Presidential Lectures: Peter Eisenman: Essays: Morgenthaler
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Peter Eisenman's Realist Architecture

By Hans Morgenthaler

One could say that Peter Eisenman (1932-) has always been interested in reality. His buildings are real objects and he is fascinated by how people behave in the real world. He is convinced that the traditional manner of designing buildings so that they satisfy their function or present a pleasing shape has become problematic because information and communication technologies have dramatically distorted reality. Today, the media are determining our world to such a degree that we can no longer be certain what is real for us. Eisenman used to tell the story of the running back who had just scored a touchdown and needed to check the replay on the stadium screen to be absolutely certain that his exploit had indeed happened. From such observations of human behavior, Peter Eisenman saw his mission as challenging conventional thinking about architecture.

Throughout his career, Eisenman has striven for an architecture that forces us to rely on our own wits to understand the tangible world around us. He began this quest in the 1970s with small houses in which he changed rational geometric forms into multiple autonomous structural and visual systems. Such morphological transformations affected the meaning of the design. The result were highly complicated structures, which seemingly presented unresolved tectonic and spatial forms. Although these buildings are habitable, they do not look like it. The utterly geometric compositions obscure the traditional structural reading of supporting columns behind a notational system that creates a contrast between actual and implied space. Eisenman's houses are autonomous objects, and were designed according to a process governing the turning, breaking, and intersecting of the various parts from which they would be assembled. Borrowing from Noam Chomsky's linguistics, Eisenman believed that viewers were capable of understanding the meaning of this architecture, because it derived from the same linguistic and syntactical structures we use ourselves to express our thoughts.

In the early 1980s, Peter Eisenman seemed to tire of these grammatical compositions. He remained committed to an architecture which emphasized meaning over form, but broadened his choice of expressive features. For him, architecture was no longer just about esthetics, but also about economics, politics, and history. Influenced by his own psychoanalysis, he began to incorporate memory and history into his designs. He took a stand against rationality, clarity, and purity in architectural form. Following the theories of Jacques Derrida, he conceived of architecture as textual. Eisenman wanted his buildings to be narratives. An initial strategy was to use a mapping procedure, a process which led to the plan of his famous Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. A variety of grid systems has invaded every surface of this complex. These grids articulate the different axes according to which the surrounding area had been surveyed in the past. In this manner, the plan comments on the geographical location of the design and incorporates a number of texts about the history of the site. The shapes of the various buildings are then extruded from the superpositionings and layerings of these plan grids. The grids were also used in the facade articulations, forming window mullions, cornices, and other divisions.

However, there are also more literal forms. A partly rebuilt armory that was once on the site demonstrates the power of traditional forms from architectural history. Because it is fragmented and shifted from its original location, the partial armory questions the possibility of preserving the past. Nevertheless, digging into the past was a major concern of Eisenman at this stage in his career. At the Wexner Center, the massing concept is that of an archaeological earthwork. Landscaping is treated as excavating, revealing the history and geography of the site.

In his recent commissions, such as the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati, Eisenman replaced the narrational emphasis with an intent to realize architecture as a spatial creation. These buildings treat space as their ultimate meaning, to be grasped intuitively, not intellectually. Eisenman has begun to link architectural design to fiction and poetics, aiming to create buildings which are self-referential and not merely an end to a predetermined theoretical cause.

Hans Morgenthaler received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1988. His dissertation was titled The early sketches of Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953). He is currently an Associate Professor of Architecture in the College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado at Denver.

(c)1998 Hans Morgenthaler


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