Peter Eisenman: Exploring the Possibilites of Form

David Kochman
May 18th, 2002

as Eisenman’s work has most in common with this genre. perfect systems centred around carefully considered client needs. grand narratives or other total explanations on the assumption that the order that they portray is built on a repression of the real diversity of things. Although Modernism upheld that its theories were founded on rational. schemas. interiority. Architects envisioned an architecture that would reject fixed models. . Working off many of the principles set forth by those in the field of psychology and philosophy such as Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida. it is first necessary to examine the origins of Deconstructivist thought in Architecture.Peter Eisenman has been one of the most influential architects of the late twentieth century. then known as the International Style had become inhumane. a need for a new way of thinking about architecture arose. there was a general feeling among architects and the general public that architecture. To understand the underlying principals of Eisenman’s work. At the end of Modernism. Thus. monotonous. and hostile. it was repressing its reality of the way functions and activities interacted. architecture as text and the underlying processes that brought about their evolution into the next phases of his work. This paper will explore the basis for Peter Eisenman’s theories of dislocation. His theories have led to a new way of thinking about architecture in the post-post modernist world of architecture. Deconstructivism was one of the archetypal responses.

By compiling side-by-side comparisons of competing texts or creating a montage of texts on the same page Derrida believed he could expose the flaws of the arguments and make the reader take a more objective stance in . thus curing themselves. Derrida believed he could reveal the repressed ideas that underlay the apparently smooth. phrases. Freud noted the way the patients avoided certain subjects. Derrida believed that “no theory could pretend to be absolutely consistent. logical or present itself as a self-contained and whole system. elegant and well-constructed arguments put forward by other philosophers. it could only do so by hiding or repressing something that did not fit its view of things. The psychologist could then target those areas for analysis. a method known as psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud pioneered new methods in the way mental illness was treated. and past experiences.1 In the 1960s the French philosopher Jacques Derrida began to apply this deconstructive technique to study the philosophical texts of his peers. As a method of illustrating this repression to others. Believing that mental illness was the product of a repression of childhood events.Kochman2 The general method architects would use to derive a diverse architecture generated by deconstruction principals is best understood by briefly studying its development in psychology and philosophy.”2 If the writing did appear to be coherent. In this way he could get patients to reveal their repressed memories. and figures of speech. In other words Freud set out to ‘deconstruct’ the speech of his patients in order to find the repressed source of their anxiety. specifically with Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida. Derrida began experimenting with multiple methods of representing a text. By using Freud’s method to analyse these writings. background. In the late nineteenth century.

4 As a result of the partnership they formed. As time went by. As a result of this investigation brought about by the occupation of form. Eisenman believes that the primary objective of architecture has always been thought to be the provision of shelter. and brought about the initial idea of what architecture was. Thus the act of dislocation alters the metaphysic of architecture or the idea of what architecture should be.Kochman3 response to the topic. typically caves. This idea about what architecture should be is the metaphysic of architecture. Thus. the occupation of architecture led to the discovery of different social institutions or practices such as privacy. The first shelters. who at the time had founded New York's Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. The first application of these ideas comes about with the series of houses Eisenman designs following the completion of his doctorate. responded to the physics of architecture. The metaphysic of architecture can then be classified as an everchanging accumulation of ideas about what architecture should be.3 It is around this time in the late 1960’s that Architecture and the philosophy of Deconstruction converged with the initial meeting of Derrida and Eisenman. These houses manifest the ideas of deconstruction in what Eisenman calls “dislocation.”5 To understand Eisenman’s theory of dislocation. thus the act of architecture became an investigation or reaction to the possibilities of form. it is first necessary to examine his views of the origins of architecture as expressed in House of Cards. Deconstruction in this sense means a method of interpretation and analysis of a speech or a text.6 . m uch of Eisenman’s theory and work are derived from text analysis and deconstruction. cultural practices are altered or dislocated.

or a stone and social institutions of church. Eisenman believes that if he succeeds at doing this. history.” Modernism “promised the realization of” a utopian dream. thus ‘curing itself. to the contrary such symbols are today meaningless and merely nostalgic. school. In a world of irresolvable anxiety.” 7 Eisenman states that man now lives uncertain of the future. or its capability to operate self-referentially as a record of its own coming into existence. but it “anticipated the impossibility of achieving that vision and its own fatal anthropocentrism. and house are all called into question. as man “could no longer derive his identity from a belief in a heroic purpose and future. it does not need to symbolize or romanticize its sheltering function. Eisenman seeks to avoid the formal anthropomorphic references.’ Although this notion is similar to the attempts of the modernists. Eisenman believes modernism failed to dislocate stating that its failure lay in an “irresolvable dichotomy. architecture’s interiority will allow for a dislocation of the metaphysic.Kochman4 Eisenman bases the application of deconstruction in his argument that architecture no longer creates new forms. the meaning and form of shelter must be different. and seeks to be in the service of established practices. where the symbolism of higher-level markers such as a cross.” Modernism was in fact not dislocating but very conservative in that it sheltered the institutions of man from “anxiety and uncertainty” instead of challenging the cumulative metaphysic. Eisenman asserts that the Hiroshima was the final blow to the Utopian philosophies of Modernism. freeing architecture from its institutional control. “perpetuating the current metaphysic” or idea of architecture.8 Eisenman’s early works seek to address this anxiety by developing architecture’s interiority. …While a house today must still shelter.9 .

Eisenman addresses the question of anthropomorphic scale by stating that as it was conceived free of external meaning and in abstract model form. would create a genuine dislocation and allow new possibilities of occupiable form. instating translational rules that Eisenman claims will allow the architecture to generate its own form and create its own history without anthropomorphic reference. Man and object would be independent and the relationship between them would have to be worked out anew. these hierarchies have a direct connection back to society and the existing metaphysic.” Ultimately then. he hoped. for it would no longer be under man’s control. To reinforce a process that acted independently of the individual and cultural dispositions. 10 The architecture would create anxiety and distance. Eisenman had the chance to test his theories for the first time with a series of houses for affluent clients who were willing to give Eisenman total design freedom. The participant evaluates these systems by “arbitrary but established rules.12 Knowing that meaning can still be derived from an object by the way it works in a system.Kochman5 To be self referential. the process must be able to operate independently of the individual and cultural dispositions. These hierarchies . disconnecting the object from its sign. equalizing these hierarchies was essential.11 This. Eisenman avoided reference to the clients in naming the houses and also any reference to context. Eisenman expanded his investigation with House III to include the dissolution of perceived hierarchies. the relationships of which establish aesthetic value and meaning for the participant. therefore. as they are established by society. With House I Eisenman uses the diagram to separate form from function. the house could have been any size.

At the same time. Where in previous houses Eisenman worked with the object as a signifier.13 Eisenman is no longer operating solely on an object level. this project attempts to operate under the philosophy that the only understandable aspects of the house are .” 14 This follows the deconstructivist theory of the building as self-analysis. this is also the point at which critics like Charles Jencks claim Eisenman’s theories become both more accessible experientially and less accessible theoretically. Additionally. he conjectures that there is a limit or bound somewhere that would result in stasis. but merely a new set of rules.Kochman6 could include but not be limited to dialectics of oblique views and frontal views.”16 The theory of dispersal comes to fruition in House X. but instead attempting to alter people’s perceptions of the way systems interact with each other. as it results in Eisenman’s theory of dispersal. In House VI. he is not creating a dislocation. Eisenman later refers to this phenomenon as a trace. “we find two motives in conflict [with Eisenman’s architecture]: an exemplary desire to signify some aspects of metaphysics. and a Deconstructionist desire to make all texts obscure. Although the process Eisenman is using seems to produce an unlimited set of forms. Jencks states. a conscious effort to forgo repressing elements that give the building its meaning. simultaneous perception and sequential perception of objects. Eisenman further expounds on his idea of architectural interiority by allowing the house to exist both as an “object and a cinematic manifestation of the transformational process. 15 This realization marks the beginning of a new idea in Eisenman’s architecture. Eisenman comes to a realization about his work to this point: that by using a formal system to create a dislocation.

stopped at one moment in its evolution. bringing issues of the diagram as generator.Kochman7 a “system of differences” experienced directly by its participants but simultaneously almost impossible to decipher. Eisenman incorporated both old and new theories into its design. one must jump ahead to Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. to focus exclusively on building. Philip Johnson posed the question of Peter Eisenman.E. Roalind Krauss states about House X. the grid. In Philip Johnson’s book Five Architects. One encounters [dispersal] within the room with transparent floors and ceilings and opaque walls…The space in which the viewer finds himself is. In 1980 he established a professional practice in New York. Eisenman Architects. which essentially ignored program and context. one whose perspectives run vertically and diagonally through the system of the house rather than horizontally…the occupant is forced to view the space as a linked set of opposing terms. but also considering new aspects such as context and program. For Wexner Center. R. then. 17 This reinforces the philosophy that the building is an indeterminate system in constant flux. trace. ‘What would he do in a large building?”20 To answer this question. could work on a larger scale.19 Critics questioned whether Eisenman’s approach. Somol provides an explanation as to why Eisenman would do an about face from his previous stance regarding program and context: . and dispersal with him from past projects to bring about a displacement. to encounter the “room” less as an entity than as one part of a system of differences.”18 With the end of the House series came Eisenman’s first opportunities to apply the theories he had developed throughout the building downturn of the 1970’s to larger scale projects.

Kochman8 It is difficult to understand the Ohio State Center for the Visual arts without talking about the site…Eisenman’s former reluctance to admit that such circumstances affect architecture has. but rather. The House projects exhibited traces of their own coming . When Eisenman approached the Cannaregio project. His Venetian experience would prove extremely useful to the Berlin project. although not in the same sense as the early house projects. The new space generated by the rotation and extension of the Corbusian grid became an appropriate context to locate House 11a in a series of different scales. at least implicitly. and that only in the frame of its external circumstances does it acquire meaning. In spite of previous attempts to produce Architecture without circumstantial ties. Here Eisenman discovers that value of a specific site. In so doing.”21 Rafael Moneo elaborates on Eisenman’s change of positions in the following passage: Two projects are… key to understanding Wexner Center: the Canneregio project for Venice of 1978 and the building at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin of 1983. however.23 The design focuses intensely on using the trace as a generator. Eisenman superimposed the Mercator grid. On the site adjacent to Checkpoint Charlie.22 From the start the Wexner center provided a true opportunity for Eisenman to bring about a displacement by challenging the way a center for the arts is used. The encounter of these grids gave the architect a foundation to propose structures and spaces later outlined in the program requirements. the architect attempted to re-invent a context through a new interpretation. he undoubtedly felt the weight of a city such as Venice. here he could not escape the dense context of the particular site…the project starts by considering the Corbusian grid and the city. what it is “not” through his theory of dispersal.the most generic of the earth’s applied divisions-on the Berlin Urban grid. Eisenman does not give a definitive answer for what such a center for the arts should be. only three buildings were left standing on a typical block. Working with these remnants of a city and the nearby Berlin Wall. changed…Peter Eisenman seems to have discovered that architecture needs to include outside parameters in order to be produced.

Thus. it does not symbolize that function.”25 Here Eisenman is providing the opportunity for the Architecture to be dislocating and induce its patrons to use it in new ways. “not-scaffolding”. which is traditionally that of a shelter of art. is not figured in this case. By reconstructing fragments of this old armory. Eisenman found that an Armory had once stood on the site where the center was to be built. with Wexner center. Eisenman creates an interstitial zone that creates a connection between the University and the urban fabric of Columbus.Kochman9 into existence. and ‘not-etc. “not-windows”. During his investigation of the site’s history. the fragment that now stands in place of the armory is “not” the armory but a simulation that has been affected in some way by Eisenman’s imposition of these new systems.’26 . It is put up to build. Maybe more profound is the way Eisenman uses the historical reference as a trace. By utilizing two opposing property grid systems established during the settlement of Ohio. Eisenman is evoking a response from the Architecture’s participants that through the process of dispersal. repair or demolish buildings. additionally Eisenman establishes systems of “notentrances”. Eisenman continues establishing a fragmentary theme allowing much of the program to slip underground. Eisenman is using the trace as it derives from context and historical reference to introduce meaning into the Architecture. For although this building shelters.24 The physical manifestation of these grids becomes the spaces with which the program and the artwork contextualize. the primary symbolization of a visual arts center. altering reference datums. but it never shelters. Eisenman refers to it as scaffolding in the following passage: “scaffolding traditionally is the most impermanent part of a building.

Eisenman proposed the next step he would be taking with his Architecture. and a proposal for the Center of the Arts at Emory. this idea also strikes a chord with the very basis of Deconstructivist philosophy: that what Eisenman is attempting to create is not-architecture.Kochman10 Besides extending the idea of a trace to be not just interior to but also exterior to architecture.29 Eisenman speaks very enthusiastically regarding the computer’s potential. If the space is no longer recognizable as architecture or even building. a condition Eisenman refers to as a priori. or in strangely canted planting beds? In time. in a grove of buckeye and gingko trees.27 Following the initial success of Wexner Center. Eisenman states how one would begin to use the computer as a design tool and how it would change the architect’s role in the design process: . the Nunotani Headquarters in Tokyo. Eisenman has received commissions for additional buildings that utilize much of the same theory present in Wexner Center. it will appear as if the architect had merely strung together parts and pieces of building. the Greater Columbus Convention Center. using the computer as a design tool. but seen as a fragment of a larger indeterminate system frozen at a moment of its evolution.’ In the following passage. 28 In a 1992 interview with Selim Koder of Ars Electronica. then any preconceived notions about the way the space is used. Some of these projects include a proposal for the Carnegie Mellon Research Institute. will be dismissed. Kurt Forster states: In a few years who will suspect Eisenman’s handiwork in a diagonally scored sidewalk. heralding it as the first means of generating architecture that could truly ‘operate independently of the individual and cultural dispositions. In regard to not-architecture. This concept refers back to the very basic ideas of habitation.

no parts in Architecture are standardized. and from construction. The writing and correcting of these algorithms becomes one of the tasks of design. But since architecture is always developing. the computer accesses these possibilities…there is no beginning. In other words. Therefore.Kochman11 One can set up a series of rule structures for inputting into the computer not knowing a priori what the formal results will be. an individual at any one time does not have access to its entire history nor to its possible future history. Likewise when the construction industry encounters a nonstandard enclosure system or non-90 degree corner. Then the process becomes one of testing algorithms against possible formal results. there is no truth. With buildings designs like Haus Immendorf. the machine must be reprogrammed to create each part of the building. which was assumed to be the entire knowledge and nature of architecture. a circle. from the process. Eisenman states that progress in the fabrication and construction industries needs to occur to equalize the present disparity between computer generated form and buildable form. there is not going to be any change at all. and since that time Eisenman has continued developing his rapport with the computer. These are set images loose from the history of architecture and the history of the individual who is conceptualizing. One can correct the images to make the rule structures more apparent or to make them more able to be built. “Until we can free the computer from the designer. the Staten Island institute of Arts and Sciences. He states that although the industries of mass production use computers and robots to fabricate goods. there is no longer the necessity to begin from a rectangle. they too respond negatively. Eisenman concludes that. or a square. BFL Software. which ultimately makes the cost of the building increase dramatically. he has experimented with the ways forces of site and context can interfere with a volume to create an Architecture of .30 On the other hand though.”31 Ten years have past since Eisenman’s interview with Ars Electronica. there is no origin. and there is no a priori given. and the Virtual house. This allows the computer to open up what was previously repressed by the individual psychology or history and the history of architecture.

but the glass enclosing it is unmoving. House of Cards: CAVEAT Imagine that you are holding a small glass vial in your hand. reaching the side of the vial and moving off in different trails. The opening of the bottle might yet have another effect: the blue gas could be transfiguring. perhaps still beginning. You could turn it around or upside down. and watch the blue gas slowly turn. and Brauer & Gernot using advanced programs like CATIA. Now just close it. Inside the vial is a blue gas. Morphosis. that Revolution is continuing. You have already opened it. In conclusion. and how they can be manipulated in new ways through the computer. would lose its definition. Now imagine that this book is like a vial. Eisenman’s lasting effect on Architecture may be summed up best by his own post-script in the 1987 book. their interdependence absolute. The blue gas might escape and dissipate into thin air: the container. poche. Then notice the small cork in the top of the vial. thanks to Eisenman’s continued efforts to push the envelope and the enthusiasm of others in the field of Architecture. folding in and through itself. two things might happen. Peter Eisenman catalyzed a Revolution in Architecture. and section. The one can only be seen against the other.Kochman12 topology. emptied.33 . re-investigated old issues of profile. computer generated form and buildable form are finally converging. The little vial’s smooth shape feels cool against your fingers. If you pull it. Foreign Office Architects.32 With fellow architects of Eisenman’s generation like Frank Gehry and architects of a new generation like NOX. and through this action of opening you might never be the same again. The gas’ movement is perceptible through its blue color. Today. But in their differences are inscribed their particularities. introducing concepts that had never been previously associated with Architecture. With House I over 30 years ago.

Peter. Peter. pp. House of Cards.172.<http://prelectur. < http://www. <http://prelectur.170-172. Oxford: Oxford University Press. House of Cards. Peter. 1987. 1989. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. 9 Eisenman. p.edu- /lecturers/derrida/> 3 Jacques Derrida. 172.stanford. 8 Eisenman. Maria Helena Rowell. Peter.167.80. Peter. 1987. Oxford: Oxford University Press.edu- /lecturers/derrida/> 4 Eisenman. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 1987. p. House of Cards.com/en- us/freud/index. pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press.html> 2 Jacques Derrida. New York: St. Peter. 2002. 1987. 7 Eisenman. Stanford University. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999.Kochman13 Endnotes 1 Freud Page. House of Cards. Stanford University.167-169.freudpage. Martin’s Press. p. 5 Eisenman. 6 Eisenman.stanford. House of Cards. 1999. . 1987.

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