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Sam Hall Kaplan

Architecture as Sculptural Objects

July 24, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

NEW YORK — Deconstructivism, architecture's new wave, washed up on the shores of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) here recently as a heralded exhibit, depositing what looks like fragments of shipwrecks and a dead fish or two. And as such detritus tends to do after few weeks, it smells.

But the smell is not of rank decay. Some of the projects exhibited under the ill-defined banner of deconstructivism display a range of personal architectural and artistic interpretations that exude the Sturm und Drang of the design process and its multiple aesthetic considerations.

Rather the smell is of a sweet corruption that comes when sincere, if obtuse explorations of theory more suited to design studios, sculpture exhibits and graduate theses are scooped up by a fading dilettante desperate to be au courant, and declared the next "look" in the increasing fad-conscious world of architecture.

Immodestly promoting this modest exhibit is Philip Johnson, who in the past has ridden in the curl of the International Style as director of architecture at MOMA in the early 1930s, of fascism as a commentator for a right-wing journal in the late 1930s, of Modernism as a MOMA benefactor and sometimes architect in the 1950s and '60s, and of Postmodernism, as the salesman, with design partner John Burgee, of some of the more fanciful corporate cathedrals of the last decade.

Having finessed his way to the position of architecture icon, Johnson now has taken it upon himself to promote deconstructivism, which, oddly, is a rejection of the frills and historicism of Postmodernism that he so recently championed. If anything, it is a strained, self-conscious reworking of Modernism, where structure is skewed, columns collide, walls tilt and roofs float away.

According to a wall panel in the exhibit, deconstructivism is "an architecture of disruption and dislocation, of displacement and distortion," in which pure form has been "contaminated" and transformed into "an agent of instability, disharmony and insecurity, of discomfort, disorder and conflict." In sum, a pie in the face, or L.A. after the Big One.

Concerning the label, a subject of some debate at present, it is rooted in the Russian avant-garde art scene known as Constructivism that flourished at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917. To emphasize the link, a sampling of this art is displayed in the first gallery of the Deconstructivist show.

As a promoter, Johnson usually has been a little late picking up trends, and when he has, tends to associate with an idea man. For Modernism, it was with Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Alfred Barr and the mounting of the famed 1932 show, which came very much in the wake of Schindler, Neutra and the Bauhaus; for fascism, Father Charles Edward Coughlin, in 1939, when Germany already was on the march, and for Postmodernism, embracing Michael Graves after Robert Venturi and Charles Moore had stirred the waters and Charles Jencks had bottled it.

Helping the 82-year-old Johnson mount and explain the Deconstructivist exhibit was Mark Wigley, an architectural historian out of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, who lectures at Princeton. You can almost always count on an academic trying to define and label any architectural blip, no matter how arbitrary and obscure.

As with Postmodernism, we can expect Deconstructivism, in time, to be trivialized. In fact, it already is, judging from the form of a building I noticed last week rising on the southeast corner of Robertson and Santa Monica boulevards in West Hollywood.

As for the timing, the exhibit comes no less than 10 years after Frank Gehry "deconstructed" his Santa Monica house, exposing wood framing, using bits and pieces of raw materials in an expansion and, generally, playing games with forms and perspectives. This very personal experiment, which generated considerable publicity for Gehry, was, in time, sanctified as a melding of art and architecture, or at least something different to debate.

The Gehry house, of course, is included in the exhibit. Of particular interest is that the model used indicates that a substantial addition is planned, including what looks like three outbuildings of varying forms and materials, related but connected to the original house, a lap pool, a cluster of leaning telephone poles and a large canopy in the form, I presume, of two cleaned and fileted fish. The proposal looks as if it will need a zoning adjustment and, no doubt, will generate some debate.

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