Joseph Giovannini | Rizzoli | $50
Joseph Giovannini crafted a not-so-nice manifesto against modern architecture, in celebration of those who broke the mold of the International Style. Fifty years ago in 1966, Robert Venturi published his kindly statement, Complexity and contradiction in architecture, which has become the bible of postmodernism. Instead, Giovannini focused on his new book, Unbound Architecture: A Century of Disruptive Vanguard On the works of a select few architects who have dominated the past five decades by breaking the orthogonal grid of modernist architecture.
His introduction begins by publishing two pages from a 1978 collage by Stanley Tigerman, Titanicin which Mies van der Rohe’s 1956 masterpiece, Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology, sinks into the ocean, an iconic image that “signaled the end of the modernist movement”.
Unbound architecture It is a huge volume of 876 pages with 698 images. It is a comprehensive survey of the architects who broke new ground by abandoning Euclidean geometry. Giovannini celebrates and delves into the designs of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tom Mayne, Daniel Libeskind, and Wolf Brix of Coop Himmelb(l)au, among others. Many of these architects study most of the known buildings in great detail, revealing their histories and early influences. For this we thank him.
For example, in her 2004 Pritzker Prize acceptance speech, Zaha Hadid explained how her design philosophy was heavily influenced by Kazimir Malevich and L. Lissitzky of the Russian Suprematism movement. She explained: “One of the tangible results of my mind with Malevich in particular was that I took to drawing as a design tool. This medium became my first field of spatial invention… The obsessive use of isometric projection and perspective led to the idea that space itself might be warped and distorted to gain dynamism and complexity.”
To delve deeper into her design philosophy and how it has evolved over time, Giovannini examines the complexity and dynamism in Hadid’s renderings of the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany (1992), and explores how Milan’s Generali Tower—completed in 2017, a year after her death—”grabs[s] The bizarre, destabilizing spatial movement of Vitra’s contrasting and converging lines and forms.” In an interview about her design for a London townhouse in 1981–82, Hadid said she “blew up the floors and parts of the city house in a scattering gesture that broke up the box, the mass, and the entire orthogonal context. This blasting in the box is the premise of the entire book.
Besides Giovannini’s historical references to architecture and painting, he often makes references to other arts to describe spatial and architectural ideas. He quotes Leonard Bernstein, who said, “Mozart’s music constantly gets out of its frame, because it cannot be contained in it” as an example of how El Lissitzky used axonograph to create geometrically fuzzy images. In the chapter “Architecture as a Cultural Practice,” he points to the Dadaist painting of Marcel Duchamp, the poetry of Jean Cocteau, the philosophy of Sigmund Freud, and the music of John Cage to allude to the non-Euclidean geometries of the avant-garde. garden architecture. John Cage wrote, “I’m all for keeping things ambiguous, and I’ve never really enjoyed making sense of things… I try to make music that I don’t understand and that would be hard for other people to understand either.” These intellectual forays into other creative projects are thought-provoking and interesting, but they don’t make his message any clearer.
In Thom Mayne’s Hypo Alpa-Adria Centre, a bank headquarters in Klagenfurt, Austria (2002), the architect deliberately aligned facade elements to challenge the viewer and flex one’s sense of gravity. Giovannini calls the design “one of the most complete interpretations of deconstructionism,” which “pushes disorder, complexity, dynamism, and obliqueness to logical extremes.” It also discusses Mayne’s headquarters on the campus of Giant Interactive Group, located outside Shanghai, China (2010). It is a building with a ground level that develops into a roof level, which curves and flows and that is both exciting and visually appealing. Giovannini refers to it as “a very cool and imaginative masterpiece”, a celebration of the subversive and architectural aspects of Maine.
Perhaps Giovannini’s most influential living architect (deservedly) is Frank Gehry. His work summarizes the author’s theme. A chapter titled Vanguards on the World Stage begins with a powerful two-page photograph of the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (1997). It has had such a powerful impact on architecture and the world that the phrase “Bilbao Effect” has become an acronym for transforming previously unknown places into a destination for international tourists. Cities around the world have since commissioned avant-garde architecture projects in search of a similar result, but few have come close to Gehry’s ingenious and successful transformation.
Buildings that had such a strong influence are listed by Giovannini as “Masterworks”. In addition to Bilbao Guggenheim, Gehry’s includes Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003), the Daniel Libeskind Jewish Museum in Berlin (2001), Zaha Hadid’s Opera House in Guangzhou in China (2011), and Coop Himmelb(l)au’s European Central Bank (2015)”.
It is true that these are all undeniably important works of architecture on the world stage. However, there is a sense that Giovannini focuses on a few very famous talents while ignoring others who have clearly had a strong influence and continue to influence the conversation about where architecture has been and where it is headed. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, also a Pritzker Prize laureate, was completely ignored, except for including a quote from Peter Eisenman, who said, “I am not interested in Peter Zumthor’s work.”
Other Pritzker Prize-winning architects have been overlooked, such as Shigeru Ban and SANAA from Japan. Likewise, the work of Santiago Calatrava, Jean Gang, and MAD Architects–all avant-garde designers in their own right–is nowhere to be found in this large, historically accurate, and well-researched volume.
Finally, there is a discussion of the term “Deconstructivism”. During a recent AIA/Los Angeles debate, Giovannini claimed to have coined the term in 1987, which may in fact be true. In the book, he takes issue with Philip Johnson for not being given credit for it at the 1988 MoMA show Deconstructive architectureHe described Johnson as a “propaganda wizard” and wrote that “Johnson was looking for style, not content” (p. 34). Unwilling to leave enough alone, the author returns to the 1988 MoMA exhibition at p. 660 to say, “Johnson, having papal powers over the architecture of the United States, has canonized a small group … disregarding not only elements of rhetoric (but) entire sections of its history.” Johnson’s criticism is understandable. Many architects and journalists have found shortcomings in his architecture and his leadership as a voice of the profession, yet it seems unnecessary to focus on a single term and its significance to architectural history.
Inclusive, Unbound architecture It is a comprehensive, deeply researched, and stimulating read. The multiple references to artists in other fields as metaphors for architecture stimulate the imagination and help shed some light on Giovannini’s hypothesis of a “century of subversive avant-garde”.
Michael F. Ross is an architect, educator, and journalist based in Los Angeles.