Richmond House Whitehall, City of Westminster 1982–4, Whitfield Associates. Lucy Millson-Watkins/Historic England

Today’s design debates push the architectural style’s bells and whistles into a prize fight against Brutalism. But much of its strength emerges in a different area.

It’s time to rehabilitate Postmodernism. So at least is the contention of a new book by architectural historians Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood that catalogs the great works of British PoMo in all their glossy splendor. Post-Modern Buildings in Britain, published by Batsford, is certainly a visual pleasure. It covers all the building types you’d expect, including cascading 1980s apartment blocks for yuppies, splashy office complexes that sought to embody their occupants’ power and wealth, and utilitarian buildings that look like Egyptian Temples made from Lego (a British specialty).

Something more subtle also emerges from the pages, however. Much current debate tends to push Postmodernism into a prize fight against that other style in vogue, Brutalism, pitting one’s bare bones against the other’s bells and whistles. But much of the style’s strength emerges in a different area. It often shows a creative and sensitive approach to place-making, one that has produced not just historicist shock-and-awe, but also some quiet and thoughtful constructions— and even some unusually beautiful gardens such as Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick’s Scottish Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

Garden of Cosmic Speculation Portrack, Dumfries 1988–, Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick. (Gardenpics/Alamy)

The emphasis on context that good placemaking requires has been central to Postmodern architectural thinking ever since the movement first reared its head. As early as 1966, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture emphasized above all the vital role of contextual relationships in determining architecture’s success. It also asserted that a little vulgarity or banality here and there didn’t hurt, as long as there was more careful thought about broader space and scale. That attitude is certainly borne out by one of British Postmodernism’s greatest and most underrated successes, designed by Terry Farrell and Associates for London’s Comyn Ching Triangle.

Comyn Ching Seven Dials, Covent Garden, London 1983–7, Terry Farrell Partnership. (Lucy Millson-Watkins/Historic England)

By the late 1970s, the narrow, densely built slice of historic houses and courtyards near the former Covent Garden market was slated for demolition and redevelopment by a city that had recently been stopped from smashing a highway through the market itself. A compromise design by Farrell managed to find money to restore and revive the older houses by constructing new buildings in sympathy with them on each corner. The buildings themselves, an eclectic bunch of narrow elbow-shaped constructions in polychrome brick and plate glass, managed to respect the surrounding historic fabric while remaining demonstrably contemporary.

Its courtyard demonstrates how seamlessly this was done, with a new building just peeking in at one corner. The older buildings’ new and vaguely East Asian-looking gates (perhaps a riff on the triangles’ almost-Chinese-sounding name) have a campiness that bears out Venturi’s assertion that a splash of something brash and cheerful needn’t harm an ensemble’s overall harmony.

Even some considerably more eye-catching British Postmodern buildings managed a degree of sensitivity without lapsing into blandness. Richmond House, home to Britain’s Department of Health, manages to blend seamlessly with its neighbors while being eye-catching and even quite delightful. The references are all over the place: Oriel windows that recall an Oxford College, stripey Neo-Byzantine brickwork, and fluted organ pipe columns with a vaguely Indo-Saracenic look. The relatively modest scale and creativity of a courtyard-like inward curve nonetheless means it isn’t bombastic, chiming well with a street of older ministerial buildings that aren’t exactly all gold.  

The book is arguably a catalog of failures as well, both of that most subjective of qualities, taste, and sometimes of ambition. Venturi, Scott Brown and Associate’s design for an extension to London’s National Gallery may have been hobbled from the start. Brought in to replace a Modernist design publicly lambasted by Price Charles, its timidity still seems to demonstrate that over-sensitivity to historical context can produce bland, stuffy buildings. And projects like CZWG’s auction house in Bayswater show that a concern with context and historical reference can easily curdle into sheer conservatism that suggests fear of anything after 1914.

There’s still plenty of pleasing invention on show in the book, as well as something which the exuberance of architectural detail in Postmodernism tends to drown out: sensitivity.

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