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Monday, December 14, 2009

Challenging Norms: Eisenman's obsession: Peter Eisenman interview in Architectural Record


architect/artist: Peter Eisenman
interview title: Challenging Norms: Eisenman's obsession
interviews compilation no: T-23
interview format: text
date: October, 2003
appeared in: Architectural Record
interviewer: Robert Ivy, FAIA with Suzanne Stephens
photo by: Eisenman Architects


Interview Details:

Challenging Norms: Eisenman's obsession

During his entire career, Peter Eisenman, FAIA, has carved out a distinctive reputation as a theorist, practitioner, and teacher. Recently, his book Giuseppe Terragni, Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques (Monacelli Press), which Eisenman spent 40 years writing, has been published. Meanwhile, his largest work to date, the 810,000-square-foot City of Culture of Galicia, in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, is in construction. In addition to Eisenman’s longest and largest undertakings, other major projects—the Arizona Cardinals football stadium in Phoenix, and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin—are being built. architectural record’s editor in chief Robert Ivy recently talked to Eisenman about his role in architectural culture.

Architectural Record: You are known for engaging theoretical ideas and challenging norms. What do you see as your mission in doing that?

Peter Eisenman: First of all, I do not know if I have a mission. I’m not a missionary. I might have been, 20 or 30 years ago. Because of my nature, the kinds of questions that I ask of my work—the questions that interest me—seem to challenge norms. For example, at Yale I teach a course on Brunelleschi, Alberti, Bramante, Palladio, and Serlio, because the students do not know anything about these architects. History is about people who have challenged norms, and these people in their own ways have done that. Rudolf Wittkower pointed out in 1937 that Carlo Rainaldi’s Santa Maria in Campitelli in Rome challenged norms in 1662—the norms that Borromini himself had challenged and then established. So at Yale, we’ll be comparing Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane with Santa Maria in Campitelli.

AR: Yours is an intellectual pursuit.

PE: I am interested in intellectual pursuit, but I do not consider myself an intellectual. I also do the Times crossword puzzle on Sunday, I read mystery stories, I look at the Internet, and play solitaire. I would not call that intellectually challenging. I get up at 5:30 in the morning, and by nine o’clock I have written what I need to write and read what I need to read. And I’m done. And the rest of the day—I would not call running an architectural practice an intellectual pursuit.

AR: So you leave the meditative realm and leap into the real world. Yet few would characterize your work as single-minded or pragmatic.

PE: Nobody says, “Well, what is the idea behind this?” All they care about is what it costs and what it looks like. As long as the clients are convinced that you, the architect, know why you did it, they will go a long way. I have very conservative clients, politically, who are willing to take risks because they have a sense that psychologically they can afford it. They come to me not because of aesthetics, comfort, or familiarity. They believe I will give them something that they may not be comfortable with in the present, but which may be good for them in the long run.

AR: Don’t most people want comfort—not what is good medicine?

PE: They do absolutely. Why not? That is what makes the world the way it is. As Nietzsche said, if there weren’t this world, there would not be the other world.

AR: One of the fundamental facts about architecture or any sort of vital human pursuit is the possibility of defining yourself—to realize yourself; to continue to come into being, so to speak. Are you someone who is in this constant state of self-definition?

PE: Anyone interested in self-definition is both a narcissist and egocentric. What’s interesting about constantly growing and self-defining—forget the purely psychological reasons, the egocentric and narcissistic reasons—is that if you do not have those qualities, you do not move. I am faster now than I ever was. I can process information faster. I can make decisions faster. I’m 70 years old and have most of my best work ahead of me, a good part of which is being built right now. And you know, I haven’t won all the prizes, or received all the commissions. I haven’t made all the money. And now I watch some of my colleagues trying to figure out what can they do—how come they are no longer being invited to design this or that. And I say, “But you’ve already done all those things: You’ve climbed the mountain, and I am still climbing.” And I suppose I keep reinventing mountains to climb because I do not think I’d like to be at the top of the mountain. I would feel very uncomfortable looking down.

AR: You have described an interest in topological geometry in relation to your project in the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela. What about landscape? This is a borderline realm of ideas that is both geophysical and abstract. What is in that marriage of architecture and landscape?

PE: First, let me go back to something Rosalind Krauss [art critic and theorist] said. She said that the animating device in the 1970s was the photograph—the photograph was a record of an event. In this sense it was an index, which was an attempt to modify the iconic value of the object. What is the problem with an icon? The object-as-icon is based on the metaphysics of presence [a belief in a unifying force behind truth and knowledge], as opposed to pure presence.
So, my own work in architecture attempts to produce a series of photographic plates or indices in the sense that Krauss was talking about: I have taken existing maps and superposed them to reduce their iconic, historical, and pictorial value. But the Santiago project is slightly different: It is no longer merely an index of these superpositions. For example, in Santiago, my idea was to superpose a Cartesian grid onto the existing, organic, medieval “grid,” and warp or deform them with a topological grid that projects upward. This produces lines of force that were never a part of projective geometry. They mutate in the third dimension. This has a powerful impact on the ground surface. It is a way of dealing with the ground not as a single datum, not as a foundation, not as something stable. It disrupts its iconic value, turning it into an index.

AR: Could you explain more about index?

PE: It is a bit like a footprint in the sand. Pull the foot away and you know the foot has been there. But depending on the weight, and the impact of the foot hitting the sand, et cetera, there is always an index of force. If I take a clay ball and I throw it at you, and I hit you with it, it is going to deform you in a certain way. Computers have been able to simulate how these types of forces deform things. That is what we are trying to do at Santiago. What you see is the index of a throw.

AR:  What about architecture vis à vis the landscape? Isn’t the ground a neutral palette?

PE: The ground is never neutral. There is always a figure/ground dialectic. In Santiago, the ground is now figured, and figures erupt out of the ground. It was impossible to do individual buildings in Santiago, because they were part of a single idea of landscape. If there were only one or two of the mound buildings, they would have become expressionist objects. When they are part of the landscape, they become something else.

AR: The excavation of Santiago looks like an ancient city. It is enormous.

PE: That is true. The scale is that of giant earthworks. These mounds are 60, 70 feet high. We cut 600,000 cubic meters of rock material. We will be able to restore some of it to the site when the construction is finished.

AR: Could you have done your latest work without the computer—merely
as plastic investigation? Is this science and other sorts of human intelligence coming together?

PE: First of all, there is no question that the Santiago project is a response to Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. It was clear from the competition that’s what the client wanted. The people short-listed in the competition–Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Daniel Libeskind—are an indication that they wanted something out of the ordinary. So Santiago was an answer to Bilbao, but that response could not have been made if we did not have the computer programs to generate the kinds of superpositions that created a new form of built landscape. Frank uses the computer to create icons; we use it to make an index.

The computer is necessary, but the central issue for me is philosophical: Jacques Derrida says that “architecture will always mean,” and Rosalind Krauss says that “architecture will always have four walls.” These two statements define the metaphysics of presence in architecture. It is interesting that Derrida questions the hegemony of metaphysics in philosophy, but he seems perfectly content to let it remain in architecture. In fact, post-structuralism questions the entire edifice of metaphysics—except in architecture. The underpinning of Western thought for 200 years, since Immanuel Kant, has been based on an idealist metaphysics. On the one side there is Gehry (the artist), and the computer. On the other, there are ideas. I attempt to put those things together, along with taking a risk, to challenge the metaphysics of presence.

AR: OK. But back to the computer. What role does the computer play in your creativity?

PE: I do not use the computer. I do not even do e-mails. We have a group of bright kids who know how to use these programs. I set the theoretical premises. But we work back and forth between the computer and physical models.

AR: And do you really care if the spectator or visitor knows about the ideas—the theoretical premises—behind the work?

PE: We try to find a way to capture in form something that is not expressionism, but which has a density and layering of ideas––which causes information to blur and become something else––affect perhaps. Throughout history, events have been determined by the difference between objective and subjective reality. Subjective reality has to do with spectacle and the media. It implies a passive condition in the observer. Effects of the object become affects in the subject.

The media distances you from experience. What architecture does that media does not do involves the body, the mind, and the eye simultaneously.

AR: But how is this thinking reflected in other projects that you are working on? What about the World Trade Center competition?

PE: Maurice Blanchot says that after the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to represent such excessive acts in language. One can no longer make an icon or a symbol as representational conditions in the traditional way. In our project for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation competition [record, February 2003, page 31] we attempted to make an index. This is similar to what I did in Berlin for the Holocaust Memorial project, where I took two topological surfaces—one on the ground and one in the air—and connected the dots—a minimal presence. In the WTC site, the shadows of the absent towers were an index. But don’t forget there were four energies at work on that project. It is not a Peter Eisenman project, nor a Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, or Steven Holl project. We all drew. The sketches I did were an attempt to create an index—a grid in the air and a grid on the ground. One was the footprint of the other.

I love our scheme. We wanted to examine the possibility of doing an urban project that was both a memorial and that could be built. The project was probably too sophisticated and problematic to win popular approval. It was not in touch with the expressionism that the victims’ families seemingly wanted. Our project shunned expressionism. It was both an index that could become an icon, and it also was practical. It did not do things that the New Urbanists would want—it did not bring the street grid through. At the WTC site, I thought we had designed a memorial square where this red paving seemed to seep into the city––an important symbolic gesture. Particularly important for us was that the entire project was on grade, and the memorial was part of the fabric of the city.

AR: But you talked about the need for an affect in the memorial. Where is the affect for you, and what about the affect for
the other people?

PE: Schindler’s List had all of the affect that people needed to deal with the Holocaust. They love that. Or Jim Freed’s Holocaust museum [United States Holocaust Memorial Museum] in Washington. But for me, those ideas about memorialization are laden with too much sentimentality. Memory is not nostalgia. Our memorial in Berlin has little or no iconography, nothing symbolic, and it is this absence, like the silence of a psychiatrist, that will allow people to come to terms with their repressed feelings. I would not say that Libeskind’s project was any more affective. His presentation that day at the Winter Garden [World Financial Center], on December 18, 2002, was.

AR: Is this your first large-scale collaboration with other architects?

PE: Earlier I worked with Jacques Derrida on a project for La Villette [Paris, 1987]; with Michael Heizer on a competition for the Frankfurt Biocentrum [1986–87]; and with Richard Serra on the Berlin Holocaust Memorial [1996 to the present]. Richard Meier and I teamed up with David Childs on the Con Ed project [FSM East River Project, New York City, 2001]. In that one, we ended up each doing our own tower. For Ground Zero, we consciously said we want less architecture, less personality, less signature. We wanted to do something that did not recognize any of us individually. And I believe philosophically that was the right thing to do.

Was it difficult? Yes, extremely so. What was difficult was not the idea, but getting the egos to stay with the idea and not do their own thing. Even though everybody agreed on what we were doing, each one’s interpretation looked different. Those meetings, and there were a lot of them, were like being in a sauna [record, March 2003, page 65]. For me and for Steven, it was not easy—Steven almost quit. Charlie was the moderator. There were tensions everywhere. And we each had to keep our respective offices running, as well.

AR: You often say you like to challenge people in terms of your architecture.

PE: The architecture we remember is that which never consoles or comforts us. In a course I taught last spring at Princeton, we examined 10 canonical buildings designed between 1950 and the present day. They were all deviant buildings that became canonical because of their deviance. Luigi Moretti’s Casa Girasole in Rome can be considered the first Postmodernist building. Whatever he wants to call it, Robert Venturi also recognized it early on, as did Reyner Banham. I also included Rem Koolhaas’s Jussieu Library scheme [for the Jussieu University, Paris, 1993], because it was the best example of his use of horizontal slabs becoming routes in themselves. We also analyzed Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, and Gehry’s Case Western Reserve building [Weatherhead School of Management, 2002] in Cleveland.

I picked Case Western because it evolved from an index: The floor plan at Case Western comes out of Schinkel’s Altes Museum and Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The plan of Schinkel, the plan of Stirling, and then the plan of Gehry represent an evolution. Then Gehry takes the plan and twists it into the third dimension. It is the only project that starts from Cartesian geometry and transforms it.

AR: In looking at these buildings as part of a history, how do you feel about your role in history? How do you want to be remembered in 100 years?

PE: A 100 years from now, I want to be remembered for my ideas. I would argue that without ideas I would not be able to continue. I would not know what to do. I do not do function. I do not do icons. My work is a constant process of uncovering. Do not forget, there is no new history. The architects I am going back to are all still there. They do not move. I move. And so, there is a constant renovation, a constant rereading, reinterpretation, reinvention.

Life, as in the case of Dr. Faustus, is a bet with the devil. Ultimately, he can give you fame, fortune, and power, but in the end, if you choose these, he wins. The one thing he cannot give or take away from you is your history.

1 comment:

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