Deconstructivism is a theoretical term that emerged within art, architecture, and the
philosophical literature of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The movement refers mainly to
an architectural language of displaced, distorted, angular forms, often set within
conflicting geometries. With origins in the ideas of French philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.
1930), deconstructivism generated an iconoclastic style of the avant-garde whose
principle architec tural exponents included Coop Himmelb(l)au, Zaha Hadid, Behnisch
and Partners, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Morphosis, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel
Libeskind, and Frank Gehry, among others. Curiously, while these and other architects
have continued to practice in a related formal language, the terms once used to describe
their work have long since dropped out of usage.
Deconstruction in the field of architecture owes its origins to two parallel events that
took place in 1988. One was an exhibition titled “Deconstructivist Architecture” held at
the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; the second was a conference titled
“Deconstruction in Art and Architecture” held at the Tate Gallery in London. The
different terms employed by the organizers to describe their respective events highlighted
their differing trajectories. The exhibition in New York—originally to be called “Neo-
Constructivist Architecture” with reference to a revival of the Russian stylistic movement
from the early part of the 20th century—highlighted the formal language emerging in the
work of a group of avant-garde architects, including several of those aforementioned. The
event in London, meanwhile, stressed the connection to Derridian philosophy.
Deconstruction emerged out of the poststructuralist tradition of literary theory, which,
in opposition to structuralism, stressed the slippage and fluctuation of meaning that is
always at work in the process of linguistic and cultural signification. Derrida first used
the term to refer to a mode of inquiry that sought to expose the paradoxes and value-laden
hierarchies that exist within the discourse of Western metaphysics. Although
deconstruction dismantles or analyses such concepts, it was never meant to be nihilistic,
according to Derrida. Rather, it serves as an epistemological method of engagement with
the world. Although Derrida once described the philosopher as a “would-be architect,”
always searching for secure foundations on which to construct an argument, the links
between the philosophical term and architecture are clearly metaphorical. Derrida’s sense
of the word is a method and not a style.
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The connection between Deconstruction and architecture stemmed largely from
Bernard Tschumi’s use of Derrida’s ideas in his competition-winning 1983 design for the
Parc de la Vilette in Paris. Tschumi proposed a nonhierarchical grid of dispersed
pavilions instead of a more traditional building, echoing deconstruction’s own
challenging of linguistic arrangements. Later, Derrida himself collaborated with Peter
Eisenman in the design of a small section of the landscaping of the park, and he
subsequently wrote a commentary on Tschumi’s project, reading the random play of
forms as metaphors for the aleatory or contingent play of meaning in language. Derrida
significantly referred in this piece to the “architecture of architecture.” In other words, if
thinking about architecture is itself already a social construct, one might conclude that
what needs to be deconstructed are not the architectural forms themselves but rather the
theoretical assumptions that lie behind the design of those forms.
In effect, there were two competing events claiming Deconstructivism as
their own; it either referred to a purely stylistic phenomenon, or it referred
to a broad intellectual shift that encompassed not only philosophy but all
the visual arts. As Bernard Tschumi noted, “The multiple interpretations
that multiple architects [have given] to deconstruction [have become]
more multiple than deconstruction’s theory of multiple readings could
ever have hoped.”

UFA Palast: Dresden, Germany
(1998), designed by Coop
Himmelb(l)au of Austria

The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition might have more suitably retained the term
“Neo-Constructivism,” even if the architecture that had inspired the movement also
included the work of Suprematist architects, such as Kazimir Malevich. There is clear
evidence of a revival of interest in these forms—stripped of their social and political
connotations—within the formal experimentations during the 1980s at the Architectural
Association in London by architects such as Zaha Hadid of Iraq. Certainly, as far as many
architects were concerned, the connections with philosophy remained a side issue in what
was essentially a stylistic movement that did much to break the stranglehold of the harsh
rectilinearity of modernist architecture (derived from International Style, a movement
incidentally also spurred by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, earlier in the
century) but that nonetheless remained within the trajectory of modernism. As such, the
deconstructivist style in architecture relates to what art historian and critic Hal Foster has
termed a postmodernism of resistance, or a rupture of formal invention or a moment of
recuperation within a cyclical, historical process that leads to ever-new emergent
expressions of modernisms.
Derrida himself consistently refused to articulate what, if any, connection there was
between his work and the architecture of the same name. Meanwhile, Tschumi conceded
that although certain philosophical ideas that dismantled concepts had become
remarkable conceptual tools, they “could not address the one thing that makes the work
of architects ultimately different from the work of philosophers: materiality.” As a result,
the terms “deconstruction” and “deconstructivism” soon fell out of favor within the
architectural literature. Yet, paradoxically, at almost the same moment the architectural
language to which they referred began to enjoy popular support. With the construction, in
particular, of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, this once shockingly radical and
irreverant approach to architecture emerged out of the shadows of the avant-garde to
become a mainstream architectural movement sanctioned by the public.
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1 comment:

  1. I wonder if deconstructivism is not also related to a disbelief in organization. After all, free competition and the Internet are both growing organically and take various asymmetrical shapes. They seem to be more efficient this way. I'm not sure though to understand the difference between deconstructivism and organic architecture... Here are more thoughts: