Revisiting Postmodernism
Sir Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman
RIBA Publishing

In their new, amply illustrated book, Revisiting Postmodernism, from RIBA publishing, architects Sir Terry Farrell and Adam Nathaniel Furman construct a cross-generational account of postmodern architecture’s birth, evolution, and eventual decline in America and Europe, placing special emphasis on the movement’s development in their native UK in the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s. As the title suggests, the work revisits—and is thus a revision of—a well-known disciplinary narrative. Readers unfamiliar with the subject would do well to begin with first-wave accounts before engaging with Farrell and Furman’s somewhat idiosyncratic views—Charles Jencks’s Language of Postmodern Architecture, for example, or the more academic and comprehensive The History of Postmodern Architecture by Heinrich Klotz.

From the start, Farrell and Furman exhibit a sincere enthusiasm for the works gathered in Revisiting Postmodernism, privileging careful, sensitive readings of mostly built individual projects over theoretical generalizations and broad cultural criticism. The works cited are almost entirely illustrated with brightly colored photographs, foregrounding the authors’ endorsement of postmodernism’s potential for populist appeal and mass communication, while affirming critical theorist Fredric Jameson’s assertion that “many are the postmodern buildings that seem to have been designed for photography…”

What Farrell and Furman’s text offers is a charming and highly digestible breeze through a famously difficult and hotly contested series of interrelated developments in architectural aesthetics, art practice, academic pedagogy, and theories of city planning from the late 1960s to the present day. The authors present complementary accounts of postmodern architecture’s more than 50-year life cycle through an aggregation of loose chronological narratives, speculative asides, biographical anecdotes, and generous nods to a host of B-side projects and lesser-known offices. The text glosses over oft-recited narratives of competing factions (the Grays, the Whites, the Chicago Seven, and the Silvers) and the contentious positions of their critical/philosophical avatars (the phenomenological, semiotic, psychoanalytic, and Marxist rhetoric that marked academic discourse at that time), favoring the trajectories of projects and bodies of work.

PPG Place, in Pittsburgh, was designed by John Burgee Architects with Philip Johnson and opened in 1984. (Derek Jensen)

Revisiting Postmodernism’s unique contribution to a now-rapidly expanding collection of postwar alternative histories (see Jorge Otero-Pailos’s excellent Architecture’s Historical Turn) is its focus on the much-decried middle and late periods of the movement. This period, Farrell suggests, was ushered in by Paolo Portoghesi’s Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980, and while other critics view the 1980 biennale as the beginning of the end for the once-radical, ideologically charged trajectories of figures like Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore, and Robert Venturi, Farrell declares it a “watershed.” By Farrell’s account, Portoghesi’s “Presence of the Past” set in motion two decades of unprecedented cultural and financial investment in a variety of interrelated postmodern styles. Indeed, both Farrell and Furman devote a great deal of their attention to the urban (at times, massively) scaled, public and corporately funded works by offices like Ricardo Bofill, CZWG, Richard Rogers, César Pelli, Helmut Jahn, Philip Johnson, and Graves. Farrell’s own giant-scale work from that period, such as his MI6 Building at Vauxhall Cross (1994) and Alban Gate in the City (1992), epitomize the marketability, populist agency, and aesthetic and material limits of high postmodern. Farrell and Furman avoid too-easy critiques of a corporately sanctioned, populist, historical (read: reactionary) architecture built in the wake of Reagan and Thatcher. Instead, they interpret the moment of MI6 and the pre-Disney work of Michael Graves as remarkable anomalies in the history of architecture and capitalism.

Inntel Hotel by WAM Architecten in Delft, the Netherlands, was completed in 2010. (Peter Barnes)

As Furman writes: “Younger architects, critics and the public were blinded to the incredible opening up of the profession that it had brought about, to its transformation of how planners and architects related to the city, to history, to heritage and the contemporary world, and to how buildings could say something, could tell stories and generate atmospheres…”

Farrell and Furman conclude with hopeful, if somewhat disorienting, speculations, briefly touching on the neo-postmodernisms of a younger generation (offices like FAT and WAM) that began to take root in the shadow of corporate pomo’s polemical and commercial decline. The authors seem to suggest that fluid, global networks of information, materials, cultural exchange, and capital have happily rendered us all default postmodernists in this second decade of the 2000s. Where cultural critics like Fredric Jameson paranoiacally theorized the rise of a ubiquitous “postmodern hyperspace,” that is, a space that accurately renders our collective incapacity to map the “multinational and decentered” networks that engulf us, Farrell and Furman celebrate the potential of a multivalent, multicultural architecture of the future—a communal, urban architecture presaged in the first and later waves of postmodernism.

Related Stories