Play Architecture With Jacques the Deconstructivist

Daily Draw June 8th, 2012

Continuing with the second Joker in the deck I come across French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 74 in 2004. In this card he looks like a beguiling pied piper.

Strangely, I had only heard of the term “deconstruction” in relation to cookery. Many shows on the Food Network use this baffling term. Originally a philosophical term created by Jacques Derrida and applied to writing and literary criticism, it has romped through the humanities into several cultural areas, as a fashionable label that sounds very complicated and unusual.

It is complicated, even Derrida got confused by it. It’s about oppositions and paradoxes, a bit like playing with the differences of things to expose and undermine them and I suppose get at the truth. When you think of words and the tangle of ideas, this gets way too convoluted and labyrinth-like for me. However, applied to the physical in architecture, I find it interesting.

Architects were coming up with odd ideas about buildings before they latched onto Derrida, but it all came together when Derrida worked with American architect Peter Eisenman. They hashed this stuff around and it sounded good and everybody liked it and that’s how the trend took off.

So architects might take an archetypal structure like a house in the suburbs, an apartment building, or a museum, and take conventional ideas about rooms or windows and balconies and subvert them, twist them, do something unexpected, undermine convention. Here is a montage of examples of the style. Some of these are stand-alone designs and some are additions to pre-existing buildings.

There is a lot of play and literal flexibility in these designs that is part of the philosophy. Most of them I don’t mind, although I prefer the stand-alone buildings for reasons I will get to. My favourite is the one in the upper and lower left. It is nicknamed The Dancing House and is the Nationale-Nederlanden building in downtown Prague, Czech Republic. Designed by architect Frank Gehry with architect Vlado Milunić, it was completed in 1996. Gehry is very well known for his fondness of deconstruction and has a gift for it. He also did an addition for the Art Gallery of Ontario that is interesting.

Some architects get a bit precious with gobbledygook and Derrida terms like “metaphysics of presence” and “dialectics” or “trace and erasure.” I am guessing that “trace” refers to the trace of the archetype and “erasure” refers to what the architect does to erase that and get to some structure underneath. Dialectics is a philosophical term used for resolving different points of view to find the truth; in this case the archetype with the unexpected twist brings us to the truth, the honesty of the design.

Supposedly. Such philosophy and dogma can become facile and meaningless. People trot it out at parties trying to sound hip. But the germ of the idea is interesting applied to buildings.

One gentleman influenced greatly by Jacques Derrida is architect Daniel Libeskind, who lost control of the idea in one very sad instance. Yes it is my own beloved Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

I grew up in Toronto and visited this museum many times, it is a sacred space to me, just as much as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. On its own, this Libeskind building might be okay, it has an interesting look by itself, but the horrendous juxtaposition here is cartoonish and shows an ignorance and disregard for the existing building, which was built in 1912. The addition is called The Crystal, and I am unsure if it looks more like a tumour, or an alien ingesting the old building. Perhaps one day it will detach itself and go on a rampage and eat the Old City Hall?

Taste is a subjective reality, but the angles in these shapes create dead spaces and compacted areas inside the structure that are impractical for exhibits. A museum is all about exhibits, and an addition to this type of building is commissioned to provide more room, not truncate it into gnome holes. The architect forgot about snow loading in the winter and the structure had major water leakage. Cost overruns, technical difficulties, weather-related structural issues: this building is a poor advertisement for design. No doubt the hip in society derive satisfaction from the related dialectics at cocktail parties, but the poor design and disrespect for the purpose of a building is inexcusable. If only they’d given the commission to Frank Gehry, who has both taste and talent.

As a little joke, the playing card designers have set up the Jokers as two people who deconstruct, prod, and upset what has gone on so far. I thought that was a humorous way of putting it. Those of us who have played Gin Rummy or Crazy Eights or even Old Maid, understand how the Joker can be annoying and turn the whole game into a miserable experience!


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