Home Styles: Why Postmodernism Still Matters

Architectural styles tend to do one of two things: look forward or look backward. The former camp includes Modernism, Deconstructivism, and the plethora of contemporary buildings that can be described as pluralist. In the latter camp are many of the "neo-" styles of the 19th century (neo-Classicism, neo-Gothic, etc.), and most recently Postmodernism, a direct reaction to Modernism (yet also an extension of it, as the name implies) in the 1970s and '80s.

First articulated in architectural terms by Charles Jencks in the 1977 book The Language of Postmodern Architecture, the movement traces its impetus to Robert Venturi's 1966 treatise, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The title indicates two traits that Postmodern architecture embodies: complex forms and surfaces over Modernism's abstraction, and a mixture of irony and ambiguity that embraces borrowing and reappropriating historical elements: A column becomes a handrail, a gable is "broken" to reveal it is a trope, etc.

For a little while in the '80s the movement was popular, leading to a number of large-scale buildings like the Portland Municipal Services Building by Michael Graves, and the AT&T Building (now Sony) by Philip Johnson. But it was also a style reviled by architecture critics. Many practitioners segued into more historicist styles (notably Robert A.M. Stern), but Postmodernism paved the way for a loosening of architectural form that, combined with Deconstructivism, helped create today's iconic buildings that capture headlines.

These days the movement is being critically reexamined by historians and curators, notably in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the conference "Reconsidering Postmodernism" in New York City. Next is a sampling of Postmodern residential architecture that I hope will aid people in understanding this brief but important style and movement.

Above: Ashford Associates

Part of what sparked this PoMo ideabook was featuring this photo in my recent ideabook on wood trusses. There I pointed out how the trusses are more graphical than literal or structural. This irony — how they look like trusses, but don't function the same astraditional ones — is made more playful by being painted green.

Another ironic stance can be found in this elevation, where an oversized round column seems to support ... nothing. The cylinder is actually an enclosure for the fireplace and flue, but the exaggerated scale and the classically symmetrical facade make it a graphic device for the house's rear elevation.

Left: House + House Architects

Above: House + House Architects

Another project by the same architects, in this case a front door, shows more exaggeration. The frame around the door is much larger than it needs to be, especially when seen relative to the small windows above. One way of defining Postmodern architecture is "like traditional architecture but with something not quite right." Elevations like this — portal entry and punched openings — are rooted in traditional buildings, but play with scale.

Above: House + House Architects

Here we see the same architects playing with a traditional gable form. Overall it alludes to ubiquitous dwellings, but the atypical window sizes and placement and the peeling of the corner at left make the design very Postmodern.

Above: House + House Architects

One trait shared by all of these House + House examples is color, specifically an articulation of seamless surfaces with varied colors. This house, which recalls traditional adobe dwellings, uses mustard and rust colors to make each volume stand apart from its neighbor. Inside ... .

... a similar means of using color occurs. But instead of volumes being treated with color, the interior walls are seen as planar, as if each wall surface is a canvas for color. And the way the underside of the stair is articulated in a sculptural manner makes the house ironic and playful.

Left: House + House Architects

In this bathroom, the collision of curves — glass-block wall, floor, vanity tops, mirror — is over the top, yet they all work together to create a cohesive environment.

Left: House + House Architects

Above: Helios Design Group

Not all Postmodern architecture is as strong in form and color as the previous examples; some appears traditional at first glance. This small addition's gable-fronted porch and shingles look quite traditional ... but, as I said, something is off. For one, the columns look too substantial in number for the small structure, and also the angle looks steeper than it needs to be. In another view...

Above: Helios Design Group

We see how the front is treated like a Greek temple, yet the details (columns, gable) are both exaggerated and highly abstracted. A temple precedent (my interpretation, not the architects' intention) may be lofty for such a small addition, but it certainly reinforces the frontality of the addition and the importance of the family room in the overall house. Inside the addition is a skylit, domed space reminiscent of Morocco.

Below: Mark Brand Architecture

The interior of this remodeled and expanded Victorian house also alludes to historical styles in the articulation of the supports. But columns typically hold up beams, and the beam above is cut, shifted up in the middle to heighten the opening between the spaces. And only the opening is framed with molding, giving the appearance that it is a graphic device.

Below: Mark Brand Architecture

Not all Postmodern buildings read as historical in their overall form. This Bernard Maybeck-inspired house is quite modern, given its expansive glass and flat surfaces. But certain elements, particularly the cornice in the top-right corner, are postmodern in their articulation. The cornice and brackets appear oversized, and the "eyebrow" over the garage looks more compositional than functional.

More formal exuberance from Mark Brand: Here we see a transition from Postmodern to the pluralist styles that predominate today. The upside down, truncated cone does not seem to follow any historical precedents, but the chimney, a pared-down but scaled-up metal cylinder, is definitely an exaggeration of a traditional element.

Left: Mark Brand Architecture

Above: RD Architecture, LLC

RD Architecture calls this house style "Deco Industrial," but the mix of traditional gable form, various window shapes and sizes, and the carving of the gable make this house appear Postmodern. The circular window is a curious part of this side of the house ...

Below: RD Architecture, LLC

... and inside we see that the window serves the bathroom. The shape is picked up in the shape of the his-and-her lavatories, and even in the mirrors flanking the window.

In what can be seen as a metaphor for Postmodern architecture, this doorway connecting a kitchen and dining room features a fractured pediment and glass doors whose sinuous joint extends the break above. Here the shattered remnants of historical elements are recomposed into an imperfect wholes, acknowledging that we can't recreate traditional architecture but that we can have fun trying.

Left: Danenberg Design

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