Deconstructivism is a development of postmodern architecture that began in the late 1950s. It is influenced by the theory of “Deconstruction”, which is a form of semiotic analysis. It is characterized by fragmentation, an interest in manipulating a structure’s surface, skin, non-rectilinear shapes which appear to distort and dislocate elements of architecture, such as structure and envelope. The finished visual appearance of buildings that exhibit deconstructivist “styles” is characterized by unpredictability and controlled chaos.
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Modernism and postmodernism
Seattle Central Library by Rem Koolhaas and OMA
The term “Deconstructivism” in contemporary architecture is opposed to the ordered rationality of Modernism and Postmodernism. Though postmodernist and nascent deconstructivist architects both published in the journal Oppositions (between 1943 and 1954), that journal’s contents mark a decisive break between the two movements. Deconstructivism took a confrontational stance to architectural history, wanting to “disassemble” architecture. While postmodernism returned to embrace the historical references that modernism had shunned, possibly ironically, deconstructivism rejected the postmodern acceptance of such references, as well as the idea of ornament as an after-thought or decoration.
In addition to Oppositions, a defining text for both deconstructivism and postmodernism was Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). It argues against the purity, clarity and simplicity of modernism. With its publication, functionalism and rationalism, the two main branches of modernism, were overturned as paradigms. The reading of the postmodernist Venturi was that ornament and historical allusion added a richness to architecture that modernism had foregone. Some Postmodern architects endeavored to reapply ornament even to economical and minimal buildings, described by Venturi as “the decorated shed.” Rationalism of design was dismissed but the functionalism of the building was still somewhat intact. This is close to the thesis of Venturi’s next major work, that signs and ornament can be applied to a pragmatic architecture, and instill the philosophic complexities of semiology.
The deconstructivist reading of Complexity and Contradiction is quite different. The basic building was the subject of problematics and intricacies in deconstructivism, with no detachment for ornament. Rather than separating ornament and function, like postmodernists such as Venturi, the functional aspects of buildings were called into question. Geometry was to deconstructivists what ornament was to postmodernists, the subject of complication, and this complication of geometry was in turn, applied to the functional, structural, and spatial aspects of deconstructivist buildings. One example of deconstructivist complexity is Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, which takes the typical unadorned white cube of modernist art galleries and deconstructs it, using geometries reminiscent of cubism and abstract expressionism. This subverts the functional aspects of modernist simplicity while taking modernism, particularly the international style, of which its white stucco skin is reminiscent, as a starting point. Another example of the deconstructivist reading of Complexity and Contradiction is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts. The Wexner Center takes the archetypal form of the castle, which it then imbues with complexity in a series of cuts and fragmentations. A three-dimensional grid, runs somewhat arbitrarily through the building. The grid, as a reference to modernism, of which it is an accoutrement, collides with the medieval antiquity of a castle. Some of the grid’s columns intentionally don’t reach the ground, hovering over stairways creating a sense of neurotic unease and contradicting the structural purpose of the column. The Wexner Center deconstructs the archetype of the castle and renders its spaces and structure with conflict and difference. citation
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