Would you rather live in a bland white box or a fantasy kingdom? For the postmodern architect Charles Moore, the latter was the obvious choice. When the New York Times covered his home, the paper of record called it just that. Moore outfitted his house in Austin with a wood staircase based on his memories of one inside an 18th-century Irish estate, kilim rugs from London antique stores, kachinas his sister made, leather Chesterfield sofas, tchotchkes and toys collected over a lifetime, indigenous masks, a powder-blue mantel surrounded by architectural fragments painted in vibrant colors and patterns. It’s as if Moore took a trip through time and space and brought everything he saw home as a souvenir.
“The architect’s task is not to make or purify some abstraction, but rather to design a stage for the centered inhabitant, for him or her or them to act out their lives,” he wrote.
Moore’s home is included in Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore. The new book from Phaidon and historian Owen Hopkins explores one of the 20th century’s most maligned—and misunderstood—design movements through glossy photographs of 200 projects from around the world that “celebrate architectural maximalism in all of its forms,” Hopkins writes in the introduction.
Postmodernism emerged in the late 1960s as both a reflection on social, political, and cultural change and a rejection of Modernist architecture, which had become synonymous with steel-and-glass skyscrapers. In 1966, the theorist and architect Robert Venturi published the influential book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in which he skewered the “less is more” simplification that modernist architects proselytized by proclaiming “less is a bore.”
Modernism was all about rules; postmodernism was about breaking them, and for good reason. The late 1960s were also the time of the civil rights movement, global socialism movements, women’s liberation, and the dawn of environmental activism—everything that didn’t neatly fit into that perfect white box. As Hopkins writes:
If Modernism was the cultural response to a world defined by industry, production, urbanization, and the nation state...Postmodernism heralded the final unraveling of the postwar global order that at the same time would yield new cultural and political possibilities: Pop art, pop music, ubiquitous television, the media saturation of images, post-colonialism, the environmental movement, identity politics, and new agency for minorities and the marginalized.
Architecturally speaking, gone was the notion of a singular, universal style divorced from history, and in came...everything else. “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning,” Venturi wrote. “I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either or.’”
With a new freedom to reference history, architects began creating spaces that that felt familiar but also novel. It was about creating something very human and emotional, like Charles Moore’s house. Or like the pool house Robert A.M. Stern designed for a Llewyn Park, New Jersey, mansion. The space looks vaguely Egyptian with columns shaped like palm trees, borrowed from a feature in an 1822 pavilion in the United Kingdom.
The emotional responses weren’t always positive. Ada Louise Huxtable, the famous New York Times architecture critic, wrote off postmodernism as heavy-handed and not clever. The linguist and cultural critic Noam Chomsky called postmodernists “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatans.” Robert Maxwell, a former dean of architecture at Princeton, described the theories of British architect John Outram as “an act of sheer architectural terrorism.”
The love-hate relationship between critics and Postmodernism has led to many demolished structures and historic preservation battles, which are heating up now that these buildings are becoming old enough.
But what fun these buildings are, like FAT and Grayson Perry’s House in Essex, which is covered in green and white tile and has red-paned windows and ornamental finials poking out of the gold roof. Or the blocky red second story in Casa Wolf, a house in Colorado designed by Sottsass Associatti.
Today, when it seems like all new apartment buildings are all bland boxes, this freewheeling spirit of designing “fantasy kingdoms” is sorely needed.