August 30: Decon at MOMA

2016/08/30 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1988 the exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture closed.

Running from June 23 at MoMA and curated by Mark Wigley and Philip Johnson, exhibition #1489 codified the way the term deconstructivist, which had been lifted from lit crit, would be applied to architectural design.   In some ways this was a repeat of Johnson’s participation in the exhibition that introduced the term International Style fifty-six years earlier.  Whereas in 1932 the emphasis was on the clean industrialized Neues Bauen of the Bauhaus et al., in 1988 he and Wigley selected seven architects/firms that illustrated “a new sensibility in architecture” characterized by work that recognized the “imperfectibility of the modern world” and addressed “the pleasures of unease.”  Their shared stylistic qualities  included slashing lines, leaping arcs and warped planes.  The curators suggested a link with Russian Constructivist architecture due to formal and material relationships, but with the recognition that the aims were completely different among this new tribe of Deconstructivist architects.

The exhibition and its sharp, small catalogue was helpful in explaining the ideas behind all the crooked walls and wilting surfaces.  Especially as it skates closely to the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Decon theory can quickly become as skewed and off-kilter as the buildings it tries to explain. But in the catalogue, Wigley–in remarkably straightforward prose quite different from his academic publications–was as straightforward as a Miesian I-beam, disturbing the old Modernist axiom ‘form follows function’ with the proclaimed that for the new architects, ‘function follows deformation.’

If only the exhibitees all agreed that this was their point (which they didn’t).  Still, the exhibition was helpful in giving a name to the strange new stuff showing up in journals and by suggesting there was a common link that was more than just (egads) formalist among this crew (although none such was proven).  Representative projects from the exhibitoin, which included Coop HimmelblauPeter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha HadidRem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and Bernard Tschumi reveal the embryonic status of the moment (if ‘movement’ it was) in 1988.

These projects illustrate that Decon worked/works best (maybe only) at small scale, for leisure facilities, and in graphic imagery–certainly the later work of these seven has been a mixed bag.  Indeed Decon probably best achieves its goals in the latter, since the laws of physics knock the stuffing out of Deconstructivism, raising the question, if the theory cannot survive the built world, can there actually be such a thing as Deconstructivist architecture at all?

Image: the catalogue (from this source)

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