Iraqi academic No’man Bayaty explores the influences and work of the internationally acclaimed American architect, Peter Eisenman.
Peter Eisenman, American architect and academic, shifted his design strategies several times throughout his career, which has, till now, exceeded half a century. Though his designs fluctuated between different theories, a consistent framework connects the various periods of his work, and the following article will offer an exploration and summary of it.
The start of Eisenman’s practice is marked by his PhD thesis, The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture, which he completed in 1963 at Cambridge University, although it wasn’t published until 2006. To understand the beginning and the height of Eisenman’s architecture, we should examine the ideas and people that affected him, which can be grouped into three main factors.
The first major influence on Eisenman was American theorist Colin Rowe. Rowe was an important figure who opposed modernist thinking and its effect on city planning. He tried to prove the failure of modernist planning and wrote several articles and books regarding the issue. Eisenman was heavily affected by Rowe, since Rowe was his teacher, and he drew from Rowe’s method of analysis of modernist works, like Le Corbusier’s. Eisenman also likely took from Rowe’s objection to modernist thinking, as well as his approach to urban planning.
The second effect on Eisenman was Italian architecture and architectural theory. Eisenman studied the works of Giuseppe Terragni, a leading modernist architect who worked for the Nazi regime. Terragni’s works are considered rational modernist, and Eisenman analysed his buildings from different aspects, especially their functional solutions. He was also affected by another Italian figure from the 18th century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an architect and artist famous for his engravings. Piranesi drew several imaginative drawings of Rome, depicting its great ruins. He also drew a plan of Rome in which he installed buildings and monuments from different periods all on one map. This fragmentation attracted Eisenman’s attention, and can be seen in some of his later projects, like the Cannaregio Town Square (1978).
The third effect on Eisenman was an important study conducted by a German theorist named Rudolf Wittkower, called Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. In the study, Wittkower analyses the architecture of the Italian Renaissance and explores the most important buildings, from Leon Battista Alberti’s churches to Andrea Palladio’s villas. Wittkower’s analysis is a formal one – he studies these buildings from a geometric and proportional point of view, and he tries to establish the formal language of the architecture far from its cultural or geographical context. The analytical diagrams of Palladio’s villas produced by Wittkower were very similar to the early works of Eisenman: the houses.
In 1968, Eisenman designed house I, which would be followed by house II, and the series continues until house X, designed in 1975. Four of the houses were built, while the others were not. All of Eisenman’s designs focused on the architectural form, and tried to present functional aspects in a non-modernist way. He attempted to create a formal language isolated from its context, in imitation of Palladio’s villas. Eisenman dealt with his houses far from the cultural symbolism. The houses mostly started with grids and boxes intersecting each other at various angles. This point in time represents the ‘interior’ period of Eisenman, during which most of his designs were enclosed on the building itself.
Afterwards, Eisenman moved on to the ‘exterior’ period, and his attention shifted to connecting the building with its ground and context, and this was clear in his urban projects, such as the Cannaregio Town Square. In this project, Eisenman expands on Le Corbusier’s modernist grid for an unbuilt hospital. Eisenman’s passion also colours his proposal for the La Villette Park competition, and a residential building in Berlin. He uses grids heavily, and sinks himself into the history of the place, discovering and employing references that help organise the project’s layout. Emulating Rowe and Piranesi, Eisenman dives into the layers of the past and intersects them, later collaging fragments of these periods in one final outcome.
Later, Eisenman befriended French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and collaborated with him on a few projects, including La Villette (1987) and Romeo and Juliet. While several architects have tried to conceal it, Eisenman has always been clear in professing his deconstructivist motives, which distinguish his projects from the late 1970s through to the 1990s (the Wexner Center for the Arts is perhaps the best example). Eisenman wrote about his intentions in articles published in the architectural journal Oppositions, of which he was the editor for a while.
Eisenman also tried using computer software to achieve complex forms. His office was one of the first to use FORM Z, and it pushed the limits of Euclidean geometry. His practice, like others including Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas’, created daring forms that challenged traditional views (such as the Max Reinhardt Haus designed in 1992). Yet, despite the controversy sparked by these designs, Eisenman didn’t really enjoy the forms, and declared, more than once, his cold feelings towards such applications and the resulting forms. Eventually, he forwent computer-based design approaches.
Eisenman has opposed many architects publicly. He had a famous debate with Christopher Alexander in the early 1980s, during which Alexander argued for a harmonious view towards the architectural form, and Eisenman defended contrary thoughts. He also criticised Frank Gehry for his extreme reliance on computers in his work, comparing him to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, since both create a passive spectator in their designs, enforcing the viewer to follow a specific path. And, it’s been reported that he once told Koolhaas: “Rem, your problem is that you don’t know anything about form.” Koolhaas tried to face the dilemmas of modernism with a practical mindset, and claimed that the architectural form must sprout from its cultural and social roots, while Eisenman had a skeptical eye, refusing to digest social and cultural complexities blindly. Those close to the American architect were also not safe from Eisenman’s reproach, with Derrida once mentioning that Eisenman would neglect his advice during their work together.
Eisenman’s engagement with opposing dualities is almost a general trend in his work. In Cannaregio, for example, he placed different sized masses on Le Corbusier’s grid. These masses range in scale from model size to an actual building’s scale. Eisenman blurs the boundaries during this interplay of model-building to confuse the viewer: the plaza is not an attempt to recreate old Venice, nor is it an attempt to create something new. Corbusier’s grid is present and absent at the same time. The conflicting dualities and intersecting layers and grids remain an important characteristic of his work.
It is also important to mention Eisenman’s relationship with Charles Sanders Pierce’s semiotics and Noam Chomsky’s linguistics. Eisenman does not stay in the physical domain of architecture, but travels to the conceptual one, studying the connotations of the image depicted to the viewer. He is not interested in the phenomenology of architecture. In his writings, he doesn’t discuss colours, textures, surfaces or light, and he doesn’t delve into the sensual effect of architecture; rather, he goes to a deeper level (according to him), that’s connected to history and memory, and the viewer’s perception of the symbolic connotations. Eisenman tries to reduce the gap between the building and the model by reducing its physical characteristics, thereby minimising the distance between reality and imagination through an immaterialist approach.
This appears clearly in his Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, which won a competition in 2008. The monument is very abstract, featuring a carpet of concrete boxes placed along a strict grid. However, the moment you penetrate the boxes, you sense the randomness of movement inside it. There is neither a clear function nor a clear movement pattern, and the grid starts to deform with the increasing height of the boxes and their slight tilt. If Eisenman had compared Gehry to Bernini, he compares himself to Francesco Borromini; he gives the viewer multiple vistas and freedom of choice, with no clear movement hierarchy, creating an active spectator.
Eisenman does not consider history linear or connected, but he visualises it as intersecting points. That’s likely the reason he found his beginning in Rowe’s Collage City, and Piranesi’s Rome plan. The fragmentation and intersection of layers of a city’s history clearly shows in his fragmented urban plans.
Despite his fluctuation between strategies, from abstracted houses to deconstruction, and then plainly announcing the death of deconstruction in an interview, intersecting grids and fragmented layers remain an important trait in his work. The linguistic theories and computer software were all a means to achieve another goal: to create an architecture of fragmentation, instability, skepticism; an architecture that proposes more questions than it actually answers.