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Rappel à l’ordre

The exhibition Re-constructivist Architecture at the Ierimonti gallery in New York presents the work of 13 young architecture offices simultaneously with the work of COOP Himmelb(l)au, Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi. Each of the young professionals or founders of the offices on show was born in the decade synonymous with big hair and break dance; the 1980s. The line-up consists of False Mirror Office, Something Fantastic, Fosbury Architecture, AM3, UNULAUNU, Parasite 2.0, Point Supreme, Warehouse of Architecture and Research, Adam Nathaniel Furman, PARA Project, fala atelier, MAIO, jbmn.

The title of the exhibition, “Re-constructivist Architecture”, is a play on words, referring to the de-constructivist exhibition of 1988 at the Museum of Modern Art in which architecture of Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Bernard Tschumi and Coop Himmelb(l)au was presented. The fact that the show features work of three original deconstructivists with the work of the younger generation, and that the show’s title proposes reconstruction in opposition to deconstruction, is not coincidental; a critical thesis is underlying these choices. In speaking to one of the organizers, Jacopo Costanzo, I learned that the premise of the exhibition is that the younger generation has to pick up the pieces and mend a caesura in the development of architecture. This break has, in his mind, occurred with deconstructivism, and in a larger sense, with a profession which has become obsessed with the cult of the star. It is no longer concerned with continuity, history, and typological exercises, and it therefore needs to return to the so-called autonomy of architecture. If this summary of architectural fascinations gives you a postmodern déja vu, and if it conjures up images of James Stirling and Aldo Rossi in your mind’s eye, then I have to confirm that the work of the group indeed draws inspiration from Pop, Venturi, Collage City, Michael Graves, and possibly even Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia.

The assignment for the exhibition was to design an imaginary villa for the Roman countryside, and this framing of the design as a single family house or bourgeois villa in a landscape limited the extent to which the young architects could articulate a larger critique against the atomisation and increasing individualization of society, against rising inequality, and against the degradation of the public realm and increasing privatization of the city, if they had wished to do so.

There is a lot to unpack here, but my question is whether Deconstructivism indeed can be squarely blamed for the ‘destabilization of architecture’s relationship with design theory’, to paraphrase Costanzo. In my mind, Deconstructivism is in fact an offshoot of post-modernism, and both post-modern architecture as well as Deconstructivism moved away from the notion that architecture could shape society and they both retreated within a so-called autonomous profession and theoretical discourse. So even though Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman professed to be at opposite sides of the spectrum, they both had an obsession with linguistics in common.

It is precisely the notion of architectural language with which this group is concerned here. Their attempt is to reconstruct an ideal formal idiom before parametricism and deconstruction:

This reconstruction is primarily of language. The architects draw from archives—mental, digital or printed on paper—distant from the typical parametric and highly schematic rationales that characterized the last thirty years of design in architecture. Within the theoretical system that drives architectural composition, these archives inevitably become homages, references, and quotes.

The error in this thinking, in my mind, is firstly that it is embedded in the notion of architecture as something which is autonomous, and secondly that form can be generated from other forms while disregarding its previous connotations and symbolism.

In 1978 Anthony Vidler similarly proposed to go back to the basics of architecture, and he explained the concept of autonomy in architecture in an essay called the ‘Third Typology’. Here he commented on work of the New Rationalists, such as Aldo Rossi and Carlo Aymonino, and proposed that the profession is influenced by archetypes, or rather by successive typologies. Thus, the first typology of architecture is the model of the primitive hut of Abbé Laugier, the second typology is the formal inspiration drawn from the production process or modern technology, (as expounded by Le Corbusier and Functionalism), and the third is the return to the ideal of the pre-industrial city:

In the third typology, as exemplified in the work of the new Rationalists, there is no attempt at validation. Columns, houses, and urban spaces, while linked in an unbreakable chain of continuity, refer only to their own nature as architectural elements, and their geometries are neither naturalistic nor technical but essentially architectural. It is clear that the nature referred to in these recent designs is no more nor less than the nature of the city itself, emptied of specific social content from any particular time and allowed to speak simply of its own formal condition…

In this ideal architectural world, buildings and its constituent parts are freed of all meaning, and allowed to be pure architectural form, in a deliberate attempt to excise the notion of a socialist utopia from the architectural project. Just like modernism advocated a break with history to advance a ‘new’ architecture, here post-modernism plays autonomy as a discursive trick to be able to return to the formal strategies of classicism, while excising past associations of classicism with totalitarianism. Naturally the Modern Project was not without fault, it was overly moralizing, and it has delivered monotonous estates and destroyed city centers, but the question remains if the autonomy of architecture, and the retreat from a larger vision of what society ought to be is not similarly naïve. The irony is of course that post-modernism soon became as stale and bland as modernism had become before it, and that it became the style of choice for the out-of-town business park, shopping mall and suburban tract housing development.

As it so happens, in spite of its ‘autonomy’, postmodernism appealed to clients with a deeply reactionary view as to where society should be headed; as exemplified by Canary Wharf and Battery Park, by Poundbury of the Prince of Wales, and other monstrosities which I cannot care to mention. The era of post-modernism coincided with the neo-liberal turn during the Thatcher and Reagan years. This was a time in which transnational financial and corporate power started to rule the world to the detriment of national and state power. It was a period of individualism; individual wealth and success were celebrated, Donald Trump became one of its poster boys. For the first time after the Second World War, through deregulation of finance and austerity measures, lower and middle-class incomes dropped, and financial inequality in the Western world started to rise precipitously again.

Postmodernism has, in short, given a face to the reshaping of society along late-capitalist and consumerist lines – so no, I am not a fan.

Naturally, postmodernist architecture is not the cause but the effect of these developments, but one has to acknowledge that it expressed a set of values as a result. Given the complexity of society, it is tempting to retreat in the confines of your own professional world, but my beef with the exhibition is that at least there should be an awareness of the symbolic connotations of the formal language which they have chosen to adopt.

So where does this leave us? As the keen observer may have noticed, I have chosen not to single out individual projects for praise or scorn, nor have I delved into the fact that modernism has built monuments to both the soviets and the fascists as well. These are nuances which I felt detracted from the larger argument that architecture cannot and should not be autonomous from the larger context in which it operates, nor from the notion of utopia. Every generation has the tendency to complain about the young, but I expect the next generation to challenge, to critique, and to cause problems. We need a vision for an architecture which again engages with the problems of people and society.

Thomas Wensing

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