For some, Postmodernism marked the return of "wit, ornament, and reference" to architecture. The stark simplicity and form-follows-function shapes of the International and modernist styles were replaced by an eclectic, sometimes exaggerated language of mix-and-match historical references and geometric form-for-form’s-sake. Under this movement, the Modernist maxim “Less is more” was replaced by Robert Venturi's "Less is a bore."
Some critics see this as a period when “American architecture spectacularly lost its way.” In a famous 1997 article, Herbert Muschamp wrote: “Post-modernism… started out as a constructive movement. In the mid-1960s, a few architects set out to educate themselves about the history of an art form that a Bauhaus-influenced education had plowed under. Gifted architects… used these ideas to free themselves from the strangulating orthodoxies of the modern movement. This period lasted for 10 years. By the mid-1980s, the movement had deteriorated into a career strategy for reactionaries, opportunists, and their deeply uncultivated promoters…” In other words, projects in the postmodern style tend to be either quite strong – or not.
Fortunately, Boston sports a number of fine examples of postmodernism. Most leading Boston firms at least dabbled in the style in the 1980s and 90s, with Graham Gund leading the way. Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei and James Stirling left their postmodern marks here as well. Many of these projects have managed to maintain their distinctiveness over the years - the test of their enduring value will come as they approach the age where major renovation or restoration is needed.
Sources: “The Miracle in Bilbao,” Herbert Muschamp, New York Times Magazine, 9/9/97. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/07/magazine/the-miracle-in-bilbao.html; Wikipedia.Cover image: ©Steve Rosenthal, 1989. All rights reserved.