By Other Means
Jeffrey Kipnis / 2016
“The great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all the shady elements: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes.” George Bataille – “Architecture”
“War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Carl von Clauswitz – ON WAR
Part I. The curatorial assertion
“By Other Means" embraces the provocation of Alejandro Aravena, Director of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, that "there are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people's quality of life." But complex battles must always be fought on many frontiers.
Undertaking a direct responsibility for the broad quality of everyday life is architecture’s newest frontier, though certainly today its most pressing. However, for better and worse, the preponderance of architecture’s capacity to produce its prodigious range of physical feats, organizational sophistications and psychological, social, intellectual and artistic effects derives almost entirely from its 5000-year history of complicity with and service to entrenched power and wealth. The value of these extraordinary skills remains inestimable and will largely determine our abilities to succeed on the new fronts towards which Aravena redirects our attention.
At the same time we cannot retreat from old fronts, we must continue to contest them. Civic, cultural, political and other edifices of power, authority and concentrated wealth will be built. These will continue to exercise powerful functional and symbolic significance and affective and existential force on people and peoples. Thus, the architectural traits of these constructions are as instrumental to our everyday lives as those of ordinary architecture, and thus these traits must be debated as fiercely as any other, if architecture’s concern for the overall quality of life is to be pursued at every level, from material to social to intellectual to existential to spiritual.
More than anything else, one frontier of architectural work cannot be pitted against another as if they were “enemies.” Such bad faith posturing is the essence of ressentiment, the psychosociology of petty-hostility-become-counterfeit-morals first analyzed by Kierkegaard. The crippling effects of ressentiment on all disciplinary practices and their higher ambitions have been developed continuously since Kierkegaard’s work by philosophers, economists, psychologists and others from Nietzsche through Weber to Scheler to DeLeuze.
Thus do Matt Ford and Jeffrey Kipnis, curators of this exhibition, assert that any architecture that contests the traditional allegiance between the discipline and entrenched power and wealth, whether by refocusing the disciplines’ attention toward a direct engagement with society’s immediate material needs or by challenging the familiar design conventions of bourgeois, class or institutional entitlement pursues a bona fide project of activism.
Peter Eisenman’s Struggle Against the Humanist tradition: a case study
Peter Eisenman’s architecture has become synonymous with a single-minded insistence on a conceptual critique of bourgeois architectural conventions by exploiting the reserve potential of architecture’s intrinsic rhetorical structures – formalist, linguistic, and textual - by suspending the de jure status of the discipline’s traditional, humanist value. Though his design research is widely regarded today as a disengaged academic conceit, his project has always and continues to entail a political conjecture: architecture can only assist the empowered to exercise insidious control over the suborned if the latter are not paying close attention to the architecture itself. Only then can a palace or a courthouse or museum or a cathedral or a library or a villa induce submissiveness. The very qualities we most admire in great works of architecture – intimacy, repose, spirituality, transcendence, stateliness, majesty, awe - while not in and of themselves to be despised, are nevertheless also the very architectural instruments that authority uses to belittle, to subject. Whenever a work of architecture demands close attention, close reading, it’s palette of effects cannot but change in character from the emotive to the intellectual, and it can no longer serve so easily the ends of power.
If well reasoned, it is, however, just a conjecture, one that joins a large body of similarly motivated work in 20th century art, literature and music still waiting for a final assessment of its actual instrumentalities. But at a personal level, where the architect has pursued this aim for more than half a century, a close examination of the record suggests he has not found it easy to adhere to its principles with rigor and dispassion. Rather, Peter Eisenman’s architecture suggests a prolonged internal struggle with his own impulse toward architecture’s humanist tradition.
Part II – A Rove by any other name
“By Other Means” tries to touch, if not tackle, two basic concerns of architectural discourse. The first, discussed in Part I, raises questions about the nature of architectural activism itself and thus the bona fides of any particular mode of practice to claim for itself the identity “activist” and the ethical imperative that attends it over against any other. The second, perhaps less timely but no less fundamental, considers the perennial debate among architectural theorists and historians concerning the relative status of biography, autobiography, and the vicissitudes of dissemination of architecture as cultural discourse.
However we express the two issues now, both arose from our wandering through the material exhibited in Venice and published here, little more than a hodgepodge of scattered bits of biographical remains related to Peter Eisenman’s career, gathered less for its precise contribution to a predetermined theme than for its convenient accessibility potential interest it may hold for certain select audiences. As any such historical scattering of historical will do, the flotsam and jetsam here suggested many thematic paths. The circumstance of the Biennale, of course, weighed in to determine part 1, but the second theme shimmied out of its chrysalis with a bit more difficulty, as the title of Part II describes. Only three items were added by us at the last minute as external curatorial glue to bind originalia we found in the DavidsonEisenman home, or in boxes, files, nooks and crannies around the office: copies of his birth certificate as a frontispiece, the email he sent yesterday containing his surprising answer to how and when he first became aware of Colin Rowe’s existence, and the draft material outlining his ideas for the “Harlem Project,” his proposed educational collaboration between the radical new Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) and the venerable civil rights organization, The Urban League1. This late entry provided the necessary hinge to join Part I to Part II. Thus, though to do so will take you and us ahead of ourselves in a chronological sense, we must discuss it first.
Conceived in 1968, the Harlem Project reveals the architect’s most explicit ambition to bring his own theoretical and design work and the institute’s commitment to critical architecture into overt contact with political activism, though it never came to fruition. Scene of the illustrious Harlem Renaissance and seat of the New Negro movement in the 20’s and 30’s and the city of New York’s largest concentration of African-Americans by the 50’s, Harlem by the mid 60’s had sunk into steep economic decline and consequent despair. The crisis of education quality alone had made national news in 1964-5 with a series of much publicized school boycotts. Meanwhile, the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King kindled race riots around the country. And then May ‘68 in Paris. And then the assassination of Robert Kennedy. That year in Harlem itself, Livingston Wingate, named in Eisenman charts, took the helm of the New York chapter Urban League. As a footnote, in 1968, Eisenman finished the construction of House I, putting forth in fact, no longer just in theory, a compelling test, if not quite yet a proof of concept of his ideas.
What did the 36 year-old Eisenman have in mind with a teaching extension of the institute in
Harlem to educate African-American students in contemporary critical architecture theory and design, or should one ask, what did he have up his sleeve? Now well-weaned from his education and his legendary mentorship with Colin Rowe, his new intellectual project for a denatured formalist architecture free of cultural, historical and political baggage had just been summarily rejected by Princeton in the form of denied tenure in 1967. That same year he formed in New York, with key colleagues and benefactors, the independent IAUS, or “The Institute.”
But as bold as the formation of The Institute itself was, the Harlem Project was a breathtaking act of chutzpah, intellectual confidence and courage, one might credit as much to his army experience as to his own fervor and creative ferment. But then, in the US and the world at large, 1963-69 was a breathtaking period. What do the few pages of diagrams and captions of the Harlem Project show us? A momentary Brainstorm? An act of Cunning? Naivete’? Conviction? An impassioned moment of altruism and purpose catalyzed by the intensity of the local and international upheavals? A desperate funding ploy, perhaps? A publicity stunt? What message did he imagine the recurring subtitle shown in the diagrams for the project, “YOU INTELLECTUALS” would convey and to whom? Who knows? All of these and none will always be the answers provided by the biographical/autobiographical debate. “Did he ever actually act in good faith on the inspiration” will be the instinctive question, the wrong question, first asked by those who call us to action, but only in the terms they mean, understand and value. The record shows he did present the idea to Wingate, but nothing substantial came of it. Many will find these few facsimiles the most unexpected, fascinating, and perplexing on the walls and in these pages, the ones that raise the most questions. Though a door in the middle, they are, without doubt, the portal to the exhibition that the title and this essay constructs, and the crux that that joins its issues together.
What if Peter Eisenman’s Synagogue for a Newark Suburb (1955) had been built?
His undergraduate thesis project at Cornell, the scheme rings as one might expect with devotion to the lyrical tendencies of a new generation of modernists then prevalent in the academy, as the American practices of Saarinen, Aalto, Kahn and their followers harkened back to the Wright school to imbue the modernist project with a greater, more poetic sensitivity to context, meaning and locality in general in reaction to the perceived shortcomings of first generation internationalists. Eisenman’s project also shows the keen interest in the burgeoning modernist synagogue movement then well under way in the US, part and parcel of the lyrical wave of modernism, which would have been impossible for any aspiring young Jewish architect at the time to ignore.
It is important to emphasize here that though both his parents were Jewish, Eisenman’s family never practiced any religion. He had no religious training, and, as the children of many nonpracticing Jewish families in the states at that time did and still do today, he and his older brother lived the childhood of secular Jews, enjoying for example the presence of a Christmas tree and the attendant gifts each December so as to insure that they not feel marginalized from the lives led by their friends.
Nearly a century of such assimilating practices in the US have led to generations of secular Jews, of which Eisenman is a prime example, who form strong attachments to august American traditions and institutions– universities, fraternities, sororities, merit clubs and societies, even sports – that were often Christian in their origins. Indentified in recent ethnic sociological literature as “inside/outsiders” or “insider/outsiders,” these secular jews, paralleling many such structural outliers, are often uncomfortable when called upon to assert their ethnicity or to identify with issues of Jewish Identity such as Israel or the Holocaust.
Secular jews are a concern to the activist American Jewry for many reasons, not least of which is their similarity to the Jewish community in early 30’s Berlin, whose passivity in the face of the dire realities of their circumstance is by some authors considered to have contributed to the ultimate success of the Nazi extermination project, and is attributed in large part to their sense of total assimilation inside Weimar society as Germans. In today’s US, when confronted with the manifestations of discrimination these secular Jews inevitably continue to face, personal and/or institutional, aggressive or iniquitous, they are likely to feel more shame and guilt than ill-treatment, and react psychologically to internalize and sublimate rather than to respond socially to seek understanding and redress.
But for those of us more interested in the project’s architectural content, the acuity of hindsight notes that the project materials of this student work show an early anticipation Eisenman’s later obsession with the power of project materials as such over the edifice toward which such materials were presumably destined. Today, of course, it would be difficult to contest that Eisenman’s archive of project materials in its totality - from sketches notes and letters to the drawings and models to the writings - constitute the corpus ipsum of his contribution to architecture, while his buildings form something more like a corpus mensa, though many argue the corpus dilecti.
The pages of the accomplished but otherwise typical period drawings of the synagogue proposal, for example, are “numbered” with Hebrew letters rather than Arabic numerals. A conceit more than a concept to be sure, the gesture among other things clearly notifies the non-Jewish faculty committee of Cornell who the best evaluators of the work would actually be, the congregation of the synagogue itself, for they would instantly recognize the traditional use of these letters on certain documents. But the more interesting tidbit is to found in his two page handwritten draft of the program. On the second page, under “character,” the only section in which the cross-outs show any signs of struggle of expressed intention whatsoever, we find:
“There are so many areas of individual personality served here, that it would be impossible to give a definite character to the whole, but rather a relation of different feelings to the whole. The Sanctuary should give one a feeling of quiet yet at the same time a feeling of awe and inspiration. A very intangible feeling of the spirit of Judaism – difficult at best to express in any words or group of words.
The school and the social areas should be pleasant and intimate rather than institutional. It is the combining of these elements into a harmony of design that will determinethe final character of the entire composition.” [emph. added]
No doubt, the aforementioned dilectites will, should they ever learn of these caring remarks, lament the fading of his youthful promise, and to be sure, his unabashed embrace of such genteel values does give pause to any who knows of his work today. It will not be until one half-century passes that Eisenman again turns his attention to the design of a construction related to Judaism. How might he design the New Jersey Synagogue today, one wonders?
In any case, continuing to relish the magical connections that a random walk through an incomplete archive always solicit, one cannot help but also notice the patent coincidence: “character and composition” in the draft of his thesis text. So, Colin Rowe completed his essay “Character and Composition” to deliver as one of his first lectures at UT Austin in 1953, two years before the synagogue thesis project. Rowe had moved to Texas to take up a teaching position after leaving his first teaching post in Liverpool, where he tutored his first and most important protégé, James Stirling. However, it would have been impossible for Eisenman to have known know of that text, since it was not published until 1971.2 Eisenman did not even become aware of Rowe until a chance dinner in 1959, Eisenman’s last year in the M-Arch program at Columbia, when a rising young architect star named James Stirling recommended he seek out his former teacher, telling Eisenman, “you are a fine, designer, but you absolutely nothing about architecture. You need to go study with Colin Rowe.” Nevertheless, the intuitive claim of Eisenman’s single remark aligns well with the direction of Rowe’s probing analysis of the relation between the two qualities as they arise in 19th century architecture.
It is not as though he had remained a naïf after graduating Cornell, sequestered somewhere in upper middle class advantage during the interim between his first and second Ivy League setting at Columbia, where he pursued his an M-Arch. To the contrary, immediately after graduating Cornell, he entered the army as an ROTC lieutenant and volunteered for front line duty in Korea as a battery commander in charge of 150 men. In Korea, he design and built his first work, an army officers club. He served for two years before returning to the states, where he headed, as a mule with blinders, straight toward professional practice.
Landing what he believed to be a dream-come-true position in the office of the legendary Walter Gropius, and set off for Cambridge, Massachusetts. But while the privileged environs and community of architects around Harvard were very much to his liking, the office itself was very much not. To say the least he found the crass commercialism that determined each and every design decision dispiriting, a disenchantment much magnified when personally advocated by one of the Great Modernist Heroes –Founder of the Bauhaus, after all. Six months into the position, after detailing three buildings into dismal banality, he left the office, returned to Columbia to discuss his situation with Percival Goodman, Head of School; he entered the Columbia M-Arch program.
Two years pass, and for his graduating M-Arch thesis from Columbia under Goodman’s supervision, Eisenman submits a proposal to an important international competition for a cathedral for Liverpool, UK. His design, though stronger, more mature and original than his undergraduate thesis, remains steadfast in its allegiance to lyrical modernist tendencies. His entry places 7th, and as the highest ranking “modern” design attracts much attention in the US and UK.
Still, as the Liverpool Cathedral and the other competition proposals of the Columbia period indicate, as dislocating as the battlefield experience and as disillusioning as the exposure to Gropius’ office had been, and notwithstanding the increasing sophistication of his architectural knowledge with graduate study, nothing suggest the slightest hint of any change in his bourgeois values and goals of architecture. Nothing that might forecast his break with the humanist tradition of architecture that would in just a few years begin to send shock waves from Cambridge, UK.
Immediately after graduating, Goodman helped him secured a Fulbright scholarship to study French Gothic in Paris for a year, a topic of particular interest to the graduate at the time, To prepare, Eisenman enrolled in an emersion class in French at Columbia. 6 Months, 8 hours per day; avoid English as much as possible, even when away from class – those were the instructions. At the end of the term, he spoke French, better than functional – he felt fluent. Two weeks on a French ocean liner speaking only French only without the slightest gaff, he makes his way to Paris.
Gets in his first taxi, says to the driver “Je voudrais aller à la gare de l'est, s'il vous plaît“ to which the driver replies,“ you would be far better off speaking English, buddy.” “Buddy.” Spat out at him by the hack with as much disdain for foreign French as the Parisian stereotype could conjure. Whether outlier syndrome or just thin-skinned, who knows: but mortified, immediately, that very moment, as he tells the story, he abandoned his plans to study in Paris and determined to heed Stirling’s advice and head for Cambridge, UK to work with Colin Rowe for his year on Scholarship. Rowe had left the States to take up a teaching position at Cambridge in 1958.
To have a chance to work closely with Rowe, Eisenman did not just need a host institution in the UK to accept the Scholarship transfer, but it had to be Cambridge, no small task; actually, if you asked anyone today, impossible. In the end, though, somehow he managed it. Eisenman’s success in the Liverpool competition proved one of the deciding factors, along with considerable entreating to induce famed English modernist Leslie Martin, Head of School, to accepting his late, incomplete and non-standard application for the transfer of a Fulbright position. So, in 1960 the Rowe and Eisenman would meet for the first time.
Eisenman was set to work as a first year teacher, having in the interview “not quite understood” when Martin asked if he could teach an introductory studio. Eisenman, confident he had the ability, replied yes. He just had not quite understood at the moment that Martin also meant by the question to ask if he had any experience teaching at all, which he had not. Rowe, now his colleague, taught second year. Nevertheless, the year went sufficiently well that Martin asked him to stay on as a teacher beyond the end of the scholarship, and the only way that could be arranged was to enter him into the school’s Ph.D. program. Until then, a doctorate had never even crossed Eisenman’s mind;Nor had a life as an academic or a theorist.
Though only at Cambridge for two years when Eisenman arrived, Rowe had already grown disaffected with the school, his ideas and intellectual style not at all well received by his faculty colleagues. Nevertheless the spark between the two ignited almost immediately and the mentorship began – including the trips together to Italy to visit and analyze architecture old and new that have today reached fabled status. Two years later Rowe left for Cornell, inviting Eisenman to move into his flat for his final year at school to could complete his dissertation. In 1963, Dr. Eisenman, moved on to his first teaching position at Princeton.
Our hypothetical "what if.." question is only reinforced by the Liverpool Cathedral project for both of these works show a still developing architect striving for confidence, identity and purpose, desiring to build more than theorize. And one who, when given to thought at all, instinctively turned to the most basic of humanist values architecture might address - community, spirituality, and tradition as if these were self-evident, even as he sought to embrace the language of modernism in his work.
Clearly ambitious, intelligent and talented, yet up to and until his graduation from Columbia, the evidence on the wall shows Eisenman also comfortably upper-middle class and suggests a desire to move up that particular ladder of success, his aptitude protean rather than shaped by strong convictions. Nothing points toward an innate intellectual hunger, a deeper curiosity about architecture as such, nor any dissatisfaction with the status quo. Had he built early, successfully and attracted the attention he had and has always yearned for, it seems possible, even likely, that he would have continued along a professional path and just as likely that his career might have paralleled that of his close friend and early partner, Michael McKinnell, or even that of his cousin, Richard Meier.
What happened at Cambridge that neither Cornell nor Korea nor Columbia could catalyze? Well, the answer to that question which we have already so clearly pronounced, and will find in some sense easy to explain, turns out not quite so easy to explicate as it may at first seem.
So, we need to sketch Colin Rowe quickly, which means inadequately. Let us just note that beginning mid-century, Rowe began to sing siren-songs to English and American architecture that enthralled for more than 40 years. Though as learned as any architectural historian of his day, his penchant was far more for the story teller than the scholar3. Willing to speculate, to imagine, even to make stuff up to forward a desired narrative, he intoxicated students, audiences and readers with his brilliant capacity to discern unanticipated, yet unforgettable relationships in his analyses. He saw things in architecture that no one had seen before, that no one understood could be seen, and that indeed could not be seen as such without eyes and mind attuned to his ways of understanding. His mind went many places no wiser scholar would dare: Like reaching across four centuries to reveal compelling equivalences that were obvious in retrospect, but only in retrospect, between a Palladian and a Corbusian Villa, for example.
As mentioned, his disregard for restraint, period integrity, and other scholarly conventions brought him into disfavor among English academics, hence his problems at Cambridge. However, the power of his thought and analyses liberated generations of architects and architectural thinkers still loyal to the language and aims of modernism but chafing under its strictures. Meticulously yet with wit and sophistication, he discredited the ideological taboos the early modernists set in place in the guise of linear models of historical progress to protect the present and the future from the past. In their stead, he knit a single fabric history and the present with its projections of possible futures.
However brilliant his analyses may have been, Rowe’s intellectual self-indulgences violated the creed of academicism and his colleagues at Cambridge marginalized him cruelly for his sins. Perhaps Rowe’s disaffected status and Eisenman’s outsider inside as the secular Jew provided the unconscious scaffolding for their personal relationship; in any case, the conscious basis is more obvious. From Rowe, Eisenman discovered power, the disciplinary power of an intellection distinct from traditional scholarship and history in architecture, a power he had until then no idea existed, one that he quickly came to realize had as great a potential for the architect as for the academic, as he would begin to demonstrate immediately upon leaving Cambridge. More importantly, he learned from his tutor to wield expertly the instruments perfected to wield that power, close-reading and diagrammatic formal analysis, which in his dissertation and after he would take to extremes Rowe never conceived and later disparaged.
The extraordinary correspondence between the two, long thought lost was found by accident during the office dumpster diving for this exhibition. Some 40-odd handwritten letters from Rowe to Eisenman secreted in an nondescript folder containing mostly lecture announcements turned up, all written to Eisenman during his stay in Rowe’s flat. Most responded to his protégé’s outreach for comment on his ongoing work.
Though only half the story, one can ken most of Eisenman’s questions and remarks from Rowe’s fulsome responses, from his fine detailed suggestions regarding the evolving thought, to such wrist slaps as – “Peter my dear, you ask me no longer to comment on your grammar, but….” Rowe, was not only brilliant and generous and biting and extraordinarily insightful in his replies, but he was always intimate, and almost as constantly hilarious. And also quite petty and vain and puckish and covetous; as much as half of the total content of the letters deals with the irritations and triumphs of his own personal life at Cornell!
Speaking personally, the presence on the wall of a selection of these letters in concert with a selection of original preliminary drawings and of original final drawings from the thesis fills one of a certain personal/historical ilk such as Matt Ford and myself with the mysteries of aura that only an exhibition can profice. It is difficult to describe the feeling of reading even a few passages of the letters as one looks at the originals that might well have been on the table when the letters arrived.
The tensions, conflicts, struggles, and hysterical efforts to formulate and demonstrate the thesis are palpable in the fragmented selection presented. But a much closer study in detail of the complete record of the three bodies of the letters, studies, and final drawings reveal something else: Eisenman’s difficulty negotiating the demands of Leslie Martin, his official dissertation advisor, who strove, in alignment with Eisenman’s expressed professional desires and pre-Cambridge attitude - to push the dissertation in the lyrical/humanist direction for modernism advocated at the school at that time. One sees this influence in the selection of architects – the presence of Wright and Aalto, for example – as well as in the selection of particular buildings and the issues the sketches and studies show Eisenman attempting to analyze. As against the influence of Rowe’s disposition vis-à-vis his newly conceived formalist intellectualism – evident in the selection and treatment of Le Corbusier and Terragni. What is clearly evident, particularly in the obscure complexities and variegations of the analytic line work of the sketches and studies, is that by the dissertation he is not only leaving behind lyrical modernism and its loyalties to humanism, but well on his way to leaving behind Rowe’s agenda as well.
What is well-known and well-understood today is that the crowd of influential mid- to late 20th century architects, Stirling, Rossi, Meier, Hejduk, Ungers, Graves, Krier, Venturi and Brown, Moore, Hollein, whether white or grey, Marxist or structuralist, whether at the time they were inscribed more as followers of Scully or Tafuri than Rowe, all at least owed some debt to Rowe. And the reason is straightforward: all sought to imbue the modern architectural language with greater sensitivity to humanist values, to locality and context, to material and spatial poetry, to meaning and memory. Rowe’s writings, far more than those of Scully or Tafuri, suggested more than just motives, but means, clues to technique. But while the other architects shared Rowe’s values and reveled in the access his thought afforded to a vast palette of historicist and populist devices, Eisenman responded differently. More strongly attached to modernism’s palette of abstraction, the strength he garnered derived from the depth and power of the analytic methods and conjugate materials themselves.
On their famous trips, as Eisenman often repeats. Rowe taught his young protégé to “see architecture for the first time, hat is to see what is there but not visible.” But, in fact, one need look no further than Rowe’s 1947 essay “Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” to find a clue the to the unique nature of the immeasurable impact of Rowe’s thought on the architect, and then to the more seminal “Phenomenal and Literal Transparency” (1955-6) written with Robert Slutzky to discover the roots of the peculiar and decidedly different transmogrification it effected upon him his other colleagues. The title of “Mathematics… is enough to reveal what would become the most important point of departure for Eisenman from Rowe, his rejection of presumed the self-evident value of ideality. Form in Rowe’s essay takes the stage as the stable cube, which in turn becomes the source of the equivalence of the Palladio and the Le Corbusier and the presence of the golden section/Fibonacci ratio in each, the source of their common ideality.
In “Literal and Phenomenal,” drawing a relation between cubist painting and Le Corbusier’s architecture at Garche, however, there are no idealities, but rather dynamic formal relations, shifts and shears, that set form and its elements into motion and threaten to destabilize it, prompting Rowe later to remark on their essay “as dangerous and explosive.” Is it the creative potential of formal dynamics rather than formal stability, the political power of destabization over ideality that Eisenman drinks in like Hyde’s potion? Probably not yet, though these will soon come to dominate.
As one reads the dissertation and the theoretical that follow soon after, on gets the distinct impression from the intensity of argument that what has transformed Eisenman is his sense of conviction. It is as if he is certain of a discovery not just of a formal basis of modern architecture, but a formal basis of architecture as such, Architecture, to be sure in the specific, Rowian sense as the set of those rare buildings that have come through historical, intellectual, cultural and aesthetic knowledge come to have imbued in their manifest formal relations, such powers that they cannot but exercise a determining or transforming effect upon us for generations. Such works no more belong to the same class of the generic functional building as an art painting belongs to the class of a decorative wall treatments, or a sonnet to nursery rhymes. That through Rowe, he has truly come to understand exactly what Stirling meant when he said “you are a very good designer, but you know nothing of Architecture.” But even more, he had come upon a, a means to understand and generate architecture relations no longer dependent on particulars: of structure, of these or those synchronic forces of politics or economics or available materials, no longer requiring even the intentions of the architect his or herself. Though all these, of course, the stuff of Architectural History, were valuable variables to the total picture. And the only thing that had blinded Rowe from seeing it the fullness of this generative structure first was his parochial fealty to ideality and humanist ideals.
Arriving at Princeton in 1963, Eisenman discovered to his surprise Michael Graves, a friendly acquaintance from his brief stint in Boston, and now like him, a newly hired assistant professor. The two began to collaborate on a series of projects based largely on the dissertation, expanded from building to urban scale. Most were published and attracted attention, particularly the “Jersey Corridor Linear City” a mile-wide, 20-mile long megastructure which made its way to the pages of Life Magazine, though uncredited. In any case, that work in particular prompted Arthur Drexler, curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, NY to stage a visions of urban renewal exhibition for New York, “New City,” and commissioned the pair, one of four teams, to design a study, the “Project for the Manhattan Waterfront.” The show opened January, 1967; that same month Princeton tenured Graves largely on basis of the portfolio of their designs and the theoretical account of the work written by Eisenman, but denied tenure to Eisenman. To this day he will not discuss the decision.
Though invited to remain and reapply for tenure again two years later, Eisenman left the school immediately. Encouraged by the reception of the “Jersey Corridor” project and the “Manhattan Waterfront” study in particular, he proposed the formation of an independent teaching and research Institute in New York to continue the line of intellectually ambitious architectural activism the exhibition showcased and Eisenman sought further to pursue. With the assistance and participation of Arthur Drexler, along with Robert Gutman, a sociologist specializing in architectural practice, Colin Rowe, and Robert Slutzky, the painter and co-author with Rowe of “Literal and Phenomenal Transparency,” he formed the IAUS, With the exception of Rowe, an insider/outsider in his own terms, all the founders of the Institute were secular Jews.
In its first few years the activities of the IAUS were characterized by such direct engagement speculations, along with the sorts of lectures, seminars and other activities one would expect to support them. In this context, The Harlem Project proposal, made the year after the Institute opened its doors, was not at all out of character; rather, it was even typical. It would not be until a few years later, around 1971, when Mario Gandelsonas and others began to introduce continental structuralist and poststructuralist discourse into the conversational mix of the Institute’s gatherings and classes that things changed, and soon the IAUS mutated into the conceptual/theoretical incubator that became rose to international prominence. In 1971, MIT Press releases Rowe’s collected essays containing, at long last, “Character and Composition” in print for the first time.
At that time, while Eisenman’s ambitions to build and build significantly remained resolute, his own thoughts, writings and designs already show his approach to architecture moving inexorably away from that of a crusading late-modernist seeking an entitled insider’s position at the center of action, toward a more marginal questioning of how architecture actually might matter in a deeper sense. Within the short span of those few years, marked by the shift from polemic mega-structural proposals and bold institutional actions to concept-driven houses and challenging theoretical thought-pieces, he would transform himself, in parallel with the Institute, into the discipline’s first arch-outlier theorist.
Never in any sense did that change suggest any awakening to a relation to his Judaism or to Jewish thought whatsoever; his stood with the same defiantly unreconstructed secular posture then as he does today. Nonetheless, his work began to marshal intellectual resources well beyond Rowe’s horizons, leading him into active dialogue with renowned secular Jewish intellectuals including, to name only a few, Manfredo Tafuri the Italian Marxist architectural historian and theorist, Rosalind Krauss, the New York art critic and editor of the influential journal, October. And Jacques Derrida, French intellectual extraordinaire and progenitor of deconstructive critiques and processes, though, of course, these processes had always already long been underway before he gave them a name, as he so forcefully demonstrated.
What the work each of these and the many others writers and artists who attracted Eisenman’s interest had in common was the degree to which it interrogated the means, methods and motives that underwrote (apparently) self-evident values, such as ideality or humanism in architecture. If some of these thinkers were inclined toward to prosecute the status quo more militantly than others, all set out to oblige that the status quo presents its bona fides. No value stood entitled as an a priori, a first principle, a metaphysical Truth – such became Eisenman’s operating premise. For architecture in particular, that meant that neither tradition, convention, custom, taste, nor comfort could any longer stand as justified on its own terms, The time had come for an architectural critique and for a critical architecture.
Why is why the earliest of the Houses drew first on the most powerful theorist and the most militant prosecutor of the secular Jewish outliers. Noam Chomsky.
The year is 1967, House I has just completed construction. Outspoken anti-war activist, Noam Chomsky publishes his famous essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Responsibilities of Intellectuals” wherein he, like Aravena today, calls upon all of his colleagues to turn their attention toward political truth and to use their power and influence to stop injustice. Before then, Chomsky had been one of the most honored analytic structural linguists in history, and he continues to do important work in that area to this day. After 1967, his outspoken left-wing political activism and total defense of almost all speech as free speech has mired his life in continuous controversy, a hero to some, a villain to other, overshadowing his linguistics research achievements to all but those entrenched in the discipline.
For Eisenman, Chomsky’s linguistic theories of deep structure and transformative grammar 1955-1966 were crucial; after 1967 the work of the outspoken activist all but ceases to exist for the architect except as a memory.
Chomsky’s linguistic research provided solid mathematical foundation, a “deep structure,” for the contested supposition of the pre-existence of a mechanism for language acquisition in general in all human beings. It included an aptitude for syntax acquisition and for transformative-generative branching of the syntax into surface relations, or sentences, answering the question of how language can make infinite variation out of finite means. So the aptitude of any baby to acquire the grammar, diction and idiomatic forms of any specific language is the same for all babies and present at birth.
Eisenman, began House l just before leaving Princeton, still flush with the conviction that the analytic powers set forth in his dissertation constituted a “discovery,” and feeling equally that in concert with those analytic techniques, the design processes he developed from them showed startling resonances with Chomsky’s linguistic deep structures and transformative grammars, suggesting the existence of a pre-existing architectural aptitude as much as there was a preexisting linguistic aptitude.
He sets out to demonstrate the plausibility of that conjecture in the early houses, and initially restricts his palette to the abstract, planar forms generated when his processes operate on basic geometries related to the cube. At that state he avoided semantic elements, that is, avoided architectural equivalent to meaningful words that belong to any particular architectural language. These would have to wait until the “baby came,” to draw the analogy with Chomsky’s concept “surface structures.” At first he needed just to show the power of his processes to generate architectural syntax.
But why then, is there a fireplace in House I, the Barenholtz Pavilion in Princeton, New Jersey. The scissor form of staircase is a formal necessity, and one can see in the process drawings some early effort to generate the form. The interior ware, kitchen appliances and such do not fall into the question of the architectural discourse of the house as semantics; they are nonarchitectural after-effects of occupancy even if present in the final drawings. But a fireplace? Present In the process drawings from the beginning, though not intrinsic to the cubic primitive, and not produced by the generating process, it is, what a biologist would call, a pre-formed entity in an otherwise epigenetic production. And its presence is all the more curious in that regard since the “house” was never intended as a house but as a small display museum for toys from the owner’s business, Creative Playthings.
So, was it a regression of some kind to hearth and home? If so, it is not some unconscious slip, since in the drawings shown here for the first time and in sketches elsewhere, one can follow him confront several challenges raised by its presence, formal and technical, throughout the development of the design and the construction of the pavilion, as if he never once asked how it came to be there but, having for some reason stipulated its presence, he had to figure out what the hell to do with it. Actually, though there is no evidence in the official “architect’s cut” of the project material, an interesting fact in its own right, the fireplace is present because it was part of the client’s program, museum or not.
In retrospect, if House II at the moment of its conception arose as an elaborate correction, a more thoughtful effort to test the relationship between Chomsky’s work and his own, it stands today as the seminal leap of originality Eisenman’s of oeuvre not only clarified once and for all that his designs were never destined to evidence “deep-structure,” but rather would take the stage as a critical architecture in the sense already described. If one were to draw an analogy between House VI and Beethoven’s 5th symphony simply on the basis the respective renown of each, then House II would have to claim the 3rd as its analogy on the basis of the respective recognition within the two discipline’s of each as the defining moment in emergence of an original voice.
None of the strategy, tactics and devices deployed in House II were new to Eisenman’s work: a client with a stated program that in the houses will never play a major role in the formulation of the architecture, a conceptual polemic that advances a formal premise intended to challenge a established value; a formal procedure applied to a cubic primitive to generate the transformation drawings that lead to the final design; an approach to realizing the design as a building with its own conceptual critique that entailed a distinct status of the construction and construction details from the design process drawings, and, finally, a set of independent but associated after-the-fact declarations and writings.
A simple example: For House II the client, Falk, an intellectual who held a strong interest in Chomsky, approached Eisenman for their shared interested and commissioned a conventional 2 bedroom house with minimal additional program. To make the possibility of examining the relation of his generative technique to Chomsky’s thought more precise, he posited that walls and columns/beams constituted minimal elements of an architectural syntax, noting shared, innate abilities to determine both space and act as structure and to be further differentiated into semantic elements such as windows, stairs, rails, etc. The analogy to Kandinsky’s theoretical treatment of lines and planes in painting would not be in serious error.
To this, he adds the conceptual polemic, which in retrospect is the moment he swerves the work away from a structuralist investigation toward a critical one, with the observation: “Since architecture, like language, consists of a grammar and a set of signs, a column in architecture is not just deployed for structure but also as the sign of structure, which is why there are different designs of columns for different architectures.” The transformative process doubles, shifts on a diagonal and intersects the initial set piece of walls columns and beams according to a set of established steps and rules that result in erasures and duplications. In the end wall, column and beam reverberate into structure and the sign of structure while each also differentiating each into semantic elements, such as a windows or grids, or notational/ ornamental elements that strongly allude to these. QED.
Next, he determines to build the building in plywood, so that it would appear, particularly in photography, to be a model, or if understood as a building rendering it scale-less and vulnerable to the elements. He goes to some lengths to confirm this effect in the photographs he produces and distributes, and one French magazine does indeed publish one of these, captioned as a model of the building. Finally he writes the essay, Cardboard architecture, incorporating both House I and House II now into the critical argument. While “deep structure” is mentioned in the description of each house, it is only as an aesthetic effect and Chomsky’s name is nowhere to be found. Last but not least, soon after, and increasingly after the two houses are shown at MOMA in the Five Architects show and the catalogue is published, he begins to declare that the “real architecture is in the drawings [by which he means the generative drawings, not the construction drawings]; the house itself is a representation of them.”
Thus House II intertwines all three of the conceptual/discursive voices of his design process, the generative drawings, construction as concept and ex post facto discursive polemics, so forcefully and so imaginatively that it set out the terms of a novel understanding of “the architectural project” as such. One must take care not to view this counterpoint as harmonic; to the contrary, it was and remains to this day utterly anharmonic, rich with irreconcilable discord and internal contradiction. Even more important however, one should never imagine that this incongruence among his design processes, writing and verbal polemics, and his expert if unorthodox approach to conceptual building is a fault to be repaired, as many, many have thought and tried. Though it is unlikely a result of intellectual insight and therefore intent, nevertheless it is clear he has long been fully aware of it by effect and repetition. Eisenman intuited early the mistake of subordinating any one of the three domains to the other, allowing each to produce an architectural critique in its own right and in its own terms in an incongruent but coherent collaboration of critique.
One of the telling aspects of House ll’s importance is that it is from it that the myth of Eisenman’s inability build or lack of interesting in construction quality arises. To this day, urban legend, repeated by friend and foe alike, holds that he built it as if a child, without any knowledge of flashing or other basic construction requirements, though the published construction details, not to mention the actual state of the building today, clearly evidence the contrary. The house, abandoned by its owner after three years, remained unpainted and in need of some repair for more than 15 years. But over that period, it was often photographed in such a way as to make it appear to be in total decay. That was because the polemic he put forward, Cardboard Architecture, combined the photos intended to make it look like it was made of cardboard like a model, struck to one of the deepest-seated values in architecture’s psyche – firmitas. Firmitas, Vitruvius insistence that the rectitude, stability and sheer longevity of a building is a first principle of the discipline, how can anyone challenge that notion, subject it to critical reflection that is not just self-indulgent cynicism. Yet as an ideal how can we be so sure that it is not an ego-ideal, a psychoanalytic pathology more than a ethos. Why should, after all, a work of architecture seek in its essence to outlive its original raison d’etre, and be required to justify doing so? More importantly, that a work of architecture should stand for 1000 years, does that not have a familiar ring to the relationship between architecture and undesired power?
So, you are in Berlin and have just walked through the Monument for the Murdered Jews, if lucky on a drizzly day. Marveling at the solemn, mute concrete stellae of varying heights, you wondered, perhaps, if the height differences might somehow represent the differing heights of each individual person, or if their number might mean something Talmudic maybe. You see children playing hide and seek, at first irritating you with their irreverence then understanding that they and their games, too, are intrinsic to the profound opera you experienced.
How do you feel when you find out at some point, perhaps just now, that you missed the entire point of the project and the construction? That, in fact, the only way you, or anyone, can understand, and viscerally know the design is not to be there inside it, but to see it from afar and above, or in a photograph or preferably to see and comprehend the arbitrariness of the determination of the heights of each slab, as evidenced on the wrinkled sheet of numbers exhibited on the wall in Venice and printed in this catalogue.
For only then can you realize and feel and see what cannot be seen until you understand what must be seen, that the slab tops forms a palpable, obvious new conceptual “ground.” It is easy to see, easy to understand. It is exactly on grade with the old Tiergarten of Berlin. It is a ground that no one can march down, no one can own, no one can call their fatherland, as if it were there forever and gods guaranteed it for its true inhabitants for eternity, or at least for 1000 years.
And then you will realize that all grounds are conceptual grounds, as are all boundaries. This fact does not make them bad or good, it just makes the ground always already political, never metaphysical, and therefore not just open to critique demanding and deserving it so that no one can claim absolute authority over it.
Finally, how do you feel when you realize that Eisenman in all honestly has a great deal of interest in history, particularly in the history of world war II, but hold very little personal outrage about the holocaust or particular empathy for its victims because of his heritage, beyond any decent human being would for any and all such victims of any holocaust. And that he, at least, is convinced that only because of his life-long dedication to his formalist project and his remove from a traditional narrative of memorialization that the monument as it stands today, interrupting the day to day traffic in the middle of Berlin as the city’s constant irritation, would be conceivable.
Now, back to the exhibition or the catalog, take one last moment to look at the drawing in 1942 by a nine year of a p-47 flying over a football stadium. On its back is a non-existent high school in period brick high-school gothic style. The “drawing” is an imaginary program for a game between two non-existent high-school football teams, selling for $.05. Why did he keep this one drawing for 75 years, the only one. And no family photos, very little record of his early life at all till a bit shows up at Cornell and in the Army. Seems hard to connect the two, but somehow even harder not to.
In the end, the strangest aspect of this exhibition and this essay has been the necessity to delve so deeply into Eisenman’s biography to discern the depth of his commitment to activism in his architecture and for architecture as such. And in so doing bring the two theoretical linesw of inquiry into some kind of relationship. All the more, because the first two values he subjected to critique in his dissertation the status of intent, the autobiographical account of the architecture by the architect, as well as the synchronic archive, the effect on the architecture of the historical situation in which the work arose. Only by suspending the self-evidency of these profound influences on a work could he show the operations of his diagrammatic formalist principles, the very ones that began a the new chapter of architectural activism he has authored.
1 provided in facsimile by the Canadian Center for Architecture. I am indebted to Lucia Allais for making me aware of this material. Her essay considering its significance is “The Real and the Theoretical 1968”, published in Perspecta 42
2 Rowe’s only publication at that time were “Mathematics of the ideal Villa” (1947) and “Mannerism and Modern Architecture” (1950), both in the Architectural Review UK.
3 [i] Rowe's MA thesis in Architecture History for no one less than Rudolf Wittkower at the prestigious Warburg institute positing a lost architectural treatise by Inigo Jones contained not a single shred of factual evidence. His considered argument drew entirely upon close readings of a set of Jones’ drawings and plates, Jones own two volumes of extensive notes on Palladio’s four books, inference and speculation. Wittkower, though a rigorous historian and demanding tutor not only understood the situation but apparently encouraged Rowe’s undertaking, recognizing the value of his rare gifts. For further on the topic, see Histories of the Immediate Present, Anthony Vidler, MIT Press 2008
Edited by Mathew Ford
with an essay by Jeffrey Kipnis
with an essay by Jeffrey Kipnis