September 14, 2005

Eisenman Urges New Language of Architecture

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Distinguished architect Peter Eisenman ’54 returned to his alma mater last night to comment on architecture’s modern history and to speculate on its future.

Throughout his prepared lecture, entitled “Architecture Matters,” Eisenman invoked a diversity of artists and philosophers, including Roland Barthes, Le Corbusier, Martin Heidegger and Richard Wagner.

He combined a theoretical treatise on architectural currents and contemporary design theory with a detailed analysis of one of his most recent projects, Germany’s Memorial to the Jews Killed in Europe during World War II.

In his introductory remarks Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, hailed the return of “one of the most celebrated graduates of [the College].”

“Peter Eisenman is one of the very few architects in the world today that has managed to combine theory, art and practice,” Mostafavi said.

Early in his lecture, which he delivered from the stage in Kennedy Hall’s Call Auditorium, Eisenman pointed to post-structuralism’s influence on his thinking and career.

“There was a moment in philosophy from 1965 until 1968, when several important works – for me most notably Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology – set the stage for post-structuralist thinking in philosophy and language,” Eisenman said.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida doubted extant language’s communicative efficacy. In an essay published in 1986, which Eisenman cited, Derrida urged architects to reconsider the means by which they communicated.

“Architecture is a language unto itself – unlike semiotics and other forms of verbal and written communication,” Eisenman said, summarizing Derrida’s argument. “And he says in the same essay that if we are unable to articulate in the languages we possess, we must find a way to overcome language.”

For centuries, architects’ “inherited language” has been the Cartesian plane.

To Eisenman, architects’ and artists’ search for a new language became all the more important after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. In fact, he wondered if architecture itself had to be fundamentally reconsidered and reinvented.

Eisenman recalled how, in the wake of World War II, eminent literary theorist George Steiner questioned whether there could be poetry penned in the German language after the Holocaust. Eisenman wonders if architects are at a similar turning point.

“It may be impossible to continue with the existing language of architecture now,” Eisenman said.

To Eisenman, the latest paradigm shift in architectural modes of thought occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

“[Sept. 11, 2001] was the last great spectacle,” Eisenman said. “And I don’t think that anything that architecture could do could equal this.”

In his opinion, the two calculated attacks on important, symbolic landmarks in New York City and Washington signified the end of situationist filmmaker and writer Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

“What is interesting for architecture, is that that spectacle – so vivid, so violent, and so graphic – caused architecture to change,” Eisenman said. “Not because it needs to be turned inward, but because it can no longer compete with the spectacular image of media.”

He spoke about the power of experience: he witnessed the terrorist attack unfold from his firm’s Manhattan offices. To Eisenman, “being there” was transformative, and is now central to his architectural theory.

Later in his lecture, Eisenman praised several of his colleagues’ contributions to architecture’s evolution, emphasizing the incontestable importance of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ early designs and theory in particular.

While Eisenman believes that some architects are continuing to do important work, he worries that many of his contemporaries are beginning to fall victim to celebrity.

“Architects today are arguing over who is going to do the perfume for Madam Prada,” Eisenman said. “The architects who have become the media stars follow an agenda of consumption.”

Eisenman also lamented some of his colleagues’ interest in aestheticism and beauty.

“In architecture, there is a need to overcome the optical,” Eisenman said. “These relationships bring about the displacement of the functional from the contiguous spatial article.”

Prada’s Koolhaas-designed Los Angeles boutique and Seattle Public Library do not excite Eisenman; they are not, by his standards, groundbreaking.

In the second half of his lecture, Eisenman spoke at length about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which he designed. The monument, which is comprised of 2,711 concrete pillars of varying heights, occupies an urban tract in Berlin on which Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ house, garden and bunker once stood.

Some visitors have trouble understanding the space and Eisenman’s design. There are no names carved into the gray concrete blocks, nor is there a center or a single navigable pathway along which people walk. As such, and as the architect intended, it is easy for someone to find himself alone, lost in the memorial.

“I was attempting silence,” Eisenman said.

In the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Eisenman spoke of his early desire “to change the world,” wondered if today’s architects’ goals are as lofty and noble and reiterated his belief that architects must reinvent their language.

“If we are to begin to act again, the suggestion is that we must rethink how architecture communicates,” Eisenman said. “Not for change itself, but change for some social purpose.”

After the lecture, many students and faculty lingered in Call Auditorium. Rio Wight ’10, who has only just begun his five-year term as an architecture student, left enthusiastic.

“It was inspirational to hear [Eisenman] talk,” Wight said. “To hear him be so into architecture.”

Initially, Eisenman and designer Lars Müller were scheduled to visit Cornell together for a book signing. Last week, however, Hurricane Katrina flooded Müller’s studio and rising waters destroyed many of his records.

Eisenman, who founded Oppositions, the journal for the Institute of Architecture, is presently at work on a 68,000-seat stadium for the Arizona Cardinals; a cultural complex in Galicia, Spain; and three entries for major architectural competitions. His firm, Eisenman Architects, is based in New York.

Archived article by David Gura
Sun Senior Writer