Deconstructing Deconstructivism


Before beginning this paper, I think it is necessary to define a few terms in the attempt to establish some clarity, allowing for an understanding in that which will later be destroyed. Author’s Note: I realize there is a great deal of irony that comes with defining Deconstruction.

1. Deconstructivism - noun, the name used by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley to describe the architectural style exhibited in the 1988 MoMA exhibition, may also be used in the form of Deconstructivist. Synonyms: Post-Constructivism, Neo-Constructivism.

2. Deconstruction - noun, a label given to the philosophies typically associated with Jacques Derrida.

3. deconstruct - verb, the act of applying theories associated with Deconstruction, the act of finding slippage in meaning, the act of inverting Structuralist binary oppositions, may also be used in the form of deconstructing or deconstruction (please note the minuscule “d”).


Deconstructivist Origin

It was nearly five decades since the influential International Exhibition of Modern Architecture was curated under the administration of Philip Johnson at the MoMA. And, while the Fact Sheet of the exhibit distinctly rejected any notions of rigidly defining a style, as was done in the 1932 exhibition, it did articulate its agenda to identify "a confluence of a few important architects' works since 1980 that show a similar approach with very similar forms as an outcome". It was claimed that the "new forms of Deconstructivist architecture hark back to Russian Constructivism.[1] The preference to form or style over any other architectural considerations in the exhibition, and the resultant superficiality of the forced connection between architecture and Deconstruction as a theory, is often debated in architectural circles. Further, the career trajectories of the chosen architects post-1988 make a substantial case for a resolution in favor of establishing the common grounds and demarcating the divergences in their respective ideologies and approaches. And although, Zaha Hadid has explicitly referenced her inspirations from the likes of El Lizzitsky and Kasimir Malevich, and Bernard Tschumi has admitted his shared attempt with Rem Koolhaas in battling postmodernism's relapsing nostalgia for historicism, the rigid classification of these seven architects - Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Bernard Tschumi - as "the chaotic, the incomplete, the fragmented, or the imbalanced", not only takes away from their individual contributions to the broader context of architecture, but also from the importance of the very aspects that make their projects distinct, the aspects that venture way beyond the superficiality of form. And, as if this isn't sufficient to collapse the argument presented and the unwarranted definitions that arose from the exhibition, and continue to direct architectural thought even today, there is the universe that is Jacques Derrida.

            In his essay, “Deconstructivist Architecture,” written for the exhibition, co-curator Mark Wigley presents an interpretation of the proposed style in a straightforward manner. Liberating "Deconstructivist Architecture" from the semiotic analysis that is usually associated with it, he recognizes the unmistakable formal qualities - controlled chaotic fragmentation and strong inclinations towards physical manipulation, be it surface, skin or volume.[2] And so, geometry, for him, becomes to "Deconstructivist Architecture" what Ornament was to postmodernists - the subject of curiosity, the subject of complication, the subject of contradiction, but the central subject nonetheless. Undoubtedly, distortion and dislocation of architectural elements, fosters unpredictability, especially when the elements disturbed are predominantly fundamental and have conventionally come to signify safety and stability - the structure and the envelope. A simple gesture then suddenly becomes a radical movement. However, "Decontruction" as described by Derrida, and arguably closer to the characteristics demonstrated in the works of Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind, concerns itself more with the "metaphysics of presence", presupposing that architecture is a language capable of communicating meaning and of receiving treatments, and understanding it in terms of the dialectic of presence and absence. For Derrida, the locus, or place of presence, is architecture, and, hence, the same dialectic of presence and absence should be found in construction and Deconstructivism. With this fundamental premise and frame of context, the characteristics described by Wigley's Fact Sheet for the 1988 MoMA exhibition can, at best, be classified as Neo-Constructivist - an extension of the Russian Constructivist movement, from paper to the built environment, facilitated by advancements in building technologies - rather than "Deconstruction", in its strictest sense, as theorized by Derrida.


Derrida + Deconstruction

            To begin this exploration of Deconstruction in architecture, we must first understand what influenced Jacques Derrida and led to the development of his theory. Deconstruction originated as a response to Structuralist linguistic theory. Simply put, Structuralists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and his signifier and signified as well as Claude Lévi-Strauss with his The Raw and the Cooked (1964), believed in finding truth through the exploration and understanding of binary oppositions.[3] Everything can be broken down into two contrasting ideas, one notion against the other, also known as what Derrida calls the otherness. For the conservatives, interpretation involves uncovering and discovering the truths which are believed to be fixed. For instance, we can examine an elementary binary; good versus evil. In the case of a moral dilemma, Structuralist theory would simplify the issue to good over evil and choose the option associated with good to arrive at a moral conclusion.

Derrida criticizes the simplicity of the Structuralist otherness as being too fixed. Derrida believes we must destabilize the oppositional categories to expose the chaos of logic and reason, forcing us to rethink how and why we privilege one binary over the other. The institutionalization of the binaries make them seem self-evident and restrict the questioning of them. Deconstruction must not be understood as just the inversion of the binaries, but also how they can exist apart from each other. For Derrida, the focus of deconstructing binaries is not about finding truth, but rather a focus on the way the constructs are built and unbuilt, in an attempt to destroy any imperative statements.[4] Derrida’s Deconstruction is a process. For him, the process of deconstructing is more important than the conclusion. The reward comes with the labor involved rather than with any answers.[5] With regards to the example of the Structuralist moral dilemma as previously mentioned, Derrida would not see the moral conclusion as good over evil. He would instead be more interested in breaking down the moral dilemma to find an interplay of good and evil. He would even go on to question the meanings of good and evil, constantly finding slippages in the meanings. Geoffrey Broadbent compares this process to trying to place your finger on a blob of mercury. “Once you touch it, it isn’t there anymore.”

Another key element in Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction is différance. Différance is a term coined by Derrida as way to combine his ideas of difference and deferral as means to comprehend identity. According to Derrida, 'difference' is inherent in the distinction of an entity, while 'deferral' is its distinction over time, for its identity is in a constant state of flux, continuously undetermined, never really complete. With his deliberate misspelling of the term "difference" as "différance", even while pronouncing the two identically, Derrida makes a powerful critique on the prevalent logocentrism and the fact that not all facets of written script can be delivered in their entirety through speech. Words and signs can never comprehensively deliver their meaning without the added element from which they differ, and this force that differentiates them, thus, engenders binary oppositions to sustain that very meaning. Further, Derrida emphasizes the identification of what he calls "archi-writing" - a kind of writing that precedes both speech and writing, one that is already there before we use it. It is in a sense, language, but it has an unquantifiable and predetermined, although supple, origin and structure - a sense, that may be presupposed as defined by several aspects that connect to history, origins, culture and mindset. He uses this argument to challenge the conventional privileges enjoyed by speech over writing - or one may say the formal over the narrative, making a direct connection to the widespread criticism of MoMA's 1988 Exhibition on "Deconstructivist Architecture" - and to investigate the very distinction between the tangible and the intangible, thus, disputing any role of memory and perception in the understanding of sequential entities like architecture, and concluding the inherent flux in any such phenomenon. Any general theory that attempts to describe or classify this phenomenon, thereafter, paradoxically, becomes unachievable and redundant.


How to Deconstruct

Although there is no clear process of deconstruction and Derrida would not advocate for a listing of steps on how to deconstruct due to its unfixed nature, I will begin to establish a brief “how to” for deconstruction before we take this project into the architectural realm. It is important to understand there is no correct answer for deconstructing, nor is there even a correct way to define deconstruction, but setting forth a few primitive guidelines will help understand the process. First, it is important to establish the Structuralist binaries within the given parameters. Once the binaries are established, you must understand the binaries to situate the hierarchy (i.e. good over evil). Next, you must locate the moments where the hierarchy inverts itself, where the binary distinctions break down. Once this is done, you must expose the arbitrary or constructed nature of the hierarchy.[6] Remember, the process of deconstructing is where the reward is found. It is not necessary to come to a conclusion or to find any imperatives.


Derrida + Architecture

In the philosophical realm, Deconstruction is typically seen simply as a technique of reversed construction, hence the term de-construction. For Derrida though, Deconstruction can offer much more in architecture through metaphor. He even says “there is nothing more architectural than deconstruction, but also nothing less architectural.”[7] Contrary to Mark Wigley’s take on Deconstructivism, Derrida poses that architectural thinking can only be deconstructive as an attempt to visualize the established authorities amongst philosophy and theory in architecture. Deconstruction finds itself within the discourse of architecture. It is also important to understand Derrida’s sense of otherness in the realm of architecture. The incomprehensibility of architecture relies on the other - without the other, there is no incomprehensibility.

When Derrida asked Tschumi why architects would be interested in his work since “deconstruction is anti-form, anti-hierarchy, and anti-structure – the opposite of what architecture stands for.” Tschumi replied, “Precisely for this reason.”[8] This is where deconstruction and architecture intersect, amongst the discourse of architecture. This paper is thus an exploration into deconstruction in the philosophical definition, true to Derrida, and how it is found within the discourse of architecture. Using Derrida’s technique, the deconstruction process of architecture may begin with the establishment of architectural binaries worth exploring commonly found within the discourse. This establishment will then lead to the discussion and deconstruction of built architecture commonly associated with Deconstructivism in the effort to find deeper meaning within the projects and explore how Derrida’s Deconstruction ideals are employed within the design.


Practice + Theory

            A prominent aspect of Deconstructivism is the radical distortion and dislocation of formal elements, thus fostering a quality of unpredictability in otherwise docile systems that traditionally signify stability. Derrida speaks of this not only in the obvious physical sense, but also, in terms of the “metaphysics of presence”. Referring back to the notion of différance then, Practice and Theory form the two binary oppositions of a single identity in architecture, which is doomed to remain incomplete in meaning without the supplementary support of its respective otherness. Ironically, centuries ago, when Vitruvius first claimed that "the knowledge of the architect is brought into being by fabrica and ratiocinatio" - the continuous practice of creating architecture and the train of thought that leads to it – the intention was solely to emphasize the equal significance of the two parts. However, Peter Eisenman states, “from the moment one separates Theorem and Pratem, one considers architecture as a simple technique and detaches it from thought.”[9] Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish extension to the Berlin Museum, for instance, celebrates and laments these fragmentations in a singular entity that embodies the conflict in the phenomenon. Not only does the formal presentation depict a deconstructed Jewish symbol of the Star of David, traditionally used in Jewish tombstones, but the very sequence within deconstructs the idea of a phenomenological mass grave, and evokes complex emotions by projecting the emotions felt within this very grave. The relationship between the fragmentation and social trauma, violence and conflict derives from signs and symbols, and argues for an understanding of architecture as a mechanism for experiencing, narrating and treasuring memory and meaning without its evidence in the physical disturbance of its form. The philosophy is undoubtedly rooted in theory, as is most of Libeskind’s work. One may then get a better understanding of the supposed unseemly collaboration of David Childs and Daniel Libeskind on the design for the Ground Zero skyscraper, Freedom Tower, in New York City. Needless to say, the project signifies deconstruction, of architecture, of history, of narrative, of form, from the very inception. But, while Childs speaks of the architecture in terms of engineering and a building's physical and structural connection to its surroundings, Libeskind uses analogies, relating his buildings to their environment through a complex web of symbolism. Architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, in his book Up from Zero, says that Childs started work on the Freedom Tower, believing that "the design of a skyscraper begins with its structure, not a pictorial ideal"; while Daniel Libeskind's design "began not with a structural idea but with a visual goal, to create an abstract form that would suggest the profile of the Statue of Liberty."[10] But it is the intersection of the two opposing binaries, and not the superimposition of one over the other with reference to importance, that provide room for its meaning to exist within its incomprehensibility. Without the other, each of the entities would be direct and explanatory, however, needless to say, grossly incomplete.


Place + Path Making

Wallace Stevens writes in his poem, “The Anecdote of the Jar” about a jar, an artificial object out-of-place, on a hill in Tennessee. The jar is arbitrarily placed on the hill in the middle of the free play of the natural world and then becomes the center of the wilderness, removing its prior freedom.  The jar seems to organize its surroundings without participating in the nature of anything. Similarly, in another anecdote by Guy de Maupassant, he said his favorite place in Paris is the Eiffel Tower, but not for expected reasons. He hates the tower, but enjoys having dinner at the top, even though he didn’t particularly enjoy the food, because it is the only place in the city where he didn’t have to see it. Additionally, everything in Paris seems to be organized around him as he sits there. He becomes the center of the city. When you are standing in the tower, you are liberated from the idea that it is a governing presence.[11] The virtuality of the tower organizes its surroundings arbitrarily. With these two anecdotes in mind, it is important to understand the deconstructive view of the jar and the Eiffel Tower. They both are the decentered center - outside the system, but still conditioning the system. They themselves are occupying a place in space, yet their arbitrary placement influence their surroundings.

Architecture relies on place as it takes a place in space. The query within Deconstructivist architecture is not to establish place with the built product, rather to break the meaning of place through the act of building the product. In the case of Casa da Música, a concert hall in Porto, Portugal, Rem Koolhaas designs the building as if it were an object fallen from space. As a result, the site ripples away from the building exemplifying what Daniel Libeskind describes as “disengaging the problem of architecture in the earth.”[12] This building is not part of the earth, it is a force against the earth. The surrounding context of traditional Portuguese architecture is completely disregarded in terms of material and scale. Its overpowering nature as an out-of-place object within the city dominates, breaking the meaning of place as established within the context of Porto. In this way, Koolhaas’ object becomes a new decentered center within the city, an icon from which the city is situated. Views of the city established from within as if the city’s purpose of design was to enrichen the building. Much like the jar and the Eiffel Tower, Casa da Música is a governing body which seems to organize its surroundings. As Stevens writes, “It took dominion everywhere.”


Real Presence + Representation

Architecture has been called one of the only non-representative arts, whereas painting, drawing, and sculpture always imitate something which is supposed to already have existed. With architects traditionally inscribing designs by icnographic methods, representation of architecture has been defined by plans, sections, elevations, and other two-dimensional drawings. Thinking about architectural representation with regards to form, as we have seen through Classicism, Gothic, and Neo-Classicism, representation consisted of a search for the representation of truth and beauty through proportion and order. In his essay, “End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End,” Peter Eisenman talks about the fiction of representation. He focuses on the distinction between architecture “as is” and architecture as message. “When there is no longer a distinction between representation and reality, when reality is only simulation, the representation loses its a priori source of significance, and it, too, becomes a simulation.” In the built environment, it is imperative for architecture to contain a real presence to meet the functional purposes required by a building. But this is where a Deconstruction approach to the architecture can begin to alter the relationship between the two binaries - the real presence of the building and its representation.

 The Parc de la Villette in Paris by Bernard Tschumi is the ultimate paradigm of the idea. It is an urban-recreation complex that is one of the largest discontinuous buildings in the world, and the first built-form specifically exploring the concepts of superimposition and detachment in terms of representation. Learning from Derrida, Tschumi uses Deconstruction as a technique to understand systems and their meanings, and as a result, the Parc de la Villette proposes an "architecture of disjunction", whose primary purpose is to challenge and disturb the conventional architectural assumptions regarding systems. The project systematically undertakes a ‘deconstruction of program’, challenging the very ideology on which the program itself is based. It dismantles the conventions of architecture by using the concepts derived from the very conventions of architecture itself. Tschumi begins by identifying three specific systems: lines, points and surfaces, which then proceed to formulate the formal language of its program. Further, the three systems superimpose one another, so that they distort and conflict, resulting in an overall "weakening", and the final form becomes a mere weak pathway for new forms to exist within.[13] Tschumi employs the concept of what he calls, 'follies' (As defined by Barbara Jones in Follies and Grottoes, "follies are buildings constructed primarily for decoration, but either suggesting by its appearance some other purpose, or merely so extravagant that it transcends the normal range of garden ornaments as well as other class of building to which it belongs")[14], which act as architectural representations of a Deconstruction of the built environment, and embody Eisenman's idea of simulation in physical form. For, while the concept of follies is strictly abstract and conceptual, meant to exist in a deconstructive vacuum without contextual relation, there exist significant connections between the new structural elements and the buildings that were once a part of the historic fabric of the site.


Concluding Remarks

            Through a better understanding of Deconstruction, one can witness the missed opportunity of the 1988 exhibition of Deconstructivist Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art to showcase the chosen architects for their implementation of Deconstruction ideals as seen in Jacques Derrida’s philosophical work. Mark Wigley’s description of Deconstructivism focuses on the formal qualities of structure and skin as influenced by the Russian Constructivists rather than the discourse of architecture which is explored through Deconstruction. Derrida’s methods can, as seen in the examples mentioned previously in this paper, offer a richer complexity and understanding of the architecture through its deconstruction of the Structuralist oppositional binaries seen within the discourse of architecture. Derrida has offered his personal thoughts on many topics of conversation in the architectural profession, but I have chosen to discuss the three dichotomies as the best illustrations to represent Deconstruction in built form. The purpose of this paper was not to attempt to define Deconstruction in the realm of architecture, but rather to clarify misconceptions within the profession about the connections between Deconstruction and architecture.



[1] Museum of Modern Art. “Deconstructivist Architecture Fact Sheet.” (New York, 1988).

[2] Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. Deconstructivist Architecture. (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1988).

[3] Geoffrey Broadbent. Deconstruction: A Student Guide. (London: Academy Editions, 1991), 31-34.

[4] Ethan Kleinberg. “Derrida & Deconstruction.” Lecture, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, June 1, 2013.

[5] Richard Coyne. Derrida for Architects. (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 73.

[6] Ethan Kleinberg. “Derrida & Deconstruction.” Lecture, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, June 1, 2013.

[7] Jacques Derrida and Eva Meyer. Architecture Where the Desire May Live. (Rozzano: Domus, 1986).

[8] Coyne, Richard. Derrida for Architects. (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 43.

[9] Peter Eisenman. “End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press on behalf of Perspecta, 1984), 156-158.

[10] Paul Goldberger. Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. (New York, Penguin Random House, 2005).

[11] Paul Fry. “Deconstruction 1.” Lecture, Yale University, New Haven, CT, September 1, 2009.

[12] Daniel Libeskind. “Architecture Intermundium” in Marco Diani and Catherine Ingraham, Restructuring Architectural Theory. (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1989).

[13] Bernard Tschumi. Architecture and Disjunction. (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1997).

[14] Barbara Jones. Follies and Grottoes (Art & Architecture). (United Kingdom, Constable & Robinson Ltd. 1974).

© 2019 Jimmy Darling