The Confusing Beauty of Postmodern Architecture

Royal Ontario Museum, postmodern architecture. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Like most things today, postmodernism has been largely politicized far beyond its roots. Originally, it gained popularity in the latter half of the 20th century as a “rebellion” against the ideas of earlier decades. Postmodern architecture, specifically, rebelled against “ugly”, uniform, monochromatic architecture that characterized international modernist architecture.

Modernism was born as a direct consequence of the industrial revolution which sparked widespread usage of steel and glass in construction. The modernist style of architecture largely consisted of buildings that were grey, boxy and minimal. This contributed in no small part to the stereotype that cities are ugly, grey and depressing.

In addition to the dull appearance of modernist architecture, its fairly straightforward style was easy to replicate. This made it the go-to style for authorities and governments that were focused entirely on function and didn’t care about form.

An architectural revolution

Since the 1960s and slowly gaining momentum over the 80s, postmodern architecture rose to remedy all of that. They saw themselves as part of the people’s radical revolution against the industrial, box-shaped, grey buildings that represented oppressive totalitarian regimes.

The main goal of postmodern architecture is to provide buildings with “personality” and individual style. Rather than being confined by a single style, it encourages simultaneously using several styles in the same construction. This adds complexity to the building’s personality. After all, most people aren’t one-dimensional, so why should buildings be?

Royal Ontario Museum, postmodern architecture.
Royal Ontario Museum in 2013. Adding postmodern architecture to the existing modernist building.
Photo: Daniel MacDonald / CC BY

One of the main staples of postmodern architecture is the usage of contrasting colors. This is often done naturally by incorporating materials that have different colors; such as clay, plants and different kinds of stones.

Another core element of postmodern architecture is asymmetry. Traditionally, symmetry has often been considered beautiful. Postmodernism disagrees. They consider symmetry to be boring and predictable.

In many ways, postmodern architecture may be confusing because it rejects definition by definition. To put it simply: it tries to implement a unique “personality” and style for each building, to avoid uninteresting, uninspired and homogeneous construction. The variation in style even within the same building is very characteristic of postmodern architecture and actively encouraged in the discipline.

The Portland Building

One of the earliest and most famous examples of postmodern architecture is the Portland Building in Oregon. Completed in 1982 and renewed in 2019, this 15-story structure still used a “boxy” layout; but its design is difficult to narrow down to a single style of architecture. They also used a combination of different materials to get a nice contrast of brown and white, with a blue accent, and a lot of glass.

The Portland Building, postmodern architecture.
The Portland Building in August 1982. Photo: Steve Morgan / CC BY-SA

The glass sections of the Portland Building are also interesting. Near the corners, they line up as traditional windows across the white canvas. As you move towards the center, the glass takes on a more vertical configuration and provides a buffer between and around the brown columns. The front of the building stands out with an inverted triangle with horizontal rows of glass going across it and the tip cut off.

Finally, the base consists of three cascading layers of blue tile that almost looks like glass. The base uses brown sections as an accent that gives the base an inverted color scheme compared to the top.

It’s difficult do justice when describing postmodern architecture, because it’s visually very complex with a lot of different things going on. In contrast, it’s very easy to describe modernist architecture. This major difference forms part of the appeal of the postmodern almost “method-less” method to design.

Nearly four decades later, the Portland Building hasn’t aged a bit. It still looks magnificent and not at all dated. This is a feature of postmodern architecture. While modernist buildings can look dated a couple of years later, postmodern ones have a “freshness” factor that keeps them impressive and inspiring even decades later.

SIS Building (MI6)

Another commonly cited example of postmodern architecture is the SIS Building in London; more popularly known as the MI6 headquarters. With a white body dotted on the front by windows of different sizes and contrasted by glass shoulders on each of the three cascading sections, with each section otherwise incorporating an entirely different set of design and inspirational principles combining straight edges and semicircles.

Front of the SIS Building MI6, postmodern architecture.
Front of the Secret Intelligence Service building (MI6) from Vauxhall Cross, London.
Photo: Oxyman / CC BY-SA
Backof the SIS Building MI6, postmodern architecture.
Back of the Secret Intelligence Service building (MI6) at Vauxhall Cross, London.
Photo: Laurie Nevay / CC BY-SA

The back of the building is also completely different, consisting of a single section that cascades below the top-level shoulders. Glass columns interrupt the white canvas down the middle above and on either side of the entrance. In the end, the true masterpiece lies in the fact that this mashup of styles actually works well together and looks impressive.

Terry Farrel is the creative mind behind it. According to him, he took inspiration from modernist architecture as well as Mayan and Aztec religious temples. Knowing that you can maybe start to see it. Before that, however, you never would have guessed. That’s part of the charm of postmodern architecture. The one thing it can never be is boring or uninspired. It can even shamelessly incorporate elements of its modernist predecessor.

Burj Al Arab

A more recent, and over the top, example is Dubai’s Burj Al Arab. Its construction completed in 1999 on top of an artificial island that took longer to create than the tower itself. The 56-story structure is shaped like a sail. It has a thick mast that splits at the top into two curved beams that frame the triangular tower’s “sail”.

Burj Al Arab, postmodern architecture.
Burj Al Arab in 2007. Photo: Joi Ito / CC BY

The all-hotel tower is very remarkable and unique in style, and an unforgettable legacy for British architect Tom Wright. Its 180m (590ft) atrium is the tallest in the world and was only possible due to the one-of-a-kind postmodern design.

Burj Al Arab's Lobby, postmodern architecture.
Burj Al Arab’s Lobby in 2008 featuring the world’s tallest atrium. Photo: Gryffindor / CC BY-SA

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa had a noticeably more American influence in its postmodern design. It’s the brain-child of Adrian Smith, who also designed the One World Trade Center. For this project, he took inspiration from spider lilies. This is visible in the Y-shaped configuration of the tower and the base which uses a second inverted Y as an overlay for added stability.

Burj Khalifa's floor plans, postmodern architecture.
Burj Khalifa’s floor plans. Photo: Wikipedia

The tower itself is much less “stylish” than Burj Al Arab, and also not as obviously postmodern, but it also faced a lot more engineering challenges. Burj Khalifa remains the world’s tallest building, 10 years after its completion. In terms of design, it’s best described as several nearly cylindrical buildings mashed on top of each other. This causes its cascading and intentionally asymmetric look, which are certainly elements of postmodern architecture.

Burj Khalifa, postmodern architecture.
Burj Khalifa in 2012. Photo: By Donaldytong / CC BY-SA 3.0

There’s not much variation in the colors of either tower, but Burj Al Arab uses slightly different tones in its large, reflective panes of glass and uses lighting effects for decoration. Burj Khalifa, on the other hand, is rather dull-looking in comparison; with four sections of glass-lined with grey steel and divided by a few golden rows down the middle of each section.

That said, they both clearly went out of their way to incorporate some variation of color in the towers. It may not have been too important to them, but the fact that they paid any attention to it at all is an indication of their postmodern inspiration.

OCAD U’s Sharp Center for Design

It’s no secret that Canada has been one of the world’s leading countries in terms of postmodern architecture. The Royal Ontario Museum (pictured near the top of this page) that had a giant crystal mashed onto the side of it in 2007 is a popular example of employing postmodern architecture while simultaneously maintaining the older modernist architecture.

In 2014, Toronto shocked the world with a new $42.5 million extension to OCAD’s “campus”, in the form of a checkered box floating 27 meters (88.6 ft) above the ground. 12 multi-colored columns weighing 20 tons each support the weight of the tabletop. The design has since won countless awards and receives tourists every year to behold its wonder.

Ontario College of Art and Design's Sharp Center for Design, postmodern architecture.
Ontario College of Art and Design’s Sharp Center for Design. Photo: bobistraveling / CC BY

This inspiring and fully usable structure showcases another element that postmodern architects like to play around with: gravity. There’s something oddly awe-inspiring about seeing such heavy objects defy gravity. It’s almost magical, and a true indication of mankind’s ingenuity in engineering.


The examples discussed here from different parts of the world offer a glimpse into the wide spectrum that postmodern architecture can draw from. The two examples from the same city show the amount of variation that can exist even in the same place.

Postmodernism is complete freedom in architecture. It isn’t afraid of not just experimenting with new ideas, but also employing older styles in conjunction. There is no limit to what can be done with postmodern architecture. It truly is a creative mind’s playground.

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