February 16, 2009

From Big Red to Architectural Fame

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When Peter Eisenman ’55 (Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’56 professor) attended Cornell, he moonlighted as our sports mascot the Big Red Bear. For a man whose post-graduation work has been revered as changing the field of architecture, it’s a pretty big surprise that when Eisenman attended C.U. he wasn’t always a studious architect, living in Rand Hall. Rather, there was a side to him that was about big lights and game night. Current students now have the opportunity to see Eisenman, live in performance, when he visits this week.
After Eisenman graduated with his Bachelor of Architecture degree from C.U. in the mid-’50s, he went on to get his master’s degree from Columbia University. Within Cornell’s architecture program today, Eisenman is considered a sort of mythical figure, not unlike the way Vonnegut is considered in the humanities. Rumors of what Eisenman was like and whom he was influenced by range from surprising to unbelievable. One (anonymous) architecture professor who attended Cornell in the ’70s says that Eisenman was rumored to have been the wild child of his studio — “that guy” who showed up the morning of final review, not having done anything all semester, with a project that sampled everyone else’s. Eisenman’s later fame and success makes his study here at Cornell like a fairy tale story. His obvious influence by philosopher Jacques Derrida is rumored to have been a result of direct contact with Derrida himself, when he briefly worked in our beloved Ithaca.
Eisenman in his early career was one of the members of the influential “New York Five” which also included Cornell graduate Richard Meier ’56. The “New York Five” was also known as “The Whites,” for their notable influence by the stark — and literally white colored — buildings of the modern style. Eisenman, however, went on to create his own legacy separate from his association with the “New York Five.” His house projects, including the most famous House VI, were revolutionary in the way they considered space; for the first time in architectural thought, space could be created from mathematical and geometrical processes rather than pre-conceived notions of what “belonged” in a house.
Eisenman seems to have been widely influenced by greats outside of the field of architecture, such as aforementioned philosopher Jacques Derrida. His translation of theoretical deconstructivist ideas to architecture follow in a tradition of translating philosophical ideas to building (like the post-modern works of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, contemporaries of Eisenman). Similarly, unlike many architects who express themselves only through drawing, Eisenman wrote prolifically: many of his written ideas eclipse what could be built in the real world — among them, Written Into The Void, a collection of essays, and Terrangi: Transformations, Decomposition, Critiques, Eisenman’s analysis of another grid-obsessed architect.
After founding his own firm in 1980, Eisenman found similar critical success in his built works as his works in academia; recent projects include the University of Phoenix stadium, Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Wexner Center at Ohio State. While none of his built works achieve the same fantastical complexity as his academic proposals, they remain distinctly “Eisenman” — always dealing with geometrical processes, grid shifts and orthogonal floor plans. No Frank Gehry curves here.
They say that Albert Einstein got C’s in math when he was in school; Eisenman’s wild days in the (Big Red!) bear costume and his rumored absences from studio may be reassurance to us all that there’s still hope after academia. For proof of success:
Eisenman will be speaking on “Memory and Memorial” on Tuesday to the general public at Sage Chapel at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. There will also be an exhibition in Hartell gallery, Presenting the Past, in Sibley Hall from Feb. 16 to Feb. 27 showing Eisenman’s recent built work.