Post-Modern Egyptomania

We witness an artistic tragedy. The greatest post modern buildings in London have been, or are being, torn down. Playful masterpieces of pastiche are replaced with glass comodiums for the post-crisis rich. One day we will appreciate the slurry of cheap looking, high and low rise million pound apartment complexes with concierge and car parking spaces, but not just yet. 

Post-modernism was a celebratory style. It celebrated wealth and excess, the end of history, the victory of Late-Capitalism, architecture itself. Although not always considered a Classical (with a capital C) style of architecture it is nevertheless an artificial tradition in the way that all Classical revivals are.

Most of the buildings in the City of London have adopted the general Gree-Style Classicism which is the hallmark of Post-Modernsm as a public language […] Post-Modern Classicisim is suitable as the entrepreneurial mode. Yuppies dressed for their board-room conquests are clothed in an outer skin of pink granite which is polished, or flamed within an inch of its depth.

Charles Jencks

It is style which followed earlier forms of architecture. Following the rules enough to wilfully brake them. If the Houses of Commons, for Pugin, was Gothic details on a classical body then Post Modernism sought to be any details or shape on a concrete and style body. It did not seek to be an innovative style and this was its innovation.

One of its abiding features was a willingness to borrow, or sample, styles and detailing from previous traditions. One of these traditions was Egyptian. Although as we will see it is a combination of Ancient Egyptian architecture and Art Deco which is copied.

Internationally the most obvious example of post-modern Egyptomania is the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, complete with pyramid, obelisk and sphinx. A closer examination will also reveal a hotel with a cavetto corniche, the convex curve at the top of many Egyptian buildings. Another famous example would be the glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei which sits incongruously in the Second Empire flourishes of the Louvre.

Egyptian Friezes

Within London the best known piece of post-modern Egyptiana is the Egyptian Escalator in Harrods. William Mitchell, with advice from James Putnam of the British Museum deigned an “entertaining retail environment”. The escalator is replete with anachronistic details, the solar disk of the goddess Hathor is a lamp shade, cartouches refer to the shop and a sphinx depicts the shop’s then owner, the charismatic Mohamed Al Fayed, guarding smaller version of the shop.

Another notable building from this period was the Earls Court Homebase designed by Ian Pollard in 1988. It contained lutoform columns, a cavetto corniche and a frieze depicting the Egyptian gods. Seth wields a power drill (a jigsaw might have been more appropriate). One of the finest buildings in London, it was knocked down for yuppie flats. The Architects Journal called it “advertising, not architecture”, which although not intended as such, was a compliment.

No one would mistake Pollard’s Homebase for a serious essay in eclecticism, there are too many quotation marks in the references, too many obvious jokes, indeed, like a carnival, too many obvious everythings.

Charles Jencks

Egyptian shapes

Less well known, the Four Seasons hotel in Canary Wharf is a good example of a post modern building in the Ancient Egyptian style. A well balanced and symmetrical building, the sloping angle of the lower part of the building and caveto corniche (in eau de Nil no less) resemble an Egyptian temple. The front is dominated by a massive door left open, which due to a playful use of small panes is obviously non functioning.

“Cryptic, mysterious, grand … the hotel evokes the oldest home of money; that of the Valley of the Kings, and ambitiously announces the current success of the financial capital as deserving of tourist attention in its own right”.

Pablo Bronstein

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Also in Canary Wharf, Cascades (2-4 West Ferry Road) draws on Egyptian motifs as part of a wider referencing of Art Deco detailings. It has a strong silohuette. From face on, one side of the building resembles an Egyptian pyramid, whilst the other resembles a lotoform column. A closer look reveals detailing such as port holes and industrial metal work. This combination suggests an ironic sampling of Art Deco architecture. Ironic because many architectural historians point to a shift in Art Deco from exotica in the  twenties to the Ocean Liner-esque streamlined moderne of the thirties. Portholes are also reminiscent of Lord Mountbatten’s apartment which was kitted off as a luxury watch with porthole looking out onto a painted scene of Montecarlo harbour.

“Cascades evokes the ghosts of the dead with a fantasy on the theme of 1930’s nautical engineering […] The fizzy optimism of the Yuppie is celebrated in the jazz-age frivolity and ocean-liner detailing”.

Pablo Brostein

Egyptian details

Many post-modern buildings do not draw on just one style but combine different periods. Egyptian architectural details can be used alongside renaissance fronts or battleships.

The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery was designed in the Eighties by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. It connects to Wilkins’ Greek Revival Building built 150 years earlier. Robert Venturi was a pioneer of the post-modern style. An austere concrete building, it is lightly set off with bright lutoform Egyptian columns.

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No 1 Poultry, designed by Sir James Stirling, stands opposite the neo-classicism of the Bank of England and Royal Exchange. It is a rag tag of various styles including Egyptian and Art Deco. One entrance references a pyramid, whilst the front displays a caveto corniche. The awkwardly delicate curves of the brick balanced below the angular glass references the PVC craze which broke the Art Deco curves of surburbia.

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Conclusion

Does post-modernism reference Ancient Egyptian architecture directly or does it reference the architecture inspired by Ancient Egypt (predominantly Art Deco). It is perhaps an irrelevant question, but one worth reflecting on. It is notable that many of the buildings built in the Egyptian style (as opposed to the use of details) are places of entertainment -Casinos, Hotels, Art Galleries. This reflects the use of Egyptian styles in the Twenties. Yet the buildings are so joyous or consciously kitsch that they feel a return to first principles. More Imhotep than George Cope.

Whilst the Egyptian style was just one element of Post-Modern architecture’s design kit, it is one of the most notable and obvious elements. Ultimately the Eighties were still in lure of some of the ideas of the twenties and we are yet to see a truly post-colonial Western revival of Egyptian architecture.


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Further reading

Pablo Bronstein, Postmodern Architecture in London

Jean-Marcel Humbert and Clifford Price (editors), Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing architecture 

Charles Jencks, Post-modern Triumphs in London