Exploring Postmodernist architecture in London with writer and curator Owen Hopkins

Exploring Postmodernist architecture in London with writer and curator Owen Hopkins

British PoMo expert Owen Hopkins, Director of the Farrell Centre at Newcastle University, has compiled the best of Postmodern architecture in London for our Postmodern London Map. Here, Hopkins unpacks the intriguing movement that dominated Britain in the 1980s, and explains why it appeals to him – with mystic narratives, energetic colour schemes and flamboyant contextualism being just a few reasons...

What excites you about Postmodernist architecture in London?


I think it constitutes a really fascinating moment in time, a moment of transition that played a part in shaping so much of the subsequent history of the city. It was a moment when things became possible – there was an exuberance in architecture, a restless spirit, an outpouring of ideas and colours and forms. Postmodern architecture transformed the city from being a drab, grey, rainy, foggy place, to a bright upbeat city that was excited about the future.


Can you unpack this quote below that you included in your introduction to the map, explaining its meaning and relevance? “We are all Postmodernists now” – Terry Farrell 


This is something that Terry has said in various places and I think it’s about a sense of vindication. Postmodernism arrived as the brash upstart and met a lot of resistance from the establishment. It upset a lot of people and still does. But what Terry was saying with the statement is that many of the ideas that Postmodernism introduced – the idea that architecture should draw from and respond to context, channel a sense of place, responding to or connecting with the city as found, repairing the existing streetscape, conjuring ideas of memory and identity – all of these ideas introduced by Postmodernism have become orthodoxy. All architects who worry and think about questions of context, place, memory and identity are essentially Postmodernist whether they like it or not. They are following in the footsteps of Farrell and others, and the path they beat back in the 70s and early 80s. 

 

Quite a few architects re-occur across the map. How would you describe the Postmodern ‘scene’ or ‘community’ in London during its heyday?


There are two aspects of this. There was the early stage of PoMo which was truly radical and oppositional, with the aim of trying to upturn the status quo of Modernism. Then of course money piles in and you have a second and third wave – where it becomes what externally appears to be a commercial developer’s style, some of which you see on the map. I’m keen to celebrate these commercial buildings, even though they are often maligned, many by practices which made their name as Modernists then became Postmodernists. So as a movement, it was this initial oppositional upstart, then it became more normative and commercial – and that is what has given PoMo a bad name, and not always fairly.


Commercial architecture is generally seen as the less worthy and less noble part of Postmodern architecture in London. It was reflective of a political economic situation that was changing quickly, and led to Postmodernism becoming, for some, synonymous with Thatcherism. Though there is truth to that, it was not the whole story. For the people who didn’t like what was happening to the country at that time, this architectural style was an easy target, something they saw as contaminated by money and representing the way the country was changing.


Can you tell us a surprising or lesser known story about one of the buildings on the map?


The Isle of Dogs stormwater pumping station designed by John Outram was commissioned by Ted Hollamby, chief architect of the London Docklands Development Corporation, who was formerly chief architect of the borough of Lambeth and oversaw really important council house developments.

Hollamby commissioned John Outram to design the pumping station which the architect used as an opportunity to create a temple to the storms, with massive overscaled columns, an amazing pediment, and flamboyant use of everyday materials. At the centre is this ‘eye’, this propellerhead, that looks wholly ornamental, but it has a function. Outram worked closely with engineers, to devise a propellor that could vent the stormwater sewage gases, and he calculated what volume of gas would need to be vented over time so the propellor could act as a fan to expel the gas.


It is one of these buildings that looks flamboyant and ornamental, but is carefully thought out in terms of its function and symbolic role; as a building not for human use, designed to last beyond a human life span. It seems wholly fitting it takes on this almost mystical quality.


Can you pick out your favourite design feature from across the map? And tell us why you chose it?


I like the orange colour on China Wharf by CZWG, which is a residential building that overlooks the Thames. ‘China Wharf’ sounds like an echo of the area’s former life as a dock, and a connection to the Far East. But actually, China was the name of the developer’s dog. I love the vivid colour, which is such a bold statement, yet it connects to the colour of some of the old warehouse buildings. It is wonderful, yet still in keeping with the context of the south side of the Thames.


We have an afternoon in London – what area should we head to see some Postmodern buildings on the map?


You’ve got to see No1 Poultry. It is one of the defining projects of that era. Originally, Mies van der Rohe’s tower was destined for the site, then after a long running saga, it was dropped in preference to a design by James Stirling. It was a meeting of two giants of 20th century architecture, through a site rather than in person. A fascinating collision of a high Modernist skyscraper and plaza, with a flamboyantly contextualist building.

Further east, the Docklands and Canary Wharf are synonymous with Postmodernism. In the Docklands you have CZWG, John Outram, Compass Point by Jeremy Dixon, which is lesser known than St Marks Road but follows similar principles, then the Shadwell Basin by MJP. At Canary Wharf, commercial Postmodernism was used to give the former industrial area a new identity and new meaning, which whether you like the results or not, it has certainly succeeded in doing.

Our Postmodern London Map is available to purchase here.

All photographs by Nigel Green for Blue Crow Media.