Down on Decon

What happened to architectural deconstruction and the radical world it promised?

Where can we turn for a model of architecture conducive to the cultivation of life outside neoliberalism? This is distinctly challenging given the profound ability of this most contemporary form of capitalism to incorporate all it touches while evading fixed definition. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cites David Harvey to the effect that “neoliberalism values market exchange as ‘an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs,’” as well as a Guardian article which insists that neoliberalism “sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers.” Books like Jenny Odell’s bestseller How to Do Nothing attest to the skill of neoliberal social formations at hijacking even our capacity for paying attention. We desperately need to think of alternatives to neoliberalism, but how can we do that when we’re sapped of energy and concentration?

Deconstruction emerged as a candidate for a movement capable of resisting the absorptive powers of neoliberalism, first in philosophy (Derrida’s Of Grammatology, 1967), later in architecture (MoMA’s Deconstructivist Architecture of 1988), by thematizing the ways in which stable structures—whether linguistic or tectonic—are undercut by the “play” of elements in the ceaseless flux of cultural life. At first glance, the gambit seems promising: if they’re difficult and fragile enough, words and forms might simply not have enough economic value to be worth the effort of extracting from their contexts and circulating on the open market. On closer inspection, a troubling isomorphism becomes evident. Thirty-five years on, the MoMA exhibition appears less like a joyful display of disciplinary autonomy and more like an apt visual summary of capitalism’s dark side, particularly the cutthroat variant unleashed by Reagan’s America. But it was a tiny show, and neoliberalism is a big phenomenon—as big as they come—and anyway the show’s protagonists were not exactly gunning for capitalism. No harm no foul.

Jump-cut to last fall, however, when the critic and journalist Joseph Giovannini published Architecture Unbound (Rizzoli, $50), a heroic attempt to repackage deconstruction as a neo-avant-garde movement equal to the avant-garde, aka the modern movement—the most canonical moment in the history of architecture, containing some of its most revered figures (in Russia, Malevich and Lissitzky), institutions (the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas), and theories (constructivism and iconoclastic minimalism)—and we are confronted again with questions that have been lingering in the discursive background: Is deconstruction the apotheosis of “critical architecture”? If we look closely enough, will we catch a glimpse of a world outside the hegemonic neoliberal order?

Giovannini’s attempt is heroic because the recuperation he has in mind would be a feat accomplished against all odds. He’s aware of this, citing Derrida’s assessment that architecture was “the ultimate proving ground for the limits of deconstruction”:

Deconstruction has to do with institutions, society, politics, hard structures and so on. So to that extent the kind of architecture or anarchitecture Peter Eisenman and [Bernard] Tschumi are practicing is more, I would say, affirmative and explicitly deconstructive than deconstruction as a literary philosophy or practice. So when I was—let’s say, fortuitously—attracted to this field, at the same time I discovered it was a necessary move.

But while Derrida was attracted to the potential of architecture to carry out the deconstructive project, he was stumped by certain obvious paradoxes. How might an architect begin “how to construct a destabilized structure?” In what way could architecture “explicitly” deconstruct “institutions, society, politics … and so on?” Giovannini’s unrelentingly breathless tone attempts to compensate for the failure of architecture to overcome these impasses (more often than not, gravitational in nature), as are his blunt juxtapositions that imply continuity between, for example, the epistemological shock of Einstein’s theory of relativity and Zaha Hadid’s unbuilt Peak Leisure Club:

Rationalist explanations about how the world worked were displaced by doubts about the stability of knowledge. Objectivity lost certainty. As culture changed, architecture changed. In or about 1983, a half-dozen unusual projects embodied and expressed the cultural shifts.

One problem with this logic is that architects like Hadid, Eisenman, and Frank Gehry are far from unambiguously progressive figures, and the great moment of modernist creativity a century ago has lost some of its charm as the threads connecting political activism to architectural form have continued to fray. (What analysis of form could possibly account for the divergent politics of, say, Gropius, Mies, and Le Corbusier, who had leanings from far left to far right?) The basic move for establishing the progressive character of architecture is often little more than a sleight of hand: you go searching for an architecture of resistance and what you come back with is splashy new forms.

An added complication with Giovannini’s book is that few of the architects he focuses on need further mythologizing. Love or hate him, Gehry is plenty present in the architectural imaginary. The MoMA show, which still comprises the basic kernel of deconstruction as an architectural phenomenon, included Gehry, Eisenman, Hadid, Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, and Coop Himmelblau—mostly household names. Even as deconstruction faded from memory in the decade after its heyday (and certain of its protagonists attempted to consolidate its legacy along the lines of their own definitions or to deny it was even really a “movement”), these were the figures that exemplified a minor golden age in architecture, the era of the starchitect.

To be fair to Giovannini, he’s not attempting to position deconstruction as a politically, economically, or socially progressive movement. His formidable book (831 pages!) has a lighter touch than that. Sometimes the effect is disconcerting, as when he blithely describes how bankers in Frankfurt were comfortable with a building by Coop Himmelblau that twists in formal fluidity just as they manipulate financial flows. But Giovannini gestures in the right direction by laying out deconstruction as the endgame of architecture’s turn to objects. This was, arguably, a paradigm shift that began roughly two centuries ago with the rise of rationalism, crystalized as a definitive turn away from ornament toward objects around 1900 (a date theorized in Alina Payne’s From Ornament to Object) and reached its apex as various avant-garde movements subjected the object to every conceivable form of dissection, fragmentation, and deconstruction. Two perceptive painters at the Bauhaus summarized the situation in a statement and a question: Paul Klee, “The object is surely dead”; Wassily Kandinsky, “What will replace the missing object?”

Deconstruction extended this line of questioning by another sixty or so years, and it pointed to the problem we now face. Ornamentation was replaced by the object, and the object was replaced by organization. The rise of corporate forms of practice finally made architecture commensurate with neoliberalism. Being caught up within “the organizational complex” (as Reinhold Martin termed it) was not, however, conducive to the sort of public debate and decision-making that would allow architects to stage a resistance.

That would be a sad end to the story of modern architecture were there not a parallel theoretical development alongside deconstruction that engaged directly with the problem of organization. Just as deconstruction was exposing the cracks and slippages at the heart of the modernist-structuralist enterprise, a radical process philosophy descended from early-twentieth century attempts to suss out the ontological consequences of general relativity and quantum mechanics was busy analyzing the flows and “becomings” that constitute the postmodern, neoliberal world system. Gilles Deleuze philosophized; Greg Lynn and Stan Allen brought emergence and field conditions to architecture. It’s all history, and none of these names need to be further mythologized, either. Giovannini, for his part, is aware of this history, even if he assimilates it too smoothly into his narrative of deconstruction. It’s worth emphasizing, however, that a very different model of design was at work in the process architecture of the 1990s. Lynn’s most insightful projects, like his Cardiff Bay Opera House competition entry, investigated the possibility of formal interventions to engage the living processes that occur at multiple scales, from urban form down to bodily comportment. Giovannini tends to collapse the biological-architectural investigation that stimulated this work into simplistic formulas, as when the “oblique urban topography” of the atrium of Thom Mayne’s Cooper Union building is said to use the “ramped inclines in a hillside village” to “socialize people in a three-dimensional piazza.” A striking formal move (the hallmark of deconstruction) takes the place of interdisciplinary intellectual inquiry (the ultimate achievement of process architecture).

At worst, deconstruction relies on an empty rhetoric of transgression; a similar worst-case scenario for the process project is that the architect becomes a manager complicit in the systems that are the problem. Whatever may have been the case in 1988, the second problematic is much more pressing today. Transgression has fallen out of favor. Once deconstructivist architecture evolved into starchitecture, it became clear that difficult forms and uncompromising words pose little resistance to capitalism’s powers of incorporation. On the contrary, their esoteric nature makes them all the more valuable to the valorization process. Dash off a manifesto (or, as was the case with many of decon’s principal leads, have a skilled theorist like Mark Wigley write one on your behalf), then design something that looks like it matches your theories—and the market will commodify your images, forms, and words without a hitch.

Which brings us back to the problem of how to evade neoliberalism. I see two directions we might take in pursuit of a new model of architecture. One is based on the classical liberal model in which a public realm mediates between speech and action. Hannah Arendt argued passionately and persuasively—if a bit nostalgically—for the recuperation of this sort of “space of appearance,” which is a necessary precondition for deconstruction to have an effect. The other direction takes the world as it is, empty of a functioning civic sphere commensurate with the problems humanity needs to address. To operate in this world, architects need to take greater responsibility for directly effecting human activity though their influence over the built environment. This has historically been the realm of the program. The best work of Koolhaas, for example, is agnostic to the visual and rhetorical while attempting “the irrigation of territories with potential,” as he wrote in S,M,L,XL. This is a project of seeing buildings as parts not only of “the city” but of urbanism—a form of life that, like neoliberalism, incorporates everything. Unlike capitalism, however, this mode of architecture does not set out to reduce everything to monetary value, but instead begins from the premise of open-ended complexity.

We may recoil in horror from this vision because it casts its gaze on life itself. It can be unpleasant to confront the human condition and take responsibility for shaping even a localized fragment of human activity within its parameters. An essay by Sanford Kwinter on the publication of S,M,L,XL described this focus on orchestrating the clamor of life as the “pastoral” approach, and indeed it overlaps in some ways with the religious sphere. (What are swarming simulations if not practice for guiding flocks?) The task of helping communities through the momentous twists and turns of life is not the usual challenge architects face, but it may be where architects find their calling today.

Architects have typically shied away from the pastoral model of architecture, too often taking comfort in the mere appearance of resistance. There is a new impetus now: we live, definitively, in an age of hyper-objects—that is, systems at the limits or beyond human control. Climate change, pervasive algorithmics, social injustices systematically interconnected at a global scale—the dread is inescapable. Combined with material abundance and socioeconomic stagnation, the question of what we want has never been more pressing nor more beguiling. How even to “do nothing” in a sustainable, just, aware sort of way is an open question. What is demanded is not a model of perpetual destruction and renewal—that’s the logic of the capitalism that got us here. With this realization comes an opportunity to reconsider our methods. The direction, as I see it, is not to focus on forms but rather forms of life and not to see them as objects of design but as sites of potentials to be carefully cultivated. Where might this ethic of cooperation lead? Hopefully, away from all this.

Matthew Allen teaches history and theory at Washington University in St. Louis, and his first book, Flowcharting, is due out in May. He would like to thank Samuel Medina for his incisive comments on previous drafts.