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Building The Future By Breaking It Down: A Guide To Deconstructivist Architecture

If you’ve ever looked at a building and thought, “How the hell is that standing up?” or “Where the hell is the door?” chances are you’ve been looking at an example of Deconstructivist architecture. It’s the physical interpretation of Jacques Derrida’s trans-meta-metaphysical and Deconstructionist movement, no doubt the bane of your undergrad philosophy studies. An architectural antithesis to the post-Russian Revolution Constructivist movement, which sought to, as preeminent Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin said, “unite purely artistic forms with utilitarian.” Deconstructivism abandons strict architectural constructs in exchange for supremely forward-thinking projects, setting aside common concerns like structure, envelope, purity of form, and the universal design mantra that form follows function. Deconstructivism is architecturally manufactured chaos, and this freeform, anything-goes-so-long-as-it-stands-up style just so happens to be ringing in the future.

Whereas earlier movements like Modernist and Minimalist architecture produced stark, formal and often overbearing structures like Chicago’s IBM Plaza and New York City’s Lincoln Center (both of which look like they might be secret evil lairs), Deconstructivism brings the style, sensibilities and highly expressive artistic intent of a slew of signature creators back into the consciousness of architectural construction. Take Daniel Libeskind, for example, a Polish-Jewish architect known for his sharp, austere amalgamations of steel, glass and polygonal shapes pushed to their structural limits. His Frederic C. Hamilton building, an extension of the Denver Art Museum, emulates the nearby Rocky Mountain Peaks. His zig-zagging Jewish Museum in Berlin is meant to represent both a warped Star of David and the scar left on the human condition by the Holocaust. Then there’s the contorted, iconoclastic work of powerhouse team Herzog + De Meuron, whose Le Projet Triangle proposal for a residential living space in Paris’ Porte De Versailles resembles an eerie cross between the Louvre entrance and the Tyrell Building from Blade Runner.

Herzog + de Meuron’s Le Projet Triangle

Ridley Scott’s Tyrell Building.

What’s unifying, though, is an apparent disregard for sensibility. Why disassemble structure to the point where colliding planes and disjointed pieces instill public nausea? Why discard thousands of years of tried and true building principles, and risk millions of dollars in pursuit of improvisation? Because, according to Derrida, “architecture is nothing but one of many ways of communication.” And Peter Eisenman, perhaps another father of Deconstructivist architecture, once said, “architecture has one of two roles: it either reflects society, or in a sense is a precursor.”

Understanding and actually building deconstructively involves a whole lot more than sheer scribble, though most of Frank Gehry’s sketches may imply otherwise. Today, the process is assisted by computer technology via computer-assisted drafting techniques and generative architecture. A few architectural principles, however, still lay a framework (no pun intended) for understanding what rules these creators are breaking so effectively:

Structure: The way a building is pieced together to form a system capable of supporting itself. Where structure was once a utilitarian assemblage of columns, arches, and beams for the purpose of maintaining a building’s integrity, Deconstructivist architecture brings together disjointed and often opposing structural elements for purposes running the gamut from simple aesthetic pleasure to formal rejection of physical and geometric principles, including gravity.

Envelope: The physical “shell” of the building, which provides structural support, energy flow, weather resistance, and insulation. Where Modernism emphasized purity of form through simple, straight, and ordered envelopes that were pragmatically sound, Deconstructivist architecture fought back with non-rectilinear, often-disconnected envelopes, intricate combinations of materials, and an almost complete disregard for shelter from natural elements like light, heat, and even rain.

Ornament: Don’t expect to find any decorative elements in Deconstructivist architecture. Gone are the massive wall-to-wall frescoes and intricate hand-carved gargoyles of yesteryear. Deconstructivist architecture opts for the structure itself to be the art. Look in our photo gallery (above) and see if you can figure out why.

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