As one of the most revered and often reviled architects of the latter part of the 20th century, Peter Eisenman has courted controversy throughout his 50-year career, often attempting to distance himself from the work of his contemporaries and standing in firm opposition to popular trends. In this interview, Eisenman elaborates on his beliefs about architecture and the new direction he has taken in recent years – while simultaneously pulling no punches when discussing the work of others, including Rem Koolhaas, Richard Meier, and even his younger self.
The interview is a shortened version of the latest of three interviews with Peter Eisenman (from October 2003, June 2009, and February 2016) that comprise the upcoming book by Vladimir Belogolovsky “Conversations with Peter Eisenman.” The book, published by Berlin-based DOM Publishers will be presented during the opening days at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale in late May this year.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: In the last several weeks, I have experienced two of your most representative projects to date: the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Both projects illustrate something you explained in our conversation back in 2003. You said: “Architecture requires the displacement of conventions; the history of any discipline is about displacing conventions… Architecture displaces in order to create what will be. Creation does not repeat what is.” Both projects displace conventions. In Santiago, your project emerges out of superimposition of traces, grids, and the city’s symbol, the scallop shell, while in Berlin, your memorial avoids using familiar iconography and idea of any representation. Is this an accurate reading of your work?
Peter Eisenman: Yes.
VB: Right after my return from Santiago, I told you that I read the complex not as an architectural project but as a text, a novel. In other words, the structures one finds there carry a particular meaning and even a narrative that one could read by exploring the project. To that you said, “That’s correct.”
PE: Yes, I agreed.
VB: And your question to me was, “Would you say this novel is closer to Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?” So this is something extraordinary. You go through architecture and you get entirely displaced from reality to the world of fiction. But unlike reading a novel you are displaced physically, spatially. I find this particular power of architecture to do so, absolutely incredible.
PE: Well, I am now reading about linguistic techniques of Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky called “baring the device.” The idea is that architecture is never about a meaning that is simply assigned to various parts to project a particular reading. The whole idea of my architecture is about stopping any communication and placing within architecture itself a device that causes you to react emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Without representation. My architecture means nothing. But the experience is something else. You walk through the Berlin memorial and it has nothing to do with what happened in the camps. It is about walking in that space and you get strange physical sensations such as undulation, tilting, leaning, and you feel perplexity, isolation, disorientation; you never know where you are. It is not about “…oh, I got the meaning, I understand.” It is about not understanding the meaning. There is no iconic representation in either Santiago or Berlin. The idea is to create a particular experience in the space by being in that space. Both of these projects have strong experiential qualities of intensely vibrating spaces and they are very different from my early work, which is more conceptual.
VB: You define architecture as language; you said that you are interested in language more than a story.
PE: By language, I mean text. Text to me is the manipulation of words to produce something other than a narrative. I want to stop any narrative.
VB: On the other hand, you also said, “I have lost the faith that language could be somehow an analogous model for architecture.” So do you still see language as your model for architecture?
VB: When did that shift take place?
PE: In the last decade. I became conscious of what I was doing.
VB: How did this change your architecture?
PE: Language is a conceptual analogy. Today I am looking for operational effects.
VB: In other words, you are now thinking a lot more about the people who will be experiencing your buildings?
PE: Not really.
VB: Yet, now you are interested in a more experiential architecture.
PE: You can argue that.
VB: Why is that? Were you influenced by what other architects are up to these days?
PE: Of course not! Let me tell you. When you get older and you are tired of what you have been doing, you need one last chance for thinking the project again. I would like to think that both Santiago and Berlin are the beginning of that rethinking. It has nothing to do with the people. Since I was never interested in people before, being interested in people now is a different condition of the work. I would like to call this my late style. For example, I am currently working on facades of buildings. I never worked with facades before. I was always working with plans. I am really interested in working with buildings’ surfaces. This is different from what I was doing before.
VB: Do you think it is important for architects to work with regional features and conditions as opposed to spreading global or individual ideas wherever they go? How do you deal with the fact that clients around the world want a Peter Eisenman signature project, not Peter Eisenman who would come to their city and blend with local characteristics?
PE: That’s correct. That’s the problem that Peter Eisenman has because I don’t have a single idea as some other architects. For example, Richard Meier does his buildings the same way no matter where he is doing them. My work therefore is contextual. I wouldn’t say it is vernacular, but it always begins with the context. So I couldn’t do the same building in Santiago, Berlin, or Phoenix, Arizona. Therefore, I don’t have a style. Buildings by Frank Gehry and Michael Graves all have the same look. Mine don’t have the same look.
VB: Wait a minute. Do you really believe that your buildings don’t share the same look? Wouldn’t you say you have a signature style?
PE: Do you really think so?
VB: Are you kidding me?
PE: Well, I am not sure.
PE: No, no, seriously! When I look at the work on my website, I think to myself, could someone recognize Peter Eisenman? I am not sure. I am not being disingenuous. I am not convinced that I have a style. Let’s put it this way – I have a style that’s not a style.
PE: Yes, I approach context the same way, always. OK? Not directly, but indirectly. So in that sense my work becomes a style.
VB: One of your goals in architecture is to displace certainty. Could you talk about why this is important?
PE: Being alive is being somewhere. To me the idea of architecture is to inhibit the routine nature of being, to introduce a new space and time to disrupt the routine of being.
VB: Let’s talk about details. You said many times that details are not important.
PE: That’s right, I am not interested in details.
VB: You said, “I’m not interested in Peter Zumthor’s work or people who spend their time worrying about the details or the grain of wood on one side or the color of the material on the surface, etc. I couldn’t care less.” If you deny the idea of beauty in architecture what is the goal then?
PE: I am not interested in beauty. So?
VB: What is wrong about architecture that’s crafted well?
PE: Because it misses the point.
VB: You think so?
PE: Beauty does not disrupt anything. If you see something beautiful, you don’t pay enough attention to it. Beauty, because of its very nature does not demand close attention.
VB: I was just at the Fondazione Prada by Rem Koolhaas in Milan. I was looking for a concept or a narrative, but what I found were stunningly beautiful details. Gorgeous details everywhere. To me that was disruptive, although much less than Santiago.
PE: I was there too. I found the project to be ordinary. It didn’t seem exotic; it didn’t say Prada to me.
VB: It may appear that way from a distance. But come close and the details are quite inventive and beautiful, although very understated.
PE: Yes, but I don’t come close. I don’t know details. Close reading does not mean to come close. What I am saying is that I found it boring. Look, Rem is a very good architect, but he is interesting when his concepts are interesting. Many of his projects are terrific, but Prada is not a strong idea.
VB: Well, his work is not consistent because in every project he seems to want to say something new.
PE: But not being consistent is a dialectical style. By the way, I wouldn’t say that he is always not consistent.
VB: Well, obviously, when you run out of ideas you repeat yourself.
PE: I think he is lost to the machinery of success. He is too big and he doesn’t have the control he used to have on his projects. And his Biennale was like a tradeshow, catalog, internet shopping… The Biennale was not about ideas and how these elements go together.
VB: Architecture is not about taking things apart.
PE: No, it should not be about its parts, but the syntax. Architecture is about putting things together. To me it was boring and I am not interested in boring architecture. I am interested in projects that may seem boring at first but when you go there, they prove you wrong.
VB: Like your Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
PE: Thank you. All the stones seem the same but not really. That’s important.
VB: Would you say that what you are pursuing in architecture today is out of sync with what many other experimental architects are doing; does this worry you at all?
PE: I am what is called an outlier. Yes, nothing that I am doing relates to parametricism or sustainability or other tricks that architects are doing. It may worry me. But on the other hand, there is nothing I can do about that. I do what I do. I teach what I teach. Architecture lost its authority.
VB: You mean there is no longer common ground.
PE: No, and therefore the students don’t know what to do.
VB: Do you think it is OK?
PE: No, I don’t think it is OK. I think it is terrible. Look, when I first started teaching, we taught Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Stirling, Rossi, Venturi, etc; we had all their books on the desks. Now there is nothing. Students don’t have these books on their desks. They don’t have authoritative models.
VB: Do you think this may change in the future?
PE: Yes, for sure, it will go back. Look, we need to teach grammar, not a style but grammar. We need to teach classical architecture. I teach classical architecture, but I don’t teach what is happening today. I believe students need to understand what Alberti did, what Palladio did, Brunelleschi, Bramante, etc.
VB: Are we in a period of uncertainty?
PE: Yes, for sure. And it’s been for a long time now. Look at our leading architects today. Is anyone an authority as Venturi once was? Venturi is no longer an authority. Gehry, Bjarke Ingels... They are no authorities.
VB: They are stars.
PE: They are stars. The writer David Foster Wallace said, “Art must be different from entertainment.” Stars entertain; they don’t make art.
VB: Years ago, I asked you to summarize what is architecture for you. I want to compare my notes.
PE: It is a possibility of making a difference in the experience of being in space and time. And not through gadgets, tricks or gimmicks, but through a deep understanding of the relationship of subject to object. This is what architecture does; it makes us more fully aware of being in the world both mentally and physically. We, architects do it in space and time, and this is what any art form tries to do – literature, film, painting, sculpture, poetry, music – it is about trying to make more conscious, more fully aware of being in time and space, and in the world.
VB: Before you also said, “Architecture manifests how the society at any one time feels about itself.”
PE: Yes, but I no longer care about how the society feels about itself. People change. I changed.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions will be a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title to premier at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will then travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.