Peter Eisenman


Peter Eisenman with model of
Church for the Year 2000.
Photo: Hisao Suzuki
(c)1998, Peter Eisenman

It is most appropriate that the journal for the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies was titled Oppositions. Peter Eisenman, Founding Director of the Institute and editor of Oppositions, has made, perhaps more than any other architect practicing today, a career out of devising and employing a dialect of oppositions in architecture. Although the Institute and the journal have since ceased, contemporary architectural practice continually resonates with the dislocations, junctures, and uncertainties that regularly occur in Eisenman's work.

Basing his scheme for architectural design on theory drawn from outside existing architectural dogma, most notably from philosophy and linguistics, Eisenman has developed increasingly complex formulations regarding the architectural design process, especially in regards to the role of structure in contemporary society. With references to rhetorical strategies, societal alienation, and existing architectural forms, Eisenman's theoretical work derives much from Friedrich Nietzsche, Noam Chomsky, and Jacques Derrida. If the conceptual underpinnings are not readily apparent or easily seen in his designs and buildings, the texts of these precursors certainly underlay Eisenman's own, both literally and architecturally.

Eisenman has been grouped with the proponents of a postmodernist sensibility, and symptomatic of this literary movement, his designs and buildings have been considered as texts. As postmodernist strategies, or the strategies of deconstruction, destructuralism, or poststructuralism, promote the decay or fragmentation of existing symbolism and structure but promise no ultimate replacement, neither does Eisenman offer us a new absolute. Rather, he suggests a psychological void which provokes individual and cultural anxiety and dislocation. By inducing destabilization and rupture in the very structures so long associated with comfort and shelter, such as the single family home, Eisenman has raised the postmodernist stakes by creating an architecture that some suggest borders on nihilism. Yet classifying Eisenman's oeuvre, which is by no means complete, is to miss the essential thrust of his process. His designs, like society itself, seem to be in a state of constant emergence or movement. Based on an predilection towards a polemical flow of opposition, interaction, and redefinition, Eisenman's design constitutes a formal or structural examination that by definition is constitutionally unable to achieve closure.

The grid was the organizing principle of Eisenman's earlier work, a series of rectilinear box-like houses in which he investigated and articulated a variety of theoretical ideas, including the notion of "deep structure," a proposition that there is a universal, "underlying ordering device that is the natural and logical generator of a design." The buildings were seen and experienced as autonomous and self-referential, independent of human context or function, as functions of mathematical universality. The structures are coolly rational, but it is a rationality that is wholly self-referential, intentionally challenging human sensibilities of elegance, beauty, and comfort.

House II.
(c)1970, Peter Eisenman.
Courtesy Lava

In these very complex, "post-functionalist" or "neo-rationalist" aesthetic exercises, the architect made structure the essence of the house. Numbered rather than named (House I, House II, House III...) they expressed his investigation into the nature and meaning of architectural form. Instead of basing the design on function, with form to follow, the Houses explore specific structural principles, with functions to fit in as best they can, if they can (see Dream Houses video for interview between Robert A.M. Stern and Eisenman at House VI ). This introduction of functional distress in a most treasured sanctuary, the home, is typical of Eisenman's striving to produce dislocation and provoke uncertainty.

In conjunction with Richard Trott and Laurie Olin, Eisenman designed the Wexner Center for the Arts (1983-1989), Ohio State University, which both signaled and symbolized deconstructivism in architecture. By the time the building was completed in the 1989, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, had already institutionalized deconstructivism as style with the 1988 exhibition and catalog Deconstructivist Architecture in which Eisenman's work was featured, along with Frank Geary, Rem Koolhaas, and others.1

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Wexner Center.
Photo: Jeff Goldberg
(c)1989, Peter Eisenman

Actually the building appears as a scaffolding, with a white three-dimensional grid that serves as the building's spine running at an angle between two anonymous, pre-existing structures. This grid-spine asserts itself as a pedestrian passageway between the existing buildings, and from it hangs the Wexner's galleries, which along with much of the building's space resides underground. Our normal expectations of building and site are antagonized by this non-building which occupies a non-site. The spine, aligned with the Columbus urban grid, ties the Wexner Center and the campus to the city beyond by imposing the urban grid on the campus grid, a typically Eisenmanian overlay of one grid upon another to create a disconcerting juncture at the site. The building stands for a confrontation, yet also an integration, between past and future, town and campus, signaling an uneasy temporal relationship both within and without the site. The white-grid framework, which indicates the future, collides at the south end with a construction of fragmented brick masses, reminiscent of the Armory towers that stood nearby until their destruction in 1958. The fragmentation and reordering of this University landmark recalls the original tower, yet does not preserve it. This questioning of past in regards to future, of site and non-site, building and non-building is typical of Eisenman's architecture and is, in a sense, perverse. With his design for the Bio-Centrum , a research center for the J. W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, Eisenman moved beyond the re-invention of site. Despite this shift, he once again initiated a system of conflated duality; this time between architecture and biology, with the existing laboratory structures colliding with the secondary theme of DNA replication. As Kenneth Frampton has noted: "Instead we encounter a figurative architecture , -- a new 'speaking' architecture -- whereby through a felicitous exchange, an architectonic construction is brought to reflect the most profound building system there is, namely, that of life itself."

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Competition for a Virtual House.
(c)1997, Peter Eisenman.
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Competition for a Virtual House.
(c)1997, Peter Eisenman.
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Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences.
(c)1997, Peter Eisenman.

Eisenman's continual interest in opposition, displacement, event, grid, mathematics, multiple geometric orders, the torquing of space, and the folding of form back upon itself seems ideally suited for exploration with computer assisted design (CAD). These designs from the Competition for a Virtual House (1997), when seen in conjunction with a rendering for the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences (1997) suggest that Eisenman will continue to have a considerable presence in and impact on contemporary architectural theory and practice. As Stanford Kwinter has noted: "In an Eisenman work, structure always emanates from an initial pattern that is knocked away from equilibrium."2 Such an act of negation, the very nature of which implies a state of constant becoming without the possibility of achieving final resolution, reprises the deconstructivist mantra. Similarly, Arie Graafland has observed: "Analogously to Derrida, Eisenman conceives the plan as a text. In the semiotic way signification is never exhausted; new additions to or modifications in the plan/text effectuate new interpretations. Just as in a written text, there is the possibility of an erroneous interpretation. Or, as Eisenman says, a text which does not lead to a truth or evaluating conclusion, but, on the contrary, to an erroneous interpretation. An endless process."3

1 Deconstructivist Architecture . By Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988.
Art Library NA680 .J62 1988 F [not on Reserve]

2 Stanford Kwinter, "The Eisenman Wave," in Eisenman Architects Selected and Current Works . Mulgrave, Australia: Images Publishing Group, 1995, p.13.
[Art Reserves NA737 .E33 A4 1995 F]

3 Arie Graafland, "Peter Eisenman: Architecture in Absentia," in Peter Eisenman: Recente Projecten = Recent Projects . Nijmegen: SUN, 1989, p.124.
[Art Reserves NA737 .E33 P47 1989]

By Peter Blank

(c)1998, Stanford University

Peter Eisenman pages edited by: Peter Blank, Art and Architecture Library, Stanford University,


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