From Formalism to Weak Form: The Architecture and Philosophy of Peter Eisenman

Despite his significant impact on architecture through both built and theoretical works, most studies of Peter Eisenman's career focus on either one aspect or the other. In “From Formalism to Weak Form: The Architecture and Philosophy of Peter Eisenman,” Stefano Corbo attempts to redress this balance, connecting themes in the design and the theory of the influential architect across the many stages of his 50-year career. The following is an excerpt from the book's introduction, giving a brief overview of the chronology of Eisenman's career and the ideas that have influenced him over time.

All of the different moments characterizing Eisenman’s trajectory imply different phases, different projects, different programmatic manifestos and, above all, an evolving notion of form. To approach the complexity of his discourse means dealing with form in all its declinations: formalism, de-composition, deconstruction, and weak form. Each of them has constituted the mutant epidermis of Eisenman’s theoretical corpus, based on philosophical references and provocative statements.

Thanks to his ability to connect with the cultural tendencies of the time, Eisenman has explored different territories: first, structuralism and Chomsky’s linguistic theory; successively, Derrida and Delueze’s post-structuralism, passing through the influence of Colin Rowe’s formalism, and his recent interest in the return to autonomy as theorized by Pier Vittorio Aureli. At the same time Eisenman has always played a central role in influencing and manipulating the American architectural debate, due to his propagandistic activity, first with the IAUs (Institute for Architecture and Urban studies), and then with the magazine Oppositions.

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In Towards an Understanding of Form in Architecture (1963), the first article published by the young American architect immediately after the completion of his doctoral thesis, most of the outstanding elements of Eisenman’s poetics had already emerged. So, despite its immature character, attention should be paid to this text. It was actually inspired by the interpenetration of distinct influences: the Gestalt theories, so in vogue at the time, the Russian formalists, and Colin Rowe, who met Eisenman in Cambridge in 1961.

His first theoretical works, like his doctoral thesis, did not claim the creation of forms ex-novo; on the contrary, they constituted a heterodox interpretation of several architectural texts. In fact, Eisenman was interested in displacing form from its necessary relationships to function, meaning and aesthetics, without at the same time necessarily denying the presence of these conditions.

Architecture, then, was made of latent ideas that survive through the process of design and continue to influence the project even through construction – and the architect’s main task was to consist in describing the internal matrix that generates architecture.

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The study of the Italian architect Giuseppe Terragni allowed Eisenman to elaborate his own vision of Modernism, and at the same time, to interpret this architecture according to the lens of Chomsky’s grammar. His differentiation between a deep and superficial structure would be the main reference for Eisenman’s discourse: the American architect in fact distinguished between superficial/sensorial aspects (colour, texture, shape, and so on), and deep aspects (frontality, compression, and disjunction). To cite Rafael Moneo, we may say that Eisenman built a dichotomous version of his architecture, based on the opposition between the mental (the deep structure) and the sensorial (the superficial structure).

In Terragni, Eisenman also discovered that kind of formal exasperation that he had learnt from Paul Rudolph’s houses and Casa del Fascio represented his critique of the so-called metaphysics of the presence, the definition of which clearly derived from Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (even though this text was not to be published until 1967, four years later than Eisenman’s doctoral thesis).

Whereas this phase, defined by Eisenman as the diagrams of interiority, was characterized by the desire to find internal rules and mechanisms for the discipline without any contact with the exterior world, at the end of the 1970s pessimism about architecture and the mission of Modernism enveloped Eisenman: he gradually abandoned his interest in internal syntactic processes and replaced geometry, abstraction and self-referentiality with a recourse to external factors. Architecture thus became for Eisenman a tool to reflect upon the instability of history.

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With the project for Cannaregio, Venice (1978), the American architect opened up his theoretical discourse to external solicitations proceeding from other territories and borrowed concepts like context, metaphor, history, and memory. So, Cannaregio marked the transition from interiority to exteriority and Eisenman abandoned Chomsky or Slutzky, in order to find a more appropriate language for explaining the times in which he was living (The Cold War). Thinkers such as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and Lacan, became his new sources of inspiration. From his engagement with the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, Eisenman began to look at architecture as a text: a palimpsest open to multiple readings, whose real nature is indeterminate and unstable. At the same time, the shift from interiority to exteriority was not only characterized by a general pessimism about the failure of the modernist mission. Apart from Derrida, whose influence would lead Eisenman to introduce deconstruction into the American debate (he was to organize an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, gathering under the name of deconstructivists very different architects, such as Gehry, Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Tschumi, and himself of course), the American architect attempted to find an answer to the end of humanism through a new paradigm − weak ontology.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo initiated the term pensiero debole (weak thought), in order to justify the shift from the modern to the post-modern. Against a globalizing model based on truth, unity, and totality, Vattimo, along with the philosopher Pier Aldo Rovatti, claimed the necessity for a philosophy that denied any kind of strong, definitive and universal solution:

Rationality must de-potentiate itself, give way. Weak thought is thus certainly a metaphor and, to some extent a paradox … It points out a path, it indicates a direction of the route; it is a way that forks from the no matter how masked hegemonic rationality from which, nevertheless, we all know a definitive farewell is impossible. [1]

The adjective weak was also linked with the idea of truth, at the point in time when it lost all its traditional and reassuring characteristics.

What Vattimo somehow described was the end of history: if Modernism based its own message on unitary narratives (religion and Marxism), post-modernism represented the crisis of such narratives: "there isn’t only one History; there are several images from the past proposed according to different points of view; and thinking that there is a comprehensive and supreme point of view, is a pure illusion." [2]

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Post-modernism expresses the fragmentation of any fixed perspective: the history of thought is not a progressive enlightenment. And, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, one might say that there are no facts, only interpretations. The nihilist suggestions offered by Vattimo and Jean François Lyotard, along with the textual interpretations of Jacques Derrida, led Eisenman to acknowledge that traditional metaphysical thought had been dissolved; God was dead and rationality just a tranquilizing myth.

The idea of weak thought transferred to architecture influenced the theoretical production of the 1980s. In 1987, for example, the Spanish architect Ignasi Solàmorales tried to describe the crisis of Modernity, by introducing the concept of weak architecture. Thanks to the influence of both Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche, Solàmorales claimed that aesthetics (for example, architecture, painting, literature) could not be based on a closed model; on the contrary, aesthetics had to consist of different heterogeneous elements.

Weak thought also contaminated other territories, from urbanism to cinematography; Michelangelo Antonioni or Andrei Tarkovsky, for example, constituted real examples of a weak narration, based on the distance between image and narration. Foucault’s notion of archaeology became one of the cornerstones of a weak architecture: archaeology implied superposition, discontinuity, folding and unfolding.

Eisenman began to absorb new impulses, and shifted his focus towards different challenges: Venice (Cannaregio project, 1978), Paris (La Villette, in collaboration with Jacques Derrida, 1987) and more recently Berlin (Holocaust Memorial, 2005) represented different steps in the evolution of his idea of form.

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At the same time, these projects were also emblematic of unexpected changes and anomalous ambiguities, because Eisenman’s biography and architectural career are interdependent: they cannot be separated, and it is difficult to decipher some of his postures without referring to personal anxieties. Moreover, every project contains a different cultural substratum that needs to be brought to light.

To venture into this complex tangle of different phases, projects or essays, implies the risk of becoming trapped in an undiversified accumulation of concepts. For this reason, when describing the heterogeneous articulation of Eisenman’s career, it is necessary to find a congruent model for dismantling the propagandistic apparatus built by the architect through the years, and at the same time to offer a clear interpretative framework. Rather than isolating and analysing every element in its autonomy, From Formalism to Weak Form has been structured around a series of keywords or concepts that help to define a heterogeneous and interconnected cartography that is detached from any hierarchical configuration. The aim of such organization is twofold: on the one hand, to overcome a close reading of Eisenman’s work based on a mere chronological and linear narrative; on the other, to avoid the de-composition of his discourse into several autonomous entities.

This cartography will display not only the interpenetration of the multiple concerns explored by Eisenman over 50 years, but also the contradictions, the anomalies and the ambiguities of his production.

Courtesy of Stefano Corbo


[1] Gianni Vattimo, Pier Aldo Rovatti, Il Pensiero Debole (milano: Feltrinelli, 1983), foreword, last accessed 21 July 2014.
[2] Gianni Vattimo, La società trasparente (milano: Garzanti, 2000): 27.

From Formalism to Weak Form: The Architecture and Philosophy of Peter Eisenman

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Cite: Stefano Corbo. "From Formalism to Weak Form: The Architecture and Philosophy of Peter Eisenman" 25 Jan 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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