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"Fixing a Hole": A Commentary on the Architecture of Peter Eisenman

By Richard Joncas

Although the exceptional interdisciplinary nature of Peter Eisenman's architectural theory certainly qualifies him to speak to a broad cross-section of disciplines, his buildings have been repeatedly criticized for their lack of humanity. Perhaps the most flagrant, if tongue-in-cheek instance of the "tyranny of his theory" over the functional and practical requirements of a building occurred when the Wexner Center for Visual Arts, in Columbus, Ohio (1983-89), opened without its art. Few architects have exposed, or excavated, to use his own word, the dark side of architecture as has Eisenman. He speaks of "deconstruction," "repression," "texts," and "between," and his architecture epitomizes "fragmentation," "incompleteness," and, most disturbing, "loss of center." He draws on psychoanalysis and literary theory to explain his designs, and ascribes his own experience as a Jew living in New York to the ever-present sense of "dislocation" in his work. Like many twentieth century architects, Eisenman has invented a language which captures the angst of contemporary societies.

Eisenman's efforts to weave language and architecture is as old at least as architecture, but especially prevalent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Frank Lloyd Wright adopted metaphors, similes, analogies, and other linguistic devices to eradicate the separation between words and building, ideas and forms, to achieve some ideal connection beyond the building itself. Le Corbusier's infamous line that "A house is a machine for living in" exploits a similar strategy, but with greater shock value. And Louis Kahn's writings verge on the poetic, if somewhat arcane. In each case, theory preserves and expresses a personal vision of architecture. And in each case, the building's intrinsic aesthetic values ultimately dominated any theoretical position, establishing their strong bond to the history of architecture.

But Eisenman's theory and architecture scale new heights, making it difficult even for the expert to understand or appreciate their relationship unless Eisenman reveals it. As my colleague, Chris Pearson, observes, much of Eisenman's theory seems self-promoting. To the casual observer, Eisenman's buildings seem to defy the conventional logic of architecture, its rationality and even basic assumptions of top and bottom. Eisenman has said that architecture's most fundamental properties are not shelter and enclosure, and that his buildings are not about "subjective aesthetics." Rather, their skewed axes and geometry, grids layered horizontally and vertically, and compositions that are illegible, often times a seeming chaos of fractured and fragmented elements, substantiate his declaration for a "violated perfection." Nevertheless, such elements cannot be "dis-associated" from traditional issues of space, technology, form, materials, or style, and Eisenman admits their role, if on a less important level. Inevitably, his buildings suffer from conventional criticism. They stand mute, like cold abstractions, intellectual exercises far removed from the experience of the average person, and not so few intellectuals. They seem monumental.

Eisenman obscures the creative sources and processes of his art. His conventional devices, such as his trademark grids, seem to work against expectations, if they work at all. The grids, used historically to order architecture, "dis-order" the logic of Eisenman's design and seem to layer his buildings as if to suggest shifting and simultaneous temporal dimensions and logical structures. The materials and technology he uses are not only distinctive of modern architecture, but make Eisenman's difficult constructions possible, even though they are at times juxtaposed with a surreal quality. His early houses (few of which were built) are inconceivable without the white villas of Le Corbusier, though unlike them, which bore the name of their clients, Eisenman's are impersonal studies (i.e. House X) unrelated to landscape, client needs, or context. Their interior spaces are hardly recognizable as such (there is no hearth or any other symbolic element to signify the center of the house, as in Wright's work). And Eisenman states that his buildings eschew distinctions between inside and out, a standard architectural polemic of the twentieth century. Rather, he has explored this idea not only in the realm of architectural space, but in the psychoanalytic dimension. Similarly, his desire to return meaning to architecture stems from the precedents of architects such as Robert Venturi, but in ways they never envisioned. In his Housing Block for the International Berlin Architectural Exhibition of 1980, and built in 1982-7, color coded grids refer to conflicting urban and transglobal meridians intersecting at the block's site next to the Berlin Wall, thus extending the implications of the wall not only locally to the architecture, but universally.

Eisenman has revised modern architecture's revolutionary ardor, and broadened its meanings, making it darker perhaps by abandoning its optimistic, absolute, teleological component. But trying to understand Eisenman's architecture is like "Fixing a hole where the rain gets in," to quote a line from John Lennon's song about meditation.

Richard Joncas received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1991. His dissertation was titled 'Pure form': the origins and development of Frank Lloyd Wright's non-rectangular geometry. He is currently developing an exhibition for the Stanford University Museum of Art on the competition for its major renovation and expansion project.

1998, Richard Joncas


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