Deconstructivists Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When architects presented the skewed, poetic distortions of modernism at the Museum of Modern Art, their work enriched a pluralistic design scene but revealed the confused politics and aims of avant-garde architecture.

Summary of Event

The exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture was the belated public debut of a tendency that had been developing for several years. Postmodernism, using past styles to break modernism’s stifling insistence on logic and function, was the leading architectural force of the 1980’s. During the years in which postmodernism took shape, however, some architects used theoretical projects to advance a less simple approach. Like the postmodernists, they denied modernism’s simplistic “form follows function” rules, welcomed visual and conceptual complexity, and stressed architecture’s confused social situation. They kept modernism’s abstract forms, industrial materials, and visible structural elements, however. These were combined in unsettling, seemingly chaotic ways—attacking just those qualities of stability, harmony, and intelligibility that the public valued in postmodernism. Museum of Modern Art (New York) Architecture;deconstructivism Museums Deconstructivist Architecture (art exhibition) Art;museums [kw]Deconstructivists Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (June 23-Aug. 30, 1988) [kw]Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Deconstructivists (June 23-Aug. 30, 1988) [kw]Museum of Modern Art, Deconstructivists Exhibit at the (June 23-Aug. 30, 1988) [kw]Modern Art, Deconstructivists Exhibit at the Museum of (June 23-Aug. 30, 1988) [kw]Art, Deconstructivists Exhibit at the Museum of Modern (June 23-Aug. 30, 1988) Museum of Modern Art (New York) Architecture;deconstructivism Museums Deconstructivist Architecture (art exhibition) Art;museums [g]North America;June 23-Aug. 30, 1988: Deconstructivists Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art[06840] [g]United States;June 23-Aug. 30, 1988: Deconstructivists Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art[06840] [c]Architecture;June 23-Aug. 30, 1988: Deconstructivists Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art[06840] Johnson, Philip Wigley, Mark Wrede, Stuart Eisenman, Peter D. Gehry, Frank

The approach was most intensely pursued at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) in New York City, a study and exhibition center run by Peter D. Eisenman. The IAUS had supported postmodernist architects as well, and Eisenman was first linked with that movement, as were the unusual designs of Frank Gehry. Postmodernism’s turn toward literal historicism and cooperation with developers made that label no longer fit.

Starting in 1985, several people—the Chicago architects Paul Florian Florian, Paul and Stephen Wierzbowski, Wierzbowski, Stephen an employee of Gehry’s named Aaron Betsky, Betsky, Aaron and The New York Times writer Joseph Giovannini Giovannini, Joseph —began separately to plan exhibitions or books on this destabilized modernism. The two Chicagoans eventually gave their material to Betsky. In the summer of 1987, Betsky and Giovannini both discussed their plans with Philip Johnson, a perennial and powerful enthusiast for radical architecture. Johnson had supported the IAUS financially and served as a mentor to Eisenman, which made him a kind of godfather to the “deconstructivist” tendency (Giovannini’s term). Although he had designed postmodernism’s landmark AT&T Building, Johnson had begun to lose interest in the style by 1987. Since his advocacy of modernism over historicism in the early 1930’s, he had always delighted in attacking the architectural status quo. “Deconstructivism” appealed to him as an intellectually ambitious way to produce exciting forms while discrediting architectural order itself.

Johnson approached Stuart Wrede, the acting director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, and asked that he be allowed to mount a show on the deconstructivists at the museum. Johnson had set up the department in 1932 to propagandize for modernism and was now a museum trustee. It amused the eighty-one-year-old architect to end his career with a last statement at the museum department he had founded. He made it clear that Wrede’s handling of the show might determine whether Johnson would support him for the post of permanent director of the department.

Deconstructivist Architecture ran at MOMA from June 23 until August 30, 1988. It presented works by Eisenman, Gehry, and five others—the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Koolhaas, Rem the American Daniel Liebeskind, Liebeskind, Daniel the Iraqi-born London architect Zaha Hadid, Hadid, Zaha the Viennese firm Coop Himmelblau, Coop Himmelblau and the Swiss-born Bernard Tschumi. Tschumi, Bernard (Tschumi and Koolhaas had been at the IAUS, and Hadid had worked for Koolhaas.) The mostly unbuilt projects differed widely in materials and moods, from Gehry’s unpretentious, cheap materials to Liebeskind’s nightmarish explosions of lines and beams. The works shared a distortion of modernism’s right angles into broken, clashing trajectories; a deliberate confusion of modernism’s “functional” parts, so that enclosures became ruptured cages and cantilevers held up too much or not at all; and a subversion of modernist abstract shapes into junk assemblages or violated masses.

In his text for the exhibition catalog for Deconstructivist Architecture, Princeton academic Mark Wigley argued that this chaotic aesthetic came from a unified theory and a common art-historical source. “Deconstructivism” was a pun on both. Architects had always limited themselves by striving for purity and harmony in their work. In deconstructionist literary criticism, a movement associated with the French thinker Jacques Derrida, Derrida, Jacques supposedly monolithic terms of meaning (words and narratives themselves) were revealed as arbitrary impositions of stability, the writer’s authoritarian inventions. The critic must distort and misuse the text’s words until the text’s true disorder is revealed. Likewise, deconstructivist architecture attacked the empty authority of architectural “rules,” especially modernism’s, by misusing architecture’s “words”—structure, abstract form, orderliness—in deliberately unresolved ways. The style was a Derridean transformation of the most exciting and utopian brand of modernism, the slashing diagonals and floating abstract forms of Russian constructivism in the 1920’s.

The show was widely publicized but almost universally condemned—less for the work than for Johnson’s and Wigley’s blanket arguments. Literary deconstruction was so fashionable among intellectuals that its use to justify a new style seemed cynical. The link to constructivism looked contrived to make deconstructivism palatable by giving it an art-historical pedigree. The idea of an architecture that spurned coherence and usefulness sounded like an extreme version of postmodernism’s ironies and contradictions but without any of its attempts at human context. Finally, Johnson’s own disruptive behavior—dropping his postmodernist allegiances and playing the MOMA show as a power game—looked like a surrender to nihilism.

Some of the show’s designs, said critics, were exciting and important. Johnson’s show infected them all with fashionmongering and the abuse of cultural power. MOMA’s decision to make Wrede permanent director of architecture was almost the only positive result of the show.


Despite poor responses to the deconstructivist show itself, many of the design approaches in the show were welcomed as reactions against postmodernism. The building boom of the 1980’s had seen many of postmodernism’s gestures toward scale and context become trivialized. Although the deconstructivist tendencies seemed unnecessarily ugly next to postmodernism’s more ingratiating shapes, they still represented an attempt to invent forms and think through their fundamentals instead of a manipulation of old ones to ironic intent. Reactions to particular designers in the exhibition varied. Whereas Eisenman’s unreadably complex abstract grids seemed to embrace futility and frustration too naïvely, Gehry’s junky assemblages—owing much more to abstract sculpture and the everyday environment than to Derrida—looked like personal architectural poetry.

The deconstructivist show’s failure was a sign that connections between avant-garde design and the architectural establishment had frayed beyond repair. Broadly speaking, the experiments in the show resisted the vision of modernism presented by Johnson and MOMA in 1932. Many of the great modernists of the 1920’s had been poetic dreamers and utopians, not simply functionalists. In Johnson’s first show, Modern Architecture, Modern Architecture (art exhibition) their investigations into unornamented form, functional planning, and mass-produced elements were reduced to a single style that met building functions cheaply and intelligently. By 1960, this reduction of the modernist experiment to dead-serious utilitarianism had become the norm throughout the world. Johnson and other celebrity designers presented minor, more tasteful variations on functionalism as novelty items—avant-garde designs as part of the upper-class lifestyle.

One response was the postmodernist movement, which Johnson also boosted as a fashion, yet as advanced art became increasingly difficult conceptually and unappealing visually, so that it could not easily become another beautiful plaything for collectors, many architects (notably the Italian collective Superstudio) argued that architecture must become just as difficult to co-opt. It was more important to critique the establishment’s architect/client system than to be a successful practitioner. Sharing the cultural upheavals and renewed political utopianism of the 1960’s, the architects later associated with deconstructivism took this route.

The personal visions that Johnson and Wigley lumped together in Deconstructivist Architecture were different ways of turning technology and abstraction into springboards for the imagination, keeping the individual freedom at the heart of modernism alive. Tschumi revived constructivism as a symbol of the lost hopes of the 1920’s, and Eisenman quoted Derrida to defend his unintelligibly complex productions. Koolhaas was interested in the playfulness of the “low-culture,” drive-in modernism of the 1950’s. Gehry showed the egalitarian potential of technology in his antielegant style, an “architecture without architects.” Liebeskind and Coop Himmelblau hoped their tangles of beams and lines would create liberating effects of taut, energized, ever-expanding space.

These approaches were difficult to bring into the mainstream because they were attempts to avoid the dead-end restrictions of a “style.” At the IAUS, distortion of mainstream forms for distortion’s sake could be appreciated as a critical statement. In actual buildings, how could such distortions be kept from looking like attention-grabbing stunts? One legacy of the 1960’s art scene was the idea of bringing antiart objects into the art world by attaching aesthetic manifestos to them. Eisenman’s application of deconstructionist theory to his buildings, for example, let him be more avant-garde than “mainstream” figures such as Richard Meier, Meier, Richard whose elegant grids actually looked much like Eisenman’s. The peril of deconstructivism’s avoidance of the status quo was that cultural proclamations would attract more attention than—or take the place of—thoughtful design.

This was the pitfall of Deconstructivist Architecture. Philip Johnson based much of his influence on reconciling avant-gardism with conventional taste, explaining how forms with radical agendas could be safely appreciated as beautiful buildings. By 1988, after postmodernism’s compromises, the design world was too self-conscious about theory’s relation to practice to believe such claims. In MOMA’s deconstructivist show, Johnson’s showmanship became a posture of attack for its own sake, but without real faith in a style that had been invented, explained, and accepted by others. The angry reaction revealed a hunger for more serious explanations of radical architecture and kept deconstructivism from becoming the fad that postmodernism had been.

Deconstructivism fell short as the avant-garde statement it was meant to be, yet it continued the questioning of architecture’s cultural place that postmodernism began; it also echoed the growing acceptance of disorder in culture, seen in such other forms as appropriationist art and rap music. In the widening architectural pluralism of the 1990’s, deconstructivism complemented Tod Williams Williams, Tod and Billie Tsien’s Tsien, Billie hard-edged investigations of materials and the dynamic, eccentric modernism of Arquitectonica. Arquitectonica Frank Gehry, already respected for his interesting but low-budget buildings, was hired by richer and more influential clients such as the Chiat/Day advertising agency. The more visually difficult approaches, such as Liebeskind’s German History Museum proposal for Berlin, had a wider audience in Europe. Tschumi created playful red-grid pavilions for the Parc de Villette in Paris that were widely admired, and he was also named dean of Columbia University’s School of Architecture.

It proved easier to move from imaginary projects to built work than critics had expected, but deconstructivism’s rarefied appeal and the recession of the early 1990’s kept its commissions at a generally “boutique” scale (single-family homes, cultural facilities, and interiors). Nevertheless, by moving away from the decorativeness of postmodernism and engaging with modernism’s original hopes, however self-consciously, deconstructivism was evidence of a new search for the fundamentals of modern design. Museum of Modern Art (New York) Architecture;deconstructivism Museums Deconstructivist Architecture (art exhibition) Art;museums

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Betsky, Aaron. Violated Perfection: The Architectural Fragmentation of Modernism. New York: Rizzoli, 1990. Brief illustrated work focuses on deconstructivism as a variant of modernism. Helpfully relates deconstructivism to postmodernist theory and downplays literary deconstruction. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Broadbent, Geoffrey. Deconstruction: A Student Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Presents a brief overview that sympathetically explains the Eisenman-Tschumi-Derrida wing of deconstructivism. Valuable for its inclusion of much European and Japanese work. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Cynthia, ed. Eisenman/Krier: Two Ideologies. New York: Monacelli Press, 2004. Collection of essays from a Yale School of Architecture symposium illustrates the opposing views on architecture represented by the modern designs of Peter Eisenman and the classic designs of Leon Krier. Contributors include historians and critics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jencks, Charles, et al. Deconstructivism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Collection features an explanatory essay by the leading critic and historian of post-1970 radical architecture as well as an interview with Peter Eisenman and a discussion of such related figures and firms as Emilio Ambasz and Morphosis. Wide-ranging volume provides in-depth discussion of individual figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norris, Christopher, and Andrew Benjamin. What Is Deconstruction? 1988. Reprint. London: Academy Editions, 1996. Brief volume succinctly explains deconstruction and presents examples, including illustrations of deconstructivist architectural works. Include bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sorkin, Michael. Exquisite Corpse: Writings on Buildings. New York: Verso, 1991. Reviews of the 1980’s New York architectural scene by a radical architect sympathetic to many of the deconstructivist designers but hostile to MOMA. Biased and journalistic, but valuable for its outside perspective on the deconstructivist architects and their show.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wigley, Mark, and Philip Johnson. Deconstructivist Architecture. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. Catalog for the MOMA show includes beautiful drawings but is very selective in its choice of architects and poorly thought out as an explanation of the movement. Johnson’s preface, in which he essentially dismisses the intentions of the architects and the show itself, is a revealing document.

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