Postmodernism: Where History and Humor Meet

THE STYLE FLOURISHED IN THE 1980S AS A RESPONSE TO RIGID MID-CENTURY DESIGN STANDARDS

Most architectural styles and eras can easily be defined by specific shared hallmarks—for instance, a certain column, building material, or floor plan that reliably shows up in every home. With postmodern properties, however, knowing exactly what to expect from these homes isn’t quite so straightforward.

As the name implies, postmodern architecture emerged as a response to the rigid standards of 20th-century modernism.

“The clue is in the name, ‘postmodernism,’” says Owen Hopkins, director of the Farrell Centre at Newcastle University and author of the 2020 book, Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore. “It defined itself against modernism and the architectural orthodoxy that held sway for the previous 50 years.”

“If modernism was about form over function, antidecoration, and distilling architecture to some kind of platonic ideal, postmodernism was its antithesis,” Hopkins adds. “It was about re-engaging in the modern world and pop culture, and a revival of ornaments, meaning, symbolism, color, and references to create a sort of culturally aware form of architecture that reflected this new spirit of the 1970s and particularly the ’80s.”

How this sensibility shows up in practice can vary significantly from architect to architect and building to building, with postmodern features ranging from bright pastel colors to unorthodox shapes to overtly humorous touches, such as the giant sculpture of binoculars by artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen over the entrance of a 1991 Frank Gehry-designed office building in Los Angeles.

A willingness to mix and match different architectural styles and eras is another hallmark of postmodern design.

“Postmodernism was really a reaction to the modernist style, which was very stripped down and minimalist and didn’t have historical features that had been in architecture for hundreds of years,” says Andrew Wolfram, AIA, a principal at San Francisco-based architecture firm TEF Design. “With postmodernism, architects were looking at how to bring back cultural references and references to our past. Different architects approached it in very different ways—some used exaggerated classical columns or other features, some did it in a more subtle, ‘inside joke’ kind of way.”

“The biggest thing about postmodernism,” Wolfram adds, “is the eclecticism of the ideas that were introduced, these little clues that would tell you that architecture has this long history. Maybe we’ll have some Gothic arches, but we’re still using modern materials.”

While many of the most well-known and eye-popping examples of postmodern design are found in commercial architecture such as office towers and museums, the movement spread into the world of residential homes, as well, and is often manifested as a balance between modern and more classic touches.

“[Architect] Robert A.M. Stern was probably one of the biggest proponents of residential postmodernism,” Wolfram says. “His work [in this period] was postmodern and very classical, sometimes in a very literal way where you couldn’t tell if this building was built recently or 150 years ago.”

Kimberly Cammarata of Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty says postmoderns are popular in the tony Hamptons communities “and a lot of people prefer postmodern versus a straight-up modern property.”

The reason is largely because the houses feel warmer than their modern counterparts, and people like the pitched roofs (as opposed to the more contemporary flat versions), as well as wooden floors and natural textures that feature in many of them.

A current listing in Miami Beach, Fla., serves as further proof of just how dramatically homes that are considered postmodern can vary. The three-bedroom, $15.15 million property was built in 2017 by architect Rene Gonzalez and blends a mix of modern design with organic touches and extensive landscaping.

“Rene designed something very unique,” says agent Anna Sherrill of ONE Sotheby’s International Realty. “He had a lot of freedom to be very artistic and go where he wanted to with the design. The house is on stilts and literally raised, and has beautiful stairs custom-made in Milan that can be raised or lowered, so it’s very private.”

The home also features a variety of unique and custom art pieces hand selected by Gonzalez, as well as landscaping by Mauricio Del Valle. “There are banana trees and a lot of plants that are native to Florida, and different plants [throughout the property], and a lot of space upstairs where all the natural elements can kind of flow through [the layout] ” Sherrill says. “[Downstairs] there’s this beautiful area with rocks, shells, and plants, and all of that is to absorb water if there’s rain. It’s very environmentally conscious in that way.”

Postmodernism’s peak may have petered out over the course of the 1990s, but the era’s influence is still felt well into the 21st century.

“The original postmodernism kind of burned out because of commercial forces in the 1980s and ’90s, but there’s sort of a revival now of architects looking at it as a model to follow to make architecture that is meaningful in the present,” Hopkins says. “More broadly, there are architects who, even if they’re not postmodernist, are at least looking at some of its design tactics and deploying them in buildings today.”

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