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date: 08 June 2023



  • Caroline A. Jones

Updated in this version

updated and revised, 28 May 2015; updated bibliography, 23 February 2011

Term used to characterize developments in architecture and the arts after the 1960s, when there was a clear challenge to the dominance of Modernism; the term was applied predominantly from the 1970s to architecture and somewhat later to the decorative and visual arts. It was first used as early as 1934 by Spanish writer Federico de Onis, although it was not then used again until Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History in 1938 (published after World War II); these writers saw the ‘post-modern’ phenomenon in largely negative terms, as an irrational reaction to modernist rationalism. The term was used sporadically thereafter in the fields of literary criticism and music. In the 1970s, however, it came into wide use in connection with contemporary architecture to denote buildings that courted a selective eclecticism, often utilizing elements of Classical or Neo-classical origin. In the visual arts the term took hold later, peaking in the mid-1980s in the USA to describe work that offered a more biting critique of current cultural values than that offered in architecture. If the attachment of the label itself is set aside, however, the developments may be perceived as growing out of the resistance to a canonical modernism in the 1960s, in turn related to the growing pluralism in art and architecture that came to be associated with Post-modernism from the early 1980s.

1. Architecture.

Early rejection of a canonized post-war modernism came in the 1960s, most notably in the USA in the work of Robert Venturi (see Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown) and in Europe with the writings of Rossi, Aldo, although they came from markedly different theoretical positions. Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) attacked the institutionalized corporate modernism of the International Style, replacing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s classic dictum ‘less is more’ with the sardonic ‘less is a bore’ and rejecting a ‘puritanically moral language’ in favour of ‘elements which are hybrid rather than “pure” … messy vitality … richness … rather than clarity of meaning’. This statement echoed sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s declaration of 1961: ‘I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical … I am for an art that embroils itself with everyday crap and still comes out on top’. The Venturi practice celebrated these characteristics in such buildings as the Guild House Retirement Home (1960–62), Philadelphia, and the Vanna Venturi House (1962), Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. From the beginning this architecture also accepted and responded to locality, however unremarkable that might be. The work was labelled Post-modern by virtue of perceived historical as well as contextual allusions.

Rossi, rather than rejecting modernism, argued for a kind of return to some of its abandoned roots. In L’architettura della città (also 1966) Rossi analysed the city as an organic work of art, the rhythms, history, and context of which must be respected in any new architectural endeavour. This was to be achieved through a new formalism, founded on Renaissance values, the novecento, and concepts originating in the Italian Rationalism of the 1920s and 1930s (see Rationalism; see also Tendenza). Rossi’s polemic was aimed at a reconciliation of people with their architectural environment: among its few controversial monuments are the architect’s four-storey block of flats (1967–73) at Gallaratese 2, which was part of the Monte Amiata housing development in Milan by Aymonino, Carlo; the San Cataldo Cemetery at Modena, designed by Rossi in the 1970s (with Gianni Braghieri (b 1945)) but not executed until the early 1980s. Other Europeans subscribing to this paradigm included Oswald Mathias Ungers, who produced work in the 1980s with Josef Paul Kleihues, Mario Botta, the brothers Krier family §(1) and Krier family §(2), and Bruno Reichlin (see Reichlin & Reinhart); although they contributed to the movement away from modernism, they are Post-modernists only in the sense that they bring together rationalist and historicist attitudes.

From 1969 in the USA the propulsion towards Post-modernism among architects was closely linked with the beginnings of Pop art. This was the prime motivation in the case of Venturi, and it was influential in the development of mainstream American Post-modernism in the work of Robert A(rthur) M(orton) Stern, Charles W(illard) Moore, and Michael Graves, who, with Venturi, are referred to by Charles Jencks as the ‘Post-Modern School’. Among the best-known examples of this trend are Moore’s whimsical, collage-like Piazza d’Italia (1977–8), New Orleans, LA; Graves’s abstract, painterly composition for the Public Services Building (1978–82), Portland, OR; and the AT&T Building (1978–83; now the Sony Building), New York, by Philip Johnson and John Burgee (b 1933), which linked an obvious if abstracted historicism to a modernist technological expression. Even in the USA, however, the position was by no means straightforward. There were more literal interpretations of the Pop art scene, for example in the work of James Wines (b 1932), whose group SITE was set up in 1970; he produced a number of idiosyncratic anti-rational buildings, for example the Tilt Showroom (1976–8) at Towson, MD.

At the other end of the scale was the more rigorously abstract Post-modernism of Peter D. Eisenman, who had been influenced by Italian Rationalists of the 1920s and 1930s, built a series of purposely dysfunctional houses (the first completed in 1968) that aimed to realize an aesthetically autonomous architecture, free from all modernist socio-cultural values. There are equally wide-ranging contrasts outside the USA, from the wholly unaligned, often near-surreal work of Hans Hollein in Austria and Germany to the formalism and classical allusions in the work of Ricardo Bofill in France (e.g. Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Marne-la-Vallée, 1978–83), the neo-vernacular movement in Britain, the work of Kenzō Tange in Japan (e.g. Tokyo City Hall, 1992), and of architects from other countries, such as Sumet Jumsai in Thailand.

With such complexity, concepts of Post-modernism and, perhaps as importantly, anti-modernism, broadened considerably in the 1980s and were disseminated in writings of this period. Jencks, perhaps over-simplifying, defined Post-modernism in terms of double-coding as early as 1977 but began to qualify the label in later writings. There are also balanced historical analyses by Paolo Portoghesi and Heinrich Klotz.

2. Visual art.

Oldenburg’s dictum of 1961 (see §1 above) characterized the ambience in which Pop art returned to the figure, historical allusion and a dialogue with mass culture. This movement provided the model for a break away from modernist principles in architecture yet the label ‘Post-modern’ would not be attached to the visual arts until it had emerged from the post-1968 philosophies of French post-structuralists such as J. F. Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and, behind such academics, the Situationist theorist and filmmaker Guy Debord. As in architecture, Post-modernism in art began as anti-modernism, reacting against the formalism exemplified in the writings of the contemporary American critic Greenberg, Clement, and it was reinforced by the anti-formalist stance of feminist artists and critics in the early 1970s. These largely leftist critics of modernism were met in the USA with the emergence of German Neo-Expressionist painters (such as Baselitz [Kern], Georg, Immendorff, Jörg and Penck, A. R., and the Italian ‘Bad Boys’ Clemente, Francesco, Cucchi, Enzo, and Chia, Sandro, who brought the pleasures of sensual oil paint back into commercial galleries after decades of austere Minimalism and conceptual art). The subsequent overnight successes of American Neo-Expressionists, including Schnabel, Julian, prompted charges of ‘hype’, thus setting the stage for an articulated critical Post-modernism art in the mid-1980s. The critical Post-modernists celebrated photography, appropriation, and institutional critique rather than painting. A transition between the two positions can be represented by Tansey, Mark’s ironic painting Triumph of the New York School (1984), in which Clement Greenberg accepts the surrender of the Ecole de Paris on a World War II battlefield as various artists and critics look on.

The movement was centred on artist-run galleries in Manhattan and took much from feminism, performance art, Post-structuralism and deconstruction, and queer theory, calling ‘meaning’ itself into question, celebrating the death of the author, and playing with quotation and appropriation. Cindy Sherman posed herself in photographs modelled self-consciously on film-stills; Troy Brauntuch (b 1954) used images of war in barely visible pencil drawings on black paper; Robert Longo juxtaposed low-reliefs based on clothing advertisements with pencil portraits of writhing dancers; Sherrie Levine confronted the hopelessness of original representation, re-photographing works by other artists; and Richard Prince re-photographed banal advertisements of Marlboro Men and nurses. As in architecture, the growing range of motivations tended to outgrow the Post-modern label, the only consistency being a full-bore rejection of the modernist position.


  • A. Rossi: L’architettura della città (Padua, 1966; Eng. trans., Cambridge, MA, 1982)
  • R. Venturi: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York, 1966, 2/1977)
  • C. Jencks: The Language of Post-modern Architecture (London, 1977, rev. 4/1985)
  • C. Jencks: Late Modern Architecture and Other Essays (London, 1980)
  • J. Habermas: ‘Modernity and Post-modernity’, New German Critique, vol. 22 (1981), pp. 3–14
  • P. Portoghesi: Postmodern (Milan, 1982); Eng. trans. as Postmodern: The Architecture of the Postindustrial Society (New York, 1983)
  • H. Foster, ed.: The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Post-modern Culture (Port Townsend, WA, 1983)
  • H. Klotz: Moderne und Post-Moderne: Architektur der Gegenwart 1960–1980 (Wiesbaden, 1984); Eng. trans. as The History of Postmodern Architecture (Cambridge, MA, 1988)
  • F. Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, MN, 1984)
  • B. Wallis, ed.: Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York, 1984)
  • I. Hassan: Postmodern Turn: Essays on Postmodern Theory and Culture (Columbus, OH, 1987)
  • J. Collins : Architecture of Excess: Cultural Life in the Information Age (New York, 1995)
  • I. Buchanan and G.Lambert: Deleuze and Space (Edinburgh, 2005)
  • R. Utz and J. G.Swan, eds.: Postmodern Medievalisms (Woodbridge, and Rochester, NY, 2005)
  • M. Augé : Non-places (London; New York, 2008)
  • D. Gartman : From Autos to Architecture: Fordism and Architectural Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century (New York, 2009)
  • R. A. M. Stern : Architecture on the Edge of Postmodernism: Collected Essays, 1964–1988, ed. C. Davidson (New Haven, 2009)