Is Deconstuctivism 20 years old, or has it yet to even be born? My trip to Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati for the opening of Daniel Libeskind’s, AIA, second American project put this question to me in a way that couldn’t really happen anywhere else. Libeskind’s work was on display (along with projects by Frank Gehry, FAIA, Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, Peter Eisenman, FAIA, Bernard Tschumi, FAIA, Rem Koolhaas, and Coop Himmelb(l)au) in 1988 when AIA Gold Medal Winner Philip Johnson curated a show at the MoMA called “Deconstructivist Artchitecture,” widely considered to be the first coalescence of what would become the late 20th and early 21rst centuries’ design vanguard. Along with Libeskind, buildings by Eisenman, Tushcmi, Gehry, and Hadid have sprung up in Cincinnati, and newer talents that are typically described as Deconstructivist torch-bearers, like Thom Mayne, FAIA, have buildings on the University of Cincinnati campus as well.
It makes sense that Johnson would have helmed this show. It wasn’t the first time he’d used his connections to the MoMA to crystallize a design sensibility in popular culture. He was 20th century architecture’s ultimate arbiter of taste, and he seemed to get genuine joy from arbitrating. After the 1988 show, Johnson seemed to take its lessons very seriously, falling under the spell of the younger Gehry and again radically revising his own aesthetic language from the early ’90s till his death in 2005. This spring and summer’s “Philip Johnson: Architecture as Art” exhibit at the Kreeger Museum here in Washington shows an architect who grew up at the feet of Mies and Corbusier, yet whose final days as a designer were spent in a willful and guiltless disavowal of the Platonic truths that inspired Modernism.
But what do all these architects have in common? Probably not aesthetics. Libeskind’s confrontational, chaotic forms betray no common set of formal priorities with the cool and cerebral work of Koolhaas. For much of these architects’ careers, they were regarded as “theoretical architects”, i.e. architects that seldom get things built, and though that stigma has been removed, this group’s common identity (and that of all Deconstructivists) may still lie in a common theoretical outlook. In a 2003 Art Forum article by Anthony Vidler, Dean of the Cooper Union School of Architecture, he writes that these architects are committed to astounding expectations with wild, sculptural movement and premeditated, holistic perversions of pure Modernism in an attempt to interrogate the history and practice of architecture, and perhaps all of culture at large.
So is this “meta-architecture” treatment enough to sustain an architectural movement? Is Deconstructivism as narrowly defined as this? Or has Deconstructivism come along as a haphazard and commercially convenient branding label? Does Johnson’s conversion to Deconstructivist forms help or hurt its case? And where are architects like Mayne taking it?