AS Bessa


For Mies van der Rohe, everything in architecture was to be defined in a drawing. In one of the videos in the wonderful two-part exhibition last year that MoMA and the Whitney Museum dedicated to his work, one of his students reminisced on how Mies would come to evaluate a student's project-he would go straight to the drawings and spend a few minutes carefully examining them without asking any questions; at the end of the evaluation he would look at the student approvingly and say “gut.” No talk, no text-everything should be “read” in the drawings. The same alum also told of how, in their first class, Mies would extol the virtues of a well-sharpened pencil.
The exhibition “Perfect Acts of Architecture,” curated by Jeffrey Kipnis, and organized by the Wexner Center, in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art, is an update of that approach that sees drawing as the very essence of architecture. An update because, the drawings in this exhibition, executed throughout the '70s and '80s, at the same time that they “propose,” they also challenge many of the conventions of what a drawing, or an architectural program should be. They also, more pointedly, bring about the issues of “readability” and “un-readability” in what is assumed to be the art of precision.

The names in the exhibition are by now legendary, some even with Pop-Star cred-Eisenman, Libeskind, Tschumi, Zenghelis, Mayne, and Koolhaas. But the wonderful thing about this particular collection of architectural drawings is the fact that they were produced in the pre-Bilbao, pre-Prada-store era. Kipnis evokes that zeitgeist with precision: “In the early '70s, a sluggish world economy, that all but curtailed new building, moved the most talented architects into teaching positions in schools, where the graphic experimentation already afoot, condensed into a primary mode of research. Among the many schools important at the time, the Architectural Association of London and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York became primary incubators. In the academy, architects encountered a turbulent intellectual scene filled with passionate debates emerging from philosophy, film theory, linguistics, literary criticism, and social thought. Thus did forces of history conspire to set the stage for an eruption of “paper architecture” of incomparable beauty, range, brilliance, and depth.”
The role played by Deconstructional Theory in architecture has been widely explored, and some of the elements that were innovative 30 years ago have become cliché. (Think of Mariah Carey using the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as backdrop in one of her music videos). Even architects considered “difficult,” such as Eisenman and Libeskind, have by now been embraced by the mainstream.
I suppose one can always question the criteria for this particular grouping of architects in one exhibition, and I for one, have always been suspicious of a new kind of Formalism lurking underneath all this theoretical heap. But one cannot argue against the role that this generation has played in renewing the discourse around and about architecture. They are represented in this exhibition by seminal works in their respective careers. Eisenman's drawings for house vi, c. 1976, inspired by Noam Chomsky's idea of “deep structure,” is a tour de force of perspective ingeniousness applied to linguistic theory (or vice-versa). Libeskind's chamber works: meditations on themes from heraclitus complicates things further by proposing architecture as a “score” for a performance, whose cues span from Greek philosophy and Kabala, to chess and clouds. As difficult as these drawings show themselves to be, one is struck by how the ideas therein have materialized in more recent projects such as the Holocaust Museum in Berlin.
Tschumi, on the other hand, and to a certain extent, also Koolhaas and Zenghelis, seem to be more interested in architecture as écriture, or the kind of narrative inspired by the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet. His work in this exhibition, the manhattan transcripts, unfolds like a picture-novel or the story-board for an experimental film. The collages produced by Koolhaas in collaboration with Zenghelis, exodus, or the voluntary prisoners of architecture, are among his most beautiful and pungent works. It also served as his graduate project at Architectural Association.

AS Bessa
New York, New York

Rem Koolhaas and Elias Zenghelis, "Perfect Acts of Architecture", EXODUS OR THE PRISONERS OF ARCHITECTURE, collage