What Is Deconstructivist Architecture?

If you’re passionate about architecture, you definitely had a moment at some point, no matter your level, from beginner enthusiast to Pritzker Prize winner, when you asked yourself, “What the [expletive] is deconstructivist architecture?” (Quick side note: Microsoft Word keeps underlining the word “deconstructivist,” insisting that this word doesn’t exist. Which, somehow, actually makes complete sense). The philosophical movement “deconstruction,” which is where deconstructivism derived, is theoretical and complex enough to understand, but it becomes even more confusing within the context of architectural theory because buildings are literally “constructed” by construction professionals. So naturally when people hear the word they immediately think it’s the process of demolishing a building. But no — that would just be too easy, now wouldn’t it? Because “deconstruction” was actually started by some smarty pants French/Algerian guy named Jacques Derrida in his book Of Grammatology.

So What Is Deconstruction?

Deconstruction is a late 20th century philosophical movement primarily fathered by Derrida. It basically sought to undermine preconceived beliefs surrounding reason and logic (things that previous philosophers such as Kant and the Enlightenment revered). Instead, Derrida argued that meaning, from words, symbols (actually, remember symbols for later — it’s what deconstructivist architecture is founded upon), or whatever, exist because of relationships, the yin and yang between things. Good exists only because of bad; a chair is a chair and has meaning to us (the audience) as a chair because we know what isn’t a chair, etc. In addition, the meaning of a thing changes over time. Today, in 2016, a laptop has a particular meaning and significance but will it have the same meaning and significance in a thousand years? Today, if someone showed you a sword or armor, would you actually think they’re taking that thing into battle? Or would you think they just were into collecting antiques? Anyway, the whole point is that the meaning of anything is fluid, always changing based on context, relationships to other things, cultural attitudes, gender, age, time, and other factors too.

Semiotics: How This Relates to Architecture

First off, let’s define semiotics, a word maybe you learned in college and probably forgot about as soon as the class was over. It’s the study of non-verbal communication, and how we derive meaning from symbols. Now, take this through the same line of thinking Derrida applied to words — symbols take on different meaning depending upon context, relationships to other things, cultural attitudes, time, and other factors too. A classic architectural example of the fluidity of symbolic representation is how classical Greek columns, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian order, receive different responses throughout history. In its inception Doric columns were considered masculine, Corinthian was feminine, and Ionic was neutral. But hundreds of years later during revivalist periods of architecture, when these same columns were built, viewers responded saying that Corinthian was strong and straight-forward, or in other words, masculine. Same column, different response. Who’s right? This is when we would quote Le Corbusier and say, “It’s life that’s always right, and the architect who’s wrong.”

So now, what is deconstructivist architecture? It’s basically saying, “The hell with those symbols anyway . . .” because who knows what they mean? It’s about fragmentation — challenging the idea of what a building or structure even is. So, late 20thcentury architects like Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, and company said, let’s make buildings that sway and wave like they’re being blown around by the wind. Let’s make them bend. Let’s make them interact. Let’s make them human. Let’s make them not only stand out, but disrupt the system. Let’s change the landscape, change cities, and change lives. Let’s make weird looking windows and build staircases to nowhere. Because, what’s a staircase anyway?

And so on, and so forth.

To Review:

Modernism = “Less is more.”

Postmodernism = “Less is a bore.”

Deconstructivism = WEEEEEeeeeeeeEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeEEEEEEEeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!