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Debating Pros and Cons of the Deconstructivists

July 03, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

NEW YORK — There is nothing more risible, confusing and silly than finding yourself in the middle of somebody else's family argument. There they are yelling and you can't even figure out what the problem is, much less who might be in the right. If you are foolish enough to play peacemaker and try to make sense of it, the opponents gang up on you.

At the moment, the big megillah in the world of architecture surrounds the exhibition "Deconstructivist Architecture" at the Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 30. It is devoted to the designs of an international group of seven architects. At first glance it scarcely seems to warrant the agitated ink that is being spilled over it--just three quiet galleries, one devoted to paintings and other artworks by pioneering Russian Constructivists like Malevich, El Lissitzky and Rodchenko plus two rooms displaying models, drawings and fragments by the seven putative subjects of the show.

Well, that's nice. So what is all the fuss about?

If you ask the organizers, there isn't any fuss. Just an attempt to "raise certain questions." Just an exercise demonstrating an "interesting phenomenon." Here are seven architects as various as New York's Bernard Tschumi and Rotterdam's Rem Koolhaus, who do not necessarily know one another or share any conscious theoretical position, all doing work that has common ground. Instead of designing buildings that create a sense of order, comfort and beauty, they concoct structures that look disorderly, uneasy and--by some standards--ugly.

Aha! We get it. Something in the Zeitgeist-- the spirit of the times--causes all of them to spontaneously make buildings reflecting the fracture of the age, modern anomie, contemporary dislocation. All that.

No, no. They just all happen to have a common formal approach. All deal in ideas basic to modernist architecture as it shaped up in the work of, say, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, but where those great designers used honed-down geometries to express purity and restraint, these designers found qualities of imperfection and excess. In short, they just discovered an unexploited facet of a modernist approach so widely believed to be mined out that recent art and architecture has been reflagged under the rubric Post-Modern. Purely formal. No argument.

The worst sort of fight to be stuck in the middle of is one where the combatants pretend it's not happening. No, we're just fine, say the seething couple as they needle and carp at each other through dinner. You want to see a really malicious battle? Just attend a departmental meeting where competitive bureaucrats make out like they are having a conference, or where academics hold a "theoretical discussion." It's like being eaten alive by fire ants.

Let's step out in the hall for a breath of air.

Denials notwithstanding, the architectural community is abuzz about "Deconstructivist Architecture" because of its organizer, Philip Johnson. For decades the 82-year-old architect, art collector and former head of MOMA's architecture department has been regarded as the single most influential American figure in the field.

Back in the '30s he started promoting modernist architecture with exhibitions and a string of distinguished buildings, including his own throw-no-stones glass house. In recent years he startled everybody by defecting to Post-Modernism, the anti-modern revivalist style that has become the darling of the corporate and museum establishment, merrily building awesome structures like Manhattan's AT&T tower, which looks like something out of a "Superman" movie.

When Johnson, highly respected for his aesthetic sense, pulls a stunt like the Decon show, insiders sit up and nervously take notice. Is Johnson positioning the banana peel to create a Post-Modernist pratfall?

He smiles secretly and claims he is just plain fascinated by the aesthetic bite of the Decons (the architects, not the roach powder) and their resemblance to the Russian Constructivists.

The visual resemblance is certainly there. When the Viennese group called Coop Himmelblau (Blue-Sky Co-op) builds a site model called "Skyline," it bears a generic resemblance to sculpture that evolved from Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International." Plan views of Peter Eisenman's Biocenter for the University of Frankfurt carry the dynamic displacement of Malevich's absolutist geometries even further, and there is more than a whiff of late Kandinsky in the way long bars float and cross in the design for a Hong Kong club by London-based Zaha Hadid.

There are less obvious and more telling overlaps between the Cons and the Decons. The Russian avant-garde was intensely theoretical. Legendary stories tell of how they fought and drummed each other out of their various movements for ideological reasons.

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