(Published in One: Twelve Issue 4, April 2012.)
Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University has been typically understood through its relationship to and manipulation of then-current postmodern trends within architectural discourse. While the discussion about the building has been host to a plethora of theoretical issues (ranging from the historicity of quotation, to new forms of monumentality, to contemporary modes of estrangement, to architecture-as-collage, etc.) it seems that today certain shifts have caused the work to move to the fringe of current debates.
Some have argued that it is because of these shifts that the Wexner Center seems like a remnant of a bygone era, rather than a still-canonical work of architecture. Despite the arguments of the post-critical camp, I believe there is much to gain (still) by re-examining the Wexner Center and its polemics; perhaps even more so given the critical distance gained in terms of time from its completion and the shifts away from postmodernism as a dominant concern. The question therefore is: what is to be gained by re-examining the Wexner Center? And furthermore, what new propositions for architecture in our current moment result from this examination? Instead of attending to the concerns put forward at the time of its arrival, an alternative interrogation asks to understand how its grid-based diagrams instantiate disestablishment effects related to the aims of a contemporary art institution sited in a traditional neoclassical campus plan. These effects; critical, discursive and haptic, hinge on a particular aesthetic reading of architectural ugliness.
For clues on this, we begin with Eisenman’s own writings. He begins his seminal text “The End of the Classical, The End of the Beginning, the End of the End” (1984) by arguing that the Modern Movement in architecture was a stylistic variation on a number of humanist-centered themes (“fictions”) related to representation, reason, and history. As such, it was conceptually part of the same episteme that governed the last 500 years of architectural history, only differing in its claim to abstraction of the various techniques that establish the paradigm of the classic. He argues that modernism was essentially interested in recovering the timeless, meaningful, and true in order to become a new mode of classical architecture. Eisenman, in his efforts to understand and theorize his own moment in history, analyzes these modernist fictions as efforts to stabilize architecture and codify a set of truths into a zeitgeist ideology.
In contrast to post-modernism’s archival attitude towards historical continuity and historicity, Eisenman unfolds a genealogical or emancipatory model in the mode of Nietzsche’s meditation on history as seen in “The Uses and Abuses of History.” Nietzsche identified the formation and ossification of the academic discipline of history as a complex classification strategy to “understand” the past, instead of conceptualizing history as a tool to rethink or artificially excavate the contemporary. Eisenman views the entire modern movement in architecture (interestingly, he excludes Le Corbusier from this claim) as a continuation of the humanist-center of architecture, ie. an uninterrupted mode of representation from the fifteenth century to the present. Since Renaissance buildings became representations of representations, the fiction of their value referred back to the classical, and thus was not intrinsic or immanent to the work itself. Instead, the modernist project in architecture pointed to the self evident starting point of utility as the origin of meaning and legitimizing value.
Rather than proposing a new zeitgeist argument, Eisenman claims to be searching for an autonomous, independent discourse; free of external value systems that would allow architecture to “play in the intersection of the meaning-free, the arbitrary, and the timeless.” In this way, his project and in particular the Wexner Center, can be seen as part of the longstanding effort to create a set of concepts from architecture’s interiority as opposed to a set of fictions to legitimize and justify. If, in the end, all architectural ideas are fictions to arrive at a set of architectural strategies, then Eisenman’s claim can be understood as an attempt to displace the discipline’s clichés and woes into a new intellectual mode.
Grid as Trope
Eisenman’s manipulation of the modernist grid turns a rational and efficient ordering system into a linguistic, poly-semantic trope that engenders multiple, competing conceptual effects. The grid thus is a fictional ‘archaeological text’ which comes from a subtle reading of a disjunction latent in the neoclassical campus plan and the city context surrounding it. As such, the grid simultaneously acts as a grammatical emblem of modernist architecture and as the example par-excellence of the residue of functionalism and order. In this overlapping set of interpretations, the grid becomes a metaphysical construct, transcending its role as a rational, organized and regular inscription of space. Instead of the typical banal and cliché role assigned to the modernist grid, in the Wexner Center the grid lattice acts much more insidiously, organizing the project not through an implicit geometric Cartesian order, but through an ability to instantiate multiple affiliations with the context. While at first seemingly subordinate to the overall campus plan, the grid’s ability to intervene and alter the already dominant hierarchy is akin to Hegel’s discussion of sublation (Aufhebung), a form of preservation through change. The grid as conceptual site force registers the need to affiliate with the existing in order to create a suspension of the power structures within.
The pretext for the palimpsest-based concept underlying the design of the Wexner Center is by now quite well known within the discourse of architecture - Eisenman’s use of ‘artificial excavations’ and fictions serve to transform the minor histories of a given site or artifact to conceptually bridge the campus past with the present, and to instigate a processbased text that underpins the architectural formalism. In the specific case at Ohio State, the two disparate grids of campus / city conjoin at this intersection into a site graft that locates a series of key phenomenal linkages between the university and its larger city context. Perpendicular to this intersection, a line is traced that is essentially out of place - it marks a narrow gap between two already existing campus structures and locates a slippage of the rearranged grid as a interstitial slice to organize the existing into a new alignment with this graft. This slippage sets the stage for all further development, and acts as a re-organizing engine for the ground plane, the landscaping, and all other site displacements. As a result, the university arts center can be understood as a de-centering device that subversively manipulates the campus plan into a new, unforeseen alignment with its own context. By doing so, it effectively creates an armature, rather than a center, which manipulates both the postmodern project of historic quotation and the neo-classical campus plan as a set of hierarchical axes and vistas into something altogether foreign and unhomely. As R.E. Somol has noted, “strictly speaking, the Wexner Center has no identity.” The primary decision to start with an armory that is absent (and perhaps nearly forgotten by the university and its patrons) leads to a number of other vexing questions. The figure of the trace or the ghost, as referred to by Mark Cousins, imbues a new kind of complexity, in which negation is not simply a symmetrical dialectic to presence but in fact has its own potentials for existence and potency as a productive force.
Scaffolding / Landscape
The site graft organizes the building not as a division between building and site but as a negotiation of territory between the two. This takes the form of landscape, scaffolding, and other spatial inversions that weaken the legitimacy of the figure/ ground dialectic. Certain portions of the landscaping are sunken, torqued, raised or framed; each operation serves to disconnect the typical role of landscape from its servitude to the void between figures and thus position it as the imprecise edge that allows a viewer to locate the building as part of campus. By loosening the rigid boundary of ‘building’ versus ‘site’ the Wexner Center validates a space of questioning and hesitation to the usual hegemony of the image of architecture. It precisely resists settling into any discrete images, particularly those of solidity, exteriority and groundedness. Instead it suspends these typical instantiations of power and asks the viewer to confront the building as something to be negotiated that cannot be known a priori.
By supplanting the prominence of the promenade architecturale and other direct circulation from street to building, the Wexner Center creates and exacerbates a moment of hesitation for the passerby. The process of entering the Wexner Center turns the occupant ninety degrees three times, spiraling downward. Unlike traditional hesitation which is the result of frontal engagement with a building facade, here one finds that hesitation as a shift in atmosphere; from that of the dominant organization of entrenched institutionalized power to a shifted, misaligned incoherent puzzle of a building, which suspends this dominance and creates new subjectivities and thus, new audiences. The galleries of the Wexner are far below the building-ground plane, and thus this moment is exaggerated and suspended through the view into the “basement” from either of the entrance grid axes. As the user occupies the ‘basement’ level, the multiple grid structures from above serve to remove any awareness or perception of the site surrounding the Arts Center. Instead these grids establish a local movement that ‘misframes’ the views to above into a set of perceptions of the known.
The Desire for the Ugly
The speculative nature of the Wexner can perhaps be best understood not as rebellion nor as a critique of existing, ossified standards of beauty, but as a conceptually separate foray into territory that is discovered through a fundamental rethinking of the relationship of architecture’s value structures and legitimizing forces. Mark Cousins’ series of essays on “The Ugly” address this possibility through a discussion of the psychoanalytic, latent desire for that which is aesthetically and viscerally disgusting, ugly, or horrific. He accounts for this obscene and obscure relation between the unconscious and ugliness as that of the unbearable pleasure of getting ‘dirty.’ In that sense, the Wexner Center can be understood as the stipulation and excitation of a set of desires; a desire to escape the campus, a desire to remove the distinction of student/ faculty, and a desire to create an immersive experience of art contemplation, etc.
Cousins argues that the ugly object comes from a different ontology than that of the beautiful; it is that which “belongs to the hell of error; it can never accede to the heaven of what is ideal and what is necessary. This philosophical drama, in which the forces of truth and of error wage war over the territory of art, determines the character of ugliness” (Cousins, 61). The ugly object is one that resists the whole, at the cost of being too much of itself while testing and invading the limits of the beautiful. More importantly, Cousins discusses this lack of totality as part of the subject-object relationship, not as an attribute of the object itself. He goes on to describe the sublime subject as part of the moment of symmetrical proportionality between the object and subject. In opposition to this, the subject of the ugly can never entirely comprehend or contain the experience; it is always a matter of negotiating the edge of ugliness and the internal cohesion of the subject as a defense mechanism. Thus the subject willingly resists the ugly by maintaining a distant relationship to it. In fact, there is no such correct place for the ugly, it is constituted much like dirt; matter which is out of place.
Eisenman’s own discussion of the uncertainty of the ugly focuses on the idea that a subject can no longer possess an ugly object, and thus experiences an anxiety from this impossibility. These relations remove the need for the object (or building) to look ugly or terrifying to be provocative, and instead empower a non-negation strategy against the beautiful. Thus “the ugly object is existence itself, in so far as existence is the obstacle which stands in the way of desire.” The ugly object is a force in which the interior essence is somehow eluding the outside shell of representation that promises to contain it. This slippage or imbalance between the existence of an object and its representation constitutes a form of excess, defined by its ability to dissolve the space between the subject and object. It cannot be a static figuration, but must work through a constant re-working of the space between it and the subject. Ugliness thus occurs when “the moment of when the inside of the object bursts traumatically through the subject’s own phantasy of what makes up the inside.” Thus, Cousins recognizes that the only hope, psychoanalytically, against the ugly, is to destroy the object or to abandon the position of subject.
Cousins also discusses the psychoanalytic account of the lost object, in that the economy of desire is intrinsically a question of representation. “All objects of desire are representations, since they are substitutions for something that is experienced as having been lost.” The lost object “can never be found because it is no longer an object, it is the condition of desire itself.” Can the once- solid Armory be found by its atectonic misplacement in the Wexner Center? The building’s success seems to be the suspension of these questions, as a palimpsest turns into a riddle turns into hesitation turns into a speculative container for the viewing of art. (And furthermore, we must ask the question: if the current students don’t know about the history of the old Armory, then what happens to the argument and performance of the Wexner Center’s dis-figuration and re-conceptualization of its fictional excavation?) At this level, one begins to wonder if the Armory was simply a conceit to play the game, activate certain tropes, and subversively trip up on postmodern discourse at the same time. As a hallucinogenic, the architecture reaches an uncertainty between building, landscape, memorial, and other inverses of these categories (such as not-building, not-landscape, not-memorial, etc.)
Eisenman differs from Cousins when he elaborates on this problem by suggesting that the ugly is already within the beautiful in architecture, and thus creates a doubling of fear. The potency of the beautiful is that it opposes the fear of the natural, it is doubled when that initial fear is added to the fear of something other than the beautiful. That is to say that the subject is constantly experiencing the containment of the previously oppressed category, such that the more complex understanding of the beautiful contains within itself the ugly. The Wexner Center is above all an architecture that resists settling into “building-ness,” and as a result, beguiles the expected efforts to understand it as such intellectually. Any effort to begin to grasp its architectural effect is stunted before any cohesive comprehension of the building can be achieved. The building’s unique relationship to its site; one of violent interstitial circumstance, elevates the building from object to scaffolding. The ghost of the Armory that once stood becomes ‘ugly’ perhaps because, for Eisenman, is it something that is not there and should be and as opposed to the more typical ugly object that is there but should not be. Eisenman’s recognition of this object and its relationship to the contextual formalism of the site places the architecture against the dominant forces but aligns the project to the city and the site at a conceptual level. His technique of the graft is used to sublate the historical into a new distortion, but one that opens up the discussion of its meaning and criticizes the relationship to historicity. The sublation of the object thus preserves a past no longer representable, and thus becomes a dis-simulation which liberates it from the bygone postmodern trend of quotation and imitation. The Wexner emerges as simultaneously in the ‘wrong place’ and out of place. These characteristics immediately remove the architecture from the beautiful aesthetic. Eisenman activates these ideas in a manner that almost minimizes the awareness of the ugliness as an aesthetic phenomenon but highlights its awkwardness and its cunning.
 The main protagonists being R.E. Somol and Sarah Whiting, not to mention John McMorrough, Ed Mitchell, Scott Cohen, and a number of other leading figures in our field.
 Disestablishment has been theorized by Jeffrey Kipnis in relation to the work of Rem Koolhaas/ OMA. See Jeffrey Kipnis, “Recent Koolhaas,” El Croquis 79, (1998): 26–31.
 Eisenman, Peter. “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.” Perspecta: Yale School of Architecture, Vol. 21. 1984. pp. 154-173.
 Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids.” October, Vol. 9. Summer 1979, p. 50- 64.
 It is useful to understand the graft as conceptual technique as being different from the larger project of collage. Eisenman successfully suggests that the graft is essential to the project of interiority in that it contains motivation for action that begins a process which relies on its internal structures. The graft begins with the heterogeneously unstable, and through a process of artificial conjunction extracts a motivation upon which the modification can take place. This is not a process of destruction, but a process of re-situating an existing structure to expose particular inherent attributes. Jeff Kipnis' work on deconstruction underpins many of the ideas discussed here.
 Somol, Robert. “O-0.” Progressive Architecture. October 1989. p. 88.
 Cousins, Mark. “The Ugly.” Architectural Association Files, Number 28, 29, 30, Autumn 1994. pp. 61-65, p. 3- 6, p. 65-68.
 Eisenman, Peter. “En Terror Firma: In Trails of Grotexts.” Pratt Journal of Architecture: Form; Being; Absence- Architecture and Philosophy. 1988. p.111-126.
Currently he is the 2012- 2013 Walter B. Sanders Fellow at University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Previously he taught at Cornell University's Department of Architecture in both Ithaca and New York City. His speculative design, research, criticism, and ...