The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture @Soane Museum


In May 2018, Sir John Soane’s Museum will present the first exhibition devoted to Postmodernist British Architecture. This exhibition will look specifically at its early ‘radical moment’ during the late 1970s and early 1980s and will showcase a selection of pivotal works by some of the movement’s most important architects: Terry Farrell, CZWG, Jeremy Dixon, John Outram, and James Stirling.

The exhibition will explore how Postmodernism emerged as a reaction to the effects of modernism on British towns and cities, and also as a way of moving beyond its intellectual and stylistic confines. In contrast to Modernism’s underlying mission of using architecture to bring about an idealised future, the exhibition seeks to show how Postmodernism in Britain was characterised by an interest in reconnecting architecture to the past, and the various means by which this was achieved: whether through ornament, materials, form or typology.

Projects featured in the exhibition include: Terry Farrell’s SIS Building, Vauxhall and TVam, Camden; the Cascades and China Wharf by CZWG; Jeremy and Fenella Dixon’s St Mark’s Road, Kensington and the Royal Opera House scheme by Jeremy Dixon BDP and later Dixon Jones BDP; No. 1 Poultry James Stirling Michael Wilford; and the Isle of Dogs Storm Water Pumping Station and the New House, Wadhurst Park by John Outram.

For the architects featured in the exhibition, this newfound appreciation of history allowed them to use the architectural forms, symbols and typologies that Modernism had avoided. For example, in the case of the TV-am building, Terry Farrell could draw from architectural languages of the past, in both sincere and playful ways, to create something that was of the moment. The building was both a functioning TV station and the physical embodiment of TV-am’s brand.

Jeremy Dixon’s redevelopment of the Royal Opera House saw new fabric knitted into the surrounding urban context in a way that was both radical and extremely sensitive. It makes a stark contrast to the proposal of just a decade earlier to clear the entire area and replace it with motorway and towers.

The exhibition will feature a range of drawings, models, paintings, photographs, press-clippings, brochures, books, furniture and fragments of actual buildings, many of which have never been exhibited publicly.

Designed by Geoff Shearcroft of AOC and Fraser Muggeridge, working in close collaboration with the Soane’s Senior Curator, Owen Hopkins, ‘The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture’ will shed new light on one of the most inventive and influential moments of British architecture.

The exhibition takes place against the backdrop of a reinvigorated interest in Postmodernism, such as Historic England’s project to assess Post-modern buildings for listing, to be announced later this year. This renewed attention will be the point of departure for a series of accompanying events in relation to the exhibition.


Owen Hopkins, Senior Curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum says:

“Postmodern architecture in Britain is frequently written-off as an expression of 1980s Thatcherism and still little understood. We conceived this exhibition to set the record straight and reveal this period as one of such amazing creativity and innovation that can hold its own with any moment in British architectural history. Full of colour, ingenuity and exuberance, the exhibition will also show the serious intellectual basis that underlay a movement whose legacy still shapes how we create and understand architecture today.”

Bruce Boucher, Director, Sir John Soane’s Museum says:

“As part of Sir John Soane’s Museum’s continuing exploration of the centrality of architecture to contemporary life, this exhibition is an important opportunity to profile some of the great examples of Postmodernism in Britain. Soane was an inspiration to many architects of this generation, and we look forward to exploring their work in both the Museum’s exhibition galleries and adjoining Soane-designed period interiors. This will forge a rich, complex and at times surprising dialogue with the Museum and Soane’s own relationship to the architectural past.”


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