the K2 Building. It takes many basic elements of Classical architecture and then separates them from each other. At the bottom is an arch not covering an entryway or space, there are stone walls seem to go nowhere, and in the center is a giant ionic column that is not supporting anything. The joke is that it contains all the typical elements of Classical architecture, but it's as far from the rational and serious Classical style as you can get. It's a parody of Western architecture, and that is postmodernism in a nutshell.
Postmodernism is an international trend in architecture since the 1950s that rejects the formal and idealistic ideas of the early 20th century Modernism. It's visually defined by a major focus on design and form over function, but it's extremely eclectic and irreverent of stylistic rules and boundaries. While this is a broad category, many architects have agreed that most postmodernist structures contain four basic characteristics. Designs that are based on non-architectural objects employ metaphor. Those that directly incorporate elements from other structures display the characteristic of quotation. Buildings that do not adhere to a single style can be said to be designed according to the rules of pluralism, and those which mock the rules of architectural style are engaged in parody. So can you always define postmodern architecture? No. But you're pretty sure to know it when you see it.
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Back To CourseTypes of Architecture Study Guide
13 chapters | 131 lessons
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