I have always been intrigued by the fact that, if viewed from a certain distance and under a good light, in some ways even an ugly city can look like the promised land.
We also know that the atomic mushroom which rose above Hiroshima was a revelation of immense beauty for the American bomber-pilots.
So by taking an appropriate distance, a cruel spectacle can be appreciated independently of its moral implications, for we can even experience aesthetic pleasure in observing human suffering.
In literature, distance and detachment allow us to appreciate tragedy, but in architecture no valid aesthetic experience can exist without proximity, without the physical closeness to the mass and the details, without our experience of the constructed spaces. And it is this intimacy of the inhabitant with his home which must necessarily exclude all dominance of the tragic and the catastrophic from architecture. While this may appear self-evident, architectural deconstructivism is a tendency in design that confuses literature with architecture; a trend that, through an unbalancing and alienating plastic violence, wants to express the tragedy of our times through modern architecture. For its supporters, the memories of unprecedented crime must impregnate all of architectural design, and as a consequence of the Shoah, architecture should also be in mourning.
In my opinion, this attitude is understandable, but cannot be sustained because it cannot be generalized. If the above proposition were indeed true, it would not only upset architecture but it would have to deconstruct all artistic and technical culture; buildings, furniture and tools, industrial and healthcare infrastructures, transport systems and vehicles.
We are dealing with an absurd thesis that confuses the objective with the subjective. It interchanges the roles of memory and remembrance, mixes up mind and sentiment, amalgamates conscience and science, intellect and emotion.
Above all, it fails to grasp the diverging possibilities of literature and architecture.
It confuses the roles of the observer-spectator and the actor-inhabitant. We cannot actively inhabit tragedy without being overwhelmed by it, and we cannot be passive witnesses of an architecture that wants to aggress and destabilize us.
So what can possibly be the meaning of architectural deconstructivism, if any? Despite its weak intellectual and practical premises, it continues to occupy a lot of space in the architectural media, in public commissioning, and ultimately in academia.
In my mind there is a meaning to this of which few of its proponents are aware -- it's a cry in the darkness, a protest with confused motivations ... And yet, it may, like any daft theory or religion, produce in the hands of a gifted designer, interesting plastic and moving artistic results. Nevertheless, to propose it as a general theory for urbanism and architecture is literally irresponsible; to build entire villages, cities, landscapes and countries -- or systematically intervene in traditionally composed contexts -- according to its arcana would be absurd, if it wasn't simply impracticable and unaffordable.
In linguistics, deconstruction and decryption are established means of evidencing the constitutive elements of a text; of laying bare its evident or hidden meanings and structures. Their ultimate goal is construction and communication, not chaos and revolt.
Instead, what has become known as "architectural deconstruction" is an entirely different affair. It is in fact a state of crisis within architectural modernism only. It occupies itself not with true deconstruction but rather with the destruction, destructuring and fragmenting of modernist building elements, and aesthetics. It does not put into question, engage in dialogue with, or replace the theory and practice of traditional architectures, because that is quite simply not its concern. The buildings of Eisenman, Gehry, and Hadid are gut-reactions against the collectivism and scalelessness, the oppressive massiveness, cloned repetitiveness, and ultimately against the obsolete industrial imperatives of modernism.
Paradoxically, what can be mistaken for expressions of violence and grief often turn out to have the contrary effect. Deconstructivism's breaking up of large building programs into a multiplicity of smaller fragments makes their buildings more approachable than the bland, scaleless and faceless bulks of routine modernism. The latter's mind-killing uniformity and semantic emptiness, the literal embodiments of a totalitarianism that destroys the individual, family, society -- indeed, life -- are turned here into picturesque fields of ruins. Didn't the shattered remnants of the World Trade Center look shockingly as if they were designed by Frank Gehry?
Deconstructivist buildings indeed look like modernist buildings in a ruined state.
But how can this lead to anything more than a celebration of protest, chaos, or tragedy? Can we avoid it leading to an inevitable crisis in the literal meaning of transition?
Eisenman's urban scheme for the Berlin-Tiergarten looked in plan curiously similar to the old hill-town in which I live. You cannot find in either one a single truly straight line or right angle. Eisenman's buildings, like organic bodies, twist and bend, lean over backwards and forwards, and never describe an abstract Euclidean figure. They neither bore, nor overwhelm you. They look natural but actually are not, because they are merely paraphrases or stage-sets of ruin and accident. When approaching Gehry's Bilbao Museum I was reminded more of piling rock formations, or drifting icebergs than of anything architectural -- whether traditional or modernist. The "train-crash", "ruins", or "earthquake" metaphors so often associated with deconstructionist buildings are not accidental.
Natural mineral landscapes are always eroded, broken-up or ruined versions of previously differently shaped and constituted solids. They are as far removed from the cloned abstractions of modernism as they are from the geometric and typological inventions of traditional architecture and urbanism. I believe that, despite its theoretical gobbledygook and nonsensical declarations, deconstructivism is but a series of failed escapes from modernism. The tyranny of excessive abstraction is here giving way to the tyranny of an impossible "naturalness".
Traditional architecture is instead a man-made artifice. It's part of technology; it is neither an imitation of natural forms, nor does it use the artifices of literature. It is -- like organic nature -- typological, technological, and re-productive. It is erosion-resistant. Traditional buildings are conceived to resist normal wear and tear as much as natural erosions. Deconstructivist buildings instead are fragile representations and celebrations of eroded forms, with little resistance to natural erosion and human wear and tear.
For architectural design, memory is neither a moral precept, nor an archive of deadly testimony; it is on the contrary an instrument of knowledge and know-how. In the genesis of architecture, memory represents an inventory of practical and aesthetic solutions that respond to the recurring practical problems of building construction -- it is the treasure house of the great art of building.
Traditional architecture creates a wide inventory of building techniques, building types, and settlement patterns for which there is no direct precedent in nature nor parallel in literature. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, it is that very artificiality which makes it into a properly human and humane invention.