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Challenging Norms: Eisenman's obsession
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By Robert Ivy, FAIA with Suzanne Stephens

During his entire career, Peter Eisenman, FAIA, has carved out a distinctive reputation as a theorist, practitioner, and teacher. Recently, his book Giuseppe Terragni, Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques (Monacelli Press), which Eisenman spent 40 years writing, has been published. Meanwhile, his largest work to date, the 810,000-square-foot City of Culture of Galicia, in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, is in construction. In addition to Eisenman’s longest and largest undertakings, other major projects—the Arizona Cardinals football stadium in Phoenix, and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin—are being built. architectural record’s editor in chief Robert Ivy recently talked to Eisenman about his role in architectural culture.

Eisenman Architects:
Interior perspective of the music theater (above) and model (below),
City of Culture of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1999, in progress).

Photos courtesy Eisenman Architects

Architectural Record: You are known for engaging theoretical ideas and challenging norms. What do you see as your mission in doing that?

Peter Eisenman: First of all, I do not know if I have a mission. I’m not a missionary. I might have been, 20 or 30 years ago. Because of my nature, the kinds of questions that I ask of my work—the questions that interest me—seem to challenge norms. For example, at Yale I teach a course on Brunelleschi, Alberti, Bramante, Palladio, and Serlio, because the students do not know anything about these architects. History is about people who have challenged norms, and these people in their own ways have done that. Rudolf Wittkower pointed out in 1937 that Carlo Rainaldi’s Santa Maria in Campitelli in Rome challenged norms in 1662—the norms that Borromini himself had challenged and then established. So at Yale, we’ll be comparing Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane with Santa Maria in Campitelli.

AR: Yours is an intellectual pursuit.

PE: I am interested in intellectual pursuit, but I do not consider myself an intellectual. I also do the Times crossword puzzle on Sunday, I read mystery stories, I look at the Internet, and play solitaire. I would not call that intellectually challenging. I get up at 5:30 in the morning, and by nine o’clock I have written what I need to write and read what I need to read. And I’m done. And the rest of the day—I would not call running an architectural practice an intellectual pursuit.

AR: So you leave the meditative realm and leap into the real world. Yet few would characterize your work as single-minded or pragmatic.

PE: Nobody says, “Well, what is the idea behind this?” All they care about is what it costs and what it looks like. As long as the clients are convinced that you, the architect, know why you did it, they will go a long way. I have very conservative clients, politically, who are willing to take risks because they have a sense that psychologically they can afford it. They come to me not because of aesthetics, comfort, or familiarity. They believe I will give them something that they may not be comfortable with in the present, but which may be good for them in the long run.

AR: Don’t most people want comfort—not what is good medicine?

PE: They do absolutely. Why not? That is what makes the world the way it is. As Nietzsche said, if there weren’t this world, there would not be the other world.

AR: One of the fundamental facts about architecture or any sort of vital human pursuit is the possibility of defining yourself—to realize yourself; to continue to come into being, so to speak. Are you someone who is in this constant state of self-definition?

PE: Anyone interested in self-definition is both a narcissist and egocentric. What’s interesting about constantly growing and self-defining—forget the purely psychological reasons, the egocentric and narcissistic reasons—is that if you do not have those qualities, you do not move. I am faster now than I ever was. I can process information faster. I can make decisions faster. I’m 70 years old and have most of my best work ahead of me, a good part of which is being built right now. And you know, I haven’t won all the prizes, or received all the commissions. I haven’t made all the money. And now I watch some of my colleagues trying to figure out what can they do—how come they are no longer being invited to design this or that. And I say, “But you’ve already done all those things: You’ve climbed the mountain, and I am still climbing.” And I suppose I keep reinventing mountains to climb because I do not think I’d like to be at the top of the mountain. I would feel very uncomfortable looking down.

AR: You have described an interest in topological geometry in relation to your project in the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela. What about landscape? This is a borderline realm of ideas that is both geophysical and abstract. What is in that marriage of architecture and landscape?

PE: First, let me go back to something Rosalind Krauss [art critic and theorist] said. She said that the animating device in the 1970s was the photograph—the photograph was a record of an event. In this sense it was an index, which was an attempt to modify the iconic value of the object. What is the problem with an icon? The object-as-icon is based on the metaphysics of presence [a belief in a unifying force behind truth and knowledge], as opposed to pure presence.
So, my own work in architecture attempts to produce a series of photographic plates or indices in the sense that Krauss was talking about: I have taken existing maps and superposed them to reduce their iconic, historical, and pictorial value. But the Santiago project is slightly different: It is no longer merely an index of these superpositions. For example, in Santiago, my idea was to superpose a Cartesian grid onto the existing, organic, medieval “grid,” and warp or deform them with a topological grid that projects upward. This produces lines of force that were never a part of projective geometry. They mutate in the third dimension. This has a powerful impact on the ground surface. It is a way of dealing with the ground not as a single datum, not as a foundation, not as something stable. It disrupts its iconic value, turning it into an index.

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