Postmodern architecture emerged in the late 1960s, largely as a rection to the modernist movement which was focused on formality, rigidity, and uniformity; and discouraged things like ornamentation or reference to history to history or place.

In contrast, postmodernism encourages a freethinking approach to architecture. Postmodern architects borrow freely from a variety of sources, even beyond the realms of architecture. They have no aversion to ornamentation and see their work in an historic cultural context.

The origins of postmodern architecture

Though it was published in 1972, a few years after postmodern work began to appear, the aims of postmodern architecture were first articulated in “Learning from Las Vegas”, a book by urban planner Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, an architect and architectural theorist.

For the postmodernists, all influences are valid and rules are there to be broken. Buildings become more than just structures in which people live, work, or play. They are cultural artefacts that are created in a specific place and a specific time. Therefore, they are designed with attention to not just their surroundings but to the broader culture.

Therefore, postmodern buildings are sometimes complex or even fragmented. They may include contradictions – or at least features that, seen from more traditional or modernist perspectives may be judged as contradictory. They often include characteristics like humour, playfulness or kitsch, and can introduce a range of colours, shapes, textures and materials, some of which may seem to not logically belong together.

Considering all of this, almost inevitably, postmodern architecture isn’t for everyone. Over the years, many have dismissed it as superficial, ugly, incomprehensible, or just plain silly.

Where has postmodern architecture had the biggest impact?

What began in the 1960s with the work of Robert Venturi and others soon spread elsewhere in the world. Postmodernism architecture spread throughout Europe; to Italy, Spain, France, and elsewhere; and also to Japan and Australia. Though its popularity probably hit a peak in the 1980s, there are still many postmodern buildings being designed around the world today.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, postmodernist architecture led to other related styles, such as deconstructivism, neo-classicism, and high-tech architecture. As far as the 21st century is concerned, postmodernism design continues to hold some influence, though one of the key things to note about contemporary architecture is that no single style is dominant. Architects today are just as likely to be influenced by traditional architecture as they are by high-tech or post modernism architecture.

The key figures of postmodernism architecture from the 1960s into the 21st Century include Philip Johnson, Charles Moore, Michael Graves, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, Aldo Rossi, Christian de Portzamparc, Ricardo Bofil, Arata Isozaki, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Terry Farrell and James Stirling.

A selection of some of the best postmodern architecture in the world

fire station #4

1. Fire Station #4

Architect: Robert Venturi

Location: Columbus, Indiana, USA

Completion Date: 1968

Fire Station #4 is an early example of postmodernist architecture. Responding to a brief for an ordinary building that could be maintained easily, Robert Venturi delivered a simple, functional building in which the apparatus room and the right and storage-living quarters take up roughly equal space. However, it rises above the ordinary and says something about the civic importance of fire stations.

guggenheim museum

2. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Architect: Frank Gehry

Location: Bilbao, Spain

Completion Date: 1997

A museum of modern and contemporary art located in Spain’s Basque country, The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has proven to be as popular with the general public as with academics and critics. With its stunning curves, it is almost sculpture-like in appearance. Standing alongside the Nervion River, it integrates with its surrounds.

SIS building

3. SIS Building

Architect: Terry Farrell and Partners

Location: London, UK

Completion Date: 1994

Home to the British Secret Intelligent Service, the SIS Building is located on the River Thames, adjacent to Vauxhall Bridge. Designed with influences ranging from the architecture of the 1930s to the temples of the Mayan and Aztec empires, the building was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.

vanna venturi house

4. Vanna Venturi House

Architect: Robert Venturi

Location: Pennsylvania, USA

Completion Date: 1964

A hugely influential building, Vanna Venturi House marked Venturi’s break from modernism to a new style of architecture that, unlike the former, it embraces ornamentation. The Vanna referred to in the name is Venturi’s mother, the woman for whom he designed it.

The Neue Staatsgalerie

5. The Neue Staatsgalerie 

Architect: James Stirling, Michael Wilford, and associates

Location: Stuttgart, Germany

Completion Date: 1984

Combing elements of modernism with classicism – and materials like sandstone and travertine with coloured steel – the Neue Staatsgalerie was built as an addition to the original gallery which was built in the 1800s. British architect James Stirling was largely responsible for the work.

The Piazza d'Italia Public Plaza

6. The Piazza d'Italia Public Plaza

Architect: Charles Moore

Location: New Orleans, USA

Completion Date: 1978

Designed as a tribute to the local Italian community in New Orleans, the Piazza d'Italia includes Italian baroque iconography, colonnades, arches, and a bell tower set around a central fountain and brought together with enthusiasm and without fear of being labelled kitsch.

Swanston Square Apartment Tower

7. Swanston Square Apartment Tower

Architect: Ashton Raggatt McDougall

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Completion Date: 2014

Located in central Melbourne, the residential tower features a portrait of Aboriginal Elder, William Barak, on its fa├žade.

AT&T Building

8. AT&T Building, 550 Madison Ave.

Architect: Philip Johnson

Location: New York, USA

Completion Date: 1984

Though many hail 550 Madison Ave. as a postmodernist masterpiece it has polarised opinion. Many don’t like it at all. Johnson was awarded several prizes including the Bronze Medallion from the New York city government in 1978 and the 1978 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects for the work.