The Modernist Movement: Post Modernism (1979 - 1992)

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

The comeback of Modernism would see the style moved on - into Postmodernism.

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Less Is A Bore

The economic crises of the 1970s signalled the end of the post-war consensus which viewed state intervention in economic and social aspects of people's lives as not only entirely acceptable, but entirely necessary. Since 1945, Modernist architects had benefited from this political outlook.

The need to physically rebuild the country, and the desire to avoid the mistakes of the past, coincided neatly with Modernist theories on planning and the Modernists' conviction that their architecture could engineer a better life for the country's citizens.

By the end of the 1970s, high-rise tower blocks, planned housing schemes, New Towns, steel and glass office blocks and schools, were common elements in the British urban landscape.

But Modernism's ubiquity had led to its fall from favour. Economic crises were accompanied by social crises: unemployment, poverty, drug abuse, alienation and family breakdown soon became synonymous in the public mind with the Modernist housing estates which were supposed to banish such problems forever.

Architects on both sides of the Atlantic began to look beyond the Modernist orthodoxy. One of the earliest pioneers of the new 'Post-Modern' Movement was American theorist and architect Robert Venturi. His take on Mies Van Der Rohe signalled his rejection of Modernist theory; "Less is not more", he wrote, "Less is a bore."

A Monstrous Carbuncle

Venturi believed that buildings which attempted to be ahistorical were somehow not as rich or as interesting as those which gave a conscious nod to, or borrowed from, the past. The forests of standard apartment blocks and glass towers which were the most obvious examples of the Modern canon seemed to him humourless and soulless, lacking the vitality which diversity brings to the urban landscape.

Venturi even talked up the architectural virtues of Art Deco and admired the gaudiness of Las Vegas, Nevada. A more striking contrast to the pure, clinical work of Mies Van Der Rohe is hard to imagine.

Robert Venturi also found himself a bit-part player in one of the most famous architectural arguments of recent years, when his firm was eventually given the chance to design the Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery.

In 1984 Prince Charles gave an address to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in which he described the proposed extension to the building as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." The Prince went on; "Why can't we have those curves and arches that express feeling in design? What is wrong with them? Why has everything got to be vertical, straight, unbending, only at right angles- and functional?"

Forks In The Road

The Prince's intervention shocked the architectural establishment, and was cheered by the public. The speech also proved to be something of a launch-pad for a royal crusade against Modernist Architecture, the concrete result of which was Poundbury, a village development in Dorchester which rejected every precept of the Modern Movement and instead attempted to recreate an archetypal English country village, complete with narrow, winding streets and traditional stone cottages.

By now, many architects had long since abandoned Modernism. Canary Wharf Tower, a monument to 1980s corporatism, echoed an earlier classicism; Terry Farrell's MI6 Building and his TV-AM Studios in London threw the Modernist rulebook out of the window. And the two most prominent British architects of the era, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, whilst considering themselves to be committed Modernists, were virtually alone in being able to attract private clients to continue building in the Modernist tradition.

These differing paths meant that by the start of the 1990s, the once ubiquitous Modern Movement, which had promised an international architecture, was crowded out by the resurgent heritage movement, by post-modern humour, and by the triumph of private capital over the public purse.


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