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DECONSTRUCTIVISM: A Simple Guide

by Alex Brown

Origins, Sources and Intentions

 

1.0       INTRODUCTION

 

The history of design can be seen as a series of influential  styles or movements  which  shift the thinking of  designers along new lines and which result in  changes in the internal and external appearance of buildings. Every design choice you make is based to some extent on what you have seen before.  In almost all cases you will choose your forms from a style or design movement created in the last 30 years.  To clearly understand why these forms look the way they do and why they came into existence is a matter of history. In this paper the subject will be ‘Deconstructivism’, one of the range of styles which has arisen in the stylistic diversification of architecture which has taken place since the 1970s. A diversification which has been called ‘Postmodernism’.

 

2.0       DECONSTRUCTIVISM

 

What could possibly be the reason behind a style which appears to distort, twist, bend and destroy the conventional (ie. Orthogonal) shape of buildings and to dissolve any obvious relationship between the function of the building and its form? For this is what Deconstructivism seems to do. Why should such a style come into existence in the first place, what purpose can it have and what is the philosophy behind it?

 

3.0       ITS ORIGINS IN PSYCHOLOGY

 

The real origins of Deconstructivism lie in the work of the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (c.1890). Before he revolutionized psychology, mental illness was assumed to be the product of  some inbuilt defect in the patient or even of demonic possession. Freud, in working with mentally ill patients realized that in many cases their illness was the product of events in their childhood, their background and their past experiences. The patients had changed their behaviour from its normal course of development in order to cope with the pain of these events. He also noted that in order to deal with these  painful memories the patients REPRESSED  them. That is, pushed them out of their conscious mind - tried to forget them.

 

His view was that if he could get the patient to reveal these traumatic events to themselves they would in a sense cure themselves. Freud's way of doing this was to get the patients to talk about themselves and through the clues he found in their conversation reveal the deeply repressed source of their problems now buried in their unconscious mind (the 'talking cure'). By noting the way they avoided certain subjects and the phrases and figures of speech that they continually used, the psychologist could target those areas for analysis.  In other words Freud set out to 'deconstruct'  the speech of his patients in order to find the repressed source of their anxiety.

 

Deconstruction in this sense simply means a method of interpretation and analysis of a speech or a text.

 

4.0       ITS FURTHER DEVELOPMENT

 

In the 1960s the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida who had studied the work of  Freud, developed and began to apply this deconstructive technique to the study of philosophical texts.

 

Whereas Freud had listened to what his patients had to say, Derrida analysed what other people WROTE, but with the same purpose in mind. That is to reveal the repressed ideas which underlay the apparently smooth, elegant and well-constructed arguments put forward by other philosophers. He wanted to find the inconsistencies in their ideas by analysing the way they wrote them: again the figures of speech they used and the way they avoided certain topics which might contradict the coherence of the model of experience which they had put forward..

 

Derrida believed that no theory could pretend to be absolutely consistent, logical or present itself as a self-contained and whole system. If it did, it could only do so by hiding or repressing something which did not fit its view of things. He looked for clues in the text which betrayed these hidden / repressed thoughts. He deconstructed the text in order to find them. He also placed contradictory texts and ideas beside each other on the same page to indicate the futility of either claiming absolute authority. By disrupting texts in this way he forced the reader to approach the text (and the ideas behind it) in a more critical and therefore more intelligent way.

 

5.0       DECONSTRUCTIVISM AND DESIGN

 

How did a technique like this come to be applied in the field of design?

 

To answer this you have to look at the state of architecture in the 1960s/70s.  At that time, there was a general feeling amongst architects and the general public that architecture, then known as the International Style had become inhumane and monotonous and hostile. 

 

Like Freud's patients who saw nothing wrong with their behaviour (though everyone else did) and like the seemingly perfect arguments in the texts analysed by Derrida, there was a fundamentally illogical and inconsistent quality to the 'behaviour' of Modern Architecture no matter how rational it appeared to be. The end result was hostile to the extent that some of the  Modern housing projects were being evacuated and blown up. What had gone wrong?

 

Modern Architecture pretended to be the most rational, technologically advanced and perfectly functional system. It also pretended to be based entirely on the carefully quantified needs and requirements of its users. At the time there did not seem to be any alternative ways of thinking about architecture other than this 'scientific and rational' approach centred in the Functionalist tradition of Modern Architecture. Form in this sense was merely an effect, an epiphenomenon of the interaction of stated functions and by some remarkable coincidence, that same form somehow always managed to end up as cubic or orthogonal in nature. Modern Architecture presented itself as the perfect model of the human experience which it sought to represent. To do so however it inevitably ignored  the sometimes messy, conflicting, contradictory and ambiguous situations that arise in the interaction of many different activities and functions. The model had to appear to be perfect. The fact that it must repress the reality of the experience it represented in order to do so became ever more obvious in the later decades of the 20th century.

 

There were several different architectural responses to these increasingly obvious flaws in the ideology of the Modern. These included Historicism with its outright rejection of Modernism itself; Hi Tech with its belief that all problems could ultimately be resolved by technological means; Regionalism, with its search for cultural identity in traditional forms and other stylistic attempts to break out of the Modernist trap.

 

Deconstructivism may be considered to be one of these fragments of the Modern with its goal of dissolving the fixed and determined forms of the Modern and of revealing the dynamic formal possibilities that lay within the program offered by the institution and its context. At the same time there was a denial that architects could produce some perfectly authentic representation of the program and its context which by the nature of things were always unstable and in flux. Here we have a final rejection of the Functionalist tradition that had driven the Modern from its beginnings. In a sense the relationship between the program and its resulting form were coincidental: a chance meeting of the interacting activities of the institution, always in flux, with the state of the architectural language and technology at the time. There was an equally obsessive attempt to destroy the predominance of the right angle in architecture – that sign of rationalist order and of the predetermined.

 

Ideas such as these were arrived at by some European and American architects who were familiar with Derrida's work and that of other French philosophers of the Postmodern. The key concept in both the philosophical and architectural ideologies of the Postmodern centred on the rejection of fixed models, schemas, grand meta-narratives or other ‘total’ explanations of any sort on the assumption that the clarity and order which they portray is built on a repression of the real diversity and heterogeneity of things.  In other words, it is a lie. Form, in the sense of a representation of things, must, in this ideology reflect the infinite plurality and flux of experience. In architecture if this meant a dissolution of visual order, then so be it, for after all that order, which had sustained Western civilization for so long as a similarity between things, was a completely inauthentic representation of experience. 

 

6.0       THE METHOD

 

6.1       Creating complexity.

 

What they did - by drawing and design - was to reveal those forms, possibilities and approaches that Modern Architecture had repressed in order to become 'perfect'. They deconstructed the forms of Modern Architecture by creating apparently illogical clashes of grids, spaces and volumes - breaking open the form of buildings. They used diagonal lines to destroy the perfect right-angled geometries of the Modern Movement. They left beams projecting/unfinished/incomplete, walls broken and slanted, windows turned at angles, rough materials, exposed construction methods and so on. All this to reveal what the Modern Movement had tried to suppress in the name of order: that buildings were complex and sometimes contradictory.

 

6.2       Complexity and Contradiction

 

Modern Architecture had not allowed the expression of contradictions. That is, conflicts of function between different spaces. Everything had to look unified, smooth and well organized: A WHOLE AND PERFECT MACHINE.

 

The Deconstructivist approach  sought  to reveal these contradictions - to bring them into the open - TO MAKE THEM HAPPEN (even if they did not exist). If you look at a

 

Deconstructivist building you will see different spaces intersecting one another in irregular ways. This is a attempt to reveal the character of each and every space and the occasional conflict and coincidence in the relationship between them.

 

6.3       Buildings as Joy.

 

Another part of the Modern philosophy was that architecture and buildings were serious issues. Every part of the building had to be based on a functional problem and solution. This was a kind of 'scientific' approach to design. The results of this were, in general, that many buildings in the 1950s and early 1960s looked faceless and boring. They were unable to express the joy, sensuality, tactility or pleasure which earlier architectures had shown. These human expressions and sensory needs had been repressed in favour of scientific rationality. Form, after all, in the Modern sense was merely an effect of function. It had no other emotional or sensory purpose of its own.

 

6.4        Separation of Form and Function.

 

Part of the Deconstructivist philosophy was therefore to detach architecture from 'function' as such and to allow a 'free play' of design. In a sense to make architecture/design a  'pure' art. It might solve some of the functional problems but that was not its main purpose. Indeed Deconstructivism would deny any direct relationship between the form and the function of a building. This relationship is a matter of coincidence. Architecture’s main task according to some Deconstructivists was the creation of A PURE ARCHITECTURAL EXPERIENCE, unhindered by function: an architecture of pleasure and joy. In effect of course, architecture here is set up as a parallel reality or ‘discourse’ as the ideologist would have it. This is quite consistent with the position taken by philosophers and sociologists of the same mode, namely reality as a multitude of different, equally-valid and ultimately separate discourses. There is no meta-discourse which ties these things together nor which poses as the dominant form of discourse. Here architectural form becomes a self propelling ‘thing in itself’ and while the program and client may offer a necessary start point, the resulting form is inevitably unpredictable, subject as it is to purely architectural dynamics. It is no surprise that one of the key words in the Deconstructivist lexicon is ‘difference’.

 

What this produced was the design of buildings where the actual function of the building cannot be easily understood. All that can be seen is the play of forms: intersecting angled beams and the clash of different functionless spaces. Design and function had become separate issues, so too with theory and practice.

 

6.5       Buildings as Fragments

 

If Deconstructivist buildings look unfinished, that is exactly the way they are supposed to look because according to the Decon philosophy no building is an isolated and self-contained machine. As mentioned above, the relationship between the nature of the program and the state of the architectural language at the time is purely coincidental. In this way the ‘finished’ building may be regarded as a snapshot of a dynamic but ultimately irresolvable relationship. It can never be finished in the sense that no statement can ever fully encapsulate the reality to which it refers. The model can never adequately represent the referent system it is supposed to represent. To do so it would have to unimaginably complex; as complex as the reality to which it refers. Impossible of course. 

 

Equally, buildings are FRAGMENTS OF THE CITY and the theory goes: if they ARE fragments: THEY SHOULD LOOK LIKE FRAGMENTS.

 

Remember, for Deconstructivism everything has to be REVEALED. Modern Architecture treated every project as a separate and self-contained event and Modern buildings therefore responded only to their immediate site (context). This kept things simple and easy to quantify in the making of each building. According to the Deconstructive philosophy, however, this 'repressed' the fact that a building is simply a small part of a great complex of other events which make up the City. As such it should respond to the whole universe of sites which surrounded it. That is to the City as a whole. It would respond by making its shapes indeterminate and apparently and obviously part of something else. Simply this: no Deconstructivist building could look complete in itself for to do that would be a kind of repression - a denial of its relationship to other buildings and part of the great urban machine.

 

6.6       Buildings as Self-Analysis

 

If all these attitudes are taken into account, together with the psychoanalytical roots of Deconstructivism, the end result is that every building becomes:

 

A WORK OF CONTINUAL SELF ANALYSIS

.

The designer has to continually reveal in the building its sources, its context and its essentially FRAGMENTARY nature.  He/she has to prevent the formation of what looks like a whole and complete thing in itself. The natural tendency to make things whole, to tidy them up, to close off alternative avenues of thought has to be resisted in the interests of what Deconstructivist philosophy would regard as 'truth' (or at least authenticity). In other words, the designer cannot repress the events, ideas, the temporary nature of the program and the context which surround the building and give it meaning. The designer, like the psychoanalyst, continues to DISLOCATE any tendency to smooth things over or hide things.

 

Nor can the designer cannot pretend that this particular form is the only possible, rational way of doing things in a particular site/situation/program or context. The form of the building - its diverse materials, its unrelated construction methods, its multiple axes, its disconnected volumes - must express that NO PARTICULAR FORM IS VALUABLE IN ITSELF. The designer expresses, by the supposedly incomplete form of his or her buildings, that other options and forms are possible and in fact that there is no 'ultimate Truth' or Order to be expressed in any single building.

 

Bearing this in mind and looking at Deconstructivist buildings, it is almost possible to see the design process in action. Frozen, so to speak at an arbitrary point in the development process. These buildings look unfinished - they look as if they are IN A STATE OF BECOMING. To make the building look 'complete' would be to suggest that everything had been worked out and made consistent with itself in this project. But, But, But, that would be to eliminate alternative ways of viewing the same event and that would be a repressive approach. So, we end up back on the psychoanalyst's couch!

 

7.0       COMMENT AND CONCLUSION  

                      

What is the reality behind all this heavy-weight philosophy and psycho-babble? It is that Deconstructivism has become a  fashionable style which is simply different from and perhaps no more 'meaningful' than other styles. What we see is that designers who know nothing about the background to Deconstructivism and care even less, produce what we would 'recognize' as a Decon building. The ultimate test is this, can we tell the difference between a building designed by a card-carrying, fully aware, Deconstructivist architect and a  building  styled by another designer to look like a Deconstructivist building? The answer is, probably not. It is what the building looks like 'on the ground' so to speak that is the bottom line on this issue. What the designers think they are doing - no matter how 'meaningful' or significant to them - and what they actually do can be seen as two different things. In other words, it does not matter what the designer thinks, it is what he or she produces that is important to us, the users/observers. However, it is important to note that some of the work being produced under this banner is extremely powerful and provocative and does open up radically new approaches to design from which we can all benefit.

 

8.0       THE DESIGNERS

 

The first really powerful criticism of Modern Architecture's over-simple approach to the environment came from the American designer Robert Venturi in his book : 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture'. Though he was not a deconstructivist architect and his book was very much a visual criticism, (non-philosophical), this was a very influential attempt to break out of the Modern Movement straightjacket. It led to many architects to attempt to create more complex, interesting and humane buildings.

 

At roughly the same time, another American, Peter Eisenman, who along with his colleague, Richard Meier, had been producing  'White Architecture' buildings  in the 1970s started to emphasize and distort the grids and frameworks of his buildings. This was a process which became more dramatic and insistent over time up to the 1980s when Eisenman's buildings became recognizably 'Deconstructivist'. His work and writings and his discussions with Jacque Derrida on the process of deconstruction in architecture form the intellectual base of this movement. Note also the work of Zaha Hadid, Morphosis, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, Michael Sorkin, Coop Himmelbau, Gunter Behnisch, Lebbeus Woods, Kazuo Shinohara, SITE, amongst others.

 

End

 

Alex Brown

        

 

architecture, design history, cultural history of Europe, US, Asia, gothic, islamic, renaissance, baroque, modern, postmodern, 

Architecture Art Design Cultural History and Theory and More

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