New York

“Perfect Acts of Architecture”

Axa Gallery

“Perfect Acts of Architecture” brought together six series of early and seminal drawings that established the careers and ideologies of five of today’s preeminent architects: Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Thom Mayne, and Bernard Tschumi. All but one of these projects, Eisenman’s “House VT,” ca. 1976, are not constructed or are impossible to build. And that’s what makes them “perfect.” The drawings provide critical and theoretical platforms by negating the architectural realities of commerce—of client, function, material, building code, site, and budget. The architects even escape conventions of architectural representation, using drawing as a research tool and an alternative to practice. Yet their anxieties abounded as architecture itself was an object of scrutiny.

Every architect here employed modernist avant-garde tropes of defamiliarization and alienation. Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, 1972, by Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis with others, depicts a brutal structure that unfolds like an oversize game board on the urban geography of London. In an accompanying text, Koolhaas utilizes an ironic idealism to reverse traditional urban conditions, revealing his own inner conflicts about the formative and oppressive mechanisms of what he calls his “architectural oasis.” A similar tension exists in the imagery of Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcripts, 1976–81, which creates a detective story whose narrative structure suggests an architectural precursor to Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass. The drawings, which appear as a sequence of panels, contrast urban typologies with frame-by-frame depictions of collision, flow, fragmentation, and reconciliation. Every clue hints at some hidden interconnectivity of events and movements.

Libeskind’s Micromegas, 1978, and Chamber Works, 1983, are explosions of architectural elements. Portrayed by multiperspectival structures that offer no singular orientation within the faint frames, architecture emerges as a cacophonous, inscrutable labyrinth. Similarly frenetic Mayne’s The Sixth Street House drawings, 1986–97, are frustrated and estranged construction documents—superimposing conventional architectural drawings’ plans, sections, and isometrics.

All the drawings illustrated a fundamental critical position against the modernist dictum that form follows function. Nowhere was this more evident than in Eisenman’s “House VI,” a series of axonometric drawings with a step-by-step explanation of the internal logic and autonomy of a single form. These drawings were advertisements for Eisenman’s autonomous architecture, in which a structure could be considered independent of anything other than its own formal syntax.

Years later, these drawings seem a beautiful handwritten postscript to a fading avant-garde. Their critical explorations have led to a substantial number of commercial practices and become the stuff of academic canon. But architecture is still a rare commodity, as commerce and capital seem to be determined to destroy it for the sake of expediting revenue or a lobotomized luxury. One leaves this show, which was organized in association with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with a feeling these architects must have had at the beginning of their careers—that perhaps serious architecture will exist mostly in the galleries, and maybe architects will have to start calling themselves artists.

Michael Meredith