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Peter Eisenman: Exploring the Possibilites of Form

David Kochman
May 18th, 2002

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

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, specifically with Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida. In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud pioneered new methods in the way mental illness was treated. Believing that mental illness was the product of a repression of childhood events, background, and past experiences, Freud noted the way the patients avoided certain subjects, phrases, and figures of speech. The psychologist could then target those areas for analysis, a method known as psychoanalysis. In other words Freud set out to deconstruct the speech of his patients in order to find the repressed source of their anxiety. In this way he could get patients to reveal their repressed memories, thus curing themselves.1 In the 1960s the French philosopher Jacques Derrida began to apply this deconstructive technique to study the philosophical texts of his peers. By using Freuds method to analyse these writings, Derrida believed he could reveal the repressed ideas that underlay the apparently smooth, elegant and well-constructed arguments put forward by other philosophers. Derrida believed that no theory could pretend to be absolutely consistent, logical or present itself as a self-contained and whole system.2 If the writing did appear to be coherent, it could only do so by hiding or repressing something that did not fit its view of things. As a method of illustrating this repression to others, Derrida began experimenting with multiple methods of representing a text. 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

Kochman3 response to the topic. Thus, Deconstruction in this sense means a method of

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

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

Kochman5 To be self referential, the process must be able to operate independently of the individual and cultural dispositions. 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. To reinforce a process that acted independently of the individual and cultural dispositions, Eisenman avoided reference to the clients in naming the houses and also any reference to context. With House I Eisenman uses the diagram to separate form from function, instating translational rules that Eisenman claims will allow the architecture to generate its own form and create its own history without anthropomorphic reference, disconnecting the object from its sign.

The architecture would create anxiety and distance, for it would no longer be under mans control. Man and object would be independent and the relationship between them would have to be worked out anew.11 This, he hoped, would create a genuine dislocation and allow new possibilities of occupiable form. Eisenman addresses the question of anthropomorphic scale by stating that as it was conceived free of external meaning and in abstract model form, the house could have been any size.12 Knowing that meaning can still be derived from an object by the way it works in a system, 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. The participant evaluates these systems by arbitrary but established rules. Ultimately then, these hierarchies have a direct connection back to society and the existing metaphysic, as they are established by society; therefore, equalizing these hierarchies was essential. These hierarchies

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

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

Kochman8 It is difficult to understand the Ohio State Center for the Visual arts without talking about the siteEisenmans former reluctance to admit that such circumstances affect architecture has, at least implicitly, changedPeter Eisenman seems to have discovered that architecture needs to include outside parameters in order to be produced, and that only in the frame of its external circumstances does it acquire meaning.21 Rafael Moneo elaborates on Eisenmans 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. When Eisenman approached the Cannaregio project, he undoubtedly felt the weight of a city such as Venice. In spite of previous attempts to produce Architecture without circumstantial ties, here he could not escape the dense context of the particular sitethe project starts by considering the Corbusian grid and the city. Here Eisenman discovers that value of a specific site. 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. His Venetian experience would prove extremely useful to the Berlin project. On the site adjacent to Checkpoint Charlie, only three buildings were left standing on a typical block. Working with these remnants of a city and the nearby Berlin Wall, the architect attempted to re-invent a context through a new interpretation. In so doing, Eisenman superimposed the Mercator grid- the most generic of the earths applied divisions-on the Berlin Urban grid. The encounter of these grids gave the architect a foundation to propose structures and spaces later outlined in the program requirements.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. Eisenman does not give a definitive answer for what such a center for the arts should be, however; but rather, what it is not through his theory of dispersal.23 The design focuses intensely on using the trace as a generator, although not in the same sense as the early house projects. The House projects exhibited traces of their own coming

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

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

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

Kochman12 topology, re-investigated old issues of profile, poche, and section, and how they can be manipulated in new ways through the computer.32 With fellow architects of Eisenmans generation like Frank Gehry and architects of a new generation like NOX, Foreign Office Architects, Morphosis, and Brauer & Gernot using advanced programs like CATIA; computer generated form and buildable form are finally converging. With House I over 30 years ago, Peter Eisenman catalyzed a Revolution in Architecture, introducing concepts that had never been previously associated with Architecture. Today, thanks to Eisenmans continued efforts to push the envelope and the enthusiasm of others in the field of Architecture, that Revolution is continuing, perhaps still beginning. In conclusion, Eisenmans lasting effect on

Architecture may be summed up best by his own post-script in the 1987 book, House of Cards: CAVEAT Imagine that you are holding a small glass vial in your hand. Inside the vial is a blue gas. The little vials smooth shape feels cool against your fingers. You could turn it around or upside down, and watch the blue gas slowly turn, folding in and through itself, reaching the side of the vial and moving off in different trails. The gas movement is perceptible through its blue color, but the glass enclosing it is unmoving. Then notice the small cork in the top of the vial. If you pull it, two things might happen. The blue gas might escape and dissipate into thin air: the container, emptied, would lose its definition. The one can only be seen against the other, their interdependence absolute. But in their differences are inscribed their particularities. The opening of the bottle might yet have another effect: the blue gas could be transfiguring, and through this action of opening you might never be the same again. Now imagine that this book is like a vial. You have already opened it. Now just close it.33

Kochman13 Endnotes

1 Freud

Page. Maria Helena Rowell. 2002. <

2 Jacques

Derrida. Stanford University. 1999. <


Jacques Derrida. Stanford University. 1999.<


Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, p.80.


Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,


Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,


Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,


Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,

p. 172.

Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,


10 Eisenman,

Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,

pp. 174-176.
11 Eisenman,

Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.

12 Eisenman,

Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.


Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,

p. 178.
14 Eisenman,

Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,

15 Eisenman,

Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,


Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, p.37.


Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999,

p. 180.

Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999,

p. 180.

Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, p.80.


Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, p.48.

21 Eisenman,

Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, pp.41-51.


Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Ohio State University. New York: Rizzolli

International Publications, Inc., 1989, pp. 40-43.


Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, p.23.


Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, p.45.

25 Peter

Eisenman. Great Buildings Online. 2002.


Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, pp. 23-24.


Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins

Press, 1989, p. 73.


Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999,

pp. 227-231.

Koder, Selim. Interview with Peter Eisenman. Ars Electronica. 1992.


Koder, Selim. Interview with Peter Eisenman. Ars Electronica. 1992.

Koder, Selim. Interview with Peter Eisenman. Ars Electronica. 1992.

Koder, Selim. Interview with Peter Eisenman. Ars Electronica. 1992.

Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.


Kochman17 Bibliography

Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999. Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martins Press, 1989. Freud Page. Maria Helena Rowell. 2002. <> Jacques Derrida. Stanford University. 1999. <> Koder, Selim. Interview with Peter Eisenman. Ars Electronica. 1992. <> Peter Eisenman. Great Buildings Online. 2002. <> Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Ohio State University. New York: Rizzolli International Publications, Inc., 1989.