In the late seventies and early eighties, with old-guard modernism apparently exhausted and design fashionistas throwing cornice lines around like hemlines, architecture lapsed into a deep identity crisis. Modernists as distinguished as New York’s Edward Larrabee Barnes produced such indecisive designs as the Equitable Center on Seventh Avenue and 51st Street, a self-canceling tower equidistant from modernism and postmodernism. In a juxtaposition of telling irony, AXA Gallery – on Equitable’s ground floor – is showing works by five theorists who drew manifestos during this troubled transitional period. Perfect Acts of Architecture, curated by Jeffrey Kipnis of Ohio State’s Wexner Center, is one of the most intelligent architecture shows of the decade: pithy, pointed, and marked with cerebral beauty. The drawings are foundational for much of today’s practice.
These thinkers assaulted the immaculate purity of modernism with ideas imported from other fields, oxygenating architecture in ways never anticipated by either functionalists or historicists. In his “Micromegas” drawings, Daniel Libeskind, now a contender for the redesign of ground zero, dived into spatial irrationality with a vision similar to the work of M. C. Escher, breaking through the ordering conventions of perspective to create spaces of illusion just beyond visual grasp. In his “Chamber Works” suite, which looks like dense piano scores Xeroxed through a wringer, you can almost hear the drawings, and the music is strange.
In “The Manhattan Transcripts,” Bernard Tschumi draws time-lapse filmstrips of buildings carved out by the movement of actors weaving through streets and courtyards in narratives that knock architecture woozy: Walls melt, columns erode. In “Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” Rem Koolhaas plants a vast field of buildings in central London to lure people away from the petty boredoms of the city to a garden of earthly modernist delights. In “House VI,” Peter Eisenman applies Noam Chomsky’s notions of deep linguistic structure, generating infinitely variable visual paragraphs of design. Grammar speaks architecture.
The show suffers from several conspicuous omissions, notably Zaha Hadid, who reinvented the plan and section as liquid flows of form and space; and Frank Gehry, who marginalized drawing altogether in favor of models, creating like a sculptor. Still, “Perfect Acts of Architecture” is a provocative intellectual pleasure that documents a pivotal historic period.