Deconstructivism | The Kamikaze Mission

Philip Johnson was, of course, the ultimate operator. While collaborating on an upcoming exhibition with Mark Wigley, a young architecture historian, he gave an interview to the New York Times. “I’m putting together the models and pictures for a show I’m guest-curating at the Museum of Modern Art called ‘Deconstructivist Architecture,’” he said about six months prior to the exhibit’s opening in 1988. “It’s the first movement since the International Style to get me excited.” This was a sly and loaded statement coming from the father of modernism (and the wealthy stepfather of postmodernism). Here was the arbiter of architectural taste for the 20th century declaring, preemptively, the arrival of a new movement.

What was supposed to be a showcase for a burgeoning aesthetic ended up including just seven architects and firms: Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Bernard Tschumi. When the show opened in June, the critical reaction was split between those willing to take Johnson’s proclamation at face value and those who dismissed it as an exercise in kingmaking (“Philip’s favorite architects”). For Wigley, the cocurator from New Zealand, the landmark show was something else entirely. Here Wigley, now the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, talks to us about the making of the exhibition and the not-so-secret agenda behind it.

What inspired the show?
The context of that time was still postmodernism whiplash. At some point in 1987, I became involved in discussions at MoMA, and since I was in my obnoxious phase, when I thought everything I was hearing was stupid—and I told them as much—they came back with, “Well, what would you do?”

What was it like working with Philip?
I remember an early dinner in which there were, like, 15 people—Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, etc. This was a kind of event in which I lacked any social charm, but as a New Zealander, I could get away with it. I exhibited the kind of savagery expected of someone coming from far away. Philip was pretty disconnected from the MoMA, but his shadow loomed large because he had been such a remarkable curator. And at that point I don’t think the museum liked him at all. He had done so many groundbreaking things, and the museum was not at the time in a groundbreaking mode, particularly the department of architecture. So obviously, Johnson’s plan was to wake the museum up. They were not happy with his ideas. It was like the old man coming back to shake up his own house. He had decided to come back and totally rearrange the furniture. For me, it was extremely interesting.

How did you organize the material?
It was about six months of thinking about what the show could be. The show went from trying to capture many different aspects of architecture, and many different architects, to just a handful. The mission was obvious: to kill postmodernism. It was never said. It never had to be said. It was simply a group of people talking about new experiments, new ideas, and the need to discuss them. If that’s what the discussion was, all of the so-called debates about postmodernism would become immediately uninteresting.

Where does Johnson’s AT&T Building fit into your critique of postmodernism?
I think it’s a good project. But it was certainly going to be part of the collateral damage. AT&T is a good building because Johnson exaggerated the arguments of postmodernism to the point of parody. You might say: “Well, look where it’s going. I want the whole thing to stop now!” But it’s not a boring building. There were a lot of buildings being done in the name of postmodernism that were. So the purpose of the exhibition was to remove that anesthetizing discussion from the table, not by attacking it directly but by providing a more interesting conversation.

How were those seven architects chosen?
It wasn’t really seven architects but a set of projects that happened to be done by those architects. The main point argued was that there was a key connection between these very different projects. They raised a question in a particular way, through a specific kind of entangled play between structure and ornament. All of them were making a reference back to the Russian avant-garde at the turn of the century. This was explicit. Each of them used the Russian avant-garde as a form of dynamite against generic modernism. None of the architects was operating as if he was on a team. None of them subscribed to the position of the show. Nor were they asked to. None of them thought even the work they were doing was the way to anyone else’s future. What the exhibition did was take a narrow set of projects and make a narrow argument that might make us think about buildings in a different way. There was absolutely no intention of creating a “school.” On the contrary, it was a kamikaze project.

But by their inclusion in the show, these architects became, in effect, leaders of the new avant-garde.
They ended up doing extraordinarily well. But it’s the chicken and egg. Did these people do well because they were interesting, or did MoMA accelerate their success? Surely it’s a combination. But I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of these architects to succeed regardless. These are highly creative, relentless, megalomaniac figures. No institution, no client, no school, could really get in their way. They used the exhibition, and the exhibition used them to make a point. We were combining them, almost illicitly, to produce an argument. That’s why I insisted in the catalog that deconstructionist architecture was not an ism. It was not a movement.

What do you mean by an “ism”?
An ism is when an idea is reduced to a collective school, a standard set of assumptions on autopilot. Someone can make a pragmatist statement, but the moment we discuss them under “pragmatism,” they become part of a school. It moves from taking a position to adopting it, defending it to selling or marketing it. The deconstructivist show was an attack on an ism: postmodernism. It’s an old story. Take a figure like Le Corbusier. His first book is called After Cubism. His first move is against an ism. By 1929, Henry-Russell Hitchcock is writing a book called Modern Architecture, which is already a repackaging. Three years later he and Johnson curate the International Style show, and we go down a gift-wrapping path that will eventually lead to the soft word modernism. Most people don’t think of modernism as a negative term, but it’s supernegative in turning diverse experiments into a school, a style, a preconceived approach, an ism. This sets up the interesting position, because MoMA is a repackaging center for isms. So to do this sabotage of postmodernism there and not create a new school took a lot of care. Since Johnson’s 1932 show repackaged modern architecture into a style, there was every reason for the audience to think the same thing was happening here, but the specific projects chosen and the way they were framed were meant to make that difficult, a poison pill. My general position is: anything that’s an ism in architecture needs some dynamite. Doesn’t matter where or when. Any ism works against the capacity of the architect to offer new ways of thinking. Take people interested in being responsible about energy. When their work turns into an ism, as much of the green movement has, they’re no longer in a position to help us think about energy. The thinking is gone. We all should look at great American work by the pragmatists. But as an ism, it’s less great.

Where did the term deconstructivist come from?
The term is kind of a clumsy combination of constructivist and deconstruction. There are about four million people who all believe they invented the expression. I think it invented itself. Deconstruction was not some avant-garde fancy thing for the future. It is an important but already old philosophical position from the late ’60s. And like many forms of thinking, it made its way into architecture.

What was the critical reaction to the show?
It was controversial. It was meant to be supercontroversial. I was new to the supposedly cosmopolitan architectural world, so I was surprised that a lot of people could write so effusively about an exhibition that they never saw and texts they never read. The show was a convenient vehicle for everyone to get up on their soapbox. It was more embarrassing to me when people wrote how spectacularly wonderful it was without any sense of what the show was about. That was almost worse than people saying they hated the show for equally formulaic reasons. The quality of the discussion was regrettable, but I do think the show created a lot of space for the architects to move forward and a new generation to emerge. Its reputation is now embarrassingly positive. But if it helped raise architectural ambition without monumentalizing, without creating a successor to postmodernism, then I think it did its job.

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