In defence of post-modernist buildings in Hackney and beyond

Postmodernism has not always been popular but it has found a home in Hackney.

Postmodernism has not always been popular but it has found a home in Hackney, as Rashidat will testify. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

During the final years of the 20th century, architects experienced a crisis of confidence in reaction to the almost universal dislike of Modern architecture, causing many to jettison the beliefs they had collectively held since the 1920s.

The name of this crisis was postmodernism.

Adherents of post-modern theory, principally Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi and Charles Jencks urged architects to use more traditional architectural styles and learn from the historical development of cities, which most modernist architects had chosen to ignore or even scorn. 

Resident Sabrina inside the building.

Resident Sabrina inside the building. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

The intention of post modernism, also referred to as PoMo, was to create a popular architectural style appreciated by all and that also provided enjoyable places to live and work. This could be achieved it was thought, by asking architects to look at examples of city designs that had worked in the past and to reproduce them, such as the piazza or boulevard.

The desire of PoMo to create a popular architectural style resulted during this period in many overtly theatrical buildings that used well known architectural elements, such as Classical columns, oversized decorative cornices and bright colours in a visually stunning and sometimes intentionally trashy pop art manner.

Gerardo, Janet, and Fernando enjoy the garden space. 

Gerardo, Janet, and Fernando enjoy the garden space. - Credit: Marcus Bastel


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Notable examples of PoMo in London are The National Gallery extension by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, 1 Poultry Street, by James Stirling, the MI6 building in Vauxhall by architect Terry Farrell and Canary Wharf, master-planned by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. 

More recently, particularly in Hackney, the beginnings of a new architectural style has started to emerge that combines some of the concerns of modernism, such as the use of simple abstract forms, with a significantly subtler PoMo aesthetic that refers back to the simple post and beam building tradition of Stonehenge than the more ornate classical style of Buckingham Palace.

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This has resulted in a series of buildings across the borough that mix an austere monumentality, usually built from high quality Dutch or German bricks, with a compositional freedom that sits somewhere between po-faced modernism and PoMo free play.

A recent and notable example is Taylor and Chatto Court by architects Henley Halebrown on Wells Street, that provides 20 homes as part of Hackney Council’s building program on the Frampton Park Estate.

Echo, Chalis and Lily amid the post modern architecture.

Echo, Chalis and Lily amid the post modern architecture. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

What distinguishes these from many of its contemporaries, is how the project successfully combines a sense of visual free play with an austere material monumentality, in a subtle and innovative way.

The sense of playful austerity has been achieved by freely adding to the various facades, an oversized Roman brick arch, a utilitarian steel bridge and a series of prominent brick chimneys, which is contrasted with more subtle elements, such as handmade ‘wild bond’ brickwork and precast concrete elements that visually contain the whole project. 

Taylor and Chatto Court achieves its uniqueness by daringly contrasting an almost Mr. Potato Head design strategy with a sophisticated understanding of how brick can be used architecturally as sculptural urban form, that brings a smile to my face and a sense of curious wonder at the sheer audacity of it all.

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