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Modernism and Postmodernism in Architecture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 2280 words Published: 1st May 2018

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Modernism is a set of cultural or aesthetic styles which associates with the scientific and the artistic movement which started in the decade around the First World War and have dominated among several movement such as cubism, functionalism and surrealism. Sarup, M. (1993). However in architecture, modernism reacts to the dedication of addressing new buildings after the two World Wars such as mass housing of traditional forms and the potential for exploring new conditions of production such as new materials and technology. Le Corbusier and Mies van der Roche were the key influences of modern architecture; they took several cultures and tradition to formulate the notion of modern architecture. Curtis, W. J.R. (2001). Modernist have the idea that architecture should have a result as being ‘functionalistic, positivistic, technocentric, and rationalistic’ with their building or urban planning. Harvey, D. (1990) page 35. In the World War II, Modernism became popular especially in the United State where it took on a new life by using different technologies such as steel frame and glass curtain walls for constructing skyscrapers and suburban office parks and shopping centers which were cost-effective. Ghirardo, D. (1996).

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Postmodernism is very ambiguous to describe because it has certain elements that relates to modernism. The term originated within artists and critics in the United State in the 1960s and it was distributed in the European and other industrial nations in the 1970s. However postmodernism is an unstable concept of movement within an advance capitalist culture that argue the visual approaches in literary criticism of art, film, fashion and architecture within the political economic social conditions of the late 20th century. It also involves the new relationship between humankind and nature. Ghirardo, D. (1996).

Postmodern notion of approaches to architecture derived from modernism ideology of architecture, and it even influences some postmodern architects, this is because of their knowledge from training and also their modern methods of constructions but they also add their new concept to their buildings. Jencks, C. (1988). There are three principles that Robert Stern’s article portrays to describe the characteristics of postmodernism, the first characteristic is ‘contextualism,’ this describes the individual building as always a fragment that represents its environment. The second is ‘allusionism’, which emphasise the building of its historical and cultural aspects, and the third is ‘ornamentalism’, and this suggests all the walls of the building to have an architectural meaning. (See the work of Robert Stern) Bertens, H. (1995) page 59. Postmodernism has also emerged the classical stage whereby it has influenced certain postmodern architects like Michael Graves, James Stirling, Norman Neuerburg and even Philip Johnson’s AT&T building (see figure 1). Jenks emphasise that the ‘Free-Style Classicism’ determines some characteristics of postmodern architecture which started precisely from the 1980s. (See the work of Charles Jencks) Bertens, H. (1995) page 64.


David Harvey argues about if ‘postmodernism, for example, represent a radical break with modernism, or is it simply a revolt within modernism against a form of high modernism.’ Harvey, D. (1990) page 42. This message is to question the architecture of the postmodern movement, Harvey then explains by emphasising that postmodernism has widely identify a break with the modernist conception that planning, designing and development should concentrate on the wide-scale, technologically rational and economically urban plan which should be strict on ideas of design with a functionalist perception of an international style. Harvey, D. (1990).

The most influential critic on postmodernism and modernism is Charles Jenks, he portrayed architecture from a linguistic point of view as emphasises in his book ‘The Language of Post-Modern Architecture’. Jenks argues that postmodernism architecture is not a break of modernism but however it’s trying to overcome the ideology of its architecture not by dropping it but by extending the ‘language’ to a different level into a vernacular and commercial but away from tradition. He listed all the old buildings as which had modern characteristics and named them as the ‘ersatz,’ however he calls the new building as the ‘social realism.’ Jencks, C. (1991) page 97. Furthermore he pinpoints the exact date for the death of ‘modern architecture’ as he mention at 3:32 pm, July 15, 1972 when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project built in 1951 was demolished.

Likewise Charles Jenks explores further the idea of the modernist idea within postmodernism architecture, he argues that postmodern architecture is ‘double coded’, this suggest that postmodernism is an eclectic mixture of traditional codes with modern ones this shows that modernism is always one of the codes that forms postmodernism so postmodern architecture has evolve from modernism but it must go beyond modern style. Therefore postmodernism is to break completely or drop modernist idea of architecture but has extended it into a different notion. Jenks explores Mies van de Roche who is a modern architect, he argues that the use of steel I- beams for buildings are ‘nasty’ and ‘brutal’ and has no purpose for its users or developers so therefore postmodernism has evolve to find solution of improving the upon modernism. Bertens, H. (1995).

The indication that modernism architecture is rational and austere is because the restrictions and their influence on traditional forms and concepts which most postmodern architects see as ‘passé,’ however when postmodern architect design they contravene to tradition also when they build their buildings they express it through a modern way by emphasising on a mixture of different styles. Likewise in the description of postmodern architecture Paolo Portoghesi who also criticise postmodernism argues that postmodern is any building that breaks modern constrains of historical styles with vernacular influences. Kolb, D. (1990) page 88.

The restriction of modern architecture on historical influences is one of the main challenges of postmodernism. Jean-Francois Lyotard a postmodern critic explains that one characteristics of postmodernism is the transform nature understanding in scientific and computerised society, this has gave them advance knowledge and technology to overcoming and the rational and austere notion of modernism. Sarup, M. (1993). In favour of this, Joseph Fredrick who defended against the International Style’s and his own idea of construction explains that modernism in architecture has various characters but its attack was on its style, which inevitably postmodernism has taking over. It is the austereness of modernism’s traditional forms which postmodern took the advantage of scientific knowledge to break the historical influences and give freedom for architects to design their building. Larson, M, S. (1993). The division between modern and postmodern is that modern is restricted whereby postmodern has its freedom to design. Furthermore modernist notion of architecture as rational and austere to traditional restriction has not been negated by postmodern but it has interpreted and integrated modernist ideology. However Jencks argue that postmodernism has not become a break or dropped the idea of modernist architecture but it has evolve from modernism, and has notice the understanding of the development of its time so they change the direction and extended its characteristics to suit its era. Portoghesi, P. (1980). Therefore postmodernism is commonly known as the ‘stylistic phenomenon’. Ghirardo, D. (1996) page 8

Charles Jenks argues that postmodern buildings in general have made a positive impact in architecture, since the nineteenth century technological construction has made a vast improvement on buildings and has been overly-accurate as with the hand-crafted variety, this and other factors have become the main reason for its break from modernism. Likewise he argues that postmodernism has taking radically from the concept of how to knowledge building space where as modernist to see space as something to be shaped for social purposes, they interpret space as something independent, to be design according to creative aims but not to overreach its traditional influences. An example is Le Corbusier’s Domino buildings (see figure 3) which started modernist development of space, however postmodernism reacted to this by looking for solutions to define ‘place’ instead of abstract spaces and to establish the various ambiguity of spaces rather than the simple, predictable traditional building of modernist architecture. Jenks, C. (1990).

Le Corbusier’s domino housing project

There are certain features of modernism which have been developed by postmodernist architects, the spatial ideas such as layered and shallow simple spaces of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Postmodernist have developed these aspects into a more new kind of ambiguous space with various complex elements. Jenks, C. (1988).

Charles Jencks points out that postmodern architecture have two reasons into significant technological change; the first is the contemporary communications have broken the strong modernist interest of the rational and austere spaces based on function and of social interest. The second is the advance technologies for example computer modelling which has broken away from traditional restraints and permitted the flexibility of designing and constructing. Jenks, C. (1990).

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Postmodernism has not dropped modernist notion of architecture but it has taking certain elements of it such as space and even some traditional aspects of building and developed it into a more complex style. However it has set freedom from modernist conception that architecture should be austere and reasonable. The advances scientific technology has aided postmodernism to evolve from modernism. Jenks, C. (1988).

Michael Graves as a postmodernism architect.

Michael Graves was part of the late-modern movement before he left the abstract conception approach to the New York Five in 1977; this group consisted of Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, and Charles Gwathmey. They introduce an advance technique of designing with ‘figural element’, and this has influenced postmodern architects. Schulz, N. (1990) page 7-8. He then left to join other architects such as Venturi, Moore, and Stern who were involve with the prototype for postmodernism in America. Ghirardo, D. (1996).

Graves has become one of most influential architects in postmodernism, his concept of fragments have become significant to postmodernist architects to design their building in a complex and ambiguous style which contradicts the notion of modernism. Graves has also adapted postmodern classicism in architecture such as the Portland Building and the Humana Building (see figure 4 and 5). Grave has taking the traditional forms and styles of classicism and extended into a postmodern approach by introducing classical skyscrapers. Jenks, C. (1988).


The Portland building (see figure 4) was a very significant municipal building within its era, which was begun in 1980 in Portland Oregon, this project provoked modernist architects because it was one of the most inspirational building in postmodernism. Powell, K. (1995). The public building is located in the middle of the area whereby it had to have a quality of postmodern landmark, but however his way out was to bring back ‘figural forms’ to the building to portray the ‘public nature of the context and urban and the internal program’. He used the classical style of organisation by dividing the building into three parts; which is the base, body and the top.



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