Art History Postmodern Architecture
K. Michael Hays
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0086


The concept of postmodernism finds its definitive articulation in architecture, even though postmodern thought far exceeds the use of the term postmodern in architectural discourse. Modern architecture—with its utopian aspirations, functional rationality, technological determinism, and aesthetic purism—is understood by postmodern thought as a primary expression of the general search for a metaphysics of certainty and universality, which rejects traditional spatial hierarchies and seeks to establish a new homogeneous and continuous space. In practice, the creation of this new space entails the erasure and replacement of old buildings and city fabric as well as old subjectivities and sensibilities. Against the principles of erasure and replacement, a post-modern ethos in architecture emerged in the years just after World War II with a pars destruens, which criticizes the modern movement’s objective and subjective ambitions, and a pars construens which calls for an embrace of heterogeneity and recombination, accommodation, local identity, “vernacular” building, humanistic sensibilities, and disciplinary traditions. A renewed interest in architecture theory accompanied the new architecture; indeed, postmodern architecture was born in the academy and was developed in journals. New epistemological tools, including structuralism and semiotics, helped provide a theoretical infrastructure. Historians and others outside the profession played key roles in the theorization of postmodern architecture. Drawings became important as an experimental tool as well as a means of representation. The development of theory in the United States and Europe enabled the specification of different trends within postmodern architecture—for example, rationalism versus realism, structuralism versus phenomenology, historicism versus deconstructivism, and avant-garde versus neo-avant-garde. Corollary examples and regional inflections can be found in other countries, but most followed Euro-American models. Meanwhile, the larger currents of postmodern thought flowed through post-structuralist theories of language. Inevitably postmodern architecture also developed a post-structuralist dimension. The embrace of post-structuralist theory eventually precipitated the end of historicist postmodernism, though it is arguable that postmodern thought continues to frame recent architectural production.

General Overviews

The discourse of postmodern architecture seems, by its nature, to produce accounts that are biased toward certain attributes or certain strands. The overviews below all treat their subjects broadly and comparatively. Pommer 1980 and Woods 1999 are more scholarly and balanced. Klotz 1988 and Jencks 2011 are treatments of the subject by enthusiastic promoters of the trend, yet there are distinct differences. Klotz sees continuities between modern and postmodern architectures, while Jencks sees postmodernism as a critical break from modernist ideals and an installation of an altogether different ethos. Piñón 1984 compares the modern avant-garde to the postmodern “neo-avant-garde” in terms of worldly engagement or withdrawal, respectively. Pommer’s account, though intended for a general audience, is written from within the field. Woods places architecture in a wider field of postmodern production. Klotz and Jencks are heavily illustrated.

  • Jencks, Charles. The Story of Post-modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture. Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2011.

    From the author who is credited with the consolidation of the term postmodern, the latest consideration of postmodern architecture. Argues that the ethos has expanded to include the consequences of digital technology and a networked globe.

  • Klotz, Heinrich. The History of Postmodern Architecture. Translated by Radka Donnell. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988.

    English translation of Moderne und postmoderne: Architektur der Gegenwart, 1960–1980 (Brunswick, Germany: Vieweg), first published in 1984. Traces postmodernism’s development in detail, with more than five hundred illustrations, most of drawings and models. Links modernism and postmodernism and candidly tries to save postmodernism from charges of nostalgia and argues that its essential feature is its narrative quality, “fiction as well as function.” Especially useful for its illustrations.

  • Piñón, Helio. Arquitectura de las neoavanguardias (Arquitectura con textos). Barcelona: Gilli, 1984.

    One of Spain’s most important architecture theorists adopts Peter Bürger’s concept of “neo-avant-garde” as a way of distinguishing the advanced work of the 1960s and 1970s from the “historical avant-garde” of the 1920s. Good overview. Important text in Spain but not widely known.

  • Pommer, Richard. “Some Architectural Ideologies after the Fall.” Art Journal 50 (1980): 353–361.

    Written for a special issue entitled Modernism, Revisionism, Pluralism, and Post-Modernism, this essay is a nonpartisan, cogent summary and attentive criticism of the prevailing positions at postmodern architecture’s heyday.

  • Woods, Tim. “Postmodern Architecture and Concepts of Space.” In Beginning Postmodernism. By Tim Woods, 89–123. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

    An especially clear and concise history of major figures and concepts in postmodern architecture.

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