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

Imagine the following scenario: Che Guevarra and a small group of rebels approach the palace of the dictator. They smash the door and demand to see him. “Revolution for the people! Down with tyranny!” After a few minutes a small, bald man opens the door. He hands Guevarra the keys. “Here, Che, the country is yours to rule. Good luck.”

Though the story seems preposterous, this is exactly what happened following an exhibition of avant-garde architectural drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988. As Joseph Giovannini relates events surrounding the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition in his impressive book, Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Disruptive Avant-Garde, a small, inexperienced group of “paper architects” were granted the keys to the kingdom. To their amazement, knowing little about the practice of architecture, they began to erect buildings throughout the world. Their students became deans at major architecture schools. They ascended to the highest levels of public and academic leadership. They continue to influence the profession today. 

The revolution that occurred after Philip Johnson organized his final MoMA show at age 82 was no less momentous than the one he staged 56 years before, and no less polemical. In 1932, the International Style show presented a highly skewed interpretation of events in Europe during the 1920s, falsely proclaiming the triumph of modernism by illustrating a handful of similar projects by architects little known in the U.S. Those architects, who included Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, J.J. P. Oud, and Alvar Aalto, had built relatively little in a similar idiom, but were grouped and presented as if they were dominant figures on the continent (for the real story see my previous review here). Johnson began a decades-long role as a power broker for architects and curators, using the bounce from the exhibition. 

From left to right: Bernard Tschumi, Helmut Swiczinsky, Wolf D. Prix, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Mark Wigley. Via uncube; photo by Robin Holland.


Similarly, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Liebeskind, Wolf Prix, Helmut Swiczinsky, and Bernard Tschumi were young firebrands, most of whom attended the Architectural Association school in London during the 1970s and 1980s—a kind of playground for abstruse theorists and eccentrics. Johnson and his hand-picked curator from New Zealand, Mark Wigley, made no such claims for their heroes, simply associating them with a French post-structuralist literary movement that had run its course by the end of the 1980s: deconstruction. Its leader, Jacques Derrida, befriended but jousted with Peter Eisenman, the real force behind the exhibition. “Whether or not the MoMA show was a critical success,” Giovannini writes (and he contends it was not), “it firebombed the profession, and with remarkable speed brought down the Post-Modernist edifice, sending it into eclipse.”

Giovannini, who covered the show for the New York Times Magazine and found it problematic, begins his book during the Paris student demonstrations of 1968, when he lived there as a literature graduate student. After participating in “disruptive avant-garde” happenings, he left Paris to study architecture at Harvard. He began writing for magazines just as the winds of change brought “alternative architecture” to the attention of cultural leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Reporting from both Los Angeles and New York, Giovannini was in the room where it happened from then until now, keeping very detailed notes. At over 800 pages, his book leaves little to the imagination; everything is here, from the Russian Constructivists to The Naked City and the Situationists. The illustrations are truly amazing, many in color and designed in a tilted layout that really succeeds in supporting the text. Rizzoli has outdone itself, and the author has produced his magnum opus.

In Part 1 of this review I will relate that story without pointing to weaknesses in the book, as I believe there is much to praise. In Part 2, I will explain why, in the 21st century, the architects it lionizes should not be in charge of a built environment that humans must redesign if our planet is to avoid a climate catastrophe. Like the Modernist form-givers, they eventually sold out to late stage capitalism and cultural elites. 

The text is so comprehensive, and rich with detailed accounts of key events over four decades, that it must be taken very seriously by anyone interested in turn of the century cultural history. The author interviewed all of the key players, often as a journalist writing about individual projects, but also as an oral historian. He had access to every major firm working during the heyday of twisted titanium, shard explosions, blobitecture, parametricism, and virtual-reality dystopias. He would call them disruptive, oblique, transgressive, aberrant, and avant-garde—in his view all good for the art of architecture when they appeared. The patients were let loose in the asylum, which may work in a movie or novel, but not in public architecture. 

The protagonists in this Godard-like film were all from central casting: a tortured Jewish agnostic from Philip Roth’s Newark neighborhood; a rootless Swiss would-be philosopher and student radical; a musical prodigy from a Polish-American family like Warhol’s; a wealthy, spoiled Iraqi princess with the eye of Leonardo; a sardonic Dutch film student whose main ambition was to write porn for Russ Meyer in Hollywood; and two Austrian rock guitar mavens who wanted to burn down Hapsburg Vienna. Oh, yes, and the rumpled, affable little man from Los Angeles who turned architecture on its head in Bilbao. 

Those are the Starchitects we worship today without understanding their trajectory from outsiders to thought leaders. Giovannini gives the back story for each, with fascinating detours into the careers of their mentors, inspirations, and co-conspirators across Europe and the U.S. It’s a wild ride for the reader, and enjoyable as long as one ignores historical myopia behind things these architects used as fodder for their work. Between the lines it is possible to discern a pattern of linguistic obfuscation that tracked the political and social decay occurring during this troubled period, an arc from Reagan to Trump.

We learn that Bernard Tschumi, though trained at the ETH in Zurich, read Georges Bataille and longed to be a philosophe like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. A cagey politician, he allied himself with a patroness of conceptual art, Rose Lee Goldberg, in order to gain acceptance in both the London and New York art scenes. He also lifted texts and ideas from post-structuralist thinkers with no concern for plagiarism, creating works that cleverly layered one arid concept on top of another, rejoicing in their incompatibility.

He apparently clashed at the AA with another architect-cum-cultural critic, Rem Koolhaas, whose wife was a transgressive artist and muse featured in Delirious New York, a student project that became a popular book. To his credit, the Dutch architect studied at Cornell and opened a real, profit-making design firm (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) with colleagues from London. They were the first to create actual buildings, and some featured spaces and concepts that enriched their programs and sites. If the rivalry was as heated as Giovannini claims, it is possible that OMA became bolder and more “disruptive” following the 1988 MoMA show in response to Tschumi’s instant stardom. Indeed, the OMA entry into that exhibition was a kind of Trojan Horse, not intended to mesh with any of the others. 

Zaha Hadid was a Koolhaas protégé at the AA, and immediately caused a stir with her outrageous riffs on Constructivist collages, prouns, and sculptures. Though well known as precursors of Modernism, the Russian avant-garde had only 20 years of productive art and architecture before being quashed by Stalin. Alvin Boyarsky’s London faculty seems to have rediscovered Kasimir Malevich, El Lissitsky, and their radical confederates during the 1980s, and benefited from wider access to their work following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Hadid’s amazing drawing ability gave her the capacity to imitate and transform Suprematist art into strange, alluring architectural fantasies. 

Though Daniel Liebeskind was American, he too joined the AA faculty during the late 1970s, picking up “transgressive” ideas from his restless colleagues. Most art movements catalyze among members of a creative circle like the one that developed there, in parallel with Postmodernism in the U.S. All the angry young (wo)men at the Architectural Association were targeting stale, laconic Miesian boxes with their exploding, slashing forms. Liebeskind created some extraordinary, chaotic drawings while heading the Cranbrook program in Michigan, proclaiming his independence from any kind of ordering grids or systems, and advocating “open architecture.”

Wolf Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky of Coop Himmelb(l)au were influenced by the founder of “Actionism” at the Technical Institute of Vienna, Gunther Feuerstein. They advocated for radical change in the city’s institutions and used guerilla-like tactics to achieve their goals. Like the explosive student movements of the 1960s, their architecture would be destructive, even violent when they added to an existing building or made an interior installation.

Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman, the two older Americans featured in the MoMA show, were well along in their careers by 1988. Eisenman was already linked to the New York Five, and to Philip Johnson through his post as director of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. When Johnson shut down IAUS in 1985, Eisenman was looking for fresh ideas and a gig that would pay the rent in his New York loft. Books and pamphlets, though daring, were not gaining enough attention—he needed something explosive. It must have hurt when his friend, Michael Graves, became an overnight sensation with his Portland Building, purportedly handed him by Johnson as both rode the Postmodern wave. 

Like Eisenman and Johnson, he [Gehry] swerved to align himself with the new kids when he saw tides shifting, little expecting a tsunami.


Gehry joined the group as a friend of Peter, not necessarily because he believed the “theories” coming from Wigley, Tschumi, et al. He had labored in the trenches for a decade, designing malls, parking garages, and corporate suites for large developers. Always attracted to the art scene, he decided during the ’80s that he needed to rattle some cages with provocative work. His renovation of a Dutch colonial house for his family, and a few other small projects, put him on the map, but probably located him more in a camp with James Wines than with Claude Parent (a minor French architect admired by several in the group). Like Eisenman and Johnson, he swerved to align himself with the new kids when he saw tides shifting, little expecting a tsunami. 

So, as Giovannini deftly explains, an unlikely group of party-crashers blew up the banquet and stole the food and drinks. Their coup did not happen overnight but had antecedents in Europe and the U.S. The book looks at those and many tangential movements and events, some of which relate directly to the main narrative, some less so. The author is on target with his descriptions of literature, performance art, and French post-structuralist philosophy, but less secure when discussing the early Modernist avant-gardes in Europe, or the actual motivations driving a backlash against corporate modernism in the 1960s and 1970s. He tends to lump all nontransgressive (pre-1980s) architecture into one big pile, ignoring obvious differences between his antagonists. His interludes on key father figures—Claude Parent, Lebbeus Woods, and Manfred Wolff-Plottegg—are diverting but not entirely persuasive. Woods had nothing in common with the two Europeans and hated the DeCon exhibition.

The expansive text and illustrations provide more than is strictly needed to explicate the history, theory, and strange circumstances that gave us contemporary architecture as we understand it today. Giovannini, who might have issued the book 15 years ago, decided to add two sections on the influence of digital graphics and computer-aided design. That was wise, as those technologies, along with advances in materials science and engineering, made it possible to build some of the more outrageous designs emerging from a second wave of space and mass distortionists—figures such as Gregg Lynn, Jean Nouvel, Thom Mayne, and the late Enric Miralles. In discussing the work of all his protagonists, Giovannini is fair, open, and sympathetic to stated ideas and concepts. There are numerous quotes from all of them. He writes with passion and flair, sometimes waxing a little too poetical in his descriptions of projects that truly stretch one’s sense of reality. 

Architecture Unbound is a beautiful, audacious, gargantuan book that confronts one of the most difficult subjects in modern art history. Though it may not be the last on that subject, it is likely to be the most comprehensive, as valuable for its illustrations as its text. The author labored for decades to visit sites, interview architects, and secure permissions to publish excellent color photographs, drawings, and CAD plots. Should he lecture on the book in your town, expect a deep dive into DeCon with a scuba instructor who swam with the sharks, and lived to tell the tale.

Featured image: La Jolla house (unbuilt) by Zaha Hadid Architects. Image via ZHA.


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