Postmodern architecture

Simplistically, postmodern architecture emerged in the 1960s as a reaction to the Modern Movement that had commanded world architecture since the mid-1920s. Its theories were first expounded by the American architect Robert Venturi and realized in his Chestnut Hill Villa of 1962. Within less than a decade, designers were willfully denying the pervasive geometrical glass boxes that Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson had dubbed the International Style. Ornament (which the modernists had once equated with crime), color, and texture were again accepted, rather embraced, by architects. Historical precedents were revisited and often transposed into the language of twentieth-century technology to become a new visual language, an architectural patois. Eclecticism, for years a pejorative term, became a basis for design. And at first it was just design, because architects made more drawings and models than buildings. Although it is difficult to choose from a plethora of examples, among the icons of this new way of making architecture were Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T Building in New York (1978–1984) and Michael Graves’s “flamboyantly decorative” Portland Public Service Building in Oregon (1930–1983). As one commentator has observed, postmodernism became “the style of choice for developers of commercial buildings” everywhere. It has the same kind of stylistic anonymity of “globalness” as the Modernism it replaced.

Johnson (b. 1906) received a degree in architectural history from Harvard in 1930 and immediately became and first director of the Department of Design at the New York Museum of Modern Art. In 1940, inspired by the work of the Dutch modernist J. J. P. Oud, he returned to Harvard and emerged with an architectural qualification four years later. He worked alone and with others and became widely known from the early 1950s for his puritanically modernist buildings—some consider him a clone of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—such as the Seagram Building in New York (with Mies, 1958) and the Glass House (1962) in New Canaan, Connecticut, until he formed a partnership with Burgee in 1967. Johnson then renounced Modernism (he had castigated Oud for doing that in 1946) and converted to postmodernism. His final artistic position was as an anti-postmodernist, leading the English architectural historian Dennis Sharp to opine that Johnson was philosophically fickle, with “more interest in [architectural] style than in substance.”

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Sony Building (formerly AT&T Building), Madison Avenue, New York City; Philip Johnson and John Burgee, architects, 1978–1984.

Be that as it may, the AT&T Corporate Headquarters at 550 Madison Avenue, New York City, is a milestone in the development of twentieth-century architecture, the first postmodern skyscraper and a key building in the popularization of postmodernism. The 600-foot-high (184-meter), bland rectangular prism covers its site. Perhaps in reference to nineteenth-century skyscrapers, perhaps to a classical column, the main facade is divided into three parts: an entrance at the base, a tall shaft of identical floors, and a wide band of windows near the building’s crown. The base, which originally enclosed