Rendering of Zollhoff Media Park by Zaha Hadid
Zaha Hadid, Zollhof Media Park, Düsseldorf, Germany. 1989–93. IMAGE © ZAHA HADID FOUNDATION

A New Book Chronicles the Turbulent History of Architectural Complexity

Joseph Giovannini’s Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Disruptive Avant-Garde is a monumental exploration of non-conformist design.

The marquee-busting title says it all: Joseph Giovannini’s Architecture Unbound is an ambitious attempt to explore the wilder shores of design and explain how and why maverick architects have dared greatly. It’s also a wide-ranging introduction to artists who laid the groundwork for architectural innovation a century ago; to the philosophers and theorists who mapped new ways of thinking, and to the complexities of chaos theory, parametrics and software programs that have shaped exceptional buildings over the past few decades.

An 800-page tome with a thousand-plus endnotes could intimidate all but specialists and dedicated students. But in fact, it’s surprisingly readable and well-argued: mercifully free from the academic jargon and hectoring polemics that flourish in this field.  One can count on erudition and lively writing from Giovannini, a critic who has long championed the avant-garde. He has even practiced it on a modest scale, and he dedicates this study to his wife and daughter for their tolerance of a tilted apartment. The book itself is tilted. Pentagram have laid out the text in subtly angled blocks and their cover is a worthy tribute to Alexander Rodchenko, the master of Constructivist typology. There’s an abundance of well-captioned images of celebrated and unfamiliar buildings, along with related artworks.

Disruption is the overriding theme. The narrative jumps abruptly from one topic or era to another and back. A prologue describes the angular skyscraper that houses the European Central Bank in Frankfurt as a “contemporary Leaning Tower of Pisa,” and a badge of acceptance for Coop Himmelb(l)au, who were anarchists in their early years. Then, in quick succession, come quotes from Virginia Woolf, Thom Mayne and Colette; an iconoclastic collage by Stanley Tigerman, radical designs from 1983, and a section on how the arts moved beyond realism from the 1890s on. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy flight. 

Giovannini cites Claude Parent—a productive and radical French architect who lapsed into obscurity—as a major influence on contemporary practitioners, along with Gordon Matta-Clark (who sawed buildings apart) and Lebbeus Woods (who built almost nothing but drew divinely). He praises Frank Gehry for his intuitive approach to design, modeling by hand and exploring many iterations before allowing his computer-savvy associates to create working documents, and he is equally passionate about Zaha Hadid’s visionary drawings and her mastery of sensuously flowing forms. His embrace of Peter Eisenman is less convincing. This is the architect whose obsession with underlying geometries produced a house with a rift through the bedroom floor, and the oddly distorted Aronoff Center for Design and Art in Cincinnati. Eisenman admits that the key decisions on Aronoff were made by the computer and observes, “I don’t know if I like the way it looks but the issue is irrelevant.” One wonders if the users are equally unconcerned. 

Model of Steel Cloud installation in Los Angeles.
Asymptote Architecture: Hani Rashid + Lise Anne Couture, Steel Cloud, unbuilt proposal for Los Angeles, California, 1988. PHOTO BY EDUARD HUEBER

Other acclaimed (if familiar—and overwhelmingly white) talents, from Daniel Libeskind to Enric Miralles; Diller Scofidio + Renfro to Farshid Moussavi, are each given a few pages, and the book abounds in revelations. There’s a strong emphasis on graphic representation. Marcos Novak, a pioneer of virtual reality at UCSB, exhibited four tableaux at the 2000 Venice Biennale, and their swirling, fractured forms are as thrilling as any NASA image from distant galaxies. Drawings and a model by Moscow schoolchildren show that another generation has inherited the vision of the Constructivists. 

Giovannini has done an admirable job of selection and compression, but inevitably there are gaps. He extols avant-garde Soviet artists of the 1920s—notably El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, who strongly influenced Zaha Hadid—but pays scant attention to the architectural visions of Konstantin Melnikov, Alexander Vesnin and their Constructivist contemporaries. The varied manifestations of early Modernism are barely mentioned, and the Bauhaus and its heirs are portrayed as though they were a sort of reactionary Écoles des Beaux Arts. The author subscribes to the widely shared myth that Modernism expired around 1970, thanks to a few provocative theses and the demolition of a bold but mismanaged complex in St Louis (Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt–Igoe). Poorly maintained public housing and developers doing Mies on the cheap did more to diminish its appeal than any treatise. It would be fairer to argue that Modernism (which simply means “recent” as opposed to “past”) never went away. Several generations of architects challenged the old dogmas and, through their inventiveness, Modernism has been reborn, realizing its expressive potential in a diversity of forms. 

MoMA and Philip Johnson are rightly castigated here for selecting a single aspect of the new architecture, stripping it of its social goals, and anointing it as the International Style in a 1932 exhibition. (They are also pilloried for another exercise in simplification, the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition of 1998). Giovannini acknowledges that theorists can be “doctrinaire and insufferably arcane ..acting like architecture’s priest class,”  repeating the errors of dogmatic pioneers like Le Corbusier, who tried to boil design down to Five Points—before going on to ignore them in Ronchamp and Chandigarh. But it’s clear that he’s seduced by the absence of rules—bordering on anarchy—that has generated a chaos of form for form’s sake in the boom cities of China, the Gulf, and Europe.

Facade of Frank Gehry's Vitra Design Museum
Frank Gehry, Gehry Partners, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 1989. PHOTO COURTESY GEHRY PARTNERS, LLP
Günther Domenig, Steinhaus, Steindorf, Austria, 1982-2008. PHOTO © GERALD ZUGMANN

For better and worse, the US has resisted the boldest innovations. It took 14 years to fund and construct Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the architect was constantly denigrated right up to its completion. But that conservativism (or timidity) has blocked many questionable proposals. Before the suits settled on a mundane redevelopment for the 9/11 site, radicals were invited to offer their ideas. United Architects (an ad hoc team) proposed a writhing complex of five linked towers in place of the World Trade Center. Giovannini wishes it had been realized, but a montage shows it looming over the skyline of lower Manhattan as intrusively as the phallic shafts that now disfigure Midtown. 

The underlying message of the book is that, to keep up with the other arts, architecture must mirror the uncertainties revealed by scientists and philosophers. But why? It’s true we live in turbulent times, at the mercy of climate change, social inequities, and demagogues and their deluded acolytes, but enlightened architects responded to the equally troubling era of Hitler, Stalin and the Great Depression with calm, rational buildings, and arguably we need more of those now. It’s easy to dismiss functionality as boring, but too many of the buildings cited here are out of scale with context, their program, and the humans who pass through. Cities can accommodate only a few transgressive icons before they begin to look like a sci-fi movie. Contemporary architects have more to offer than the traditional virtues of firmness, commodity and delight, but those principles are still relevant. And there’s a curious sense of detachment from reality in these pages. For instance, I found barely a mention of architects’ obligation to conserve energy and resources, create net-zero buildings, and make our cities more livable.

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