Post-modern classicism may be unfashionable today, but it was a clearly defined period in architecture. And its early adopters still working today are in denial

Robert Adam

Why are we scared of post modern architecture, or more particularly its most recognisable manifestation, what Charles Jencks identified as post-modern classicism? In the late seventies and eighties it was the name of the game. Suddenly things were fun, decoration and colour were all the rage and history was respectable. It was, of course, part of something much bigger. There was the Big Bang, yuppies, ‘loads-a-money’, material Madonna, AIDS, red braces and mobile phones like bricks. 

It was the time that British society changed for good. Deference and the old-boy system disappeared, unions were a minority option and London went global. Most of this is still with us. Yuppies may have become aging bankers, Madonna is an institution, AIDS has become a chronic disease instead of a death sentence, London is now a global city state and everyone has mobile phones – albeit much smaller. But post-modern classicism is only mentioned in whispers as an aberration we’d all like to forget.

By any art-historical definition, Post-Modern Classicism was an important moment  

In fact it is still with us. At least the architects are, even if they are now in a state of denial.  erry Farrell was a pioneer with his jokey pavilion in Covent Garden. Jeremy Dixon was doing a revival of the London villa and his partner Ed Jones was doing serious PoMo in Canada. After time in Rome, Bob Allies made his name with inventive classical pavilions in Edinburgh. But none of them really want to know about this any more. Like Margaret Thatcher’s politics, we all know it happened, we all know it was important but now it’s fashionable to say how terrible it all was.

By any art-historical definition, post-modern classicism was an important moment. Even the V&A had a special exhibition on post modernism, but they played down architecture and post-modern classicism was a bit thin. And it’s a perfect subject for study: clearly identifiable, lots of theory, and went on for an exact decade. It all began with Michael Graves’ Portland Building in 1980 (or pedants with Venturi’s book in 1969) and ended with a bang with the 1990 recession. But art history today is mixed up with current theory. Roger’s Lloyds building of 1986 and Foster’s Renault building in Swindon of 1981 have been listed by the historians at English Heritage but no-one is trying to rescue Farrell’s 1982 TV-AM building – Britain’s first permanent post-modern classical building. While there’s lots of Rogers and Foster going on, there will never be another eighties.  

In spite of the claimed revival of modernism in the early nineties, post modern architecture is still going on.  While we all get caught up with appearance and the pious declarations by today’s big names that they’re just like their thirties heroes, underneath the skin there’s no difference between post-modern classicism and the fashions of today. Now everything is reduced to nothing more than an image and a skin. The functions are always the same but the morals and rigour of early modernism are long gone. A set of weird curves, a manic set of spikes, Emmental cheese holes over a glass front or bar-chart mullions today could just as well be a set of weird columns or an ironic pediment of the eighties. 

The real survivors of post-modern classicism are dyed-in-the-wool modern classicists. They too got a boost in the eighties. Unlike their fellow travellers, however, they took the whole thing seriously. No irony for them: columns aren’t weird they’re Palladian, pediments aren’t a big chests of drawers they’re holding up the roof. The nineties recession was just a blip in the perpetual pursuit of historical perfection. But the real irony is not only that they are just as much in denial of their post modern roots as the new modernists but also only they believe they are practicing architectural purity and the ethics of form. They are the real inheritors of the moral high ground of the early modernists.

Robert Adam is director of ADAM Architecture