De-Coding Decon: How the Architectural Avant-Garde Became the Architectural Establishment, Part 2

In 1989, Bernard Tschumi, riding a wave of notoriety from his competition-winning entry for the Parc La Villette Competition in Paris, as well as his inclusion in Deconstructivist Architecture at MoMA, became the dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia. In 1995, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design hired his rival, Rem Koolhaas, as a full professor of design. With these appointments, architectural education began a sea change that would transform studio pedagogy and the trajectory of the architectural profession, a change that many practicing architects found disturbing and disorienting.

As we learned in Part 1 of my review of Joseph Giovannini’s Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Disruptive Avant-Garde, these architects and their students, colleagues, and philosophical advisers unleashed a pent-up storm of new forms and ideas that shocked the public but intrigued the art world. Students at Columbia got high-tech computers and heard lectures from Jacques Derrida, Giles Deleuze, and Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au. Peter Eisenman entertained them with a “performance art” presentation of his latest work. Koolhaas taught a research studio on “shopping” as a form of cultural discourse and disjunction, published in 2002. Southern California’s SCI-Arc hired Thom Mayne and many “transgressive” architects during the same period. Many young “theorists” joined the fray in order to support their favorite Deconstructivist masters: Jeffrey Kipnis, K. Michael Hays, Catherine Ingraham, Mark Wigley, Sylvia Lavin, and Beatriz Colomina, to name a few. Studios based on texts, conceptual art, and non-architectural ideas, including random forms generated by computers, proliferated in most major design schools. 

As Giovannini makes clear in his lively, wide-ranging text, these “avant-garde” architects mounted a full-scale attack on an edifice of ideas that they believed were stale, bankrupted by capitalist institutions, mired in “certainty” and false truths, and burdened by the weight of history. Like the military advanced units that gave the French phrase its meaning, they would bring down the establishment with a quick, devastating strike. The irony is that in the 1920s, an earlier avant-garde had endeavored to do the same thing, with similar (though slower) results. One avant-garde eventually negated the other, or professed to do so. 

What revolutionary new ideas made these two “avant-gardes” so different? They both adhered to basic modernist principles of abstraction, formal novelty, tectonic fetishism, spatial dynamism, antagonism toward social norms, and critiques of political institutions. According to Branko Mitrovic, a philosopher and architectural historian, DeCons were mainly interested in attaching architecture to philosophy, particularly to post-structuralist and phenomenological writings, to justify experiments with ever more zany forms. Most of these writings proclaimed absence over presence, distortion over clarity, subjective interpretation over fixed meanings, and a nihilistic view of the world. While I disagree with some of his premises, Mitrovic is correct in pointing out that all the protagonists of Architecture Unbound used one very effective weapon: obfuscation. Look at any extended polemic by an architect/theorist in the book and you will find a tortured, incoherent, often self-contradictory rant against something or someone. 

Why would architects, whose language is drawing and goal the creation of physical artifacts, want to obscure the ideas behind their work? Shouldn’t the public, their clients and users, be capable of understanding buildings they use every day? If a banker or broker wants to commit fraud, her best weapon is verbiage that will confuse and bewilder those whose money she wants to steal. Mitrovic, along with such eminent critics as Alan Sokal, John Silber, Nikos Salingaros, and Roger Scruton, dissected the false philosophical analogies used by virtually every one of the architects in Giovannini’s big book. They are academic philosophers and scientists, with credentials far outstripping those of any theorists quoted in that text. I commend readers to the links to find their excellent work; make your own judgments about their effectiveness.

Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University. Eisenman Architects, via Wikipedia.


The ringleader who helped Philip Johnson create Deconstructivist Architecture, and who has written the most persuasive theoretical texts justifying its ideas, was Peter Eisenman. Always intrigued by ideas from outside the building and planning disciplines, Eisenman was also the architect with the most to gain from a mid-career change of direction. After following Robert Venturi into the realm of literary criticism and then turning to the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky, he understood the power of Postmodernist critiques of the Modern movement and the threat they posed to a neo-modernist vanguard. By mining Continental European philosophers for dense, confusing texts, he was able to launch the first salvo of “disruptive” projects and writings. These texts quickly established a coded language that would distinguish members of the cult of DeCon architects from the rest of the field. Eventually, those coded texts provided a gateway into academic positions and leadership. Eventually, design studios were being taught by Ph.D.’s in “theory” who never intended to build buildings, merely to write obscurantist manifestos. Plato and Cicero called this sophistry. 

Since most of the writers he championed were not English speakers—Derrida and most Post-Structuralists wrote in French or German—Eisenman could pretend to comprehend their texts, and even proclaim (falsely) that a Derridian would reduce everything to a “text.” As Giovannini documents the myriad writings of Tschumi, Koolhaas, Prix, Mayne and Eisenman, he presents many examples of parallel texts from their purported heroes in France, as well as in early Modernist movements such as Suprematism. To his credit, Giovannini often explains the original ideas that have been “sampled” by the architects (Derrida sounds quite savvy about architecture). It was Eisenman, however, who provided the most consistent and militant declamations against a monolithic, centrist establishment. He was also positioned to mount counterattacks to better grounded positions in various student and professional journals. Among his assertions: 

Classicism and history were “dead.” Architects like Peter Zumthor, who designed with human sensual experience in mind, were irrelevant. Structurally coherent and durable buildings were trapped in Cartesian grids, which no longer held in a world of instability, Quantum uncertainty, and post-nuclear anxiety. Statics and strength of materials, tied to gravity, should be challenged by indeterminate structures—buildings should fly, float, explode in space. Sublime, aberrant environments demanded unsettling, anxiety producing spaces. Buildings should boldly present radical critiques of corrupt political figures and institutions. Both modern and vernacular urban environments were authoritarian, monotonous, and hopelessly frozen in time, while dynamic, “landscape urbanism,” made possible by digital technologies, was the way forward. Architects should ignore existing buildings and settings in order to “make their own context.”

A polemic of negation—struggling against an illusory “establishment” that was itself difficult to define, couched in heated rhetoric that defied logical interpretation—was the defining characteristic of all avant-gardes that emerged over the past century, as Renato Poggioli has explained. Though the forms of an earlier, inter-war group of architects were different from those of the past 40 years, both sought to overturn normative institutions and destabilize human social contracts, the basis of ethics, laws, and morality. Ironically, the two periods in question were marked by inequality, oligarchic elites in control of capital, divisive wars, and social unrest. The intervening period, from the 1950s to the 1970s, was one of relative equality, better distribution of wealth, functioning democracies, and major cultural achievements in all the arts.

Though ideas have consequences, as Philip Johnson liked to paraphrase, the history of architecture also follows social, economic, and technological imperatives. Architecture Unbound surveys the transition from analog to digital design methods, with attendant advances in building technology, materials science, and structural engineering. The best designers, such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, quickly adopted all the applicable technologies to facilitate their daring projects. As a record of the impact of these advances, the book provides striking photographs and synopses of the development of key projects such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles—successful, popular venues. If one steps away from the distracting theoretical jargon, one can appreciate the formal inventiveness of many architects who needn’t have subscribed to any of the positions in order to produce their visionary works. This is particularly true of the brilliant Daxing International Airport, a gigantic, flower-shaped building by Zaha Hadid and her partner Patrik Schumacher. President Xi Jiaoping praised its beauty and majesty in contrast to the “un-Chinese buildings’” built a decade earlier for the Olympics: the CCTV Tower and Bird’s Nest Stadium. 

Daxing International Airport, Beijing China. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.


It would not be responsible to leave out one of the most persuasive arguments against the use of “parametric” forms and ultra-high-tech building methods in a period of economic uncertainty and climate change. The outrageous cost of such buildings, their experimental building techniques, and the dollars spent on structural engineering and high embodied-energy materials, obviate against creating more than a few such “signature” structures in any publicly funded urban complex. Without the enormous private wealth created over the past four decades, none of the lavish museums, cultural centers, sporting facilities, or commercial complexes could have been built (viz. Hudson Yards, which is featured in the book). A case in point: the London Olympic Aquatic Center, one of Hadid’s early large buildings, nearly broke the budget when massive amounts of structural steel were required to hold up its swooping roof. Some of Peter Eisenman’s buildings, including the Wexner Center at Ohio State and Aronoff Arts Center at the University of Cincinnati, were so poorly detailed and constructed that they are being “restored” after only a few decades. Gehry and several other architects of similar stature have been sued for construction flaws and huge cost overruns during the past 25 years. There will undoubtedly be many other defects and costly repairs to DeCon products in the coming decades. 

The characteristics of a healthy, well-functioning society marked by stable institutions and creative cultural production are clear. Recent advances in biology, ecology, genetics, evolutionary theory, and neuroscience have defined new standards for studying and measuring human behavior, the earth, and the built environment. Most of the movements described in Architecture Unbound were based on outdated, negative, and dystopian views of those things. Embodied cognition, the most important discovery in brain science, has contradicted Continental, post-structuralist philosophical positions, rendering texts like those cited in the book not only irrelevant but dangerous. Even standard phenomenology as presented by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and their adherents, is unpersuasive in view of new theories of the mind

The issue of language is particularly important, as Derrida based all of his work on the view that linguistic meanings are arbitrary, and thus language “cannot be reduced down to one sense that is the proper meaning.” Yet evolutionary psychology has advanced new linguistic theories that undermine both Chomskian and Saussurian positions about a universal grammar and the relationship between signifier and signified. All cognition is tethered to the body of the organism in its environment and thus meaning cannot be arbitrary as assumed by 20th century semioticians. Language functions through metaphors, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have proven. Michael Tomasello and colleagues showed that language evolved gradually through gestures, proto-speech, and, eventually, coherent morphemes and phonemes producing grammatical communication. Our children acquire language according to this kind of ontogeny. 

Alas, since many Deconstructivist buildings proclaim their open hostility to both the public and their users, post-occupancy testing is unlikely to produce positive responses from human subjects. The more violent forms that have been successfully built to designs by Daniel Liebeskind, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Thom Mayne will not likely yield any coherent results from such surveys. Nevertheless, the technology, and disruptive morphologies, have been unleashed; it is too late to put them back in the box. Let us no longer assume that they were supported by settled philosophical and scientific ideas. They were not.

Featured image: Musee des Confluences, Lyon, designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au, via ArchDaily, photo by Duccio Malagamba. 





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