PRINT December 2003


Deconstructivist architecture in 2003

IN 1988, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted the “Deconstructivist Architecture” show, curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley, the seven architects assembled beneath this ambiguous banner— Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelb(l)au—were unambiguously seen as “theoretical,” dismissed as such, and excoriated by both proponents of various “postmodernisms” and conservative anti-intellectuals. Any idea that “Deconstructivism” was a movement of consequence beyond the art gallery was rejected out of hand. Yet nearly twenty years later these “theoretical” architects have emerged as major practitioners on a global scale. Still theoretical in formal and programmatic pose, they are far from theoretical in practice, having realized some of the most significant cultural commissions of the late twentieth century.

Initially this was accomplished largely in the European context, with (to name only a few) Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao; Koolhaas’s Euralille, France, and Kunsthal Rotterdam; Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station, in Germany, and, more recently, the Bergisel Ski Jump, in Innsbruck, Austria; Coop Himmelb(l)au’s UFA Cinema Center, in Dresden; Tschumi’s Le Fresnoy art center and Rouen Concert Hall, both in France; and, of course, Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. In the past year, these architects’ role as cultural constructors has been amply confirmed. Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, and his City of Culture for Galicia, Spain, are under construction, as is Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum in Athens. In the US, Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; Koolhaas’s student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago; and Hadid’s Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, have just opened, with Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library in construction. Coop Himmelb(l)au has received a commission for a high school in Los Angeles, and Libeskind’s winning entry for the “noncompetition” for the World Trade Center site is in design development.

All the evidence leads to the conclusion that what was, in 1988, called “Deconstructivism”—whatever that rubric represented—has certainly come of age. Which raises the question: Has a tendency that was never entirely unified now attained the status of a movement? Stylistic evidence, if such can be adduced in a modernist context, would argue against this supposition. Even the most tenacious periodizer and style hunter would find it difficult to identify a single mode of expression among these architects; labels such as “late modern” and “neo-avant-garde” fall short of serious characterization, and they resist being incorporated into a generalized postmodernism. If a movement may be identified, it would be, like all modern movements in the twentieth century, based on principle—on a common theoretical stance.

“Theoretical” was a word with special meaning for the 1980s. In the ’60s and ’70s, one might have been utopian (Paolo Soleri), technotopian (Archigram), dystopian (Archizoom), or even revolutionary (the Situationists); but the “Deconstructivist” show brought together a number of architects who in different ways tried to apply the insights of structuralist and poststructuralist theory to architecture in itself. Some were interested in the analysis of “meaning” provided by semiotics; others in the coincidence of “structuralism” and “structure”; others in questions of form similar to those raised by Clement Greenberg with respect to art; and still others in the analysis of typological consistencies and transformations to be identified in urban and historical precedent. All were united in their stance against everyday professionalism, understood as an uneasy compromise between the needs of developers and architectural rhetoric. All were equally suspicious of attacks against “high” architecture and were convinced that if architecture had anything to offer society it was precisely in its adhering to internal codes of form and composition that, like music, were susceptible to combination and development on their own terms—in, that is, adhering to its own limited autonomy. These positions gave rise to many different forms of expression, from the cool abstraction of Eisenman to the hot expressionism of Libeskind; from the ironic modernisms of Koolhaas, Tschumi, and Hadid to the laconic bricolage of Gehry and Coop Himmelb(l)au. None, needless to say, matched any interpretation of deconstruction in philosophical or literary theory, much less bore any resemblance to the Russian Constructivism of the 1920s.

Each has since elaborated on these positions and forms of expression, and, if anything, the divergence among the seven has become more marked. And yet, in maturity, there is one common ground on which they all still unite: that of the “theoretical” stance with which they were tagged in the first place. Here “theoretical” would signify not the purely intellectual or the unbuildable but rather the consistent will to interrogate the nature of architecture with each new project, to see design always as an inquiry into the language of architecture itself, programmatically and typologically. In this the so-called Deconstructivists emerge as thoroughly modern and entirely constructive, confirming a century of experimentation and reaffirming a continuity with the Modern movement momentarily disrupted by claims of “postmodernism.”

Anthony Vidler is dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union in New York.