You are on page 1of 7

DECONSTRUCTION

Contrary to appearances, 'deconstruction' is not an architectural metaphor. The


word ought and will have to name a thought of architecture, it must be a thought at
work ... Next, a deconstruction, as its name indicates, must from the start
deconstruct the construction itself, its structural or constructivist motif, its
schemes, its intuitions and its concepts, its rhetoric. But it deconstructs as well the
strictly architectural construction, the philosophical construction of the concept of
architecture.
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida, Fifty-Two Aphorisms for a Foreword, printed in Andreas Papadakis
(ed), Deconstruction; Omnibus Volume, op. cit., p.69

It is above all the historical split between architecture and its theory that is eroded
by the principles of deconstruction.
Bernard Tschumi
Bernard Tschumi, Parc de la Villette, Paris, in Andreas Papadakis (ed),
Deconstruction in Architecture, Architectural Design, Academy Editions, London,
vol.58, no.3/4, p.38

Peter Eisenman, Carnegie-Mellon Research Institute


Bernard Tschumi, Parc de la Villette

Deconstruction was originally used to describe the critique of literary texts,


instigated by the French philosopher and Post- Structuralist, Jacques Derrida, with
such writings as 'Of Grammatology' (1967). The term 'Deconstruction' has recently
been applied to architecture. However, certain architects have actually denied this
label (for example, Frank Gehry).

Derrida, in his literary critiques of such (helpless) victims as Saussure, Plato,


Heidegger and Husserl, seems to have based his attacks upon the ambiguities of
certain words, often misreading texts to produce false logic, and thereby
deconstruct.

Deconstruction in literary terms is essentially attacking and subverting the givens in


an argument, thus producing contradictions in the logic, and rendering statements
as meaningless. Translators of Derrida's writings, from their French originals, have
remarked on the complicated language used, which seems to have been written
deliberately to confound and confuse, for example, one sentence lasting for five
pages. see Barbara Johnson's introduction to her translation of Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago 1981 He spends twenty pages of text discussing five words of
Nietzsche, a margin note, "I have forgotten my umbrella." Nietzsche, The Gay Science;
Jacques Derrida, Spurs, 1978

Derrida himself has come up with a word play, the term différance: meaning both
to defer and to differ (the act of putting off until later/ to be dissimilar). see Jacques
Derrida, L'Ecriture et la Différence (1967), translated as Writing and Difference, Chicago University Press,
Chicago 1978 Humpty Dumpty displays a similar logic, when he says:

"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither


more nor less." Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Derrida seems to empathize with this fictional character, and his term différance is
a typical example of this empathy, encouraging 'flights of fancy which by no means
ring true.' Geoffrey Broadbent, The Philosophy of Deconstruction, in Jorge Glusberg (ed), Deconstruction; A
Student Guide, Academy Editions, London 1991, p.51
Derrida also attacks writing, which he regards as being an inferior form of
communication. He regards speech as being the only true form, since it brings the
listener so much nearer to understanding the true sense of the ideas conveyed by
the speaker (Phonocentrism). It is perhaps unfortunate that we are to arrive at an
understanding of Derrida through the medium of writing, since the last thing
Derrida would wish is for his ideas to be truly conveyed through writing. This is
perhaps his reason for writing in such an ultimately confusing style.
Readings of text, Derrida has pointed out, are best accomplished when working
with classical narrative structures. What Derrida has referred to as 'archetexts' form
a framework for his analysis and also a source of operative meanings to be altered.
If it is necessary to critique words with words, then a similar methodology must be
employed in any Deconstructionist process in architecture, which would necessitate
identification of an 'archetype', to be an equivalent to the archetext. In
architecture, this would derive from the methods and materials of building (and un-
building); or its history of archetypal components, systems and forms.
So in assuming that a Derridean deconstruction can be applied to buildings, an
archetype must be discovered to serve as the subject for analysis. For Derrida, this
took the form of such important literary works as Rousseau's Les Confessions
(1781). see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1976 An
architectural equivalent to the archetext must also represent an archetypal source.
Very few Modernist or Constructivist- derived building images have been sufficiently
integrated into the unconscious societal mind for them to qualify as archetypal. The
proposition that such stylistic devices as those of, for example, Malevich, who has
been a strong influence upon the work of Zaha Hadid, represent an archetypal
source is thus unfounded. People will identify with high-rise housing blocks and
shopping centres, reflecting Robert Venturi's theories on iconography, see Robert
Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction, 1966 civic buildings in Greco-Roman styles, and Tudor
and colonial houses. James Wines, The Slippery Floor, op. cit., p.137 One of the justifications of
Post-Modern historicism has been based upon the supposition that certain past
references evoke popular response, and are thus, accordingly, archetypal.
The works Splitting and Bingo by Gordon Matta-Clark dealt with the suburban
house as archetype. This recognizable image for Matta-Clark symbolized the stable
middle-class American home as an immutable entity. The cuttings in these two
works sought to deconstruct this vision, in an attempt to liberate the form of the
house, which had come to symbolize containment and suburban alienation
DECONSTRUCTIVIST

This is an architecture of disruption, dislocation, deflection, deviation and distortion,


rather than of demolition, dismantling, decay, decomposition, or disintegration. It
displays the structure instead of destroying it.
Mark Wigley
Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, in Andreas Papadakis (ed),
Deconstruction; Omnibus Volume, op. cit., p.133

...one of the exhibition's assumptions, according to Mark Wigley's catalogue text,


was that certain formal characteristics passed as Deconstructivist, while others did
not. For example, fragmented and dematerialized elements in buildings were not
legitimate...whereas rotated axes, disrupted grids, slanted walls, and anything
directly traceable back to Constructivism qualified.
...In its final shape, the show became what Philip Johnson so aptly described in the
press as 'an exhibition of architects whose work uses forms that look like
Constructivist drawings'.
James Wines
James Wines, The Slippery Floor, op. cit., p.137

Coop Himmelblau, Falkestraße Roof Conversion


Zaha Hadid, Monsoon Restaurant

Whereas Deconstruction in architecture relates to the linguistic deconstructions of


Derrida, Mark Wigley views the same architecture as being a throwback to the work
of the Russian Constructivists of the 1920's, hence Deconstructivism.

An impurity, or deviation, from the structural order is regarded as opposing or


rather, threatening, the former values of harmony, unity and stability. This
deviation is therefore insulated, isolated, from the structure, and can thus be
regarded as ornament. The qualities of harmony, unity and stability arise from the
geometry of purity, and formal composition. The combining of such pure
geometrical forms follow compositional rules which do not allow one form to conflict
with another. The overall harmony is maintained. But with Deconstructivism, form
is no longer pure. It has become contaminated by some sort of 'alien'.

The alien is an outgrowth of the very form that it violates; the form
distorts yet does not destroy itself.
Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, op.cit., p.133
Deconstruction is not the taking apart of constructions. The nature of the word
suggests a reversal of construction. Thus architecture which appears to take apart a
structure, by simply breaking an object, has been called Deconstructive.
Deconstruction is not demolition, or dissimulation, which suggests a total
breakdown. The flaws, or 'contamination', do not lead to the collapse of the
structure. Deconstruction, according to Wigley, is a challenging of the values of
harmony, unity and stability. It proposes a new view of structure; that the flaws are
intrinsic to the structure, and thus cannot be removed. The flaws are structural. A
Deconstructive architect is therefore 'not one who dismantles buildings, but one
who locates the inherent dilemmas within buildings - the structural flaws.' ibid.
Geoffrey Broadbent makes the suggestion that Wigley is 'equating architectural
form with structure, and that as far as 'deconstruction' is concerned, it seems
useful to separate the two.' Geoffrey Broadbent, Deconstruction in Action, in Jorge Glusberg (ed),
Deconstruction; A Student Guide, op. cit., p.80
Wigley has the view that all architects aspire to simple, geometric forms. However,
these forms may be constructed very simply, without a distortion of the structure,
with no contamination by Wigley's alien.
Broadbent continues to expound upon which buildings are Deconstructivist, using
the defining rules of Wigley. He names the 'standards', Tschumi, Eisenman, Hadid,
Gehry and Coop Himmelblau, as one would expect. But then he takes Wigley to the
extreme, by including Rogers, Foster, Grimshaw, Hertzberger, amongst others.
What can one conclude from all this? Surely that Deconstruction is nothing more
than superficiality; that it seems almost any building by any architect can be
included under Wigley's rules, as long as it displays something as simple as a
slightly tainted form, rather than a form wholly contaminated, as Wigley would
suggest.
Does this 'contamination' uphold the values of the Russian Constructivists, as
Wigley would have us believe? Wigley believes Deconstruction to be a
contamination of form. Russian Constructivism is based on the three elements of
space, time and distance. Constructivism was a premonition of the changes that
were to occur in the fields of information and communication.

'The new physics [of Quantum Theory] necessitated profound


changes in concepts of space, time, matter, object, and cause and
effect.' Catherine Cooke, Russian Precursors, in Andreas Papadakis (ed), Deconstruction;
Omnibus Volume, op. cit., p.13

Both distance and space became a function of time. Rapid growth in the means of
communication and mechanical transport meant an increase of disurbanization.
Also, the unit of habitation, the dwelling, became increasingly shaped by the nature
and forms of communal production and transport.

'Disurbanization is the process of centrifugal force and repulsion. It is


based on just such a centrifugal tendency in technology...which
reverses all the former assumptions. Proximity is henceforth a
function of distance, and community a function of separateness.'
Catherine Cooke, op. cit., p.17

The Constructivists sought answers, in response to these changing conceptions of


the city, resulting in ideals not dissimilar to the Global Village of Marshall McLuhan.
see Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968 Here was already an
understanding of the essence of the Second Machine Age as a spatial system.
Suprematism, on the other hand, possessed a vocabulary of purely spatial
concepts, producing a space of 'collisions and events rather than of objects with
precise measure.' Catherine Cooke, op. cit., p.18 A synthesis of the two aesthetic
languages of Constructivism and Suprematism was displayed by the work of
Leonidov, El Lissitsky and Chernikhov.
Catherine Cooke defines Deconstructionist architecture as:

"the cognitive and experiential conflict between 'building' as a


physical entity, and 'time' as a demolisher of entity, 'memory' being a
part of the broad category of time." ibid.

This definition has parallells with the synthesized Constructivism/Suprematism,


where the elements of space, distance and time met space, perception, meaning
and time.
Wigley sees precedents for the work of his Deconstructivists in the sketches and
drawings of the Russian Constructivists. Such sketches Wigley suggests 'posed a
threat to tradition', in that the Constructivists took pure geometric forms and used
them to produce 'impure', distorted, tortured and clashing compositions. Wigley
also includes work by such Suprematists as Malevich, by whom Zaha Hadid has
been influenced, so his precedents are very much a hybrid of Constructivism and
Suprematism. However, this strain of Suprematism goes unmentioned by Wigley's
term 'Deconstructivist'. The consequence of this is that the convenience of Wigley's
term, in suggesting both Constructivism and (physical) deconstruction, is
misguided.
Wigley also distrusts the application of Derrida's form of Deconstruction to
architecture, which seems to him no more than:

...provocative architectural design which appears to take structure


apart - whether it be the simple breaking of an object or (its)
complex dissimulation into a collage of traces. Philip Johnson and Mark
Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, exhib. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
1988, p.11

Paradoxically, Wigley had previously (1987) argued that models for such
architectural distortions were to be found in the work of Derrida, who:

deconstructs aesthetics by demonstrating that the constructional


possibility of form is precisely its violation by a subversive alien,
foreign body that already inhabits the interior and cannot be expelled
without destroying its host.
quoted in Geoffrey Broadbent, The Architecture of Deconstruction, in Jorge Glusberg (ed),
Deconstruction; A Student Guide, op. cit., p.23

...the difficulty of defining and therefore also of translating the word 'deconstruction' stems from the fact that
all the predicates, all the defining concepts, all the lexical significations, and even the syntactic articulations,
which seem at one moment to lend themselves to this definition or to that translation, are also deconstructed
and deconstructible, directly or otherwise, etc. And that goes for the word, the very unity of the word
deconstruction, as for every word.
D. Wood and R. Bernasconi (ed), trans. by D. Wood and A. Benjamin, Derrida and Différance, Northwestern
University Press, Evanston, 1988, quoted in Christopher Norris and Andrew Benjamin, What is Deconstruction?,
Academy Editions, London 1988, p.33

Geoffrey Broadbent writes:

Deconstructionist architecture is here; there's a lot of it about and


there's more to come. Geoffrey Broadbent, The Architecture of Deconstruction, op.
cit., p.11

The architecture of which he writes seems to belong to two camps; the one of
Derrida, and the one of Wigley. Certainly, the latter is more accessible, simply due
to the difficulty in reading Derrida and understanding what his Deconstruction is all
about.
Since a Deconstructionist approach in architecture requires the definition of an
archetype, to be the equivalent of Derrida's archetext, works such as Splitting by
Gordon Matta-Clark could be described as Deconstructionist. It could be contended
that for an architecture to be Deconstructionist, it must be based upon inversionist
readings of widely accepted building types, and indeed, it is difficult to make a case
in favour of Deconstructionist meaning in newly-built edifices. It would seem that
use of the term Deconstructionist becomes questionable when removed from the
literary context.
Deconstruction is certainly not simply a reversal of the process of construction, be it
in architectural (physical) or linguistic (conceptual) terms. Derrida himself sustained
that Deconstructive architectural thought is impossible, maintaining that
'Deconstruction is not an architectural metaphor', Jacques Derrida, Fifty-Two Aphorisms for a
Foreword, op. cit., p.69 as it is not simply a question of dismantlement, but an
affirmative attitude.
Derrida's readings of philosophical and literary texts show that, by taking the
unspoken or unformulated propositions of a text literally, by showing the subtle
internal contradictions, the text can be shown to be saying something quite other
than that which it appears to be saying. In fact, the text can be shown not to be
saying something specific, but many different things, some of which indeed might
subtly subvert the conscious intentions of the writer. In this way, Derrida shows
that the text is telling quite a different story from what the writer imagines he is
creating.
The main effect of Derrida's deconstructions has been to destroy the (naïve)
assumption that a particular text has 'a' meaning. Meaning is not encased or
contained in language but is coextensive (extending over same space or time) with
the play of language itself. Derrida shows that the meanings of a text are
'disseminated', see Jacques Derrida, La Dissémination, 1972, translated as Dissemination, B. Johnson
(trans.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1981 spread, across its entire surface. The link
between meaning and text is cut, going against Saussure's philosophies of 'signs'
and 'signifieds' (and later Lévi- Strauss). see Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General
Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, Cape, London 1974, and Claude Lévi- Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John
and Doreen Weightman, Cape, London 1973
In contrast,

Matta-Clark does not undo the building, he undoes the architectural


analogy that is contained within it.
...Words are removed from the edifice of language in a movement
that works its way through the building as if it were carefully
removing its semantic backbone.
Marianne Brouwer, Laying Bare, in Gordon Matta-Clark, exhib. cat., IVAM Centre Julio
Gonzalez, Valencia 1993, p.363

Some critics mistakenly hail as deconstruction what is, rightly and


rightfully, an illuminating autopsy of meaning.
Eugenio Trías, Art and the Sacred, in Gordon Matta-Clark, op. cit., p.382

Derrida's deconstruction is one affecting conceptual structure, whereas Matta-


Clark's 'deconstruction' is one affecting, or rather illuminating, physical structure. It
has been shown that the buildings with which Matta- Clark worked can be regarded
as architectural archetypes to stand for Derrida's archetexts. The slices in
compositional elements reveal the structure in Matta-Clark's works, but do not seek
to undermine it. If a true Derridean process of Deconstruction was taking place in
Matta-Clark's cuttings, there would be a questioning, and perhaps a contradiction,
of structure. But instead the questioning occurs in reference to the composition,
providing other readings, those highlighting societal problems and addressing the
issues Matta-Clark felt were being ignored by the architectural establishment.
Mark Wigley's Deconstructivism is removed from Derrida's Deconstruction, but has
been applied to the same architecture. Deconstructivism has the immediate
appearance of simply proposing a precedent in the work of the Russian
Constructivists (and Suprematists). Wigley adds to this his thesis of the distortion
of form by flaws intrinsic to the structure, his 'alien'. The ideas of precedent and of
the alien do not on the whole make for a coherent thesis.
Wigley's alien pushes structure to its limit, to the point where it becomes
unsettling. The walls and floors move disconcertingly, producing a sense of unease.
The Modernist argument that form follows function is abandoned, in favour of
distributing forms, and then applying a functional programme.
Deconstructivist architecture displaces context, producing a sense of dislocation;
anti- contextualism. This creates a resonance between the disrupted interior of the
architectural forms, and their disruption of the context. This results in a disturbance
between inside and outside, whereby the form does not simply divide an inside
from an outside. There occurs a disruption of the simple division between interior
and exterior, and this tension is relieved through the walls.

The wall breaks open in a very complex way. There are no simple
windows, no regular openings puncturing a solid wall. Rather, the
wall is tormented, split and folded so that it no longer provides
security by dividing familiar from unfamiliar, inside from out. The
whole condition of enclosure breaks down.
Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, in Andreas Papadakis (ed), Deconstruction;
Omnibus Volume, op. cit., p.133

This tormenting of the walls has parallells with the work of Matta- Clark. In his
work, Matta-Clark creates a distortion of composition rather than form. The form of
the building remains intact; it is the composition within the form which is
tormented. The cuts in the walls are the release of a tension, allowing the spaces to
breathe through the punctures in the fabric. Matta-Clark's 'alien' is an alien which
creates a distortion of composition, a de-composition, rather than an alien which
creates a distortion of construction, a de- construction. Whereas the flaws in
Deconstructivism are intrinsic to the structure, the flaws in Matta- Clark's works are
intrinsic to the composition. The de-composition is a breakdown, an entropological
process, of the composition of elements; walls, floors, windows, doors.

[The] disturbance does not result from an external violence. It is not


a fracturing, or slicing, or fragmentation, or piercing. To disturb a
form from the outside in these ways is not to threaten that form, only
to damage it. The damage produces a decorative effect, an aesthetic
of danger, an almost picturesque representation of peril - but not a
tangible threat [unlike the work of Matta-Clark]. Instead,
Deconstructivist architecture disturbs figures from within.
Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, printed in Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley,
Deconstructivist Architecture, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
1988, p.16