Assigned Reading: Mark Wigley, The Translation of Architecture, the Production of Babel, Assemblage No. 8 (Feb. 1989)
Architecture’s Translation of Deconstruction by Tess Clancy
Mark Wigley is a professor of architecture and former Dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Art and Planning. In 1988 Wigley co-curated (with Phillip Johnson) the MoMA exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture. The exhibition featured work by a range of architects—Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, Rem Koolhaas and Coop Himmelblau—who, at the time at least, were thought to somehow embody the idea of deconstructivism. What determined who was included under this title “deconstructivist”? Simply put, these architects opposed the ordered rationality of modernism and attempted to shift away from the restricting rules of modernism that involved ideas of “purity of form” and “form follows function.” In Phillip Johnson’s words, “The projects in this exhibition mark a different sensibility, one in which the dream of pure form has been disturbed. It is the ability to disturb our thinking about form that makes these projects deconstructive.” (1)
In 1989, following the MoMA exhibition, Wigley published an essay “The Translation of Architecture: the Production of Babel,” in which he calls on architects to reread the idea of deconstruction and produce a more careful, more accurate “translation” of deconstruction in architecture. The first sentence of the essay reads “How then to translate deconstruction in architectural discourse (3)?” Through translation, information is lost and the original becomes less precise. For example, Wigley writes that, although architecture occupies an important position in philosophy and visa versa, one cannot directly translate into the other, rather there is a give and take between the two. They feed off of one another. So, Wigley asks, how can the original philosophical idea of deconstruction “survive” architecture’s translation, and likewise, how can the field of architecture responsibly execute this translation.
In building his argument, Wigley provides a detailed history of the origin of deconstructivism in architecture and architecture’s inherent relationship to philosophy, through a discussion of metaphors used in philosophical discourse—particularly that of grounded structure (based in semiotics and literary theory). In philosophy, deconstruction is essentially a reaction to metaphysics and the search for a pure or overarching form. The origin of the metaphor of grounded structure is explained through a timeline of philosophy which travels from Kant to Heidegger to Derrida, who uses the Tower of Babel as an example of the inevitable deconstruction of systems of meaning and the impossibility of a perfect, pure or complete translation. Derrida’s writings argue that deconstruction is “not a style or ‘attitude’ but rather a mode of questioning through and about the technologies, formal devices, social institutions, and founding metaphors of representation (4).”
Of the philosophers that he discusses, Wigley’s argument is most aligned with Derrida’s ideas of deconstructivism. In accordance with Derrida, he writes that deconstruction is a destabilizing which “subverts the edifice it inhabits by demonstrating that the ground on which it is erected is insecure: ‘the terrain is slippery and shifting, mined and undermined (5).” Wigley asserts that architecture’s translation of deconstruction (as of 1989)—at its best a confusing structural condition that cannot be described using the traditional architectural vocabulary (one that “frustrates the logic (6)”)—is too easy or obvious—too much a surface reading. It is a veneer or ornament to the original structure. Thus, Wigley calls for a more aggressive, more thorough reading of deconstruction which takes into account the limits of philosophical discourse and finds the gaps where architecture or physical representation can be of use. These gaps provide the opportunity for architectural discourse to go beyond that of deconstructive writing and to “(re)produce deconstruction by transforming it (6).” This idea of transformation through translation relates back to Derrida’s assertion that there is no pure or exact translation, no overarching language that can produce such a translation. Therefore, Wigley is demanding a translation of deconstructivism by architecture that is itself an example of deconstruction.
(1) Phillip Johnson on the MoMA exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture, http://public.csusm.edu/padil035/history-paper.html
(2) Photos of 1988 MoMA exhibition, http://www.detail.de/inspiration/bericht-museum-of-modern-art-in-new-york-107282.html
(3) Wigley, The Translation of Architecture, the Production of Babel, Assemblage No. 8 (Feb. 1989), pg. 6
(4) Lupton, Ellen. “Deconstruction and Graphic Design: History Meets Theory”. Typotheque. 1994. 16 February 2009
(5) Wigley, The Translation of Architecture, the Production of Babel, Assemblage No. 8 (Feb. 1989), pg. 16
(6) Wigley, The Translation of Architecture, the Production of Babel, Assemblage No. 8 (Feb. 1989), pg. 18-19
(7) Photo of Jaques Derrida, http://www.danilodemarco.it/figure/derrida-jacques/
(8) Athanaseus Kircher, The Tower of Babel, http://web.stanford.edu/group/kircher/cgi-bin/site/?attachment_id=713
(9) Photograph of Mark Wigley, http://www.surfacemag.com/mark-wigley/