The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture @ Sir John Soane’s Museum

In the two-room exhibition space at Sir John Soane’s Museum is an interesting show about five key British architects who were central in the rise of the architectural style known as Postmodernism. This review consists of:

  1. An introduction to Sir John Soane’s Museum
  2. A brief explanation of Modernism and Postmodernism
  3. Notes on the exhibition

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is a little-known treasure trove of art, architecture and antiquities, in central London.

Just a few minutes’ walk from hectic Holborn tube station, down narrow back alleys, you arrive at big, leafy Lincoln’s Inn Fields and here, on the north side of the square, in the centre of a terrace of sober Georgian houses, is Sir John Soane’s Museum, with its surprisingly grand neo-classical facade.

Facade of Sir John Soane's Museum. Photo by John Bridges

Facade of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo by John Bridges

This unusual facade is because Soane was himself an architect in the neo-classical style, and a great collector of art and antiquaries. To quote from Wikipedia:

Soane (1753-1837) made his living as an architect in the neo-classical style and rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. His best-known work was the Bank of England (his work there is largely destroyed), a building which had a widespread effect on commercial architecture. He also designed the Dulwich Picture Gallery whose top-lit galleries were a major influence on subsequent art galleries and museums.

At one point Soane owned three adjoining houses in the square, numbers 12, 13 and 14. He spent much time remodelling the facade of number 13 (now the museum), experimenting with internal design and decoration in all three properties, and also experimenting with ways to hang and display his ever-growing collection of paintings, books and antiquities.

The museum was created by an 1833 Act of Parliament which gifted Soane’s huge collections to the nation on the condition that they be displayed as they were during his lifetime, in the old-fashioned ‘cluttered’ style, with rows of paintings one above the other, and statuary and antiquities crammed higgledy-piggledy together.

In the past ten years the Soane Museum has undergone extensive renovation. But although the trustees have bought the house next door (number 14) and carried out extensive work to create a new Research Library, a room devoted to Soane’s huge collection of drawings (9,000) by the architect Robert Adam, an airy shop, offices and a temporary exhibition space – it is still the clutteredness of the hang which really makes an impression – small, tall, top-lit rooms and staircases absolutely crammed with busts, friezes, sculptures, antiquities and paintings all packed cheek by jowl.

Interior of Sir John Soane's Museum

The interior of Sir John Soane’s Museum

It’s this combination of intense clutteredness with the open and airy nature of some of the upstairs drawing rooms – and, of course, the value and interest of many of the objects, drawings and paintings – which gives Sir John Soane’s Museum its unique and magical atmosphere.

2. Modernism and Postodernism

Modernism

To understand Postmodernism, it helps to understand the modernism it was reacting against.

Modernism in literature, art and architecture from, say, the First World War through to some time in the 1970s, took it as axiomatic that there was one and just One, central avant-garde Movement and, if you were serious, you had to belong to It.

This avant-garde – in architecture in particular – was devoted to getting rid of all ornaments, all decorative features – which were condemned as bourgeois luxuries, fripperies, indulgences – and instead designing stark, angular buildings, which emphasised their harsh functionality.

The Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer Le Corbusier was the lead figure in the 1920s and 30s of the idea that a building is no more than ‘a machine for living in’.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Architects from the German Bauhaus pioneered designs which reduced buildings to the simplest possible shapes, cubes, square windows. Most were left wing if not active communists and saw themselves as building the architecture of a future society in which everyone was equal and lived in well-designed, functional units which could be mass produced and easily assembled.

After the Second World War the style became international. Not only decoration of any type, but even decorative materials were rejected in the name of the most simple, ‘honest’ building methods of the day.

When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933, a number of its artists and architects fled abroad. The most famous exile was the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who became head of an architecture school in Chicago. Mies is largely credited with bringing to perfection the principles of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus in a series of soaring steel and glass skyscrapers in ‘the Windy City’.

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

Completely smooth facades made of industrial steel and plate glass are combined with often light and airy atriums or plazas to give a sense of drama, combining the thrusting power of the building with sometimes surprisingly graceful spaces.

He strove toward an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of unobstructed free-flowing open space. He called his buildings ‘skin and bones’ architecture. (Wikipedia)

An alternative variant of this Modernist style was the unrestrained use of concrete in low-rise buildings. During the 1960s this style became known as Brutalism, possibly a reference to Le Corbusier’s use of the French term béton brut, which means ‘raw concrete’ in French, but the term took off because it accurately described the unflinching, uncompromising, in-your-face look and feel of buildings which were made from slabs of raw concrete.

Prime examples are the Hayward Gallery or the Barbican Centre in London. Indeed, the newly-reopened Hayward Gallery shop stocks a surprising number of books celebrating Brutalism around the world. There’s even a book titled Brutal London with maps so you can go on a pilgrimage around the brutalist buildings of London. Harsh, slabby, heavy, undecorated.

The Barbican Centre, London

The Barbican Centre, London

It’s difficult to recapture at this distance in time, but Modernism was strongly flavoured by left-wing politics, with the notion that unnecessary ‘decoration’ was a sign of bourgeois, wealthy elitism, and that all right-minded architects were working for a better world, a new socialist, communist, egalitarian world, whose buildings must be characterised by clarity and simplicity and ‘honesty’ to their materials.

Instead of bourgeois mystification, statues of lions or generals, ornate facades and so on, Modernist buildings should emphasise their functionality – the vast frontages of identical windows in Mies skyscrapers, or the open-to-the-elements staircases, walkways and balconies in Brutalist buildings.

Result: Countless 1960s high-rise blocks of flats. New towns. Ring roads. Shopping centres. Square, featureless, concrete slabs.

Postmodernism

But as is the way with all fashions, people – that is the architects themselves – eventually got fed up with all this plainness, brutality and po-faced, anti-bourgeois rhetoric.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, the Modernist mindset began to crumble. New architects questioned the need for everything to be grey and joyless, and also the need for there to be only One Dominating Aesthetic, approved by a jury of like-minded straightlaced colleagues.

Why shouldn’t buildings have decorative features? Why did they all have to be made of slate-grey concrete? And why must there only be One Style? Given the possibilities of modern engineering and the wealth of new materials – why not hundreds of styles – why not a different style for every building?

Postmodernist architecture started in America and is often linked with the name of architect Robert Venturi who published a deliberately controversial book Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, which suggested that architects could learn something from the tacky, commercial shops, drive-ins, Dunkin’ Donuts and MacDonalds buildings, the big signs and flashing neon, along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Venturi and others began building deliberately garish, playful new buildings in a range of materials.

In Britain, in 1977 critic and architect Charles Jencks wrote The Language of Postmodern Architecture, a book which brought together examples of a wide range of fanciful and colourful buildings being designed by American architects. The book popularised the term ‘Postmodernism’ to a wider audience, and ultimately led to it spreading out to other disciplines in the humanities.

So postmodernism was a conscious revolt against the Modernist architectural orthodoxy which many felt had become stifling and dull. The new young architects thought that new buildings:

  • should reintroduce historical references and quotes from other periods
  • should reference and echo their surroundings, instead of being concrete boxes plonked down willy-nilly
  • should use a variety of materials instead of just concrete (Brutalism) or steel and glass (Internationalism)
  • should use colours – shock horror – yes the whole rainbow of colours, not just slate grey
  • should be funny, witty, ironic and provocative

Suddenly there was no longer One Dominant Orthodox Movement, but the potential for everyone to break free and do their own things.

3. Five postmodernist British architects

This exhibition brings together a range of drawings, sketches, plans, designs, models and images, as well as full-scale replicas, of iconic works by five of the British architects most associated with Postmodernist architecture. The drawings and models are displayed in large wall cabinets and in table-based display cases.

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

The five architects are:

  • Terry Farrell
  • John Outram
  • Jeremy Dixon
  • James Stirling
  • CZWG

Terry Farrell (b.1938)

Farrell is sometimes taken as the pioneer of the new look in Britain. The wall labels explain that postmodernism was, among other things, an end of the utopian, left-wing beliefs of Modernism. Instead of trying to bring about a brave new egalitarian world through buildings, Farrell was one of a number of architects who looked back beyond the concrete wastelands of Modernism, with a view to reconnecting to older styles and, well, having fun.

Why not reference the old architectural motifs of classicism and so on, but done in a new way, with a 1980s aesthetic, the age of shoulder pads and big hairdos, with bright colours and ornamentation?

One of the earliest of the new wave buildings was the TVam headquarters, built next to Camden Lock. It includes unnecessarily bright colours, references a range of older elements, and emphasises its frivolous decorative features. Why not?

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

In terms of cultural references, there were elements of an Egyptian ziggurat (look at the skyline at the back of this photo) and a Japanese tea garden tucked away at the back. The front of the building sported a modernist metal variation on a traditional archway, complete with massive keystone – but made not of stone but of brightly coloured tubular piping. The whole facade curves gently following the curve of the road it stands on, and is end-stopped by huge cutouts of the letters T V a m. And all done in bright brash colours, unafraid of the grey Style Police.

Traditional Modernists hated it and really hated the set of 11 fibre glass rooftop eggcups dotted along the top of the building. Breakfast TV – hard-boiled eggs – geddit? One of them is in the exhibition!

Critics thought it was all tacky, vulgar, superficial and – worst epithet of all – bourgeois!

One of the eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

One of the fibreglass eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

Farrell went on to design what is now one of London’s iconic buildings, the new SIS or MI6 building at Vauxhall on the south bank of the River Thames.

Initially it was just going to be another speculative block of offices, it was only some way into the process that he learned the government was interested in buying it. The exhibition includes a fascinating series of preparatory sketches and drawings. Farrell starts from the premise that a number of other London riverfront buildings make big, grand stylistic statements (for example, Somerset House) and then the drawings show him playing with different combinations of cubes and bulges and curved sections, working towards the stepped faced we see today. It’s really interesting to see architectural ‘creativity’ at work.

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

The exhibition includes models of the building which help you examine the ziggurat-style, stepped detail of the finished building close up, along with one case devoted to the Dr Who, Tardis-style blue entrance doors on the side of the building. The closer you look, the weirder it all gets.

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

John Outram (b.1934)

Outram emerges as the philosopher and visionary of the group. He built the New House, Wadhurst Park (pictured in the show) but it is the models and big plans of some of his unbuilt projects which really dominate. Here is a large colour drawing for a building planned for 200 Victoria Street in London.

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Mad, isn’t it? A long, long way from concrete slabs, in fact it’s difficult to know where to begin in describing the extravagant use of colour and decoration. Most outrageous are the coloured statues of mermaids on the roof, and what appears to be a windmill design off to the top right. The surface seems to be as encrusted with coloured tiling and decorations as an Anglo-Catholic Victorian Church.

And I was tickled to learn that Outram claimed to have invented an entirely new ‘order’ of column, the Robot Order. Anyone interested in columns knows that the ancient Greeks pioneered three ‘orders’ of column – the plain Dorian, the Ionian with a scroll at the top, and the Corinthian which has a capital covered in carved acanthus leaves – which were copied all across Europe from the Renaissance up to the present day.

In his plan you can see that Outram’s ‘robot order’ is characterised by its squat massiveness (the columns actually contain all the building’s services), but most of all by the way that each column is topped off by a massive pair of turbines, spoofing the Doric order. A good example of the jokey, ha-ha, ironic, insider wittiness which Postmodernist architects now felt free to display in their buildings.

Jeremy Dixon (b.1939)

Dixon is represented by the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden, which took from 1989 to 2000. There are a number of plans plus two wooden models of the piazza and one of the Opera House itself, with one wall pulled away to give a cutaway, inside view.

Reading about the evolution of Covent Garden the scheme reminds you of probably the most distinguishing feature of architecture as an ‘art’, which is how mightily collaborative it is, and how very restricted by site, location and environment.

I can paint a painting, write a sonnet, take a photograph more or less anywhere. But most architects are hemmed in a) by the space where the building is to go b) by an extraordinarily complicated web of planning regulations and restrictions. And all of that before c) you get to the self-imposed limitations of fashion, what’s in, what’s new etc.

A lot of people stuck their oar into the Covent Garden redevelopment, from the City of Westminster, through the GLC and the government. Only a decade earlier there had been moves to demolish the entire square and build some nice brutalist flats over it. By the time Dixon became involved in the 1980s it was clear that the existing structures were going to be preserved, but how should they be fronted, completed and styled?

Dixon decided the facades would be allowed to change to reflect their immediate surroundings. Thus a new arcade was created at the north-east of the piazza – where it abuts the Opera House – in order to echo, but not copy, the central arcade designed by Inigo Jones back in the 1630s.

Modern but… echoing the old. Certainly not outfacing it with a vast steel skyscraper nor shaming it with Barbican-style bunkers.

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

James Stirling (1926-1992)

A similar problem confronted James Stirling when he was commissioned to design a building for 1 Poultry, opposite the Bank of England. Six huge plans are on display here for the first time (on the far wall in this photo), showing how Stirling sought to ‘relate’ his design to nearby buildings designed by Edward Lutyens and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table. Photo by Gareth Gardner

CZWG

The firm CZWG is named after four students who studied architecture together in the 1960s – Nicholas Campbell, Rex Wilkinson, Roger Zogolovitch and Piers Gough. Next to Farrell, these guys seem to have come up with the most playful designs.

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

The display case devoted to this building, at China Wharf, contains old photos showing the state of the often derelict Victorian warehouses surrounding the site, and makes the case that the structure ‘echoes and reflects’ its surroundings. Maybe. But, the casual viewer might point out, it also has a dirty great big red concrete stuck onto the front.

The wall label says:

The orange concrete facade echoes adjacent warehouse frontages, whilst making reference to Baroque and Art Nouveau design – all to create a new architectural identity for Docklands.

My Dad told me never to trust anyone who says ‘whilst’.

Another CZWG building facing on the Thames is Cascades. This building had a display case devoted to it which was arguably the most interesting in the exhibition because, alongside contemporary photos and ephemera (for example, an invitation to the opening party), were extracts from magazines and newspapers which were virulently critical of this building and of the Postmodern trend it represented.

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades was one of the first new-look builds in Canary Wharf, a twenty-story tower which, to quote the wall label:

emerges at its base through references to Victorian warehouses and the ocean liner aesthetic, before reaching a summit that would not appear out of place in Hong Kong… The sloping side gives the building a dynamic shape absent from a more conventional tower, while allowing the penthouse apartments along that side to have south-facing balconies open to the sky…. Cascades showed how high-rise living could be popular and glamorous.

With its sloping side, its tonal variation from dark to light brown, with its semi-circular bulges dotted along the facade, the many round ‘porthole’ windows and the three white ocean liner style piped vents, it couldn’t be further from the grey concrete brutalism of a 1970s tower block.

What’s fascinating is the highly critical article shown alongside the plans, written by architect Stephen Gardiner (1924-2007). Gardiner warms up by making general criticisms of Postmodern architecture, raging against its ‘jazzy vulgarity’, the way it screams out like a TV commercial, is full of cheap dodges and flashy effects, is ‘B-movie architecture’. Then he lets fly at Cascades in particular, finding it:

a grotesque and shapeless 20-story tower block on the Isle of Dogs… a horrifying result of the deregulation of aesthetic controls… an example of visual chaos… a crazy jumble of so-called architectural references … and a heap of different materials… These architects appear to regard a city as a private gallery for their brand of pop-art buildings. But it isn’t: their appearance affects us all, particularly when exposed on the river front. Whatever the situation architects have a very special responsibility to the public…

Go Stevie, go. This article is more or less the only thing in the exhibition which really expresses why the new Postmodernist style was so controversial and on what grounds its critics attacked it.

But all good things come to an end. In 1987 an essay was published in Art in America magazine titled Late Postmodernism: The End of Style? By the late 1980s the first fine careless flush of anti-establishment defiance was played out. Postmodernist buildings continued to be built into the 1990s but younger architects tried to forge new lines of development moving beyond its jokiness and irony.

Thoughts

I suppose architecture can be considered and assessed in three ways:

  1. As plans and designs and drawings and concepts I warm to straight lines and geometric patterns, and also to dinky scale models of buildings with tiny little figures walking by, so I often find architectural designs and models entrancing. That said, insofar as they are drawings, they all look a bit samey, drawn in the same kind of technical way on the same kind of paper with the same kind of formal conventions.
  2. It’s only when they’re built that architects’ plans come alive and can then be considered in two ways.
    1. If you live or work in one – does it work? What’s it like? Does it have the conveniences promised? Or is it badly designed and thought-through, as so many ‘city in the sky’ council flats and tower blocks of the 1960s and 70s were.
    2. What’s it like to walk past? What impact does it have on those who don’t live or work in it, but whose built environment it contributes to? What contribution does it make to the skyline and cityscape?

I am no expert, I am just an averagely educated Londoner, but I think there are now so many buildings like Cascades – the Thames from Battersea to Westminster, and from the City down to Docklands is so lined with quirky jokey blocks of luxury apartments, take the stepped ziggurats and the tower block that bends backwards at Battersea Reach – that most people just accept it as the style of our times.

Battersea Reach, London

Battersea Reach, London

I don’t really like any of it. Today I walked through the Covent Garden piazza on the way to Sir John Soane’s Museum and all I can think is that a) it’s a blessing that the bastard planners of the 1970s didn’t knock it down and replace it with concrete flats b) it does the job of being a Tourist Trap, a place where tourists are funneled and blunder around buying over-priced coffee and gewgaws.

But I don’t really like the Royal Opera rebuild or the North arcade. I rather think I dislike it for seeming hollow and… somehow fake.

And I happened to walk through the little atrium of 1 Poultry a month or so ago and it seemed dark and noisily polluted from the two City roads which hem it in. Some kind of rebuilding work was going on, there were pipes across the floor, drilling, entrances to some tacky chain shops like Accessorise or H&M. Horror.

Whenever I’ve been past the TVam building in Camden it’s always seemed to me poky, tacky, narrow, low and constricted. It makes me feel choked and cramped. It is not a happy building.

I don’t think I’ve consciously seen the China Wharf building but there are now so many extraordinary designs of buildings dotted all over the Isle of Dogs that it’s just one more in the wacky show.

Buildings for faceless overlords

My impression is that nobody can stop it now. Quirky, funny, witty, ironic, call it what you will – knowing, arch, self-referential etc, Postmodern architecture is where we are, is the modern look.

The Thames is now lined with ranks of po-mo apartment blocks which come from the same lineage as Cascades.

I appreciate that more recent buildings which have hit the headlines such as the Shard and the Gherkin are not Postmodern in style. If you look it up you discover that the Shard and the Gherkin are examples of ‘neo-Futurism’. Neverthetheless, it feels that the way was paved for this generation of jokey, quirky, steel-and-glass monsters, by the jokey, quirky innovators of Postmodernism.

The net result of all this is the widely shared feeling that modern architecture is commissioned, given planning permission, designed and built by a faceless élite, by our lords and masters, by nameless faceless people who don’t seem to be accountable to anyone except their billionaire oil sheikh or Russian oligarch sponsors – to Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra who owns the Gherkin or to the Qatari Royal Family who own the Shard.

Modern architecture in this vein is the plaything and fantasy of an international cosmopolitan élite which has nothing to do any more with the concerns and tastes of the powerless populations which they tower over.

Which is why I always laugh out loud whenever I see architects writing about ‘social responsibility’ or ‘working with the community’. Ha! As if. Which is why I always think of the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition as ‘the Room of Shame’. Most architecture doesn’t have anything to do with ‘ordinary people’. Maybe it never did.

Postmodernism is a lot better than the concrete misanthropy which preceded it. In terms of architectural history, it opened the floodgates to an enormous diversity of modern buildings whose designers feel free to play and experiment with a wide range of designs, ornamentation, features and materials.

But I don’t think there are any po-mo buildings that I actually like. And in my mind, anyway, the big hair and padded shoulders of TVam associate it with the end of the post-war social democratic consensus and the rise of loads-of-money capitalism, the Thatcherism and Blairism of the 1980s and 90s, which led directly to the steel-and-glass artefacts of the age of terror, the age of relentlessly growing inequality, and the age of a hyper-articulate, cosmopolitan art and architectural élite pandering to the wishes of the international super-rich – the age in which we now find ourselves.

Conclusion

The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture is a small but really interesting exhibition. It was useful to be reminded of the names of the architects behind the MI6 building, or 1 Poultry, to be shown that this was Stirling, that was Farrell, and to be introduced to the unbuilt extravaganzas of John Outram.

It was fun.

And, like all good exhibitions, it sets you thinking about its subject – about architecture and the modern built environment, determined to read up more on a subject which, although it affects all of us – the buildings we live and work in and walk by every day – is given surprisingly little coverage in any of the media.

And it’s FREE. Check it out.


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1 Comment

  1. George Walker

     /  July 3, 2018

    Dear Simon Port,

    I ‘googled’ you and found your surname from Twitter, which is one of the many ‘social’ ‘media’ I will have nothing to do with, and I wondered if there was some other way of contacting you? Perhaps this reply to your email/blog is enough?

    Just to say I love ‘Books and Boots’. The Amis stuff was what got me hooked. More perhaps anon…

    Yours,

    George Walker

    ________________________________

    Reply

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