PoMo Not a Four-Letter Word in Louisville, KY

Blair Kamin takes an appreciative view of Michael Graves' Humana Building, now a defining icon of Derby City, and the much derided postmodern architecture movement.

2 minute read

April 13, 2012, 8:00 AM PDT

By Ryan Lue


The 20th century was as dizzying a time for the world of architecture as it was for any other art form – never before in history could buildings become so outdated in such a short span of time. As a movement, postmodernism is notable for the way it has fallen out of favor, criticized "for producing a pastiche of historical references," as Kamin puts it - "a column tacked on here, a pediment there."

But to truly appreciate the merits of postmodern architecture and separate the wheat from the chaff, it is important to understand its historical context of "the early 1980s, when postmodernism was at the height of its influence and architects were in full revolt against the abstract forms of commercial modernism." Michael Graves' Humana Building is one of those buildings that successfully balanced that revolt against the aesthetic sensibilities of the surrounding city.

In 1982, Graves won his second major international design competition for a 27-story office complex to house a large hospital company (now a Fortune 100 health insurance provider). "Architectural models of the five [finalists'] designs are still displayed in the Humana complex, and they reveal how Graves crafted a tower that could only have been built in Louisville" – a reflection of his "contextual" architectural philosophy.

For its grand frontage, various tributes to the Ohio River, and unique approach to office space, the Humana Building makes room for redemption in the legacy of postmodernism.

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