PRINT November 2013


“Deconstructivist Architecture”

View of “Deconstructivist Architecture,” 1988, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

IN NOVEMBER 1988, an obituary appeared in Texas Architect alongside a birth announcement: “DIED. Fred Postmodernist. BORN. Herman Deconstructivist.” The cause for both: the exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture,” which had run from June 23 to August 30 that summer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show was organized by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley with the assistance of Frederieke Taylor. It featured a selection of the museum’s holdings from the Russian avant-garde and ten architectural projects designed over the preceding decade. The architects were seven stars we know today: Coop Himmelb(l)au, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Bernard Tschumi. But why was the show a matter of life and death?

Johnson, then eighty-one, was renowned as the founding director of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, as well as for organizing the influential “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” in 1932. That show was widely credited not only with introducing modernism to the United States but with dramatizing the movement’s rise as the most pervasive new direction in Western architecture since the Renaissance. Many commentators claimed a symmetry in import and status between the two exhibitions, as did Johnson himself in an interview with the New York Times months before the show. “It’s the first movement since the International Style to get me excited,” he said. Wigley, now the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, was thirty-one at the time. He had just completed his dissertation on deconstruction and architecture, subsequently published as The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt. If Johnson’s historical gravitas preceded him, Wigley brought philosophical and academic authority, adding to the general sense that the show was something new and different.

Indeed, the obituary had been prophesied six months earlier by critic Sylvia Lavin, then a Ph.D. student in architectural history, who responded to the frenzied media anticipation of the exhibition by stating: “Although there has never been a consensus as to what Post-Modern architecture is, there are a lot of people who think it is no longer.” At that point postmodernism had been the prevailing architectural style for nearly two decades. Why this sudden demise? It was being replaced by a “fetish” for “deconstructionism.” If “Deconstructivist Architecture” prompted pronouncements of such finality before it even opened, its status and import have only grown more mythical as time has passed, its influence seemingly unequaled by any subsequent event or exhibition. It is tempting, then, in this year that marks the exhibition’s twenty-fifth anniversary, to ask: Did it mark the last important shift in architecture?

Answering this question depends on how we understand such a disciplinary shift, as well as the nature of the exhibition itself. An exhibition, after all, is an apparatus of numerous parts, of which the physical installation in the gallery is only one: a catalogue, press releases, symposia or related events, a graphic identity, documentation, donors, sponsors, and curators. The “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition constituted—and was constituted by—all of these forces. The polemics surrounding the exhibition were bound up with social politics as much as with the intellectual position presented both inside and outside the gallery; in fact, the installation itself was arguably incidental to its main effect, which played out in the realm of the media.

According to art historian Patricia C. Phillips, writing in a November 1988 Artforum review, the show’s “media build-up” was “long and relentless,” catapulting it into the public eye for well over a year and resulting in “the proliferation of embarrassing references to ‘deconstructivism’ in every fashion magazine, cocktail party, and trendy gathering.” By June, the exhibition had “already sparked controversy and public debate.” By the time the dust had settled, the exhibition had become, according to the Boston Globe, the “most talked about, most dreaded architecture show in many years.”

Ironically, the show that caused all this fuss was small: It occupied only three galleries, with ten projects from the seven architects, and ran for ten weeks during the off-season of the summer months. Situated on the ground floor of the museum, the three spaces were sequential. The first gallery formed an antechamber of Suprematist and Constructivist paintings and sculptures. The entrance framed several “Suprematist Compositions” by Kazimir Malevich, visually juxtaposed with the exhibition’s title and logo on the wall outside. They formed part of a series of paintings and drawings by a number of Malevich’s contemporaries. Gustav Klutsis’s 1922 Maquette for Radio-Announcer and two relief constructions by Vladimir Tatlin were featured, while a 1923 relief by Vasily Ermilov, Composition #3, Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Oval Hanging Construction, ca. 1920, and a single wall text framed the entry to the second gallery.

In that space, an assortment of models, photos, drawings, and renderings of several projects were arranged. Included were Bernard Tschumi’s 1982–85 project for Parc de la Villette in Paris; three buildings, two in Vienna and one in Hamburg, by Coop Himmelb(l)au; and Rem Koolhaas’s 1982 Apartment Building and Observation Tower in Rotterdam. In the third gallery were drawings of Daniel Libeskind’s City Edge (1987) in Berlin, beyond which were hung renderings of Frank Gehry’s Familian House (1978) and Gehry House (1978–88) both in Santa Monica, across the room from images of Zaha Hadid’s The Peak (1982) in Hong Kong. Images of Peter Eisenman’s Biocenter for the University of Frankfurt (1987) lined the back wall. Looking back toward the first gallery, one saw a visual-spatial trajectory proposing a historical trajectory: from Eisenman to Hadid, Koolhaas to Tschumi, through Rodchenko’s Oval Hanging Construction, and back to Malevich’s “Suprematist Compositions,” which Alfred H. Barr, MoMA’s first director, heralded in 1936 as the foundational works of modernism. In fact, in the space of the gallery, deconstructivist architecture was posited not as a break from modernism but as resuming an unfinished project.

The installation received “exceptionally harsh reviews,” according to New Yorker cultural critic Brendan Gill. Roger Kimball of Architectural Record and Ellen Posner of the Wall Street Journal likewise found it “meager” and a “small, unglamorous show.” Yet others, such as then New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, found it “visually spectacular, densely packed.” And even many who criticized the installation praised the work on view. Scholar Catherine Ingraham, for example, found the work of the seven architects “among the most interesting being done in architecture right now.”

Yet two underlying issues—both essentially independent from the installation itself—drove the polemics that surrounded the show: on the one hand, what Ingraham called the “lexical alchemy” of the title, and on the other, Johnson’s involvement. Ingraham derided the title—a wordplay that seemed to coin a movement by force of its suffix—as a “confused historical reference” to Russian Constructivism. Any relation to the “far more brilliant” critical movement called deconstruction as theorized by Jacques Derrida she deemed “parasitic and predatory.” In the end, it was Herbert Muschamp, writing for Artforum in April before the show had even opened, who perhaps best appraised Johnson’s effect. People may have been “outraged” and “shocked” by Johnson’s cavalier use of weighty historical and philosophical references and his attitude toward authorship, as well as the museum’s complicity therein, but, as Muschamp mused, Johnson had “long ago decided that he could get more mileage out of being bad. Our outrage only fuels him.” Likening Johnson to a vampire, Muschamp reminded readers that the architect had already “sucked the blood out of Modernism” with “Modern Architecture,” only to put the nail in its coffin with his infamously postmodern, Chippendale-crowned AT&T tower.

Johnson and Wigley denied such claims. In a March 1988 interview with Phillips, Johnson argued that “Deconstructivist Architecture” did not represent any “great messianic vision here or now.” The wall text reinforced this position: “This is not a movement. It is not a single-minded stylistic vision of the future. Rather, it is a series of discrete ideological experiments about the limits of architecture.” Pressed as to whether or not there would ever be future visions for architecture as grand as the one expressed in “Modern Architecture,” Johnson quipped: “I think that prognostication is a fool’s game.” Likewise, Wigley cautioned that the exhibition was not an application of deconstructive theory; nor did it derive from the contemporary mode of philosophy known as “deconstruction.” Yet such protests came off as ironic and seemingly codified what they denied. While Wigley held that reducing deconstructivist architecture to a formal reading of what its wall text had described as “twisted volumes, warped planes, and clashing lines” would be to falsely attribute to deconstruction “the material representation of an abstract idea,” it was arguably Johnson’s formal language and a highly constructed formal similarity between projects that became equated with an identifiable style.

Today, deconstructivist roots are attributed to anything from Libeskind’s Jewish Museum to the Seattle Public Library designed by Koolhaas with his office OMA. Because of the exhibition’s timing and the technological connotations of the catalogue cover—a fax of a Coop Himmelb(l)au drawing—it is often described as ushering in the spectacular and specular forms of the computationally generated architecture of the 1990s and early 2000s. Though Johnson coyly regarded prognostication as a fool’s game, Derrida—who, though nowhere mentioned in the museum’s press material, was himself fully implicated in the show’s polemics, having already collaborated with Eisenman on a project in 1985—prophesied that deconstruction would “yield an architecture which is no longer a closed, identifiable and specific field.” In the end, this sentiment was echoed by others: Ingraham said deconstructivist architecture “will ultimately be the shift in the idea of architectural structure—its dematerialization—that will interfere most substantially with the material surfaces of architecture.” Eisenman, participating in a Tate symposium on deconstruction in 1988, declined to show a work of architecture, claiming instead that the word described a way of thinking.

Indeed, as an apparatus, the exhibition eschewed the fixity that many would like to ascribe to it as a beginning or end. Could the exhibition be said to have opened the field to strategies of architecture as a largely dematerialized critical social, ecological, or geopolitical practice, as in the work of, say, Eyal Weizman, Philippe Rahm, or Teddy Cruz? Such later practices lend a hauntingly prophetic tone to claims in the exhibition’s wall text that deconstructivist projects “radically displace traditional ideas about the nature of the architectural object,” emphasizing such uncannily contemporary catchphrases as “strategic cultural interventions.”

The exhibition opened a debate about what constitute the limits of architecture. Part of this debate was fueled by a recognition that social politics had become integral to the historical construction of architecture, and that media coverage had the power to institute a discursive shift. Part of it was simply based on an awareness that the work looked strikingly different from what had come before. Timing was integral to its effect. “Deconstructivist Architecture”—situated within the debates around the historical project of Constructivism and the theoretical position of deconstruction—opened a discursive field: that of the exhibition, with its myriad constituent elements, as a tactical strategy and critical project of architecture.

Tina Di Carlo, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, is a Ph.D fellow at the Oslo School of Architecture.