The director of the 20th Century Society on why Postmodernism has replaced Brutalism as the architectural style we love to hate
As yet no Postmodern building in England has been listed, and several of the best have been rejected. While Brutalism now has an established cool factor, and plenty fans on social media to prove it, Postmodern is the new style that is OK to despise, and that seems to hold as true for architects as the general population.
I think this lack of appreciation is a convenient factor helping to give DCMS ministers (who get the final say) the confidence to overrule expert advice and turn down buildings including Broadgate (the parts by Peter Foggo, opened in 1985) and James Stirling’s Number One Poultry. They have done this despite strongly reasoned arguments - endorsed by their own advisers, Historic England - that these buildings are (or sadly were, in the case of Broadgate) of outstanding architectural and historic interest.
It’s to address the lack of appreciation for Pomo that the Twentieth Century Society has organised a conference on 21 May, bringing together historians and practitioners including Charles Jencks, Terry Farrell and Piers Gough. We are expecting some heckling.
The Brutalist causes célèbres have been largely public buildings (Preston bus station, Birmingham Central Library and the Southbank Centre), and were turned down for listing by New Labour, perhaps uncomfortable with what is increasingly seen as the heroic built evidence of the idealism of post-war socialism. The stars of Postmodernism are often commercial buildings, built with the primary objective of private profit rather than public benefit, and it falls to today’s Conservative government to pass judgement on them.
Should the fact that they are commercial buildings make a difference? Should we regard them as intrinsically less culturally interesting as a result? Or have more sympathy for their private owners’ desires to retain autonomy over decisions about their future?
Postmodern buildings are not just relics of Thatcherism - they are genuinely good architecture
I say, definitely not. Some commercial buildings are cheaply built with little regard for quality, but both Broadgate and Number One Poultry demonstrate an extraordinary passion and commitment to good architecture – other Postmodern buildings do so too. While financial concerns are not legally permitted to have any impact on listing decisions, it’s difficult not to believe that strong lobbying against listing from building owners, worried by the potential financial penalties of restricting alterations or redevelopment, has been listened to sympathetically.
Buildings are listed for ’architectural or historic interest’: note that ’interest’ not ’quality’ is citied. I think that the best Postmodern buildings are not just interesting relics of the years of Thatcherism, but genuinely good architecture. Looking back to the 1930s, would we want to just have just kept examples of ‘good’ Modernism? Surely our streets are richer for retaining Art Deco cinemas and shop fronts, revivalist pubs and churches, and an enormous number of buildings which combine a rich mix of influences.
DCMS has a duty to ensure that future generations will be able to read complex stories in our built environment: we led the world in our listing of post-war social housing – now we need to show the same intellectual rigour with our assessment of Postmodernism.