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The Architectural Strategies of Peter Eisenman

By Chris Pearson

In 1570 Andrea Palladio published his Four Books of Architecture, which set out not only the details of Classical architecture and his reconstructions of ancient Roman buildings, but many of his own designs for villas and palaces. Almost unwittingly, Palladio was to make publication and self-publicity, rather than actual building, the cornerstones of his lasting fame as an architect. In 1923 Le Corbusier was to publish his equally influential book Towards a New Architecture, again amply illustrated with his own works, but now replete with a carefully worked-out and self-sufficient architectural philosophy. The combination was irresistible to his readers, and has set the precedent for generations of aspiring architects who have come after him.

The role of self-generated publicity in the field of architecture is thus nothing new. What makes Peter Eisenman such an interesting case-study is his acute awareness, now sharpened to an unprecedented degree, of the importance of theory in generating critical interest in his buildings, as well as his shrewd and ruthless application of this strategy in furthering his own career. At the same time we find that Eisenman has succeeded in producing the most completely and deliberately opaque body of architectural theory ever committed to paper. Indeed, his most remarkable achievement may well prove to be the construction of a formidable critical and professional reputation based on conceptual foundations which almost nobody can understand.

While Eisenman's theoretical writings pose as explanations, it is crucial to recognize that they in fact serve as tools of manipulation -- excluding and intimidating those who would question his credentials. And in a way, Eisenman's actual buildings (which by now are fairly numerous) are still very much beside the point: they exist as illustrations of the hyper-intellectual word-games which constitute his texts. Whether we take Eisenman's bizarrely skewed constructions (or deconstructions) seriously as works of architecture, or even as works of social critique, is a matter of personal taste and conviction. What is rather more important, I think, is to examine the techniques by which Eisenman has risen to his prominent position in the architectural world.

For better or for worse, the real drama of Eisenman's career is to be found not in his constructions but in his self-construction. Many people can confirm that visiting an Eisenman building frequently becomes a tiresome, one-dimensional experience once the basic formal or conceptual procedure underlying his design has been apprehended; in sensual and experiential terms, his architecture is often reported to be sterile. Reading his theory is even more immediately unrewarding. Yet when taken in a spirit of healthy skepticism (something too rarely done, it appears), watching Eisenman shape his newest persona -- as philosopher, theorist, social commentator or academic -- through a public lecture can be both enjoyable and instructive. As Eisenman plays games with his audiences, manipulating them as he judges their specific interests and capacity, so can we ourselves respond actively to his coercive attempts to control the reception of his projects. Eisenman challenges us to meet his calculated strategies with a heightened critical awareness of how they operate, and we may find ourselves motivated to envision alternative modes, perhaps ones that are more productive and humane, by which the practice of architecture could be carried out.

Christopher Pearson received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1995. His dissertation was titled Integrations of art and architecture in the work of Le Corbusier: theory and practice from Ornamentalism to the "synthesis of the major arts." He is currently teaching in the School of Architecture, Arizona State University.

1998 Christopher Pearson


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