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                                                           Postmodern Style  

  By Alex Brown



The reaction against Modern architecture and Design began in the 1970s. The International Modern Style which had been dominant since the 1940s was now seen as boring and when applied in large projects, inhumane. Based in part on the ideas of strict FUNCTIONALISM, truth to materials and a rational approach to design of the early Modern Movement. By the 1970s, these concepts were no longer enough  and designers had begun to experiment with other approaches.


There had to be something more complex and interesting to say about design other than the Standard International Modern colourless, textureless images and environments. The colourful and exciting world of media entertainment: TV, movies, graphics which filled peoples lives suggested that environments could be more stimulating and complex.


This reaction against Modern design approaches, against its strict and limiting rules became a general phenomenon. It became possible to deliberately use, FUN, HUMOUR, SHOCK AND IRONY in the design of environments. To try to design for the full complexity of human experience. This general trend in design became known as the Postmodern Movement in Design. By implication, 'Modern' was finished.




The Postmodern search for ways to increase the complexity and interest of design products, architecture and interiors involved two general approaches:


1.      A return to the use of historical styles or fragments of history inserted into a Modern context. The idea was to enrich the Modern Style with more complex motifs. (Eg: Including Classical motifs or details within the form of a new `Modern' building).


2.       To include a level of complex detailing, colour and other devices which would emphasize visual interest, `texture', scale and humanity.(Eg: Mixing different materials together on the building, using several different colours or creating visual `clashes' between different parts of the building).


They are both attempts to make design more complex, interesting and human. The result of these experiments in style was the SPLITTING UP of the Modern design into a number of sub-styles - each looking at a different way to increase complexity.




Based on these two general approaches several movements or styles have emerged which try put these ideas into practice:


1.         Historicism              2.         The White Architecture


3.         Memphis                  4.         Deconstructivism


5.         High Tech                 6.         Regionalism


Each of these styles emphasizes a different aspect of design to achieve a more complex and interesting environment. Modern technology offers designers the possibility of doing literally anything. The same technology which is used to create Hi-Tech interiors can produce historically accurate interiors of the 19th century. Designers now have enormous choice both in 'style' and the materials and technology to realize what they design. Designers now can choose WHAT IS MOST APPROPRIATE in terms of design - no longer stuck in the straightjacket of one particular 'official' style.




According to some architects Modern design is a fundamentally wrong or inappropriate style for this or any other age. For them, it is not just the International Style phase which must be rejected, but everything, all the way back to and before the Heroic Age of the 1920s. Their position can be stated as follows:


1.      They say that the functionalist/rationalist process of Modern design (the way it works) inevitably produces hostile and oversimplified environments and objects.


2.      They also point to the fact that Modern Design rejected history and tradition and the lessons of the past in order to create a wholly new (and untried) style.


3.     They point to the success, complexity and humanity of traditional cities, interior spaces and architecture - in which people prefer to live.


4.       In their projects they recover traditional design elements from the past and use them to solve modern problems.


This is an essentially `humanist', people-centred approach to the use of historical models in design. The other result of the re-use of history to `enrich' Modern architecture was that historical `bits' were virtually mixed at random with modern fragments. In other words, the result was visual chaos. Unable to produce complexity from the Modern forms at its disposal, this approached basically looted history for decorative ideas which it applied to Modern buildings.




This approach is limited to a few practitioners (the American architect Richard Meier is the best example). It takes the ideas of the early Modern Movement - the `White Architecture' of the 1920s - stretches and develops it to make it more complex. This design style can be described as follows:


1.       Using the most advanced technology

2.      Meier takes the simple white boxes of the 1920s and breaks them open, makes them  more expressive

3.       Highlights their geometric character.

4.       Almost a High Tech aluminium version of Le Corbusier

5.       Multiple volumes, ramps, curved elements and pure geometric volumes.

6.       He introduced the space grid as a way of tying these separate elements together.


White is used for all walls, ceilings and structural elements. It is the furniture paintings, carpets and domestic products which provide strong colour elements in the interior. The white edges of the space become simply a neutral background to human activities.




Originally an Italian movement of the 1980s founded by the designer, Ettore Sottsass. Rejecting the functionalist and `neutral' concepts of the International Style, Sottsass started the Memphis design movement. Their purpose was to reintroduce the qualities of colour, texture, sensuality and joy into design which had been lost or abandoned by the functionalist approach of the 1950s and the puritan ethic of the Modern Movement.


Characteristics of Memphis design work:


 1.   Anti-intellectual/anti-functionalist approach to product, graphics and furniture design.


  2.    Rejecting the snobbish approach of design professionals to 'good taste' which produces neutral, characterless products.


  3.   Introduces familiar/non-intellectual images from popular culture into design products.


  4.   Uses shock to widen the range of images of Modern design by introducing conflicting or irregular colours, patterns, textures, shapes and mixed materials.

 5.   Design of workable products which ALSO express spontaneity, colour, texture,  sensuality, joy and fun.




The Modern Movement produced objects and buildings which were formal or even monumental in appearance. Even ordinary buildings and interiors with no social or significance took on a monumental character. The reason for this was as follows:


1.       Each object or part of an object was precisely designed to suit a particular  purpose.

2.      Each interior or object was seen to be a complete thing in itself. The space `closed  itself off'.


3.       Every activity was forced into a regular cubic space, every junction was a right angle.


For the International Style all design problems could be solved within these precise cubic spaces. This gave Modern Movement spaces a fake monumentality and certainty. However, in the late 1980s the Deconstructivist movement began to break open the closed forms of the Modern Movement. (That is, to DE-CONSTRUCT it). The general characteristics of Deconstructivist design are as follows:


1.       Explodes architectural form into loose collections of  related fragments.


2.      Destroys the dominance of the right angle and the cube by using the diagonal line  and the `slice' of space.


3.      Uses ideas and images from Russian Revolutionary architecture and design - Russian  Constructivism

4.       Searches for more DYNAMIC spatial possibilities and experiences not explored (or  forbidden) by the Modern Movement.

5.       Provokes shock, uncertainty, unease, disquiet, disruption, distortion by challenging familiar ideas about space, order and regularity in the environment.

6.      Rejects the idea of the `perfect form' for a particular activity and rejects the familiar relationship between certain forms and certain activities.


7.       Note the work of the architects, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi and Zaha Hadid.


Note that while Memphis designs attack the lack of colour, texture, pattern or sensuality of the Modern Movement, Deconstructivism attacks the closed and precise forms and spaces of the Modern Movement. The same design attitudes are simply directed at different aspects of the design of space.




Rather than completely reject the work of the Modern Movement, certain designers sought to push some of its ideas to their limits. In this case - building technology.


High Tech designers make two basic claims:


1.       That design can be reduced to purely technical issues: structures and services.

          (An extreme version of the Modern Movement Functionalism).


2.       The Advanced Technology environment provides a neutral/flexible and convenient space within which the users can            create their own lifestyles.

          (Supposedly, other styles impose their designer's attitudes on their users).


Basically, the High Tech environment is a highly-serviced shed within which all partitions are movable. In theory at least the building is `invisible' and simply provides a protective shell within which the users can do what they like. The major design effort is directed at integrating the services and structure and freeing the internal space.


Characteristics of High Tech Design:


1.       Full expression of technical apparatus: structure/services - columns/ducts etc.


2.       Emphasis on complexity of detailing.


3.       Large areas of glass and pressed metal walling.


4.       Bright colours indicate different structural/service systems.


5.      Ideally, structure placed outside of shell (visually, this gives the building a complex appearance).


6.         Use of `high tech' materials: steel, glass, plastics.


While High Tech designers may claim that they are purely interested in solving technical issues, their buildings tell a different story. As much as any other movement they are trying to generate visual complexity  by using complex and exposed technical detailing plus colour to produce a more interesting environment.


Examples: the work of the British architects: Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Foster's building, the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong is without doubt the classic example of this style. However, the work of Shin Takamatsu in Japan shows a more theatrical approach to the EXPRESSION OF TECHNOLOGY. In his work the technical elements become sculptural elements.




The rapid economic development of certain parts of the world, particularly East Asia, Latin America and Southern Europe has dramatized the issue of Regional identity.  The key issues of Regional design are these:


1.      The overpowering cultural/technical and economic influence of Western (primarily American) culture on other societies.

2.      The desire to protect and maintain the unique culture and identity of non- Western societies.


However, the disintegration of the Modern Movement into a variety of different styles has freed regional designers to produce work based on local motifs. The issue now is to produce an authentic regional style.


(There are many buildings in which the regional aspect is superficial: where the interior of a basically Modern building is decorated with local motifs. The Middle East has many examples like this).  Examples of regionalist design:


1.      The most successful attempt to produce such a style has been in Japan particularly now in the work of Arata Isozaki, Tadeo Ando and Shin Takamatsu and the interior designer Yasuo Kondo.

         With a full understanding of traditional Buddhist or Shinto spatial concepts or detailing techniques, Japanese designers have transformed these into identifiably  modern and  evocative design elements.


2.         In Latin America: note the work of Louis Barragan, Emilio Ambaz.


3.         In Southern Europe: Note the work of Carlo Scarpa, Aldo Rossi, Mario Botta.


The forms produced by these architects and designers amongs others are now used to enrich the whole vocabulary of international Modern architecture and design. They offer another set of motifs, attitudes and design alternatives which are based on human and non-functionalist approaches to environments.


While absorbing the technology of advanced industrial society, Regional designers humanize it with details and spatial organization drawn from the collective memory and history of the people who will use it.


In a true sense they `customize' the design so that it truely BELONGS somewhere.




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