Post-Modern Buildings in Britain

21 Apr 2018

Postmodernism, it is generally assumed, is not a movement for concrete lovers. Indeed, the accepted narrative – that this was the wheeler-dealer Thatcher era’s backlash against worthy, boring postwar modernism – almost defines it as everything that concrete is not. Where concrete is solid, muscular and permanent, pomo is lightweight – flimsy even – a style that merrily conceals its (usually steel) structure behind cut-out shapes and clip-on cladding. Where concrete is grey and monolithic, pomo is glossy, colourful and flamboyant. And where concrete is sober and utilitarian – the very building matter of the Welfare State – pomo is witty and ironic, constantly blowing raspberries with its knowing distortion of classical elements, symbols and metaphors.

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. One of the fascinating things revealed by Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood’s new book, Post-Modern Buildings in Britain, is just how wide-ranging the movement was. Through entries on more than 60 buildings designed and constructed during postmodernism’s brief, frenetic flowering from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, Franklin and Harwood make the case that the movement was not just a reaction to grey, concrete modernism, but a moment of ‘pluralism’ in architecture; less an angry backlash, more a loosening of the corset strings.

Bold, muscular architecture wasn’t completely dispensed with by the new wave. By the late 1970s modernists and postmodernists shared many of the same influences – notably Louis Kahn, whose heady mix of monumentalism, mysticism and bold, geometric shapes had much to offer both camps. Meanwhile, Charles Jencks (very much the flagbearer for British postmodernism) listed among his ‘revisionist heroes’ John Darbourne, Robert Maguire and Ralph Erskine – all architects who worked in brick or concrete block.

Once that’s taken on board, you start to notice that concrete was everywhere in the 1980s, and that pluralistic, rule-bending postmodernism was using it in new and interesting ways. Perhaps the most intriguing of the postmodernists in this respect was John Outram, to whom Franklin and Harwood devote a short chapter.

Outram had a fine modernist pedigree (tutored by Peter Smithson and HKPA’s Bill Howell and heavily influenced by Kahn and Le Corbusier), but he turned architecture’s use of concrete on its head. Where earlier architects had celebrated the material’s solidity and depth, Outram saw it as a surface to be manipulated. As he told Concrete Quarterly in 1996, “Concrete has no intrinsic physical features. However, rather than avoiding the issue of its blankness, we can instead use this blankness as a canvas.”

Working with contractor David Knowles and Islington-based marble and terrazzo specialist Diespeker, Outram developed a number of decorative effects for his concrete canvas. At New House in East Sussex he incorporated crushed brick into the mix to create a terrazzo-like finish he named “Blitzcrete”. Much of his work also incorporates a brilliant blue concrete created using cobalt and green concrete made with chromic oxide and green granite.

Nor was Outram the only concrete innovator. Arch-postmodernists CZWG ¬– who openly loathed most of the heroic concrete monuments of the 1950s and 60s – saw its potential as a plastic material. One of the highlights of the book is the photograph of the practice’s Craft and Design Building at Bryanston School in Dorset – a close-up of a precast-concrete column resembling the screw thread of a giant G-clamp, topped with a hooded window that manages to combine visual references to both a mortar board and a computer.

OK, so maybe it was all a bit more flippant than postwar modernism, but it’s interesting to consider where this moment of material creativity led. The use of precasting techniques to create controlled sculptural elements is no longer the preserve of quirky provocateurs – just look at the dune-like facades of AHMM’s Stirling-winning Burntwood School. Nor is the use of pigmented concrete merely an act of exuberant concealment – the purple-hued walls of David Chipperfield’s quasi-brutalist Hepworth Wakefield are testament to that.

The cross-pollination of techniques and materials has worked the other way too. Developer Roger Zogolovitch, who was once the ‘Z’ in CZWG, has just completed an upmarket residential block with AHMM, its exposed-concrete interior walls bearing impeccable board markings (as shown in the current issue of CQ). The ident of modernism has been repurposed as a mark of luxury, a decorative flourish. Is this the triumph of modernism or postmodernism? Perhaps the point is that it doesn’t matter. As Franklin and Harwood put it, assessing pomo’s legacy:

“Perhaps post-modernism left a permissive space in British architecture … Unaffiliated to any single ideology architects can today dip in and out of different formal languages to respond to the contingencies of context and programme.”

This liberated state is perhaps the perfect environment for a material like concrete to thrive: both structure and finish, ornament and blank canvas. In fact, postmodernism didn’t kill concrete architecture; it gave it new life.

Review: Post-Modern Buildings in Britain
By Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood