Peter Eisenman, 70, is one of the founding theorists of postmodern architecture and a distinguished practicing architect who will probably be best remembered for his Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe (view images from the Archinect gallery) currently under construction in Berlin. Thus it was very surprising to hear what he had to say about the failures of contemporary architecture one morning at his firm's offices in an industrial loft in Manhattan's wholesale antiques district.
Although he is usually classed with postmodernists and deconstructivists who consider themselves cultural radicals with an agenda of revolution, Eisenman turns out upon closer examination to be a very different thinker, who is surprisingly blunt about the failures of modern architecture, the uselessness of the cultural left, and the obsolescence of the avant-garde. He is a cantankerously honest thinker in a field rife with glib ideologues and trendy posers.
An Interview by Robert Locke
Would you care to elaborate a little on the connection you see between politics and architecture?
Well, I think architecture is a form of politics. I believe that architecture does make political statements. There is no doubt. I mean, I was just in Naples recently, and three of the great buildings that I saw in Naples, in the most beautiful shape, were built by Mussolini. But that doesn't mean I agree with Mussolini's politics.
I have just written a book, which I've spent 40 years of my life on, on one of the most important Italian fascist architects (Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques), who was a party member: he built the House of the Fascists in Como. Why would I be doing that if I'm such a lunatic on the left?
Well, I didn't say that. But people assume it.
Right. They assume that, but here's proof that I'm not. You know, I can tell you this: most of my clients are Republicans, most of them are right-leaning. In fact, my client in Spain for the cultural center at Santiago de Campostela is the last Francoist minister. And I have the most rapport with right-leaning political views, because first of all, liberal views have never built anything of any value, because they can't get their act together.
I find this public process about what monument we should build in downtown at the WTC site an aberrant one, because since when does the public choose? I would think that what you just said to me would lead one to believe that we ought to listen to the voice of the people as to what we should build, and I'm not convinced that you're not the liberal in the room and I'm not the conservative.
I would say that the voice of the people is one voice to be listened to, if only because the public has no choice but to look at buildings once they're built, unlike paintings or poems. But most people, insofar as there is a cultural right in this country, tend to assume that anyone who advocates and practices the kind of architecture you do has to be someone like Bernard Tschumi ' architecture in the service of Marxist revolution or whatever kind of revolution they've moved on to now.
Right - exactly.
So you're at the other end of the spectrum?
Yes and no.
I don't mean you're a fascist like your pal in Spain.
He's not a fascist.
Well, a former fascist, if you classify Franco as a fascist, which I realize is controversial.
The people who support me in Arizona are all Republicans. The support I had in the state of Ohio was from the head of the Republican Party in Ohio. They supported my work at the Venice Biennale. They supported my buildings. Rudolph Giuliani supported a cultural museum I was doing in Staten Island. Republican Borough President Guy Molinari was my big supporter in this city, who helped me in this city, who couldn't be more conservative, right? My appeal to Governor Pataki at the time of the World Trade Center was from a conservative point of view - I believe our project was the most conservative of all of the projects proposed.
World Trade Center Proposal
You mean the tic-tac-toe building
Yes. I think it was a very conservative icon compared to what's being done. So therefore, I find it very difficult to see myself to see myself as a wildly - I mean, I'm very happy your magazine is choosing to write an article about my views because I think my views are not too far from The New Criterion and Hilton Kramer and those people.
That's why a lot of my students see me on the other side of the fence: they see Leon Krier and me both as troglodytes. I am attacked more readily by the left than I am by the right. You know, this is what's interesting: If you take the left-leaning critics, I am one of their big enemies, because I stand for something that threatens them, because it appears to be radical, but for them it isn't radical, so for them it's very threatening. They don't worry about Leon Krier, because he's obviously off the charts for them. The people, like myself or Rem Koolhaas, that they worry about, are the people who appear to be radical but that they believe to be conservative. That's a fair assessment of where the young radical left in architecture is.
So if you describe yourself as an architect as being on the right, but not conservative like, say, a Robert A.M. Stern or a Demetri Porphyrios, wouldn't that be like how some people would describe Italian fascism, as in futurism and Marinetti and all those nutty guys?
I wouldn't call it nutty. In fact, I'm writing a piece...
He wanted to blow up Rome.
I'm writing a piece now for an Italian exhibition on metaphysics. On de Chirico, Corac, all of these so-called crazy guys, the Italian crazies. I've been working on this: what was the nature of the disciplinary specificity of architecture that was what I consider autonomous? My whole position is that architecture participates in what I call the continual unfolding of existence, that architecture, like any other discipline, has the capacity to do that, and that there is what I would consider to be a disciplinary specificity to architecture, so that even though the deconstructionists say that everything is one, and there's an intertextuality, and that there is no subject, I believe there is a subject, I believe there is a disciplinary specificity to all disciplines and what I believe one is looking to do - in addition to anything else - is find what that disciplinary specificity is in architecture.
You see, my work basically says that while I may have my own personal political leanings, or I may have affinities to conservative politics, when it comes to architecture, ultimately its politics is autonomy. That's why I can look, as Leon Krier does at Albert Speer, even though he was what he was - and I'm best friends with his son - I have no problem with that. I don't have to be an ideologue; I'm not a flag-waver. I believe that the architecture that the fascist regime was doing was a very important moment in time.
This can't help provoke a question about the building you yourself have said is the one you are mostly likely to be remembered for, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. I'm not sure what to ask you about it: it reminded me of a sea of gravestones in a military cemetery.
What I was thinking was something quite different. I'm very much against the Holocaust industry. I'm against the nostalgia that is brought up about the Holocaust. I am against kitchifying the Holocaust.
I think it was something that defies representation; I think you cannot represent it. And what I've tried to do is say if you go to Auschwitz, if you go there, it's horrific: you're reminded of all these images et cetera. But you can re-assimilate your internal mechanisms to say, OK, that was then and here we are now.
What I tried to do in Berlin was to do something that couldn't necessarily be as easily re-assimilated. It has no imagery. In other words, it was not about imagery, it was not about marking, it was not about a cemetery. The fact that it could look like a cemetery is possible. It could also look like a field of corn. I was thinking about a field of corn I was lost in in Iowa when I did it. I was trying to do something that had no center, had no edge, had no meaning, that was dumb: D-U-M-B. And there's nothing in the city that's dumb. And therefore it was silent, it didn't speak.
I believe that when you walk into this place, it's not going to matter whether you are a Jew or a non-Jew, a German or a victim: you're going to feel something. And what I'm interested in is that experience of feeling something. Not necessarily anything to do with the Holocaust, but to feel something different than everyday experience. That was what I was trying to do. It's not about guilt, it's not about paying back, it's not about identification, it's not about any of those things; it's about being. And I'm interested, in a sense, in the question of being and how we open up being to very different experiences.
I've got to tell you the biggest supporter of that project was Helmut Kohl, the conservative prime minister of Germany. When the liberal Gerhard Schroeder came in, he almost killed it. My first project in Berlin was when Richard Von Weisacker was mayor and I did this field at Checkpoint Charlie, and VW came to me after I won the competition and he said to me,
"You know, Peter, my problem with your project is this: the left wing hates it because they think it's right wing and the right wing hates it because they think it's left. Nobody can make an assessment. You have created something that is, in a sense, problematic for everybody, because they can't label it. And if they can't label it, then they can't tell whether they like it or dislike it."
That's what I've tried to do in Berlin. That's what I've tried to do with myself, with my work. I don't want a label. I don't want to be either good or bad, right or wrong, left or right,
I am one of the most outsider of all the insiders. I mean, a lot of people say, you teach at Princeton, you teach at Yale, but I never had tenure at those institutions. I never wanted tenure at those institutions. But I'm not yet a maverick. I don't dress like a maverick. My dress is either Brooks Brothers or J. Press.
I believe that art and life are two different discourses, and how I want to live is different from how I want to practice architecture. I love living in an old New England house; my in-laws have a small sea-side house in Connecticut. I had this 1740s farmhouse in Connecticut where I used to live. What I do not want to do is to recreate a 1740s farmhouse; I want the original thing, with the original boards, because you can't get those kinds of wide boards any more, the kind of nails that were made.
But doesn't saying that art and life are two different things mean alienating our culture from the people it's supposed to be the culture of and lead to a kind of hothouse aestheticism that has nothing to do with real life?
Well, I'm very interested in real life, but that depends on your definition of 'real life." Who represents real life? I don't have any idea who, really. My clients that come to me, they're not coerced into coming to me, I don't have that many, and there's not any worry that Peter Eisenman is going to destroy real life. Just like there's no worry that Webern or Bartok are going to destroy pop music, right?
I wasn't talking about you so much as the idea that you suggested.
The idea that I suggested is very important to keep alive in the culture. I would think that both Demetri Porphyrios and Leon Krier would think that not having me in the culture would not be a good thing. It helps them to point to what the problems are. I represent certain problems. Just like I think would be very much less of a culture not to have them around, because it helps me to point out what some of the problems are.
I don't believe in the homogeneity of culture or the hierarchy of culture. I don't believe in one system, one - gestures - et cetera. I'm interested in fundamentals. I'm interested in fundamental research. But I am not a fundamentalist. Nor am I a Marxist. Nor am I a modernist. If the world were all deconstructionist buildings, I'd go nuts. I am interested in what the discipline has to show us about architecture as it relates to the culture.
As I said, I taught gothic. It's to do with the nature of the work. I believe that the history of architecture. I mean, Bob Stern, I have his lecture, his commencement speech. He made a strong critique of modernism. And I might make a similar critique of modernism. What I might say is Bob Stern, unfortunately, has to deal with the so-called marketplace, and his students don't want to hear about classical architecture.
You know, people say architects are not supposed to like sports, but I'm an avid sports fan. Doing a stadium for me is like doing a cathedral. I'm doing two other stadiums right now in addition to that (points at rendering on wall) stadium for the Arizona Cardinals . It's a very conservative area, Arizona, and they're so excited about the stadium. I think it's a classical stadium: look at it; it has a classical aura about it, but it doesn't have the trappings, classical ordination, but it seems classical, and what I'd like to think, if you saw see my Wexner Center at Ohio State University, you'd say it has a classical feeling to it. And I'm not against that.
And that's what I've been trying to touch: that moment in space and time that doesn't brand you as a conservative, doesn't brand you a fundamentalist et cetera. I'm against fundamentalism, because fundamentalism as preached by regimes in the Middle East is against secularism (which doesn't mean you're against God) and against progress, and I believe in both.
But what I'm talking about is not progress in the historicizing sense of the word as in ultimate progression to a better future. I believe that progress is something which opens up the present, not gets better. I don't think things get better; I don't believe in idealism; I don't believe in an ontological view of the world. I believe in the here-and-now, as in making this here-and-now better than it has been.
But I don't think it can be done: while I aspire to that, I don't think I make the world any better. And that's not my role: it's opening it up to the possibility of that.
Do you have any thoughts on the oft-made accusation that there's too much theory in modern architecture, particularly in teaching?
I don't think you can understand history unless you understand its theory. Alberti said in his Della Pittura in 1500 that what painting needs is to invent a history for itself. That's a theoretical proposition, not an historical one. To understand why he said that, why art and architecture need a history, that's a theoretical proposition.
All of the developments in architecture, the developments that we hold dear, have come about through theoretical pronouncements that then become history. So I can never distance theory from history. When I teach history to the freshmen at Yale, I start with Piero della Francesca, then Montaigne, then late gothic painting, then early Renaissance painting, and then we get to Brunelleschi. Hardly radicals, in one sense of the word - then Bramante, Palladio, Borromini, and Schinkel, right down to the present day.
For example: to understand what Brunelleschi was doing with perspective, he was interested in instantiating the subject in architecture as the subject hadn't existed in the Gothic world, and in the Renaissance it was now the subject that was the center of the universe, and so he said the only way the subject can be involved in architecture is to set up the subject's eye as the way of understanding space.
What do you make of the argument, which has been floating around for some years now, that the so-called avant-garde isn't avant-garde any more, has been getting long in the tooth, is a bunch of clich's from the 1920s and frankly, we all ought to be laughing at its pretensions?
I agree. I agree. (laughs) No, I agree. The avant-garde cannot exist in the way it did in the 20s, to repeat the 20s is no longer avant-garde, and I am myself not an avant-gardist.
When you get to be 70 years old, to try and pretend that you're a young Turk, doesn't wear very well. To dress like a teeny-bopper is really problematic, and to behave like one is equally so. When you get to be 70, you have a role in the world that's important to act your age.
(The interview is briefly interrupted as Prof. Eisenman takes a phone call from a member of the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei who wants to know if he would mind being nominated for an architectural prize of theirs in connection with his cultural center in Santiago de Campostela in Spain. He does not, and the interview resumes.)
Looking at your convention center in Columbus, what it says to me is you've taken the very banal big-box suburban type architecture that gets ground out all over this country and you've said, - if this is the reality of contemporary America then let's do something clever with it that will actually be nice to look at...
Yeah - But I am very much against the idea of "aestheticizing" anything. I would like to think that just as I'm against the politics of fascism - that used thought to aestheticize their politics - I would like to think that what I'm talking about is not aestheticizing anything.
While we were stuck with this dumb box, OK, I would like to think that what we did - and this is where we may disagree - I would like to think that what we tried to do was, that we tried to find an alternative way: we cut the dumb box up into strips, right? And I don't call that aestheticizing. I call it reconfiguring or transforming the dumb box.
The Greater Columbus Convention Center, Columbus
I just mean making it pretty as opposed to ugly.
I don't know if I would say it's "pretty."
I liked it, and I don't mean "pretty" as an insult.
OK. Let's say, making it something that people take notice of, that causes them to say, I like it or I don't like it.
That improves the built environment...
That's all my questions. Anything else you'd like to add?
Don't confuse me with Bernard Tschumi. You know, when he was dean of the architecture school at Columbia, I could never get a job there. I may seem like a person that's far out to you and Bob Stern and Demetri Porphyrios, which is fine, but to the students, whom Bob and I both have to deal with, Bob and I are both seen as conservatives, and they want stuff that's more relevant to what they believe is relevant. It's a very difficult moment because Bob has to hire me to placate the students and he has to hire people like Gregg Lynn to, in a sense, show the students who are constantly demanding, "where is the world today?" And I think part of the reason why Yale hires somebody like a Richard Meier to do the arts building is because they believe they have to in fact keep up with what's happening in the world of architecture, like many other universities.
Robert Locke - firstname.lastname@example.org - is a freelance journalist residing in New York City