Deconstructing the Deconstructionist Movement: An Autopsy of Eisenman’s Creation

The following is an essay I wrote back at university. I put in a lot of effort writing and researching this topic and aside from my tutor reading it, it never saw the light of day. I found it on an old hard drive and decided I would upload it to the world.

When discussing the inception of the Deconstructionist movement, architect Peter Eisenman often champions the philosopher Jacques Derrida as a co-conspirator, happily admitting to the acquisition of his friend’s philosophical theorems and confessing freely to borrowing, adapting, and re-appropriating large portions of Deconstructionist principles from the philosophy faculty to inform the basis of the architectural movement that shares the Deconstructionist title. This is a maxim that Eisenman is sometimes apprehensive about adopting himself, but he is commonly recognized as both an influential figure and considered the biological father of the movement (Eisenman, 2005).

Eisenman concurs with Derrida that philosophy, unlike architecture, has undergone the process of deconstruction, whereas architecture has largely remained an unadulterated doctrine, cloaked in mystery and steeped in tradition (Eisenman, 2005). Eisenman and Derrida collectively have observed that just as science and philosophy are in a constant state of flux, architecture should be treated in a similar fashion: challenged, unraveled, questioned, poked, prodded, and tested to decide what is relevant and what is redundant (Derrida & Eisenman, 1997).

Until the birth of Postmodernism and the Deconstructionist movement in particular, it was exceedingly rare for architecture and philosophy to intermingle or cross-pollinate. Architecture, prior to this moment, had been defined and described as the tangible act of designing and erecting buildings and other large structures—a culmination of art and science that can only truly be appreciated by experiencing its physical presence, rather than by its theoretical standpoint. Philosophy, on the other hand, is regarded as a somewhat more mysterious, intangible, ethereal subject in a fluid state, continually being tested, rapidly changing, and evolving (Scruton, 1995).

Another Postmodern era philosopher and well-publicized critic of contemporary architectural practices and theory is Roger Scruton, who has frequently condemned the Deconstruction movement, specifically identifying Eisenman as a key participant. He accuses him, his contemporaries, and their protégés—such as Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid—of designing egotistical, indulgent architecture, resembling, as Scruton imagines, amongst other unflattering artifacts, vegetables, automobiles, hairdryers, and washing machines. These architectural figures are further charged by Scruton with employing absurd rhetoric and whimsical theories as a justification for creating purposeless, self-serving monuments with an extremely limited shelf life (Scruton, 1995).

Scruton’s scathing criticisms draw numerous similarities to those of Leon Krier, an architect possibly more famous for his longstanding rival position to Eisenman than for his own architectural achievements. The seemingly conceited, abstract ‘deconstructed’ visual language of the aforementioned group of contemporary ‘starchitects’ such as Frank O. Gehry and Zaha Hadid, it seems, would infuriate Krier, excite Eisenman, and bore Scruton.

Leon Krier is reportedly a longstanding friend of Eisenman; however, he is adamant that contemporary architects and Post-Structuralists like his friend are generally disrespectful of place and untruthful in terms of the materials they specify, the construction techniques, or the structural systems used to create their architecture (Krier, 2009). Krier has further proclaimed that the majority of contemporary architecture practitioners are essentially white-collar criminals, responsible chiefly for creating Modernist and Postmodernist prisons rather than habitable, pragmatic architecture solutions (Davidson, 2004).

Another apparently analogous opinion to both Krier and Scruton is that of Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who predated both these men on the architecture timeline and the longstanding Postmodernist melee. Loos is said to have compared unnecessary architectural ornamentation to a heinous criminal act (Gravagnuolo & Evans, 1982). The sentiment of Loos’ statement appears to be both a prophetic insight into the future direction of architecture and a posthumorous, scathing attack on the Deconstructionist movement decades before its inception. The central argument between Eisenman, Krier, and possibly even Scruton and Loos is conceivably concerning the importance and relevance placed upon lessons from the past, in regards to the classical order of things (Davidson, 2004).

When analyzing the speculative work that Eisenman carried out in his book House X, it would be easy to accuse him of ignoring fundamental characteristics of design in favor of achieving a particular form.

When the architect contorts, extrudes, subtracts, and re-imagines his houses repeatedly, he appears to be undertaking a testing process using his Deconstructionist manifesto as a guide (Eisenman, 1982), seemingly disregarding popular modernist notions of ‘form follows function’ (Sullivan, 1979)—the famous axiom used by Louis Sullivan and recycled by countless others to explain the crucial argument that underpins the foundations of the modernist movement (Sullivan, 1979).

Eisenman appears to arrive at a Dostoevsky-esque conclusion, adopting, it would seem, the philosophical notion that if God is, in fact, dead, as post-structuralists and philosophers are attempting to prove, then everything is now permitted. More succinctly, if the world has fundamentally changed and been radically altered after cataclysmic events such as the two world wars, why is it that we continue to largely live and design using the same set of guiding principles as used prior to these events, just because of a prescribed dictum or antiquated, classical collection of rules (Eisenman, 2005)?

It looks as though Eisenman and his Deconstructionist comrades have ignored the demi-god status and omnipotent wisdom of figures such as Vitruvius and Palladio and have decided to ignore the classical guidelines that preceded them in favor of exploring new territory and exploiting a different niche.

Eisenman puts forth an argument almost identical to Bernard Tschumi’s analogy describing the redundancy of constructing a plywood Doric temple in a contemporary era (Tschumi, 1996), explaining that the formula for constructing a Greek Temple and its requirements for columns of a certain height and span, the stone lintels, and other formal construction systems used to create this monumental structure are virtually irrelevant today. Eisenman explains that since the function of the Greek typology no longer exists, why should the prescribed formula of its construction still remain celebrated in such a way (Davidson, 2004)?

As the founding father of the Deconstructionist movement, Eisenman has been perhaps unfairly persecuted at times with harsh condemnation by some of his fellow architects and various critics of his work. He has been accused of almost single-handedly undermining and diminishing the credibility of the entire architecture profession (Scruton, 1995), which is perhaps too far a stretch of the imagination. It is not as though architecture has imploded or ceased to function, but some critics argue that it has been somewhat eroded, much like the term deconstruction seems to infer (Bess, 1988).

Both of Eisenman’s devout critics, Scruton and Krier, use Quinlan Terry as an exemplary figure, extolling his classical virtues. Scruton claims that Terry has managed to construct neo-classical buildings that integrate with the site in such a way that they are lovely yet largely unnoticed, much in the same regard as a friendly old man on the street is appreciated but does not draw attention to himself, unlike the rude, extroverted, or even ostentatious nature of contemporary form-driven ‘Post-Structuralist’ architecture (Davidson, 2004) (Scruton, 1995).

Along with criticism of Eisenman’s work, it has even been discussed whether the Deconstructionist movement itself is contested or deemed questionable as to whether it is, in fact, a legitimate individual movement in its own right, rather than merely an insignificant subheading or a minor hiccup contained within the broader banner of postmodernism (Bess, 1988). According to both Eisenman (2005) and Ingraham (1987), there appear to be no coherent, acute, or consistent arguments as to what constitutes Deconstructionist theory, a concise set of rules, aesthetics, or ethos that defines Deconstructionism as a movement aside from an obvious rejection of the Modernist mantra and rebellion against the movements that preceded it.

Post-Structuralists have, for the past two decades or so, constantly debated amongst themselves as to what constitutes ‘deconstruction.’ People such as Ingraham (1987) have become perhaps at times unwillingly de facto wardens of the Deconstructionist theology, which has become practically a recognized faith or religious denomination in its own right with several separatist factions (Ingraham, 1987). However, just because a movement is legitimized by a catchy title and a prestigious group of followers does not make it a worthwhile cause. There have been a myriad of religious groups with a similar modus operandi that have relied on the same principles of vagueness and the promise of freedom and purity to defraud their followers and attain power in the name of obtaining enlightenment, which have later been identified as charlatans and cult leaders. Just as a particular church that will remain nameless, which has sought out disenfranchised, confused, angry, lost, and damaged individuals and convinced them to part with their money in return for the promise of spiritual healing, Eisenman and his fellow disciples have extracted large sums of capital in return for their whimsical architecture, which has made them rich and famous but left an architectural landscape filled with some very strange artifacts.

This is not to entirely discredit or discount the positive influence of Eisenman and the Deconstructionist movement, nor to imply that Eisenman is a cult leader. Deconstructionist architects have successfully introduced fresh perspectives, ideas, and conversations about the purpose, function, and meaning of architecture. They have encouraged us to re-examine and question the norms, and for that, the movement holds its own value. As we continue to explore the relationship between architecture and philosophy, and the impact of movements like Deconstructionism on contemporary practice, it is crucial to maintain a balanced view that appreciates the innovation while acknowledging the critiques.


Bess, P. (1988). Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred. Ignatius Press.

Davidson, C. (2004). Learning from Las Vegas (Revised Edition): The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. MIT Press.

Derrida, J., & Eisenman, P. (1997). Chora L Works. The Monacelli Press.

Eisenman, P. (1982). House X. Rizzoli.

Eisenman, P. (2005). Written Into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990-2004. Yale University Press.

Gravagnuolo, B., & Evans, B. (1982). Adolf Loos: Theory and Works. Rizzoli.

Ingraham, C. (1987). Architecture and the Burdens of Linearity. Yale University Press.

Krier, L. (2009). The Architecture of Community. Island Press.

Scruton, R. (1995). The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism. St. Augustine’s Press.

Sullivan, L. (1979). Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings. Dover Publications.

Tschumi, B. (1996). Architecture and Disjunction. MIT Press.