Deconstructivism opinion

"The very idea of deconstructivism now seems hopelessly implausible"

The excess and self-indulgence of deconstructivism stand in stark contrast to the urgent existential issues facing architects today, writes Catherine Slessor as part of our series revisiting the style.

As the love child of American architect Peter Eisenman and French semiotician Jacques Derrida, deconstructivism had its roots in an unlikely cross-fertilisation. Yet there is an even more raunchy version of its origin story, which claims that decon was literally born in flames, sometime in the mid-80s, accompanied by Wolf Prix screeching "Architektur muss Brennen!" – "architecture must burn" – as he set fire to assorted installations in a courtyard at London's Architectural Association.

Such a genuinely incandescent incarnation was in soul-shrivelling contrast to decon's quiet, lonely death on a hillside outside Santiago de Compostela in 2013, when the municipality finally pulled the plug on Eisenman's City of Culture of Galicia, barely half-finished and four times over budget.

Commissioned at a time of biting national austerity by regional premier Manuel Fraga – a former Franco functionary, Eisenman's competition-winning project superimposed a map of Santiago de Compostela's medieval core onto the surface of Mount Gaiás, employing software to adapt it to the hill's contours.

The hectically undulating roof forms were partly derived from the scallop shells carried by pilgrims to the shrine of St James in the city's cathedral.

Johnson deftly pulled the rug out from under Pomo and went over to the dark decon side

Strained to its formal, material and allegorical limits, Eisenman's vision of architecture as topography proved nearly impossible to build. No two windows were the same.

Back in 1988, in happier times, deconstructivism was given a formal baptism at a major MoMA show curated by Mark Wigley, with Philip Johnson hovering parasitically in the background.

Just as corporate America was getting used to the idea of pink keystones and skyscrapers with ironic Chippendale flutings, Johnson deftly pulled the rug out from under pomo and went over to the dark decon side, hucksterishly bestowing his patronage on what he regarded as the next big thing.

Built matter no longer seemed to matter; the decon manifesto could be intuited through sexed-up graphics alone

"The projects in this exhibition mark a different sensibility, one in which the dream of pure form has been disturbed. It is the ability to disturb our thinking about form that makes these projects deconstructive", Johnson and Wigley asserted in the accompanying catalogue, which featured Eisenman, Prix, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas, all getting their freak on.

There were no photographs of actual, completed buildings, only incomprehensible drawings and shots of models. Built matter no longer seemed to matter; the decon manifesto could be intuited through sexed-up graphics alone.

The cover of the catalogue featured a drawing by Prix's studio Coop Himmelb(l)au "sent by fax", reduced to a migraine-inducing abstraction of distorted red lines on an orange background.

Back in the pre-internet era, when the fax machine represented the acme of communications technology, conduits for disseminating and discussing architecture were considerably more constrained.

Decon became the style du jour

Untroubled by the messy realities of political or social issues – climate change was still thought to be the work of alarmist hippies – architecture's rarefied, Olympian milieu was dominated almost exclusively by white male academics, curators, critics and practitioners.

Within this elite and self-regarding intelligentsia, decon became the style du jour, avidly peddled in architecture schools, museums and magazines. Its inherent formal preposterousness – "we dream of pure form disturbed" – was undoubtedly part of its avant-garde appeal.

After the infantilising tendencies of pomo, with its pastel colour palette and cookie-cutter aesthetics, it was a relief to do sharp angles again, as architecture moved from the nursery to the torture chamber.

"The deconstructivist architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity," wrote Wigley.

No major city was without the hulking conspicuousness of a Libeskind or a Gehry

"The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and violent torture: the form is interrogated." The seminal "New Spirit" issue of the Architectural Review from August 1986, in which AR editors discovered punk ten years too late, put it more succinctly: "Post-modernism is dead. Some have known from the start that it was no more than a painted corpse."

The decon gang were stamping vigorously on that corpse. Yet if you scroll back through deconstructivism's built legacy, you find no housing, hospitals, schools or transport infrastructure; nothing for ordinary people.

Instead, there is an abundance of posturing, theorising and showpiece art museums. No major city was without the hulking conspicuousness of a Libeskind or a Gehry.

Decon also relished being "subversive". Coop Himmelb(l)au's parasitical extension to a set of lawyers' chambers in Vienna (pictured) was the classic exemplar, erupting from a rooftop corner with the visceral shock of the embryonic xenomorph bursting out of John Hurt's chest in Alien.

But ultimately, it was just a glorified loft conversion. And all those wilful contortions of steel and glass were a nightmare to keep clean.

Despite its professed affinity with Russian constructivism, decon could never be described as political, but in late 80s France, there was a brief alignment between decon and national identity.

As part of the Grand Projects initiative to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Tschumi won the competition to develop La Villette, originally the site of vast, Napoleonic-era slaughterhouses on the northeast edge of Paris.

Channelling Derrida, Tschumi grafted a series of disparate follies on a grid to define a new public park, effectively "deconstructing" the conventional idea of the park as a place of ordered relaxation.

By the end of the Noughties the decon gang were on sclerotic cruise control

This was, perhaps, decon's most explicit attempt at social amenity. Shamelessly pilfered from the constructivists, the bright red follies were simply objects in a landscape, publicly enjoyable on their own terms.

Yet by the end of the Noughties, as the credit crunch started to bite, Tschumi's follies were a fever dream and the decon gang were on sclerotic cruise control, radical edges long smoothed down into an anodyne, computer-generated mulch, smeared over China, Russia and the Gulf.

Johnson was dead, Eisenman was reeling in Galicia, and Libeskind was putting the finishing touches to New York's fatuous Freedom Tower, amplifying the dubious neo-con narrative of 9/11 as an attack on the freedom of the US. And nobody was burning anything in AA courtyards anymore.

In the current era, beset by far more urgent existential priorities, the very idea of decon now seems hopelessly implausible, a self-indulgent, fin de siècle explosion and stylistic hurrah, architecture's final going-down-swinging party before someone turned the lights back on.

But then again, as the decon gang will tell you, nothing succeeds like excess.

Catherine Slessor is an architecture editor, writer and critic. She is the president of architectural charity the 20th Century Society and former editor of UK magazine The Architectural Review.