New York

“Deconstructivist Architecture”

The media build-up for this Philip Johnson–curated exhibition was long and relentless. However, neither the build-up nor the reported reservations of some of the participating architects, nor a questionable organizing thesis were able to undermine the superior quality work on view. Still, “Deconstructivist Architecture” will probably be remembered as this year’s exhibition that everyone loved to hate. I found its many obvious ironies both amusing and irresistible.

The conceptual premise of the exhibition was based on the grouping of a loose coalition of architects whose work reveals the inherent impurity and unpredictability of the architectonic language. The work delights in the uncovering of architecture’s instability, its flaws, its acquired infirmity. This premise sounds like the groundwork for a new style—an answer to the leveling consequences of post-Modernism—but the catalogue essays by Johnson and associate curator Mark Wigley are filled with disclaimers; style is not a suspect here. This coincidence of formal manipulations is reported as a transcendent phenomenon, but the central idea of the exhibition is mostly about how things look. All the ponderous academicism in the world, it seems, can’t remove the stigma of style. A serious analysis of the making and confirmation of style, of the relationship of theory to fashion might have been a genuinely interesting inquiry within an otherwise spurious cultural event.

The exhibition comprised two separate, but supposedly related, parts. The first room included paintings, drawings, and models from the museum’s collection of Russian Constructivist work from the early 20th century. While suggestion of direct influence was strenuously avoided, the inclusion of this work implied a strong inspiration for the deconstructivist work to follow. The many equivocations represented a kind of curatorial sleight-of-hand; these possible (and proposed) antecedents were presented in a suggestive but evasive way. In the adjoining room were models and drawings by seven architects and/or firms—Peter Eisenman, Coop Himmelblau, Bernard Tschumi, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Libeskind—whose buildings share deconstructivist tendencies. I was instantly struck by how pale these contemporary projects looked in comparison to the Russians’ urgent and passionate work. The current work is polished, rarified, and flawless in spite of its violated forms. The flawed forms of the Russians’ work were generated by risk, spontaneity, and political vision; the new deconstructivists have calculated their errors.

Among the most impressive work was Zaha Hadid’s competition entry for a multi-use project in Hong Kong, called “The Peak,” 1982. The project aggressively displaces the site; geological plates are shorn by the slicing edges of architectural planes. Daniel Libeskind’s project for Berlin, “City Edge,” 1987, is a long, thin rectangular building that thrusts across the site and rises above it at a precarious angle. This simple, quite remarkable gesture is represented by drawings and models that offer brilliant displays of a relatively simple idea.

One objective of the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue was to confirm that this work is arcane, esoteric, and almost unthinkable. But the effort to make architecture more elitist and unreachable was the exhibition’s greatest failure. In fact, the show functioned as a great populizer for architecture; the work was pleasing in its professed originality and imperfection. The architects in this exhibition transform the common matter of architecture into something that, if not really gold, truly glitters.

Patricia C. Phillips