Peter Eisenman by Carlos Brillembourg

BOMB 117 Fall 2011
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House I, 1967-68, Princeton, New Jersey. Photo by Dick Frank Studio. Courtesy of Eisenman Architects.

Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview.

Peter Eisenman prefers Milan to Istanbul. He is an architect and theorist whose work is firmly grounded in the European classical tradition from the Italian Renaissance to the present. His architecture cannot be separated from his work as a teacher and writer. My favorite Eisenman book is Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decomposition, Critiques (2003), which culminates a 40-year formal analysis of this seminal Italian modernist’s architecture. The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, which Eisenman founded, along withOppositions , its publication, remain a watershed in the culture of architecture in New York. He is the only American architect whose work has always depended on a dialogue between philosophy and architecture—most notably with Jacques Derrida. His early houses show the transformation of his influence from Terragni toward an autonomous architecture in some ways produced automatically by what Eisenman has called “the index,” a formal system that triggers a geometric progression. His Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela synthesize his concerns about the abstract and autonomous nature of architecture and simultaneously point toward a new paradigm of virtual space and time.

Carlos Brillembourg In discussing your 40-year project on the work of Giuseppe Terragni, you say, “[Casa del Fascio and Casa Guiliani-Frigerio] do not fit comfortably into the category of modernist architecture—they do not adhere to a liberating, utopian discourse. Quite the contrary, they play elaborate games with many modernist precepts and can be seen as offering a different response to the historical conditions surrounding modernist architecture.” Would this be a fair description of your own architectural aspirations?

Peter Eisenman You would be better qualified to answer that question than I would. The energy of Terragni permeated my early work; House I is certainly Terragni, but House II is much more influenced by, say, Rosalind Krauss’s writing on contemporary art at the time and the idea of sculpture in the expanded field and the work of minimalist sculptors Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt. By House II, Krauss and I were working closely—she eventually wrote “Notes on the Index” in October 3 and 4, which became key to House IV.

CB What about Donald Judd?

PE We did a project with him, and one with Michael Heizer. By then I had put the Terragni book aside and was working on my own project, which was more influenced by conceptual art, by color field painting, by Krauss’s, Michael Fried’s, and Clement Greenberg’s writings. Then, in the late ’60s, my work moved from reading people like Lévi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky to the poststructuralists by the early ’70s.

CB To what extent are you interested in expanding our view of modernist architecture? The functionalist trope of modernism espoused by one of your first bosses, Walter Gropius, is only one of many ways to look at architecture in the 20th century. I think you would agree with that.

PE It was clear that the modernist project had been aborted by World War II, that it would never reach its intended goals. Whether you call it rationalism or modernism—whether it was Le Corbusier, Terragni, or Mies van der Rohe, as opposed to Alvar Aalto or Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahn. I thought we were continuing the modernist project; it was not a nostalgia for the avant-garde.

CB Why don’t you think that now?

PE After reading structuralism—Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss—I understood postmodernism as a linguistic project. Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Deleuze, Lacan, and others were proposing an alternative to mainline modernism, to the existentialists—Sartre, Gide, the French philosophers who, after the war, were continuing another modernism. Between ’76 and ’78 I went into Jungian psychoanalysis, and Manfredo Tafuri wrote an essay called “The Meditations of Icarus” about a Peter Eisenman as Icarus, who flies too close to the sun; his wings melt, he falls to earth. In my own personal analysis, I realized that I wasn’t in touch with reality. I wasn’t grounded; that is, my work was never sited on the ground. The psychoanalysis certainly affected the work. Later projects involved sites, such as the Cannaregio Town Square project in Venice, which was in the ground for the first time, but not in the way Christian Norberg-Schulz describes in Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (1980) or the site-specific art projects like Smithson’s and Heizer’s. Trying to define the difference between architectural and sculptural site-specific projects became important in my work. Literally and metaphorically the work began to dig into the ground at the same time as I was digging into the ground of my unconscious. My Cities of Artificial Excavation project developed from this. Ever since, my project—whether the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, or the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, Spain—has posited a different modernist idea of abstraction, a different kind of autonomy, and a different idea of ground.

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Plan for IBA Social Housing, 1981-85, Berlin, West Germany.

CB Let’s backtrack a little bit. Your houses explored something that, at the time, was called transformational grammar. For this process you applied structural linguistics, which came basically from Saussure and Chomsky.

PE It was semiotics, not linguistics.

CB But you were more interested in the translation of semiotics into architecture, in how the deep structure of grammar could be a way of generating architecture as a process. You made isometric drawings that showed not necessarily your interest in a finished object, but in an object in continuous transformation. You look at architecture as a series of operations. The process of making spaces involves generating a structure based on an analysis. This is clearly in all of your work, even in the work you’re doing now.

PE Well, I’m still me. (laughter)

CB It’s interesting how these structuralist ideas have more force as a generating form in architecture than the poststructuralist theories you encountered reading Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari.

PE You may be right.

CB I found your essay “Written into the Void” fascinating. I was taken by the whole dance of the essay. At the beginning you emphasize Adolf Loos and the place of the spoken in contrast with his archenemy Josef Hoffmann and the place of the written—the poles of a hierarchical dialectic in which speaking is primary and writing is secondary. Then you go into Derrida’s poststructuralist thinking, where writing is no longer considered secondary to speaking. It’s a tantalizing idea. The essay has several steps: you argue that writing architecture is, in a poststructuralist sense, a way of differentiating it from linguistics or sociology, making it something that’s almost autonomous. This brings up a whole series of questions for me. Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind makes a point that the invention of written language established a fundamental break between man and nature. For him the ability of complex and abstract thought is abundant within an oral and preliterate culture. Do you think Derrida’s idea of the supremacy of writing over speaking wants to erase the difference between speaking and writing, and could be a nostalgia for this original condition of a preliterate society?

PE Derrida is more relevant to architecture because architecture is not an oral culture, even though architecture parlante and promenade architecturale are common expressions. Architecture is, number one, written. It is a discourse between a sign and a signified. Columns, walls, etcetera, are signifieds—they are things—and they are also signs. Unlike language, whose thingness is not very important, in architecture the thing is the sign.

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The City of Culture of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Courtesy of the Foundation for the City of Culture. Photo by Manuel G. Vicente.

CB But the spoken word, like architecture, is a sign and a signifier, because of the sound itself. There’s a material quality to the spoken word.

PE The important thing in Derrida, as opposed to Lévi-Strauss, is that Derrida says there is no originary signified, no original thing—in his terms, no transcendental signified. That’s why playing around with questions of representation is interesting, because if the sign is not necessarily referring out, and there is a free-floating relationship between sign and signified, then architecture must be thought of differently.

In the history of architecture, the Renaissance was an epistemic shift from theocentrism to anthropocentrism, when man became the center of the discourse between God and nature. A transcendental metaphysic became an immanent metaphysic; the metaphysic was now withinthings. The subject-object relation became important. The metaphysical project necessary for the Renaissance has become the problem for architecture today. My book titled The Architecture of the Disaster, playing on Blanchot’s book The Writing of the Disaster, suggests that metaphysics—the concept that originally liberated architecture from the transcendental project but then trapped architecture in an immanent metaphysical project—is the disaster.

Derrida said to me, “Architecture will always mean; it cannot help but have meaning, whereas language can move freely because the signs don’t mean anything. Architecture is trapped in the metaphysical project.” What interested him about architecture was that it resisted the project of deconstruction. My work, post-Derrida, has been to test that assumption. Now, he may be right that architecture cannot overcome the metaphysical condition of presence, but it is certainly worth questioning such an assumption.

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The City of Culture of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Courtesy of the Foundation for the City of Culture. Photo by Manuel G. Vicente.

CB His article in the form of a letter to you is very charming. He says to you, “What about a rocket?” And then he asks you about God. Why is that? Is he actually saying that you’re not in the metaphysical project, and that you’re still in the transcendental project?

PE That is an interesting question. The article you’re referring to is “Why Peter Eisenman Writes Such Good Books,” which very few people understand is actually a critique of my work, because books are a problem for Derrida. The irony is that while it sounds like he’s paying me a compliment, at the same time he’s basically saying, “Peter, you may think you can find a way out, but architecture is trapped in the metaphysical project.” That was his assessment.

CB About you and all architecture?

PE All architecture, in the sense that there is no new paradigm; there hasn’t been a shift.

CB Going back to your beautiful essay “Written into the Void,” you refer to Derrida’s analysis of Proust and then you go on to posit the two conditions of what you call the writing of architecture. Number one, you say, it’s not about problem solving; it’s not design. Number two: it’s about simulacrum. We cannot think about the present without incorporating the past—this is actually the lesson of Proust, according to Derrida.

PE What is important for me today is the critical value of being in a late moment. Whether it’s the Baroque or the end of the 19th century, there are moments in history that are late, which can also be critical moments. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Derrida say, “Time is out of joint,” they are no longer in a moment of time that is projecting itself forward in history. If we are no longer in the spirit of our time—that is, if we’re late—then we need to look at something other than the phenomenology of the genius loci to see whether site could be the place of a different energy. I call this the time of the site.

CB Because the site registers the past.

PE As well as the present. It is not possible to talk about the spirit of today because there is no spirit of today when it is always already late. There is no zeitgeist.

CB We cannot project the future.

PE That’s correct. The zeitgeist attempts to project the past into the present and into the future. My work has always—I’ve always—been against this propelling force of history, à la Benjamin’s angel of history. Today there is another kind of energy internal to the site. The project in Santiago de Compostela is about layering different ideas of time into the site.

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Detail from Cannaregio Town Square, 1978 (design project), Venice, Italy. Photo by Dick Frank Studio. Courtesy of Eisenman Architects.

CB And when do you think we arrived at this kind of lateness?

PE In 1968 with the student riots, the riots in the ghettos, everything changes. In architecture there were books by Robert Venturi, Manfredo Tafuri, Aldo Rossi, Vittorio Gregotti—all speaking of a different view of the history of the discipline.

CB Let’s talk about the difference between Rossi’s and Venturi’s views.

PE Rossi’s was clearly a social view; it was a project for the architecture of the city. Venturi’s was an anti-urban project. In a funny way, it was about an autonomous architecture, one little concerned with the city.

CB But Venturi’s position, as it evolved later with the work of his wife, Denise Scott Brown, became very populist. That strain of populism runs more or less continuously until today. You could say that Rem Koolhaas’s stance on architecture in the city is basically a variation of Venturi and Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972).

PE Rem Koolhaas would like to see himself portrayed today as a populist. His Delirious New York (1978) took Dada and surreal manifestations of populist imagery and turned them into architectural fantasies. Some people say that in his success he has become cynical. Cynicism is not populism: it assumes populism is kitsch. Venturi could also be kitsch; you could also see him as a cynic.

CB Where do you place your architecture in that dialogue with the city?

PE As opposed to Venturi, who is anti-city, or Koolhaas, who definitely has an urban project, my urban project would be more complicated to define. For example, I am beginning to evolve an idea of time through a study of Piranesi. Again, the idea of lateness is a first attempt at thinking: how does time relate to place, to a particularly urban site? My previous formalist work was on the autonomy of an architectural language.

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House II, 1969-70, Hardwick, Vermont. Photo by Norman McGrath. Courtesy of Eisenman Architects.

CB I’d say that you have a very clear urban model in mind when you do Checkpoint Charlie [the IBA Housing Project] in Berlin. For one thing, you try to express it within the tectonic of that building. It’s a reading of the archaeology of the place. It may not be very transparent, but it is an encoded idea about the place.

PE The book Cities of Artificial Excavation could be said to sum up the attitude of the work to the idea of the urban; it is certainly not populist.

CB Thank goodness.

PE These projects have to do with language, ultimately. The Wexner Center contains an urban idea, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin contains an urban idea, as do the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, the Musée du Quai Branly project in Paris, and the Cannaregio Town Square in Venice. But just now you articulated the idea more than I have.

CB It’s implicit in all architecture. As Alberti would say, “The city is a big house, the house is a small city.”

PE That’s where the work is different from Alberti’s idea of a part-to-whole correspondence. My work argues that the part is not metonymic of the whole and vice versa.

CB Okay, so let’s talk about the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela.

PE In each of the buildings there are several different structures at several different scales. There is a grid of round columns, one of square columns, and one of rectangular columns. Anything that would suggest homogeneity and a part-to-whole relationship is broken down—the faceting, the different grids, the layering of surfaces. All contribute to what might be called a disaggregation.

CB What would be the difference between this museum and a Borromini church? I’d argue that a basic component of Baroque space is these layerings of different grids.

PE Jeffrey Kipnis says that according to Wölfflin (the Swiss art historian) the difference between the Renaissance and the Baroque is that the Renaissance is about perception and the Baroque is about mood. When Kipnis visited Santiago he said, “Unlike your other buildings, this is a mood project—you’ve shifted from the Renaissance to the Baroque.” It could be argued a little differently: the Baroque tried to neutralize the difference between surface and column; that is, it tried to make a seamless condition between the wall and the column. It tried to synthesize those into a unity, producing a mobile, plastic space. The project in Santiago is neither synthetic nor a single dialogue. It is not a dialectic between grid and bearing wall. Rather, it is ceiling becoming volume and curtain-wall becoming volume.

Perhaps in my anti-Baroque attitude there remains the residual influence of my mentor, Colin Rowe. For him, the Baroque was not a pure, autonomous architecture. It precipitated the Counter-Reformation; it was specifically aimed at the restoration of the new importance of the church. Every time I am in Rome I still go to the two churches at the Piazza del Popolo: the one on the left, the Santa Maria di Montesanto, by Bernini, and the one on the right, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, by Carlo Rainaldi. Then I go to Santa Maria in Campitelli, which is not pure Baroque, it’s something else. It’s almost Palladio and Borromini superimposed on one another.

CB Well, Bernini was the official architect of the Baroque, though Borromini was always criticizing Bernini’s work and, in my view and that of many others, outdoing him every single time.

PE But he also killed himself because of his absolute inability to realize, or for the world to realize, that he was the man.

CB In your Santiago project you are no longer interested in the totalizing view of the composition. You are using looser applications of parametric design or digital forms of composition that are basically applied onto the surface of the site, correct?

PE What’s different is that another archaeology is added, the archeology of the digital—the virtual lines that can be produced by a computer, which are not the lines of topography, typology, geometry, or history, but an idea of virtual time. Before, my work was indexical; it’s no longer indexical. That’s why there are these stuttering, fractured surfaces that we didn’t have before.

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The City of Culture of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Courtesy of the Foundation for the City of Culture. Photo by Manuel G. Vicente.

CB What does this have to do with your view of nature?

PE I don’t know if I have a view of nature.

CB I’m sure you do.

PE Cities of Artificial Excavation clearly are neither natural nor real excavations. The dialectic between manmade and natural does not function; the virtual does not stand dialectically in a polar opposite to the natural. Now the use of stone, which is perceived to be natural, can be used in an unnatural way.

CB There is no natural architecture, of course.

PE In the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the attempt was to use a non-iconic material. We didn’t want stone, especially Jerusalem stone, which would evoke a place and time and have representational qualities. A concrete was chosen that was made to look like metal, the surface becoming close to being not concrete. The edges of the corners were not beveled; there were absolute knife-edge corners to dematerialize the material and thus to create a sense of estrangement from the real and the everyday.

CB In a section of the Santiago museum you have this incredible poché space between the roof and the interior—

PE Ten meters! It is a very exaggerated poché. The attempt was to distinguish between the lines of the surface topology, which is ground related—that is, the mountain restored—and the interior lines that represent a second topology, or, you could say, two different times: the time of the site, the topography, and the virtual time, the interior notations. The pochéarticulates that difference.

CB It is the interdependence of two completely different architectures. One that responds to the site in general and one that is excavated within the site, the artificial site that you make. It shows very clearly this idea of a virtual solid. In your case it’s a void, but it’s still a virtual solid—that enormous space which you cannot really perceive unless you see a section of it.

PE That’s correct. Poché is a very important part of this architecture.

CB It’s actually very neoclassical.

PE Perhaps, but the poché in the neoclassical sense related the interior to the exterior, whereas this distinguishes between the two.

This is the first time I’ve had a discussion of the Santiago project that deals with virtual time.

CB It is virtual and real in the sense that it is felt and not perceived. The great thing about architecture is that when it’s finished, it becomes something else through the way people use it.

PE People like the strangeness of the ground surface that they walk on because it distances them from the obvious reality of being; it’s something other. They like the Holocaust Memorial for the same reason. You feel very strange going up and down that steep slope at Santiago. It’s not just a place—it’s the ground coming up.

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The City of Culture of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Courtesy of the Foundation for the City of Culture. Photo by Manuel G. Vicente.

CB A representation of an earthquake, to some extent.

PE I think of it as disturbance, as a series of tremors. It is no longer linguistic. It’s neither perceptual nor indexical.

CB If you look at the Santiago project from the outside, there is no decoration—the architecture has almost disappeared. It’s close to southern German Baroque churches in that there’s a clear schism between a simplified exterior and a very complex interior. It seems like once you get inside, you are confronted with this surprising contradiction of grids, and then with the space forming these ribbonlike patterns that merge the ceiling with the wall and the floor and the window. They all seem to have an ambiguous relationship to each other.

PE One of the virtues of the use of the idea of an index in my previous buildings was that it was anti-expressionistic. Whatever one saw was a register of a structure or a tectonic, and therefore could not be seen as expressionist. Now, take away the register, the index, and what saves it from being expressionistic? That is the key question that Santiago proposes. Perhaps it is the register of a far more complex series of ideas wherein the work may still be indexical, but subliminally so. The index is not an expression of the space, nevertheless it is present.

CB I’d say that this is a more exaggerated version of the index. The space is being formed by these six grids or systems that you’ve set up, taking each one to their maximum power. They collide and produce this space. Take your own writing on index, where you analyze the way that Bramante sets up patterns in Santa Maria della Pace so that the corner is physically compressed. You actually feel the tension of the system expressing this compression; the index has actually compressed the corner in a kind of violent way—

PE Where you enter it from the diagonal.

CB Right. You enter it diagonally. I would say that that’s a case of index expressing the idea of space—you are doing similar things in this case.

PE Then I would argue yes. See, I believe that the work that I do teaching these things and thinking about them is bound to … I don’t say, I think I’m going to look at the index as an expression of the space. It happens subliminally.

CB Right. Well, I’d say that this is a more exaggerated version. (laughter) Where the space is being formed by these six grids or these systems that are being set up, and they are taken to their maximum power, each one, and then they are colliding and they are producing this form, this space.

PE The interesting result is the play between the six buildings comprising the City of Culture. There is a metanarrative: the six as one and the six as six, like a jazz sextet. Spaces and objects move in and out, contrapuntally, riffing on each other. Walking from south to north one would go through four buildings and always see the virtual lines. The same virtual lines move through the buildings, but they are modified by each space—they are present as a continuity and as a difference.

Rafael Moneo argues that my work has too many arbitrary elements that don’t relate to function, to meaning, to form. But what is the difference between the arbitrary, which I think is very important and potent, and improvisation?

CB Jorge Luis Borges was asked what he thought about improvisation, and he said, “Well, it’s very dangerous; it usually leads to vanity.” (laughter) If you talk to a jazz musician it’s a different story. Improvisation is about listening to your fellow musician and adapting your riff to his riff. It’s about community, in certain ways.

PE Jazz is interesting precisely because of the arbitrary—suddenly there are relationships that don’t seem to have been predicted or designed. Santiago seems improvisational because it was impossible to know exactly what it was going to be from looking at the drawings.

CB You didn’t know exactly what it would be like, but I’m sure you studied it pretty carefully. You had set up the arbitrary system with which to produce it.

PE There is always a system that allows for the arbitrary, that produces something strange, something disharmonious. This is the nature of critical work; this is the nature of my project.

Carlos Brillembourg is the principal of Carlos Brillembourg Architects in New York. His built work ranges from commercial structures including a theater, sports center, and the Lladro Building in New York City, to residential buildings and single-family homes. He is the author of Latin American Architecture 1929–1960: Contemporary Reflections. Brillembourg has been BOMB’s contributing architecture editor since 1992.

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Originally published in

BOMB 117, Fall 2011

Featuring interviews with Clifford Owens, Eve Sussman, Lisa Yuskavage, Sanford Biggers, Geoff Dyer, Kenneth Goldsmith, Neil Michael Hagerty, and Peter Eisenman.

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