Modern architecture doesn’t typically age well, and that’s not a knock against material or craftsmanship. It’s more about how it fits into, or quickly exits, the cultural conversation. Shifting trends can push projects out of the limelight, and in the case of important buildings of the late 20th century, out of the eye of the public and preservationists.
Postmodernism and Late Modernist architecture, two key movements in design theory and practice that have often been misunderstood, under-appreciated, and unprotected by landmarking and preservationists, currently exist in this type of purgatory.
Postmodernism pushed back against the staid, “less is more” vision of modernism with a wholesale embrace of classicism and color, creating a generation of buildings with exuberant facades embedded with cultural references. Emerging in the 1960s and ’70s from the philosophical explorations and critiques of thinkers such as Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Stanley Tigerman—then practiced most famously by architects like Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, and Charles Moore between 1980 and 1995—this style was loaded with references and knowing winks to the past, remixing architectural history and motifs in a way that paralleled that era’s pop culture.
This awkward middle age—too young to landmark, not yet old enough to have a cherished re-appraisal—also applies to buildings loosely terms Late Modernist. Generally designed between 1968 and 1980 (although there are plenty of exceptions), these buildings, which emerged after Modernist architecture dominated between the end of WWII and the late ’60s, can be harder to pin down stylistically. Curbed critic Alexandra Lange finds that they often “exhibit beefy bold shapes, wrapped in singular materials, sticking their sharp corners in our faces.” They’re “more refined than Brutalism, less picturesque than postmodernism,” and now approaching architectural middle age.
And of course, postmodernism has many detractors, those who would argue that the exuberant, eccentric, and over-the-top designs of this era represent “more is less.” But the strong feelings these buildings evoke is all the more reason for increased understanding, appreciation, and protection. As preservation groups such as Docomomo have noted, many of these buildings face varying degrees of risk for redevelopment or even demolition.
Here’s a primer of postmodern and late modern architecture around the country, running from east to west, covering both meaningful works and masterpieces, as well as those presently at risk.