The Light Pavilion designed by Lebbeus Woods

"Deconstructivism started well over a century ago and still continues today"

Deconstructivism existed long before the 1970s, writes architecture critic Joseph Giovannini, who wrote the book Architecture Unbound to tell the full history of the style, in this opinion piece as part of our series revisiting deconstructivism

Deconstuctivism was hardly invented in the 1970s and ‘80s and it hardly ended in the 90s. Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Disruptive Avant-Garde, tells the full rather than truncated version of architecture's Dionysian ride to wilder shores.

An alternative history of alternative architecture, this wide-lens panorama of the architectural avant-garde starts in the 19th century when mathematicians first challenged Euclid and ends with the climax structures of virtuosic complexity that, after Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, have populated the world's cultural capitals.

Dostoyevsky was the first to write about deconstructivism

I originally coined the term deconstructivism back in 1987 for what became Architecture Unbound, but the book outgrew the term as I embedded the movement in a much larger context, which started well over a century ago and still continues today.

Arguably, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky was the first to write about deconstructivism when he had one brother Karamazov ask another how he could possibly contemplate God, infinity, and the space in which two parallel lines cross, armed only with Euclid.

Dostoyevsky was fictionalizing mathematical questions of his time: a triangle drawn on paper, reasoned French mathematician Henri Poincaré, differs from a warped, topographical triangle drawn on an orange. Speculations about non-Euclidean space set off a search for the fourth dimension, for spatial otherness.

Questioning Euclid effectively doubted the whole construct of space ordered by perspective and the grid, doubting the realism and rationality coming down from classical times, the renaissance and the enlightenment. That speculation, among others, opened a black hole of doubt that would eventually swallow established traditions of art, science and philosophy.

In philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche loosened certainty by challenging the existence of God, ultimately freeing Bergson, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault to dwell in speculative uncertainty.

In science, Einstein, Planck, Bohr, and Heisenberg did the same in science, introducing relativity and probability: the world, and geometry, were no longer quite solid.

In art, Cezanne challenged perspective, scrambling pictorial space by chunking it into pieces. Later, the 20th century's white-hot, post-perspectival art movements – cubism, futurism, suprematism, rationalism, surrealism, expressionism, and Dada – further challenged pictorial realism by questioning factual space.

Deconstructivism finally arrived under its own banner after the second world war

Two world wars, the depression, Hiroshima and the Holocaust demolished the notion that history evolved smoothly in a gradual continuum: time had proved susceptible to catastropohic, asymmetrical events.

All the transgressive and progressive thought systems and disruptive histories that roiled Europe before and after world war one, along with abrupt social change and continuing geopolitical shifts, set the stage for deconstructivism long before its formal advent. History seemed to want it.

Late to a table that was already set by preceding discoveries and movements in art, science, literature, and philosophy, deconstructivism finally arrived under its own banner after the second world war, most notably in the 1960s when Frenchmen Claude Parent and Paul Virilio denied the classical horizontal and modernism's vertical by theorizing and practicing architecture on the oblique.

In the 1970s, chaos science and later post-structuralist theory led to built manifestoes of explosion, collision and fragmentation, an off-the-grid, out-of-plumb architecture in which out-of-register building systems agreed to disagree.

The very notion of a renaissance whole was put on the couch, revealed as a fiction, along with functionalist Bauhaus modernism, based on notions of serial industrial production and the normative. Architecture was not a machine for living in.

Man in the form of the modulor was no longer the norm or ideal because, after all, there were women, and everybody came in all colors, heights and shapes. Deconstructivism in its diversity and focus on difference acknowledged the individuality that industrialized modernism stamped out.

Simplicity was giving way to complexity, calm to intensity, static form and space to dynamic form and space, order to apparent disorder, linearity to non-linearity, analog to digital. Apollo was surrendering his chariot to Dionysius, who, responding to welling inner forces, was driving architecture into a wilderness of chance, intuition, contradiction, suspended disbelief, and even wonder.

3-D computer modeling yielded curving digital inventions and eventually the climax structures

To an ever-faster drumbeat during the early 1990s, new convention centers, museums, apartment buildings, and office towers escaped Euclid, the Bauhaus, the machine, rationalism, functionalism, realism, even gravity.

By the end of the decade, the advent of 3-D computer modeling yielded curving digital inventions and eventually the climax structures in world capitals that are now competing for cultural recognition on the international stage. Despite the pronouncements of president Xi, China has emerged as an ongoing deconstructivist client state.

If there was no philosophical bedrock in the work – no fixed center, axis, or even ground – Architecture Unbound follows suit, eschewing a linear chronology: change was not progressive or evolutionary, but unpredictable and uneven as individual architects worked through ideas on their way to other ideas.

Chronology was impossible in this planetary system without a sun; conception was by consensual orbit of many people circling one another within the same gravitational field, but acting more or less alone as they pursued their own trajectories.

Architecture Unbound widens and deepens the discussion beyond what are now the self-perpetuating stock narratives

Besides expanding deconstructivism's history, Architecture Unbound acknowledges many architects beyond those recognized by the MoMA show. In a failing of its own shallowness, Deconstructivist Architecture overlooked, in no particular order, Claude Parent, Paul Virilio, Enric Miralles, Carme Pinós, Manfred Wolff-Plottegg, Lebbeus Woods, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, Patrik Schumacher, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Thomas Leeser, Günter Domenig, Elizabeth Diller, Richard Scofidio, Peter Anders, Mack Scogin, Merrill Elam, Marcos Novak, William MacDonald, Sulan Kolatan, Greg Lynn, Ben van Berkel, Hiromi Fujii, Hani Rashid, Lise Ann Couture, Kazuo Shinohara, Günter Behnisch, et al, and their colleagues in adjacent disciplines, including John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Vito Acconci and Frank Stella.

Architecture Unbound widens and deepens the discussion beyond what are now the self-perpetuating stock narratives of the star architects that came out of a bowdlerized show.

What all the architects had in common was that they challenged systems of control, whether perspective, the grid, the right angle, the box, notions of gravity, consistency, simplicity, functionalism, the normative, the machine, tools of the drafting table, the concept of center, fixity, typology, essentialism, the notion of a whole, centrisms, etc.

Following the open-systems, open-society logic of Karl Popper and even laws of thermodynamics, they were transforming architecture as a closed system into an open system that could handle and adapt other disciplines and thought streams.

Techniques of breaking control often involved importing logic systems from outside architecture that swerved architecture into interdisciplinarity. To kick architecture sideways, designers used chaos science, force field theory, destruction art, performance, the subconscious, predecessor modernisms, the fourth dimension, perceptual psychology, situationism, actionism, contemporary art, the oblique, radical politics, and 3-D animation software. Thematically organized, Architecture Unbound addresses all these subjects and how they were used in strategies to grow and enrich architecture.

Deconstructivism flagged not just two but many influences

When I coined the term deconstructivism, I intended that its nominal constituents – deconstruction and constructivism – merely stand in for all the many influences coursing through an architecture that had opened to an orgy of interdisciplinarity.

Phenomenology, and its emphasis on perception and experience, for example, not deconstruction, with its emphasis on language, was an especially strong influence on Libeskind, Miralles, Parent and Virilio. Many other architects were philosophically agnostic, influenced by Duchamp, for example, rather than theory, or by the work of John Cage and Laurie Anderson rather than Heidegger. Cloud chamber physics influenced a cadre of architects based in London, including Raoul Bunschoten and Zaha Hadid.

In a 1988 review of the MoMA show in The New Yorker, critic Brendan Gill faulted my term, saying constructivism and deconstruction had nothing to do with each other. But that was in fact the whole point.

Deconstructivism flagged not just two but many influences, often conflicting, passing through each other in the same work, opening the closed system of architecture, displacing it from its own history and discipline through multiplicities. The new architecture was founded on many intersecting knowledge grids that expanded architecture's range with a cultural program beyond the functionalism that had, for so many decades, defined the field and confined the practice.

The photo shows The Light Pavilion designed by Lebbeus Woods in collaboration with Christoph A Kumpusch within the Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu, China, by Steven Holl Architects. Photo courtesy of Steven Holl Architects.

Three-time nominee the Pulitzer Prize, Joseph Giovannini trained at Harvard as an architect, and writes for The New York Times, Architectural Record, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Interior Design Magazine. 

He has written thousands of articles for American newspapers and journals, and dozens of monograph and catalogue essays. He has taught graduate-level design courses at Columbia, Pratt, UCLA, USC and SCI-Arc. Rizzoli published his Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Disruptive Avant-Garde late last year, a definitive history of deconstructivism set within the larger context of the avant-garde.

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Illustration by Jack Bedford

Deconstructivism is one of the 20th century's most influential architecture movements. Our series profiles the buildings and work of its leading proponents –  Eisenman, Koolhaas, Gehry, Hadid, Libeskind, Tschumi and Prix.

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