PRINT April 2003


1988: “Deconstructivist Architecture”

Bernard Tschumi, Folie Transformation, 1986, ink and watercolor on paper,  26 1/16 x 20 3/4

“DECONSTRUCTIVIST ARCHITECTURE,” curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley, opened at the Museum of Modern Art in June 1988. It seemed at first sight to be a heterogeneous affair, cobbled together from drawings and models of the mostly unbuilt work of seven architects assembled beneath a neologism suggestive at once of the Russian avant-garde movement of the ’20s and the interpretative approach to literary and philosophical analysis pioneered by Jacques Derrida. Following the tactics employed by Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock in their 1932 “Modern Architecture” exhibition at MoMA, “Deconstructivism” sought to bring art-historical order to work that was united primarily by its opposition to the historical pastiche associated with postmodernism. The catalogue essays, however, disclaimed that a new style was in the making. Johnson asserted that while in 1932 he was on a “quest for a new style of architecture,” more than a half century later he had “no such aims.” Wigley, similarly, stated that “Deconstructivist architecture is not an ‘-ism’ . . . not a new style.”

Nevertheless, Wigley’s essay intimated that the dislocations of structure, form, and function evident in Russian Constructivist architecture had now found fulfillment in the “dislocations” of the contemporary architects on show. He associated the fragmented structures of Constructivism with the Russian revolutionaries’ desire to destabilize traditional architecture and devise a new architecture out of modern technological forms, placing their characteristics against classical norms and the unity of rationalist modernism. Discerning similar formal traits in the contemporary projects, Wigley proposed that they be seen in relation to deconstruction, itself dedicated to undermining commonplaces and to revealing unease beneath apparently stable texts.

The architectural homology, however, was less clear. Of the projects exhibited, only Bernard Tschumi’s red follies for the Parc de La Villette in Paris and Rem Koolhaas’s Rotterdam Apartment Building and Observation Tower drew on Constructivist motifs; Frank Gehry’s Gehry House in Santa Monica seemed closer to Dada roots; Daniel Libeskind’s City Edge project, Zaha Hadid’s design for the Peak in Hong Kong, and Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Rooftop Remodeling in Vienna were indebted to the vocabulary of German Expressionism and Dutch modernism. Peter Eisenman, finally, despite having collaborated with Derrida for a garden within Tschumi’s park, exhibited in his design for the University of Frankfurt’s Biocenter as much reliance on the multiple grids of his earlier experiments with the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni as on any philosophical borrowings. In retrospect, if any unity is to be detected among the exhibited projects, it is in their common disregard for classical composition, rejection of overt historical references, respect for the various traditions of the avant-garde, and evident delight in formal oppositions. In short, while the exhibition offered indirect proof of Wigley’s own admission that the selected architects did not “participate in any new movement,” the projects, taken collectively, stood firmly on the side of a continuing “tradition” of the modern.

Thus, despite the slightly forced comparison to the early avant-garde movements and the overly literal association of fragmentation in architecture with the more complex philosophical position of deconstruction, the historical impact of this show was significant. The architects of “Deconstructivism” have become the institutional and academic leaders of their generations; their works have become models for late-modern architecture on a global scale; they have collectively established a way of looking at architecture, a way of expressing technological and social values in form that, in retrospect, as Eisenman has stated, “stopped Postmodernism in its tracks.” If the “Modern Architecture” show of 1932 proposed a more or less unified style for postwar reconstruction, then this small exhibition was, in concentrated form, a preface to the renewal of modernist forms that has, with little of the “unease” Mark Wigley detected, emerged as the triumphant manner of the last decade.

Anthony Vidler is professor of architecture and dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union. His most recent book is Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (MIT Press, 2000).