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A CONVERSATION WITH PEGGY DEAMER

Author(s): Peggy Deamer


Source: Perspecta, Vol. 43, TABOO (2010), pp. 62-64
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of Perspecta.
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41680270
Accessed: 02-10-2018 14:06 UTC

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Perspecta

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A CONVERSATION WITH PEGGY DEAMER

Paul Rudolph Hall, Third Floor Office


Yale University
Peggy Deamer , founder and principal of Deamer Studio,
is Professor at the Yale School of Architecture .

PERSPECTA 43
Our first questions are ones that you might have expected. What do you believe is taboo
in architecture today? What about when you were a student?

PEGGY DEAMER
When I was a student, I think the things that were taboo - and this may be particular to Cooper
[Union] - were things that smacked of eyewash as opposed to rigor. So we couldn't work in
perspective ... Perspectives were unmeasured; they were un-objective and manipulable. That's why
we only drew in axon, as it was measurable and factual. I grew up with this sense of "Don't
appeal to the eye; appeal to the brain." There was an aesthetic value to that "brainy" thing. It
was a surprise to enter into a world where other people were trained in perspective and thought
of it as a form of legitimate representation . Shortly after graduation, though, the whole issue
of form changed, and it was reevaluated through a critique of modernism. The backlash against
[Clement] Greenberg also presented a critique of formalism at the time, and somehow formolism
became a dirty word. I was trained to celebrate form and investigate the poetry of forms, and
all of a sudden, it wasn't to be talked about. I think part of easing out of that is moving
out of a realm where critical theory matters: part of critical theory came with this sense
that what we're doing is institutional, social critique not formal architecture . I know this
runs counter to the generally accepted idea that "cr iticality " is associated with autonomy and
formalism, but I didn't see it that way. "Cr iticality " was associated in my generation with
a Foucauldian, feminst, gendered interest. We had a sense that what we were doing had a larger
intellectual, conceptual, critical, social, pedagogical, philosophical aspect to it. Now I
think, with post-criticality , that burden goes away and it allows the issue of form to come in.
But today it comes in in a different way: it's ornament, it's surface, it's intricacy ... It ' s
all of those different things that we know. What becomes interesting to me is that there
are certain things that were de rigueur before - quoting [Gilles] Deleuze or [Jacques] Derrida,
and all that other stuff - that are now taboo. That might be particular to this school, but
a wise academic - or a wise student - would not do that today, here.

The principles of and framework for the discipline of architecture seem to change quite
a bit over time. Do you see that as a problem facing the profession in its attempt to
define itself?

I wouldn't say it's a problem ... It ' s an interesting conundrum. Architecture is, in some ways,
entirely culturally constructed, and it's an unstable discipline. On the other hand, it's
probably the most conservative of the disciplines because at the same time as we talk about that
instability, we're saying, "We all know what we're talking about; there it is." It's been that
same thing ever since the Pyramids. It doesn't disappear in terms of its cultural fluidity,
and it's not only conservative. How we manage to mash those two notions together, that makes
it interesting for us. We can always come back to the warm brick, the weight of the stone, and
the shadows that are cast, and all of that . . . [Laughter]
In fact, if you think about what it is that changes, it isn't the definition of the
architecture or the definition of the profession, but rather it's the terms of how we grasp
this thing that is both culturally responsive and culturally not responsive. There are all
different kinds of stories that we tell ourselves to try and figure out how we're capable of
being avant-garde and capable of being stabilizers of culture.

Since we're talking about things changing .. .Given the current economic situation, which we
didn't really anticipate dealing with in this issue of Perspecto but has sprung upon us

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April 21 , 2009

nevertheless, do you think, having been around in the early '90s in a similar situation,
that the discipline will shift back away from some of the more recent tendencies to
something more, let's say, speculative?

I think that's a good question. Part of me wants to say yes, because that's kind of a historical
trend, but what we're coming off of now is different from what we were coming off of before. It
was this moment of empowerment - of being our own developers and being able to fabricate our own
things - and it's hard to imagine that we would slide back and think, "Oh, paper architecture
and theory!" I think there will be something that corresponds to that, but I can't imagine
it would be exactly that. And I have to say that in some way - since I've been through it twice
(in the '90s, and in the '70s when I was graduating) - something fun happened because you
didn't have the burden of "what you do will get built." You could spend some time experimenting.
Yet, I suspect the kind of experimentation that happens now won't necessarily be theoretical
experimentation; it will, perhaps, have to do with what our fabricators can do. It might
revolve particularly around sustainability , or maybe it will focus on probes of a more socially
conscious kind, and that could be really great.

You mentioned that when you were in school you were not permitted to represent your work
in a certain way. Were there particular architects or books that were forbidden for you
to look at or reference as well?

It's hard to say because history, in some way, was not to be looked at. I was in school at
the end of modernism's hegemony so it was considered radical to do anything that indicated
historical "style" - some of us were doing it, but it was still radical. I did a project that
referenced the Renaissance, and it caused a lot of buzz. It wasn't like we didn't read history.
We all read Palladio, but it was more in the vein of Colin Rowe showing us that history taught
us about form. Regardless, we were all making form, but certainly style was the dirtiest word.
So you could look for formal truths in history, but you couldn't look at style. That meant that
there were a whole lot of things we couldn't look at . [Laughter]
Which is to say that there were certain periods that were nothing but style; art nouveau
you just wouldn't discuss. As for the recent past, Victorian architecture , or even American
styles ... Today , I still can't tell you what a ranch is. Lay people can tell you the difference
between a ranch and a Cape Cod , and I don't have a clue because that kind of vernacular,
indigenous architecture was really ... that was an indication that you were learning the wrong
thing about architecture .

In architecture , style is still one of the dirtiest words around today. Yet, to the
layperson, style would be something that's recognizable and repeatable. How do architects
juggle the style/innovation question today? Don't a few architects rightfully capitalize
on the fact that they can develop a style and sell it?

I think that's a larger ideological question; it's certainly not just an architectural design
question. I remember talking to Jeff Kipnis - who was identified with Derrida right when Derrida
was about to go out of fashion - about whether he was going to feel trivialized when the
Derridian moment passed. He said, "Absolutely not at all." To have made that identification was
his mark in history. So, again, that made me feel that being trained in the sense that you're
looking for something fundamental, lasting, and truthful might be naïve or open to question.
If you're not ideologically prone to the true and lasting, you have no problem with
transience whatsoever. I imagine that would be the same for someone who doesn't just think about
it theoretically but thinks about it in terms of design as well. For some, it's better to have
made a mark than to be looking for the more universal thing. For others - like [José Rafael]
Moneo, [Alvaro] Siza, and even [Renzo] Piano - it's better to look for that thing that is
astylistic, that will be meaningful regardless of the historical period. They just don't worry
about the trends. Then you have those architects that one views as the avant-garde - it's not
unrelated, you know. If you want to be avant-garde, then, in some way, you have to admit that
you're not going for the essential, lasting thing. Those pursuing the essential, lasting thing
have to live with the fact that they cannot trade on the cache of the avant-garde, whereas
those that are embracing the pursuit of the avant-garde have to worry about continually chasing
it or going down with the passing moment.

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A Conversation with Peggy Deamer

This discussion of style brings up a question about language - that is, the search for a
contemporary language of architecture . We've been looking at Bruno Zevi and Charles Jencks
recently, and we've been talking about the impetus behind this search for an architecture
of the moment. Do you think this need to develop a new language is derived from a desire
to address contemporary issues, or is it representative of an aspiration to find something
universal in architecture?

Your question makes me think about my introduction to architecture , which was at the Institute
[for Architecture and Urban Studies]. There were two different philosophies of language, both
central to the work there at that time. There was Peter Eisenman's view of language, which came
from [Noam] Chomsky - who said that language is embedded, that it's a universal thing. What
you make when you're making language isn't culturally determined; it is embedded in your head.
That's a universal approach, and to me, it's very consistent with Eisenman's architecture .
He's been through many different paradigms, from Chomsky, to Derrida, to Deleuze, to whatever,
but they're all different models of language. I think that he's still looking for the essential
language of architecture , having to do with all of the things he did originally - datums,
rotations, layering, solid/void, transparencies ... Those are not changing with different periods
of time or with different locations in the world; those are not culturally constructed. Then,
right beside this, there were people like Diana Agrest and Mario [Gandelsonas] , who came from
the de Saussureian notion of language as something much more culturally constructed. There
was a whole battle going on at the Institute between the universality of language and the
culturally-constructed nature of language.
What you're asking is, even despite those differences, why is it that we keep being
intrigued with language whatsoever. Even within the philosophy of language and even without
those two debates, there's a sense that language is made up of syntax and semantics. Of course,
syntax is the grammar , and then semantics is the vocabulary. So we could say that when Greg Lynn
is trying to come up with a language of architecture , he's not dealing with the syntax, he's
dealing with the semantics, which is to say, dealing with style as opposed to form. And that's
kind of how those two shake out. And who knows? But anyway, I guess I'm saying it's a complicat-
ed question . [Laughter]
Nevertheless, I think that the reason we, as architects, keep being concerned with
describing ourselves as operating in a language - or on a language, or with a language - is
that we have to have faith that what we're doing communicates. If we didn't have faith that
it communicated, we wouldn't know what we're doing. We keep reverting to saying that what we
offer to the layperson, to the world out there at large, is communicable.

Going back to what you said earlier about the waning of critical theory and the
unburdening of the post-critical, is ideology becoming something that you can't have
in architecture? Is ideology off the table for the time being?

I think so. You know, ideology is a difficult word because in Marxism ideology is already
a negative thing. Ideology equals capitalist propaganda. Critical theory was very interested
in how you expose ideology. But in the broader sense of ideology, which is having something
at stake - that says, "This is right, this is wrong; subscribe to this, don't subscribe to
that" - I do think that in the post-critical world anything goes, and ideology, in that way,
is off the table. Certainly, a critique of ideology in the Marxist sense is now off the table.

What do you think of the political engagement of the current generation of students?

Well, I would say it's true that we all kind of wonder where the students are . . . [Laughterl
at political rally moments. I think it comes up in the discussions around feminism and gender.
Certain feminists of an older generation like mine wonder how it could be that younger women
think it's all won. Definitely there's a generational gap in that sense. But I actually think
that you guys, now, are already changing. I think this apolitical characterization maybe
describes the people who graduated in the last eight years, not you. I think it's changing.
Do you think it's changing?

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