February 19, 2009

Eisenman '55 Speaks at Sage Chapel

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World-renowned architectural provocateur Peter Eisenman ’55 gave his inaugural lecture in Sage Chapel on Tuesday as the new Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’58 Professor, a position which brings top scholars or practitioners in various fields to reside at Cornell for one week of intense activity. Eisenman, who also teaches at Yale, used recent projects undertaken by his firm to reflect on the inherently politicized nature of public memorials.
The main project, “Memorial to the Murdered Jews” in Berlin, was a project that began in 1997 when Eisenman was first approached to enter the competition for a Holocaust memorial and finally completed in 2005 when the site was unveiled to the public. Eisenman claimed that he was initially reluctant to participate in the design competition for the Berlin memorial since he was an American Jew with little contact with his religion or the Holocaust. However, he and sculptor Richard Serra were eventually persuaded to submit a design. Though their design won the competition, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked Eisenman and Serra to discuss some changes. The pugnaciously stubborn Serra dropped out, refusing to alter the plans.
Eisenman, however, as an architect and not a sculptor, was used to finding ways to accommodate his clients without compromising his own vision, and plugged ahead. The initial opposition by Jewish groups and the administrative turnover in Germany threatened to derail the project before it ever broke ground. One controversy dogging the memorial was that the government agencies insisted that the 2, 711 pillars that make up the memorial be sprayed with a graffiti-proofing agent that had been made by Degussa, a company that had previously manufactured Zyklon B, which was used in gas chambers. Eisenman unwittingly exacerbated the furor when he mentioned that Degussa also made the gold fillings for many people’s teeth, forgetting that the company had also been responsible for extracting fillings from prisoners in the concentration camps.
Nonetheless, after Eisenman went on TV to make a public apology, and after much political maneuvering by Jewish groups, the monument finally stands today at the epicenter of a reunified Berlin, near the American embassy and the Brandenburg Gate. Visitors have vastly different responses to the undulating field of unmarked stellae that vary in size from approximately 8 inches to nearly 16 feet. Eisenman noted that many people seemed to disappear and re-emerge inside the claustrophobic aisles. Calls for lost children can often be heard eerily echoing throughout the labyrinth.
Underground, the memorial contains an information center, which was not in the original plans; however, Eisenman seemed especially proud of the remarks made by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas that the memorial combines two types of memory, the archival and the immemorial — or that which must be represented and that which cannot be represented.
Eisenman, an intellectual who — along with other post-structuralists such as Derrida — has critiqued the “metaphysics of presence,” stated that he hoped his Holocaust memorial would give its viewers a sense of the “presence of being there,” so they neither dwell in nostalgia for the past nor hanker for a future escape. Perhaps, ironically, only in experiencing our presence inside such a public memorial can we acknowledge the private grief of startling absence without.