Art & Design

October 21, 2016

Exploring the Garish Beauty of Post-Modern Architecture

If Jeff Koons was an architect, this is what he'd build

  • Written by Sharon Thiruchelvam

Architecture is serious. Pomo is not. Pomo (Post-Modern) buildings look like they belong in toy town or on the set of an ’80s gameshow. They’re the ones architecture tried to forget. Beautiful and garish, built on wit and rule-breaking, Pomo makes ornamentation more colourful and unnecessary than ever. After the restraint and severity of Modernism and Brutalism, Pomo is the architectural style you’ll yearn for next.

Pomo has its roots in the late ’70s when architects wanted to break from the minimalist constraints of the International Style and Modernism. There was no real movement or group or manifesto, and many of its architects still don’t recognise the label, but they shared a spirit of aesthetic and intellectual rebellion. A hijacker of styles, Pomo buildings are expressive, theatrical and individual, every one an experiment in deconstruction that returns long-forgotten human qualities of sensuality, humour, colour and contradiction to architecture.

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Piazza d’Italia, New Orleans by Charles Moore

Naturally, Pomo is one of architecture’s most divisive styles. But 2016 is its breakout year. The first lady of Pomo, 85 year-old Denise Scott Brown (who told designers in 1972 that they had a lot to learn from Las Vegas) finally received recognition from the American Institute of Architects, and won its prestigious Gold Medal this year with her husband Robert Venturi. At the same time, architect Michael Graves, America’s giant of Pomo and its most contentious – often compared to Jeff Koons – passed away in March.

Where Koons stole lowbrow icons from pop culture and placed them in high art, Graves did the same for skyscrapers and civic landmarks – to even more uncanny effect. As the patron architect of Disney, Graves designed their Burbank HQ in LA, on which he swapped the Herculean statues you typically get on classical edifices for the seven dwarves.

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Disney Burbank, courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design

However unsettling it is, his approach embodied the joyfulness of Pomo that was most vivid in the US. Pomo began creeping into US building design with discrete flourishes like the scroll atop the Sony Building (formerly the AT&T Building; built 1984) in New York, and later even the classic big box supermarket chain Best Superstore began commissioning Pomo store designs that played with typical Americana tropes, such as the now famous former SITE building.

In Europe, it was less about cartoonish shapes and in-jokes. Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill created a confection of postmodern kasbah steps and terraces in his breathtaking La Muralla Roja (1973) housing estate in an Alicante seaside town, that felt puzzling and Borgesian, as well as sensual and sun-drenched. His epic Parisian housing estate, Les Espaces d’Abraxas (1978-1984), referenced Italian Futurists and created a sense of suburban totalitarianism that made it a regular location for dystopian films like Brazil and the Hunger Games.

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La Muralla Roja © Rebecca Rumble

Italy and the US gave Pomo it’s only design movement, the Memphis Group, whose pastel clashing palettes, geometric shapes and bold graphics stole from Art Deco and Pop Art, and ended up influencing everything from furniture to film and music in the ’80s. The signature Memphis look has sparked renewed interest in the designs of two of their numerous co-founders, Nathalie de Pasquier and Ettore Sottsass.

Pomo buildings are making headlines again because many are under threat. Michael Graves’ Portland Building in Oregon (1982) is due an expensive face-lift, or rebuild. And in London, the Twentieth Century Society has launched campaigns to protect James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry (1997) in the City and Terry Farrell’s Comyn Ching Triangle (1988) in Covent Garden, which are almost old enough to be considered for listed building status.

Kitakyushu International Conference Centre_Arata Isozaki_adamnathanielfurman

Kitakyushu International Conference Centre

If they’re lost, they’ll join Marco Polo House (1989), the former marble-clad QVC building that once faced Battersea Power Station, and the TV AM building, which hosted the defunct breakfast show in Camden. Designed by Terry Farrell, TV AM had a Japanese temple, a Mesopotamian ziggurat and 11 rooftop eggcups.

Critics are asking if Pomo is worth saving. The quirkiest of London’s buildings are gone, and those remaining are mostly in the City or otherwise inaccessible institutions like Farrell’s imposing MI6 building. Closed to the public, and resembling the Wizard of Oz’s palace crossed with Rome’s Altare della Patria (known as Mussolini’s typewriter), it’s as forbidding as a Pomo building gets.

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Main image: Ettore Sottsass’s Acme House

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