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Postmodern Buildings: Combining New Ideas With Traditional Forms


This paper is aimed at discussing the main features of postmodern architecture and its distinctions from its predecessors, especially modernist style. This discussion will be based on the analysis of such an example as AT&T or Sony Building designed by Phillip Johnson and John Burgee. Overall, it is possible to say that postmodern architecture emerged as a response to the functionalism and formalism of modernism. Its major distinguishing feature is the inclusion of ornamental elements and, most importantly, eclecticism or combination of different architectural styles and techniques (Langmead & Garnaut, 258). Post-modern architecture provides more opportunities for designers since they do not have to stay within the boundaries of a certain style or framework; at the same time, they are able to make the building, itself, more durable and resistant to the influence of external environment. This is the main thesis of this paper. Phillip Johnson and John Burgee can be regarded as prominent representatives or even pioneers of this movement. The Sony Building, which served as headquarters of AT&T until 2002, is a good example of this style (Nash & McGrath, 197). In this paper, we will show how Johnson and Burgee incorporated various forms into their design. This analysis will enable us to see the key features of postmodern architecture and eventually prove the main thesis of this essay. On the whole, it would not be an exaggeration to say that AT&T Building is a very prominent example of postmodern architecture and its tendency to incorporate different styles and techniques. However, at first, it is vital to show how postmodern architecture evolved in the twentieth century and explain its aesthetic foundations of this style.

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The differences between modernist architecture and postmodern style

First, it is possible to claim that to a great extent modern and post-modern architectural style stand in opposition to one another. Modernist architecture and especially the so-called International style became very popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. The architects, who represented this movement, stressed the importance of utility, functionalism, and minimalism (Moffett, Fazio, & Wodehouse, 474). They deemed ornaments and decorations to be excessive. A good example of modernist architecture is Empire State Building (Moffett, Fazio, & Wodehouse, 474). This style was dominant both in Europe and the United States. However, in the early fifties and sixties some architects, for instance, Charles Moore, Phillip Johnson, and Michael Graves began to challenge this doctrine (Schulze, 308). Post-modern designers were discontent with the rigidity of the International style and its adherence to correct geometrical forms, and abstract imagery. These people argued in favor of eclectic architecture, combining different approaches and styles. This is one of the things which distinguish these two movements. They do not have the same views on such artistic principle as eclecticism.

Furthermore, as it has been pointed out before, many post-modern architects decided to include ornamental elements in their designs. In turn, those people, who adhere to modern and especially International style, believe that such components are flamboyant and even superfluous (Langmead & Garnaut, 258). Minimalism was an indispensible feature of modernist buildings, while postmodern architects decided to return ornaments into their designs. Certainly, we can hardly claim that Charles Moore or Phillip Johnson entirely rejected the functionalism and minimalism of modernist architecture. Such an argument would have been utterly unfounded; in fact, modernist influence is very palpable in the works of Phillip Johnson. However, they were discontent with the rigidity of modernism, and its unwillingness to include decorative elements.

We should also say that the critics of postmodern architecture believe that this style is premised on the appropriation of different art forms, but it does not lead to the emergence of new techniques (Drolet, 11). In contrast, the supporters of postmodern approach argue that it helps to rediscover old architectural forms and find new application for them (Ellin, 111). Thus, eclecticism of artistic forms is the main peculiarity which distinguishes postmodern architecture from other traditions.

Nonetheless, even despite these differences, one should not assume that postmodern architects received an enormous degree of freedom because the requirements that they have to meet did not change. For instance, they had to adhere to existing urban planning standards and adjust their buildings to existing city landscape. Additionally, they had to make their buildings functional and suitable for the needs of many people. One should not associate postmodern architecture with self-indulgence and pure aestheticism since such perception does not illustrate the complexity of this style. To better illustrate this argument, one should look at Sony Building which was completed in 1984 and immediately became a subject of heated discussion among architects and scholars.

Sony Building as an example of postmodern architecture

We should note that Sony Building was designed at the request of such company as AT&T. It was supposed to accommodate for the needs of approximately 1,500 employees (Henry, unpaged). Thus, this building had to meet such criterion as functionality. Yet, Phillip Johnson and John Burgee departed from modernist tradition and tried to make this skyscraper distinguishable from others. One of the things which immediately attracted the attention of people is the Renaissance arch (Figure 1).

The arch of Sony Building 
Figure 1: The arch of Sony Building 

This arch is a direct reference to classical and Renaissance traditions, and this element was not typical of skyscrapers constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. Such scholars as Eric Nash and Norman McGrath believe it to be “overscaled” (147). Yet, in this way Phillip Johnson and John Burgee might have tried to emphasize the fact that their design relied heavily on classical architecture. The same thing can be said about columns which were not characteristic of the skyscrapers constructed during this period. Due to these elements, Karl Galinsky called Sony Building a “modernist body standing on classical feet” (6). This amalgam of various styles brought this construction to the attention of many people.

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In addition to that, according to this scholar, the design of the Sony Building contains allusion to such Renaissance buildings as Duomo Cathedral in Florence and Saint Andrea Basilica in Mantua (Galinsky, 6). Therefore, it is possible to assume that the designers of this postmodern building borrowed much from Italian architecture of Renaissance period. Such an approach to the design of a skyscraper could hardly be anticipated by the majority of people, and as soon as this building was constructed, it gave rise to many controversies and debates among architects and scholars. The main question was whether this building could fit the urban landscape of New York (Nash & McGrath, 197). Later, when postmodernist approach to the design of urban buildings became more widespread, the Sony Buildings turned into an inseparable part of New York landscape. Hence, one can say that such constructions can harmoniously fit their urban environment. This goal is not always achieved by the architects who prefer this style, but Phillip Johnson and John Burgee managed to do it.

It has to be admitted the arch and columns are mostly decorative elements, but they singled out Sony Building among many others. There are some other elements of Renaissance architecture, for instance, round façade window or oculus which is reminiscent of Italian churches (Galinsky, 6). Hence, we can argue that postmodern approach enabled the designers to incorporate classical elements into a skyscraper. Those people, who advocate modernist or International style, are usually deprived of this opportunity because eclecticism is unacceptable for them. This is probably the main difference between modern and postmodern approaches.

Still, one should bear in mind that the inclusion of the arch was not motivated by aesthetic reasons, alone. Such perception does not fully explain the intentions of Johnson and Burgee. The thing is that arches can reduce tensile stresses (Tapper, & McLachlan, p 56). This architectural element is supposed to make the entire structure more resistance to fracture, overturning, or slippage (Tapper, & McLachlan, p 56). This element is particularly important if we are speaking about such materials as concrete, stone, and cast iron. So, postmodern architecture can suit the needs of civic engineers who must make the building more durable and resistant. This is another advantage of this style. Admittedly, the approach, chosen by Johnson and Burgee resulted in the underutilization of space but at the same time, they were able to make the building more resistant. In part, this case illustrates the point that eclectic architecture can serve many practical functions. By combining the techniques of different architectural movements, one is able to improve the utility of the building or any other construction. Postmodern architectural styles can be very beneficial to urban planners.

The second example which illustrates the peculiarities of postmodern approach chosen by the architects is the ornamental or “Chippendale” roof as it is sometimes called. One of the reasons is because the design of Sony Buildings closely resembles open-pediment display cases, created by Thomas Chippendale (Bilodeau, 135). This resemblance is particularly strong when are speaking about the roof of the building (Figure 2).

Chippendale Roof of Sony Building
Figure 2. Chippendale Roof of Sony Building

This example shows that postmodern architects rely on different forms of art, including furniture design. This feature also distinguishes it from previous architectural styles and traditions. This is the main reason why AT&T Building continues to stand out among other skyscrapers or any other buildings constructed during that period. Probably, this borrowing was unintentional but it did make the Sony Building very conspicuous.

It should be taken into account that Phillip Johnson denies his intention to emulate Chippendale’s style; he says that “it was just a way to end the building so that people would notice it and know it from others” (Johnson, as cited in Bilodeau, 135). Again we do not know the true intentions of the architects, but their design does look similar to the works of Thomas Chippendale who was a prominent representative of English Rococo (Bilodeau, 65). So, in this way, Phillip Johnson and John Burgee were able to rediscover architectural style which has long been abandoned by many generations of designers. This artistic element partially supports the argument of postmodernist designers who claim to reinvent or rediscover previous architectural techniques and styles. Again, the advocates of this style laid stress on decorative elements which were rejected by the advocates of modernist approach.

Although, Johnson argued that such design of the roof was primarily aimed at attracting the attention of the viewers, one can argue that it also serves some practical functions. The thing is that traditional flat roofs are more exposed to sun beams, and such roofs are more likely to become overheated in summer (Babalis, 154). In turn, sloping roofs can solve this problem. They have a lesser solar access and those people, who work at the top floors of this building, can feel more comfortable. Even despite the fact that, postmodern architecture is different from its predecessors, it can be fully adjusted to the needs of mass audience. This is why it should not be regarded only from artistic standpoint. Eclecticism or combination of architectural techniques can fulfill practical functions as well.

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Additionally, the architects could have preferred this design to others because it helped to reduce snow pressure which can prove to be a very serious problem during winter especially in the buildings with flat roofs. Thus, Phillip Johnson and John Burgee could have departed from traditions for some practical reasons. Therefore, one can argue that postmodern combination of different architectural styles should not be viewed only from aesthetic perspective because this approach allows people to make buildings more durable and resistant. Thus, Phillip Johnson managed to use the interplay of various elements and materials to come up with a successful postmodern building. Therefore, the construction of AT&T building was provided a powerful stimulus to the development of postmodernist movement in the United States and in the world.


The example that we have analyzed shows how postmodern architecture differs from its predecessors. The advocates of this artistic movement attempts to make their works more eclectic or diverse. They do not attempt to stay within the limit of only one framework or style. Phillip Johnson and John Burgee relied on classicism, Renaissance, and possibly Rococo. This method helped them to make their building more noticeable. Now the Sony Building stands out among other New York skyscrapers. It is rather difficult to evaluate this building from purely aesthetic point of view. For instance, the supporters of modernist style can argue this approach is actually based on copying and alternating various architectural traditions of the past, but it does not produce new forms or shapes (Drolet, 11). This is the main argument advanced by the critics of this artistic movement.

Nonetheless, such an example as Sony Building seems to refute this claim, because by relying on postmodern approach Johnson and Burgee were able to create an entirely new design for skyscrapers. In spite of the initial controversy surrounding this building, in later years, it became to be regarded as one of landmark constructions in New York (Nash & McGrath, 197). This building demonstrates that the design of skyscrapers does not have to be reduced only functionalism and minimalism. This case demonstrates that architectural styles of the pest such as classicism or Rococo can be incorporated into the landscape of modern high-tech cities.

By adding decorative elements, Phillip Johnson and John Burgee made it more appealing to the eye of the viewer. Furthermore, as it has been mentioned in the previous section, the combination of different styles enables to enhance the durability and resistance of a building. It has to be acknowledged that postmodernism does not always lead to good results. Very often different styles cannot be combined harmoniously, and a building constructed in this way may not feet urban landscape. However, this is not the case with Sony Building. This construction remains of one the most famous skyscrapers in New York and still fascinates many designers and architects.


On the basis of this discussion, one can conclude that postmodern architecture does not reject previous artistic techniques and styles. More likely, it strives to combine them in effort to produce new forms. Sony or AT&B Building designed by Phillip Johnson and John Burgee shows that it is possible to alternate classicism, Italian Renaissance style, and even Rococo. In this way, one can improve the aesthetic outlook of the buildings and make it more functional. Overall, the example of the Sony Building indicates that postmodern architectural style can greatly benefit urban planners. Nowadays, postmodern design remains one of the most dominant approaches in architecture. It has proved to be suitable for the needs of civil construction and a great number of designers give preference to it because in this way they are not confined within the boundaries of only genre and style.

Work Cited

Babalis Dimintra. Ecopolis: revealing and enhancing sustainable design. London: Alinea Editrice. 2006. Print

Bilodeau Rene. Celebrating Thomas Chippendale, 250 Years of Influence. London: Learning Mill Press. 2005. Print

Drolet Michael. The postmodernism reader: foundational texts. NY Routledge. 2004, Print.

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Ellin Nan. Postmodern urbanism. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

Galinsky Karl. Classical and modern interactions: postmodern architecture, multiculturalism, decline, and other issues. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1992. Print

Henry Diane. “Real Estate; A.T.& T. In Role of Landlord”. The New York Times, 1982. Web.

Langmead Donald & Garnaut Christine. Encyclopedia of architectural and engineering feats. NY: ABC-CLIO. 2001. Print.

Moffett Marian, Fazio Michael, & Lawrence Wodehouse. A world history of architecture. New Jersey. Laurence King Publishing. 2003. Print.

Nash Eric & McGrath Norman. Manhattan skyscrapers. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press. 2005. Print. “Sony Building”. Web.

Schulze Franz. Philip Johnson: life and work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print.

Tapper Richard & McLachtan Stanley. Technology, tradition and survival: aspects of material culture in the Middle East and Central Asia. London Taylor & Francis. 2003. Print.

Wallach Bret. Understanding the cultural landscape. Guilford Press 2005. Print.

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