What is postmodern architecture? The term broadly describes structures, usually from the 1980s or early 90s, that are playful and colourful, with strong geometric elements. You'll almost always find a semi-circle in there, and usually a prominent triangle or two. Typically, a postmodern building looks like it's formed from children's building blocks. It's easy to sneer at postmodernism, and many people do.
But postmodern buildings can also put a smile on the face. Their vibrant 'look at me' facades are an antidote to the sober Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian architecture that makes up much of the old city, and they're surely more pleasing to look at than the functional glass boxes of our own time.
You can find long, intellectual explanations of postmodern architecture in other corners of the internet, if you're so inclined. But in the spirit of playfulness, we simply round up some of London's best examples and tell you why we like them.
1. Storm Water Pumping Station, Isle of Dogs
London has one of the most eclectic collections of pumping stations in the world (I assume… I mean, who really keeps track of these things?). The ‘cathedrals of sewage’ at Abbey Mills and Crossness are the best and earliest examples of landmark pumping stations, but the tradition continued into the 1980s. Richard Rogers gave our city an eye-catching drum of a building near Canning Town, painted in his usual mix of primary colours. But it’s this confection on the Isle of Dogs — which blends motifs from Ancient Egypt and my 5-year-old’s toybox — that must win the crown as most exuberant postmodern building.
This storm water pumping station was designed by noted PoMo architect John Outram, whose many achievements include swallowing a thesaurus: “My work has been a rebellion. I refused to live in a city designed by proudly subliterate haptics whose ambition was to reduce it to mere “plant”. I aimed to invent that “meaning” and confirm those epiphanic techniques,” he once sort-of-explained. Whatever it means, I think we can all agree that this is a truly unique building that deserves its Grade II* listed status. Find it on the appropriately named Folly Wall, to the north-east of the Isle of Dogs.
2. Bentall Centre, Kingston-upon-Thames
The words “landmark architecture” and “shopping centre” do not often find themselves cohabiting a sentence, unless as part of a marketing fib. Kingston's mighty mall is a genuine exception. The first-time visitor cannot help but be impressed by the Crystal Palace-like arched atrium — supposedly loftier than the nave of Westminster Abbey. The vast stained-glass window further invites cathedral comparisons. Meanwhile, escalator fans shouldn’t miss the central set here, which reckon to be the longest ‘truss’ escalators in the world.
3. No 1 Poultry, City of London
Many people hate this James Sterling creation on Bank junction. It has been called unsubtle, childish and crass. Some lament the elegant Mappin & Webb building it replaced in the 1990s. But I have to admit to being rather fond on No 1 Poultry. The striking use of colour really stands out in an area dominated by white Edwardian stonework (and that’s just the outside; the inner court would look gaudy even to Mr Tumble). It is defiantly unsympathetic to its neighbours. And why not? There is excitement and even beauty in contrast. Plus, it does look a little bit like Bagpuss. In 2016 it became one of the first postmodern buildings to gain protected status, when Historic England awarded it a Grade II* listing.
4. Tower Gateway DLR Station
You know that scene in E.T. where Elliott and the alien are dying in a military field hospital? THAT was the architectural inspiration behind Tower Gateway DLR station. Look:
That’s my theory, anyway. This fun-sized terminal is, without question, the most 1980’s edifice in London. You could build a statue of Kajagoogoo out of Rubik’s Cubes, and it would still look less 80s than this. Long-term plans would see Tower Gateway closed, in favour of a new interchange at Tower Hill. But this building must remain as an 80s-themed nightclub.
5. Brentford Fountain Leisure Centre
From the south-west, Chiswick Roundabout’s leading leisure facility is utterly unremarkable - a dark-brick boredom that looks like a Sainsbury’s without the Nectar Points. But viewed from the north-east, the centre transforms into one of the most eye-scratching examples of postmodernism in town. Peer again at the picture above. It's easy to imagine those brown, spindly tubes are the legs of an alien insectoid, feeding on the building like a facehugger. Still, got to love it though, eh?
6. TV-AM Studios, Camden Town
Anyone who was of TV-watching age in the early 1980s will immediately recognise the egg cups on top of this building. The architectural ova were a key motif of TV-AM, one of Britain’s pioneering breakfast magazine-style shows. The studios were one of the first London buildings to be designed in a postmodern style, created in 1982 by Terry Farrell (more on him later). Back in the day, those egg cups were decorated in lovely shades of blue and yellow, with further splashes of colour on the cladding. Sadly, the facade is now more muted and tasteful. You can get a sense of the building’s former glory in this excellent article from Dezeen.
7. Charing Cross Railway Station
London’s largest postmodern building? It has to be up there, along with 125 London Wall and the MI6 building (see below) by the same architect, Terry Farrell. Actually, most of what we see at Charing Cross isn’t part of the station at all, but an over-site office development known as Embankment Place. You can still get up close and impersonal with some of the PoMo bits, though, thanks to the characterful walkway that leads into the station from the eastern Golden Jubilee footbridge. Look out for this hilariously 80s clock as you swing round the corner.
8. Limehouse Link Portals
The Isle of Dogs is a happy hunting ground for postmodern architecture. This is unsurprising. The still-continuing construction boom on the peninsula began in the late 80s just as postmodernism was peaking. The Limehouse Link skirts the northern boundaries of the area, and was the most expensive road scheme in Britain (per mile) when it opened in 1993. Either end is guarded by these imposing portals. They look like someone’s disassembled No 1 Poultry and Charing Cross station, then reassembled the pieces into the postmodern equivalent of a brick shithouse. The bulky twins are lightened with artwork, including the abstract piece by Nigel Hall shown above.
9. West Brompton Lift Tower
Only kidding. This is not one of London’s best postmodern buildings. But it was opened by Glenda Jackson… who turned down the role of M in the James Bond franchise… which is a neat link to...
10. The SIS Building, Vauxhall
It’s officially called the SIS Building (Secret Intelligence Service), but everyone refers to it as the MI6 building. (Not to be confused with the MI5 building across the water on Millbank, which must surely be linked via a secret underwater tunnel. Surely.) As though to reflect the serious, clandestine nature of its inhabitants, the good ship SIS is a lot more restrained in its postmodern playfulness. No primary colour splashes or Lego-like arches here. This building is all about power and impregnability. A fortress of spies. And it has found itself under siege. In 2000, the edifice was slightly scratched by a dissident IRA rocket attack. Fictional baddies had more success in the film Skyfall, in which the upper floors of the building met a fiery end. In both cases, the grudge was with the intelligence services rather than any intended slight to postmodern architecture.
Got a favourite postmodern building? Shout about it in the comments. All images by the author.