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What Is Postmodern Architecture?

Dan Harkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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Born of malaise in the 1950s, postmodern architecture slowly gained steam in the second half of the 20th century to counter the more rigid international and modernist styles that were starting to take over many urban skylines. The postmodern style is characterized by whimsy and perhaps a little excess, as the alchemy of various architectural traditions to form a diversity of forms and aesthetic points of view. Many of the larger commercial buildings constructed in 2011 can be said to represent postmodern architecture.

One general way in which postmodern construction differs from earlier styles is the degree to which the construction abandons the utilitarian focus of the modernist movement of architecture for more technically unnecessary elements. For example, a modern skyscraper could be adorned with staggering ledges featuring gabling, or classical columns could be incorporated not for any pragmatic reason but instead for aesthetic purposes. Another name for this blending of old and new styles is neo-eclectic architecture.

Examples of postmodern architecture abound nationwide, from the trivial to the grand. Modern shopping malls or commercial districts often blend postmodern architecture with formerly prominent characteristics to tap into an area's distinctive charm. Other prominent buildings built in this style include the unnecessary curves of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the furniture-looking Sony Tower skyscraper in New York City, and the Scottish Parliament Complex in Holyrood, Scotland, which is considered by many critics to be among the best examples of British postmodernism.

Postmodern architecture has dovetailed with another fairly recent architectural movement of the late 20th century — historic preservation and its focus on "new urbanism." The focus of this latter movement is reinvigorating tired historic districts around the country with bursts of postmodern architectural touches. When employed in this context, designs often tend to grossly exaggerate the classical elements, such as with the Harold Washington Library in Chicago and its blend of beaux-art and modern touches that are accentuated by bold cornices and tall corner statues.

Often, however, historic elements have nothing to do with postmodern architecture, with a blend of all modern styles sufficing instead. In Indianapolis, Indiana, the College Life Insurance building was one of the first prominent examples of the postmodern style. Finished in 1972, the building starkly departs from the International school of architecture's standard tall box-of-glass skyscraper. Instead, the builder preferred to build three smaller, oddly shaped buildings instead, connected by outdoor or underground walkways.

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Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his journalism degree, he spent more than two decades honing his craft as a writer and editor for various publications. Dan’s debut novel showcases his storytelling skills and unique perspective by drawing readers into the story’s captivating narrative.
Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Dec 29, 2014

@Soulfox -- I see your point, but didn't postmodern buildings always look like they belonged to an earlier era? That style of architecture was developed as a direct response to the arguable austere, utilitarian modern architecture that some architects thought was just ugly.

The building you described sounds ugly, but not all of those postmodern things are pretty. The same is true when it comes to any architectural movement you'd care to mention.

By Soulfox — On Dec 29, 2014

For some reason, postmodern architecture has always looked somewhat out of date to me. For example, there is a building on a local college campus that was built in the 1970s and was a bit of a tribute to postmodern style.

The thing is just kind of ugly and inconvenient. Instead of using windows to protect students heading to classes, the walkways around the center core of the building are open and exposed to the elements. It is quite unsettling to be heading to classes in that thing and be hit in the face with driving rains or sleet.

At any rate, the building has always looked rather clunky, full of concrete and old to me. And that was when it was new. A lot of those postmodern buildings are exactly the same.

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his...
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