A Theoretical Framework Deconstructivism’ In Architecture

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In this research paper, I will critically analyze the architectural theme of ‘deconstructivism’ through its spatial, formal, tectonic, philosophical and other broad contextual (social, political, cultural, technological) characteristics and establish a theoretical framework. I will then proceed to evaluate an international and a South African project using this theoretical framework.

For us to first understand deconstructivism, we must first understand the program of deconstruction, and this can be found by exploring French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction. This concept was formulated in the 1960s out of the philosophical writings of Heidegger – which reveals a new way of thinking.

In a roundtable discussion between Derrida and Prof. Caputo at the Villanova University on October 2, 1994, later published by Caputo in 1997, Derrida stated “A deconstructive reading of Plato and Aristotle, would entail not repeating and conserving meaning, but would entail exposing the tensions and contradictions in their texts” – thus meaning that deconstruction aims at revealing the differences in concepts. Caputo however clams that, “… the very meaning of, and mission of deconstruction, is to show that things – texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs and practices of whatever size and sort you need – do not have definable meanings … that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy.” Deconstruction then aims at cracking open the nut, going beyond the boundary, depriving the presence of its prestige and exposing it to something totally different to the foreseeable present.

Deconstructivism tends to move away from the ‘rules’ of modernism such as “form follows function”, “purity of form” and “truth to materials” and rather wants to ‘disassemble’ architecture. It is a movement of postmodernism that is influenced by the geometric imbalances of Russian constructivism and futurism.

The main philosophy behind deconstructivism in architectural theory is concern with the “metaphysics of presence and identity”. This meaning that architecture is a language capable of communicating meaning and of receiving treatments by means of a detailed and analytical study of the language itself, understanding its structure, meaning, development and evolution through time – linguistic philosophy.

Buildings are made up of different three dimensional forms – cube, cuboid, spheres, pyramids etc. These forms are then sometimes merged together following rules of composition, thus creating harmony between forms and structural stability. Deconstructivism aims to break down as well as build up architectural forms into loose fragments of what these forms were and want to be. This means that it is a contamination of pure forms. However, deconstructivism is not derived directly from the philosophy of ‘deconstruction’, it is rather an emergence from within the architectural convention as it happens to show some deconstructive qualities. Below are some examples of buildings that are labeled as deconstructivist architecture.

The structure of a deconstructivist project is different from that of a conventional building – where a structure of planes is stacked up horizontally from the ground plane and placed within a regular form; is now warped. This manipulation of form pushes structure to its limits, but not beyond. This work produces a sense of unease as it is structurally frightening, but it is actually extremely solid.

Due to the change in the traditional thinking about structure, the traditional thinking about function also had to change.

“In deconstructivist architecture, the disruption of pure form provides a dynamic complexity of local conditions that is more congruent with functional complexity. Moreover, forms are disturbed and only then given a functional program. Instead of form following function, function follows deformation.”

These twisted spaces created within these physical forms challenges ones perception of space. The way one interacts with a deconstructed building on the outside is totally different to the way they would interact with it on the inside – as the sensory experience is different. When one looks at deconstructivist architecture, one can see that it is a further retreat from social processes. However, regarding its formal expressions as neutral or irrelevevant would be a mistake.

“Even artistic abstraction has social implications, and, given the increasingly conservative connotations of postmodern figuration, deconstructivism may well be an instance where abstraction takes on progressive resonances, as modernism did initially.”

Deconstructivism, coming out as a reaction to postmodernism, has its similarities with modernism; in the fact that it prefers abstract forms and rejects continuity and tradition. It also has an appeal towards technological imagery. All these are nostalgic of an earlier modern era. However, like postmodernism, it also discredits the fundamental ideology of the modern movement: structuralism rationalism, a belief in social regeneration and functionalism.

It is stated by Mary McLeod in the book ‘Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism’ that:

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“The focus in form in deconstructivist architecture, as in postmodern architecture, suggests that here, too, any political role that would challenge existing structures must reside in architecture’s nature as an object.”

If architecture however abandons its political role in the same sense as the modern movement – by seeking the transformation of production processes – it would now gain political power through the cultural sign. Deconstructivism still raises deeper political and ethical questions that are at the heart of the difficulties in linking its philosophy with politics.

Technology in deconstructivist architecture is experimental, and a source of pleasure and play. It is something to be taken advantage of explored in order to envision new forms and spatial possibilities.

Some key features of deconstructivist architecture includes:

  • Smooth exterior surfaces
  • A contrast and manipulation in shape and forms
  • A large expansion of a single material, like glass, steel, stone etc.
  • Forms that are completely unrelated to each other
  • Exposed materials
  • Abstract in nature.

Biocenter for the University of Frankfurt: peter eisenman.This project is based on a symmetrical distribution of laboratory units along a spine. The spine is a single extruded space – a long, transparent bar connected by bridges – which acts as the central circulation and social space. The laboratory units spaced out along the spine are modernist blocks organized by a rational system. Each of these blocks is given the form of one of the four basic shapes that biologists use as code to describe fundamental biological processes. This combination of abstract cubes and biological code, which is the basic form, is the warped and distorted to provide the functionally social and technical spaces required – function following the distorted form.

Another example of an international building that is based on the concept of deconstructivism or the work of a deconstructivist, is the Seattle Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA. The architect first looked at the city, and saw that it was a typical American city with skyscrapers, but however, existed where nature was strong and present. The architect also challenges the idea of the library. OMA explains in their study, “the new library does not reinvent or modernize the traditional, they are just packaged in a new way.”

They saw that libraries were very generic; reading rooms looked like the copy, which looked the like magazine area. This meant that whatever issue troubling the ‘library’ at that moment was starting to

engulf every other activity that was happening in it – in this case, what was getting engulfed were the social responsibilities of the book.

In this project, the concept of ‘form follows function’ was performed. This does not point towards deconstructivist architecture as it generally disagrees with the rules of modernism. A structure of boxes was stacked vertically on top of each other – each one placed to capture the different features in nature. However, the concept of placing five independent platforms vertically above each other, giving the priority to the surrounding views, and then wrapping the building in a frame of steel and glass does contain a shred of deconstructionism. The skin of the building serves a double purpose; structure and economics. It acts as the lateral stability for the entire building, but also designed to hold every single piece of glass.

“Partial control is exercised through the use of the frame. Each frame, each part of a sequence qualifies, reinforces, or alters the parts that precede or follow it… And each part is a statement against indeterminacy; indeterminacy is always present in the sequence, irrespective of its methodological, spatial, or narrative nature.”

One can see from the form and frame of the building that it is non-rectilinear in the way that the edges suddenly change direction, being almost unpredictable, but controlled in its chaos.

The inside spaces are divided into five different main blocks: the parking, the public area in the main the large atrium and the main library space, the information area where the public computers are located, the reading rooms and collection area, and the administrative area. The prime feature of this building is the public spaces and leisure reading area, which is lit up by the natural light coming from the glass walls. The architects realized that public libraries were that last vestige of public free space. So the public space, called the ‘living room’, was an unprogrammed area where people could interact with each other.

Another important interior feature is the spiral structure that runs up four floors, with a system of zigzag ramps allowing you to access the different floors.

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