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Deconstruction and Architecture by Margot Jack(cont)

The metaphysical distinction between Speech and Writing, as it is made in the works of Hegel (Hegel privileges speech over writing because of the materiality of the former), is confronted and undone by Derrida, who is able to disrupt this argument by rendering the question of materiality immaterial, that is:

“by finding again the immaterial originary trace, the spacing that makes possible both writing and speech, as a necessary but repressed aspect of Hegel’s argument”[15]( Kipnis, J., /Twisting the Separatrix/, p.39).

As far as the distinction between sigh and symbol is concerned, according to Hegel the sign is an unmotivated vector of meaning (unlike the symbol, which is motivated and thus limited by its referent) and it is arbitrarily related to its referent. Derrida subverts Hegel’s sign/symbol distinction, precisely by tracking the operations in his writing of the pyramid – as it is the pyramid that for Hegel is the quintessence of Architecture, and proof of its power and limitation. As Architecture has always been a central cultural institution valued above all for its provision of stability, precisely because it is a scsne of stability unlike any other (physical, aesthetic, historic, economic, social, and political), it is a major test for Deconstruction, yet in respect of thinking, the challenge presented by Deconstruction to Architecture is the same as the challenge it presents to all the arts, as well as philosophy, because it is a challenge that, initially takes place on the level of thinking. Associated both with Post-Structuralism (Deconstructionism) and Russian Architecture, the Deconstructivist Architecture was at the beginning a one man movement advanced by Peter Eisenman. Architect and educator, Eisenman, was the founder and the former Director of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City. His early work draws especially on the Italian Rationalism associated with Giuseppe Terragni. Eisenman’s buildings are products which he numbers as abstract works of art, at the same time, architectural experiments in which he investigates the meaning of form, or the relationship of form and function. What Eisenman has sought since the late sixties is an Architecture that would be an opaque formal system, so that a column would no longer signify support and a staircase would no longer indicate anthropomorphic access between floors. In the 80’s his work became associated with Post-Structuralism, while recently it shifted from Post-Structuralism to Mathematics, his architectural discourse involving Fractal Geometry as the generative technique (Bio Center Project). In recent years a number of other architects have been grouped with him. According to Mark Wigley, the Deconstructive Architecture (or at least the projects displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on the occasion of the exhibition Deconstructive Architecture, June 23 – August 30, 1988) is not an application of Deconstructivism. It rather emerges from within the architectural tradition and it happens to exhibit some deconstructive qualities, when it says:

 “Do not destroy; maintain, renew, and reinscribe. Do battle with the very meaning of the architectural meaning without proposing a new order. Avoid a reversal of values aimed at an unaesthetic, uninhabitable, unusable, asymbolic and meaningless architecture. Instead destabilize meaning”[16]( Kipnis, J., /Twisting the Separatrix/, p.31).

 And to destabilize meaning is to pay respect to all possible meanings, as a consequence of the congenital instability of writing. The deconstructive architect focuses his attention on the pure forms of the architectural tradition in order to identify the the symptoms of a Repressed impurity [17](Wigley, M., Deconstructivist Architecture, p.11).

The impurity is drawn to the surface, the form is interrogated. What is peculiarly disquieting it is that the distortion seems to be part of the form, as if some kind of parasite has distorted the form from the inside. But as to remove the parasite would be to kill the host (as they comprise a symbiotic entity), it is not possible to free the form  - perfection is secretly monstrous (or with a “vice dies one “quality”). According to Wigley again, that which personifies the pure form, the nightmare of Deconstructivist Architecture inhabits the unconscious of pure form rather than the unconscious of the architect. What the architect has to do is merely to countermands traditional formal inhibitions in order to release the suppressed alien. In so doing, the architect produces a devious architecture, in which form distorts itself in order to reveal itself anew.




Coming back to Derrida it is worth saying that he delimits the interconnection between Deconstruction and Architecture in the following way:

“To deconstruct an artefact named architecture, is perhaps to start to think it as an artefact, to rethink the artefacture from it, and the technique, therefore, in this point where it remains [reste] uninhabitable”[18]( Norris, C. & Benjamin, A., What is Deconstruction?, p.37).

 In asking if such architecture is habitable, ones attention is not necessarily focused on what is to count as habitable space, but rather on whether the habitation is or is not the telos  or the goal of Architecture. Can Architecture both disturb and unsettle at the same time as house and settle? What Eisenman suggests is that a building has to function, but it does not have to look like it functions, that a building has to stand up, but it does not have to look like it stand up, and when it does not look like it function, or it does not look like it stands up, then it stands and it functions differently. As between Derrida’s thinking and his own there is a profound identity, these questions are addressed by Peter Eisenman through a process which he calls Dislocation. This has to do chiefly with those traditional binary oppositions between structure and decoration, abstraction and figuration, figure and ground, form and function, categories within which Eisenman’s architecture could begin an exploration of the between, between its old past and a repressed present. Eisenman suggests that to think such a radical transformation in our concepts is by way of linguistic figuration, especially those tropes that exert the most violently disruptive effect – like catachresis (the Greek for “misuse”). Paradox is central to Dislocating: a dislocating architecture must be at once presence and absence. Eisenman’s intention is to allow for the unintended, in a sense of giving a place to what which cannot be predicted: and if there is anything attractive about the building, then it is the result of chance – a search no longer dominated by Teleology. In Derrida’s words:

“What I hold and what in turn holds me in its grip, is the aleatory strategy of someone who admits that he does not know where he is going”[19](Sallis, J.(Ed.), Deconstruction and Philosophy, p.Xii).

Eisenman explains that one has to pull apart the one-to-one relationship between structure, form, meaning, content, symbolism, etc., so that it would be possible to make many meanings: that is to pull sign and signifier apart, and it has been suggested that it is possible to cut the fixed and supposedly immutable relationship between them. What one might call free floating signs [20](Eisenman,P., Architecture and the Problem of the Rhetorical...,p.19) – signs without the necessary meanings or the necessary relationship to their object – would be the result after cutting this relationship. In his letter to Eisenman, Derrida asks:

“What would be an architecture that, without holding, without standing upright, vertically, would not fall again into ruin? How do all these possibilities and even questions (those of holding up, holding together, standing or not) record themselves, if you think that they do? What traces do they leave?”[21](Derrida, J., A letter to Peter Eisenman, p.13)

 Eisenman believes that it is improbable to effect in architecture what Derrida does in language. In Eisenman’s view, Derrida’s deconstruction of presence/absence dialectic is inadequate for architecture precisely because architecture is not a two-term, but a three-term system[22](Eisenman, P., Post/El Cards..., p.16). Architecture, unlike language, is dominated by presence, by the real existence of the signified. As Eisenman puts it, architecture requires one to detach the signified not only from its signifier, but also from its condition as presence. He believes that in architecture there is another condition, which he calls Presentness [23]( Eisenman, P., Post/El Cards..., p.16), a state that is neither absence nor presence, form nor function, neither the particular use of a sign nor the reality, but rather an excessive condition between sign and the Heideggerian notion of being (the late notion of the being as the process of the coming-to-pass of the truth). Eisenman thinks that as long as there is a strong bond between form and function, sign and being, the excess that contains the possibility of presentness will be repressed. What his architecture addresses is in his own words:

“The need to overcome presence, the need to supplement an architecture, that will always be and look like architecture, the need to break apart the strong bond between form and function[24](Eisenman, P., Post/El Cards..., p.16).

 Eisenman’s architecture is challenging precisely because it attacks traditional modes of anthropocentric representation – which he describes as “dangerous illusion”[25](Whiteman, Kipnis, Burdett, Strategies in Architectural..., p.182). Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Ohio, is described by its architect as a non-building, or an archaeological earthwork whose essential elements are scaffolding and landscaping, a fractured and incomplete-looking building:

“Instead of symbolising its function as shelter, or as a shelter for art, it acts as a symbol of art as process and idea, of the ever changing nature of art and society:[26](Eisenman, P., Architectural Design, Vol.58, No.3/4, 1988, p.63)


In another celebrated building, the Biocenter for the University of Frankfurt, the initial formal conditions were created by extruding forms drawn from biological symbols. Eisenman has created a complx dialogue between the basic forms,  which were operated on with an amalgam of processes drawn from DNA replication and Fractal Geometry, and its distortions. The project is based on a symmetrical distribution of laboratory units along a spine which acts as the central circulation and social space. Because elements along this axis are relocated, they begin to also superimpose on other elements to reveal unexpected correspondences. What is revealed from the initial superpositions cannot be predicted. The result is a project showing a figurative architecture, where the architectonic construction is brought to reflect the most profound building system there is – that of life. The transformation of theory and the transformation of art go hand in hand.

Yet, as Peter Eisenman says:

“It is not so much that the look of architecture will change (architecture will always look like architecture) but rather the style and the significance of its look will be different”[27](Eisenman, P., Architecture as a Second Language, p.73).

 Copyright ©2009  Margot Jack