IF THE CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE of curving and clashing geometries, convex and concave structures, tumbling cubes and angled walls, eruptions of glass and steel, shimmering in scattered world cities, appears too complex to be simply described, consider trying to chronicle it in a definitive treatise. That is what Joseph Giovannini has done in a highly anticipated new study entitled Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Disruptive Avant-Garde. A monumental, well-illustrated 876-page tome, the book, like the architecture it surveys, is as challenging as it is compelling.
For the last several decades, architecture, considered as a social art creating spaces and places for human life and endeavor, has been experiencing a discernible, if diffuse, revolution, which Giovannini heralds as “deconstructivism.” Donning the cloak of a lay historian as well as a practicing architect, he provocatively defines deconstructivism not as a circumscribed method but rather as the confluence of many transformative and oblique architectural interpretations operating under the banner of the avant-garde. He then proceeds to offer an authoritative study of avant-garde architecture as it has evolved over the last 100 years in a panoply of predominant styles and creative personalities.
To be sure, the acknowledged icons and star designers are richly displayed: Frank Gehry, Bernard Tschumi, Zaha Hadid, Manfred Wolff-Plottegg, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Thom Mayne. But Giovannini also identifies (and decodes the work of) a multitude of other talents that over the decades shaped and advanced the architectural paradigm: a meandering parade of theorists, artists, teachers, students, and schools. Whatever its origins, whomever its instigators, however labeled, the singular, chaotic architecture that evolved both challenged and fascinated the design community, arguably becoming the most disruptive and controversial of styles, according to Giovannini. Its shadowy precursors include rational, right-angled modernism and pretentious, fussy postmodernism.
The ascendancy of the avant-garde has been no less than a revolution in design and development, which like most revolutions, whether in politics or the arts, is fraught with intellectual distinctions, both coarse and fine. While assiduously documenting this insurgency, Giovannini confesses that it has consumed him for most of his long maverick career. The seed of the book, he tells us, was planted in 1987, when he was writing for The New York Times, after migrating from Los Angeles, where he had been exposed to architects “working, very improbably, with chaos.” Giovannini describes the researching and writing of this epic as a “bildungsroman,” an undertaking that came to form “an education that changed the way I see architecture, and at the same time, transformed my own work.” It also made him something of an advocate for the loosely defined movement the book chronicles, which may surprise some, such as the readers of this journal, who only know him as a ferocious critic and polemicist.
Giovannini traces the philosophical roots of avant-garde architecture to the budding of expressionism in Germany in the unsettled years following World War I, which by the 1960s had been transplanted to Southern California. There it bloomed into the 1980s, first modestly with Frank Gehry’s raw remake of his Santa Monica bungalow, draped with chain-link fencing and other common materials, and then in more elaborate and futuristic forms elsewhere in Los Angeles, as well as in cities across Europe and China (and, at present, increasingly worldwide).
These scattered conceits include the liquescent Disney Hall in Los Angeles; the angled Busan Center in South Korea; the sensuous Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh; the free-form Aliyev complex in Baku, Azerbaijan; the layered City of Culture in Santiago, Spain; and various contorted commercial high-rises in Frankfurt and Beijing, to name a few of the more striking buildings identified in Architecture Unbound. Most are markedly singular, with many having become icons beyond their intended functionality. Cited in particular by Giovannini is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Gehry, which followed his then-stalled Disney design experience, only on a larger scale. Thanks in part to advances in the digital rendering of curvilinear designs, Gehry created a wavy facade of glittering titanium that lent new life to an abandoned waterfront. According to Giovannini, the design was “a masterpiece,” that “catapulted this second tier, rust belt Spanish city onto the world’s cultural map.”
Also impressive was the fact that the design and construction of the 260,000-square-foot, four-story structure took just three years, coming in on budget and on time, an accomplishment aggressively publicized by the architect. This achievement helped to silence doubts that structurally complex avant-garde designs, while eye-catching and headline-grabbing, were notoriously pricey to build and maintain. As for the Guggenheim, its exhibit space was rumored by artists and curators not to serve the art particularly well, but the criticism was swiftly muted in the wake of the museum’s international eminence and the city’s burgeoning tourist trade — the so-called “Bilbao effect.”
Criticisms of the Bilbao Museum and several other deconstructivist designs — as well as what in the architecture profession are known as post-occupancy evaluations, or surveys of user experiences — are conspicuously absent from Giovannini’s otherwise encyclopedic study. In short, beyond how a building looks, the nagging question remains about how it works. And when such issues were raised by critics who are considered user advocates, as I was when reviewing for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, they were dismissed by the self-aggrandizing architects, their sycophantic sponsors, and their academic acolytes, all longing to be au courant.
Nevertheless, Giovannini writes that the Bilbao Museum’s opening in 1997 was a transformative event that ushered in a host of similarly ambitious projects worldwide, many larger and even more imaginative. And if these projects didn’t necessarily work as user-friendly architecture, their being labeled avant-garde ensured that they would be hailed as art. Meanwhile, cutthroat competition turned many architects into entrepreneurial pirates, and contemporary cityscapes, with their promise of treasure, the turbulent seas on which they sailed.
With 698 drawings and photographs, and an overall design by J. Abbott Miller and Yoon-Young Chai of Pentagram, the book is certainly imposing in its sheer bulk. It is also frankly a challenge to digest, given its academic vocabulary, as evinced on the book’s stark black-and-white cover, where, spinning off from the bold title, appear the words, “transgressive, oblique, aberrant, deconstructed, digital.” This is not a book for the Instagram-informed and Twitter-oriented, nor for mere display on a coffee table. It belongs, rather, on a sturdy dictionary stand, where it will become a valued reference, aided by a well-organized, comprehensive table of contents.
On the back cover, boldly displayed, is a declaration that concludes:
It had taken decades for architects, as shapers of alternative realities and curators of counterfactual enigmas, to arrive at this state of construction irrationality, to design in the moment for the moment when the floor tilted, the oblique acquired force, and the field started to break and buildings, move.
The more stable, if static, modernism may for most architects be more popular and prudent, however, and therefore more pursued and practiced. Further confronting the architectural profession at present is the urgent need for affordable shelter for an increasingly desperate, disparate population.
Yet the singular avant-garde designs surveyed in this book continue to mesmerize the profession and the public, demanding attention, engendering awe, and giving rise to a smattering of schadenfreude. They continue to challenge architecture’s long-standing conventional practices, hinting at a more interesting, if not more livable, urban future. That, of course, is what being avant-garde is wont to do. And Giovannini’s tome, which respectfully explores and celebrates this tradition, is a distinctive achievement, deserving of both patience and praise.
Sam Hall Kaplan is a distinguished print and broadcast journalist, author, and teacher, who has pursued parallel careers as an urban designer and planning strategist. Based in L.A., he has been an Emmy Award–winning reporter/producer for Fox Television News in Los Angeles, the design critic for the Los Angeles Times, an urban affairs reporter for The New York Times, an editor of the New York Post, and a contributor to popular and professional publications and broadcast outlets.