Postmodernism gave Britain the brash, playful architecture of No 1 Poultry, Aztec West business park and the home of MI6. Now, as many of these buildings approach the 30-year eligibility limit for listed status, it’s decision time…
Postmodern architecture in Britain closely matched the career of Margaret Thatcher. Its first flickerings were in the mid-70s, about the time she became leader of the opposition, followed by the style’s first substantial works during her first term as prime minister. By the time she left office in 1990, PoMo was on its way out, disowned by many of its practitioners, its demise hastened by the recession and building slump of the time. One or two monuments, such as the MI6 building and No 1 Poultry in the City of London, were due to the time lag in construction projects completed a few years later, but both were designed in the 1980s. When things looked up again in the embryonic Blair era, architects would admit to being anything but postmodern.
The early years of the style, as is sometimes said of early Thatcher, were anarchic and anti-establishment, championing the individual against the dead hand of over-mighty state power; quasi-punk, a rebellion against public bureaucracy grown fat and stale. At the end (again parallels might be drawn), it was a tool of exploitation, a dressing of corporate expansionism. It progressed from naughtily designed shops and eye-catching cocktail bars to thin disguises on mammoth office buildings. Throughout, the clients were mostly private – entrepreneurs, developers, speculators, corporations – in contrast to the public commissions for schools and council housing that nourished an earlier generation.
In its fall, postmodernism was condemned as trashy, superficial, gimcrack, tasteless and dishonest – and so it often was. But, with the cosmic inevitability of such things, inexorable as the movements of planets, that which was once reviled must first be recalled with affectionate irony, then made the subject of scholarly exhibitions and in due course considered for listing as buildings of architectural or historic interest by Historic England (formerly English Heritage). […]