February 19, 2009

It Ain't a Walk in the Park

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On Wednesday, Feb 19, The Sun sat down with Peter Eisenman ’55, who was in town for a week as the Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’58 Professor. The perenially hard-to-define architect spoke about everything from football in Arizona to why the media loves him.

The Sun: Your work has sometimes been criticized for being hostile to its viewers, while other people see your work breaking open new spaces of possibility. I was wondering: do you design buildings for people?
Peter Eisenman: First of all, to say that my work has been described as hostile to its viewers, I think that’s a very complex issue, because I am against the hegemony of seeing … [but] I’m not hostile to viewers. “Who is your work for?” How does any architect answer that question? Let’s take my work “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe”: [it] was commissioned by the German government, for the German people. Who are the German people? … I mean, people go to Holocaust memorials, [children] run around to play tag … There are people who sunbathe, people who make love there. There are people who lay stones and flowers on the stones … I don’t design for a person, I design for the fact that people need culture, they need experience that contains cultural ideas and insofar as my work does that, then it’s for people who want to experience something beyond a Hollywood movie, a TV show, a walk in the park. It ain’t a walk in the park, my work. It isn’t easy, and you can read it in many, many different ways.
Who does Jacques Derrida write for, who does Frank Stella paint for, who does Richard Serra sculpt for, who does James Joyce write for? Who did Thomas Kuhn write his book for? You don’t ask these people those kinds of questions.
Sun: You have been critical of function …
PE: I haven’t been critical of function; I mean, I think architecture is about being critical of function. In other words, how does society advance if we don’t rethink function?
Sun: Now, you said “advance.” That points toward a tension I wanted to get at: On the one hand, you seem critical of function. On the other hand, you seem to want to disavow a narrative of progress. You said the word “advance.” I’m trying …
PE: I didn’t really mean “advance.” OK, let’s take this chair. Do you need this chair? Somebody needs to sell a product, so they have this dumb chair. I can’t do a chair. I wouldn’t know what to do if you told me to do a chair. First of all it’s about looking, but it’s [also] about enjoying sitting, right? It’s a very functional object. The New York Times critic said that my stadium in Phoenix wasn’t radical enough perhaps because Peter Eisenman was too much of a football fan. I was really interested in fan comfort and being able to see a game. But I was also interested in producing a work of architecture …
I think architecture is one of the most difficult things that exists because it must displace as an idea what it must place as an idea … Is this room architecture? No … It doesn’t do anything to stimulate my responses to the environment. I’m not interested in this dumb chair or this dumb table. Am I interested in these kinds of issues? No. That’s not what architecture’s about.
Sun: One might think that in your earlier work you would be more prone to challenge, while in your later work — such as the stadium you mentioned—you have been more accommodating.
PE: At 75 it’s hard to be an enfant terrible. You do mature, and you do realize that you don’t need to be as aggressive and didactic and polemical and iconoclastic. But I’m still writing about these issues, I’m still designing some of [my] major work … Look, I would argue this: post-structuralism is essentially about the problem of design. Architecture is about designing, it’s about meaning.
Sun: Does an architect have any moral responsibility?
PE: Yes.
Sun: To what, and how?
PE: To his own being, to his own conscience. I am a very moral person. I live a moral life.
Sun: Does architecture have an impact?
PE: Oh, it has impact. Look, Walter Benjamin argues that people look at architecture in a state of distraction. Meaning, they walk in the city and they don’t look at things. When they go to a museum, they’re supposed to be looking at the painting, right? When they’re reading a book, when they’re going to a movie, they’re not distracted … They look at entertainment in a passive way. I believe we are basically a passive society. I am trying to make people not so much as active as non-passive passive, so they just don’t walk around in nowhere. Now, I believe that is morally appropriate, to try and get people out of the state of passivity. I believe most of our social and political and economic conditions are meant to pacify in one way or another. … The fact that we’re talking means there must be some morality in the work that activates your questions.
Sun: Or an immorality.
PE: So let’s talk about immorality … What would you consider immoral about my work?
Sun: It seems like it doesn’t recognize the opportunities that it’s foreclosing as much as those it tries to break open.
PE: I’m trying to open more than I close. That would be all I could hope for. History will judge that. I can’t judge. You can’t say “what do you think you do or not?”
Sun: But doesn’t it depend on what values you have about what should be opened?
PE: Yes — I declared myself a Democrat as opposed to a Republican, I am a Derridean as opposed to a Deleuzean … So there are certain bases: I am not interested in sustainability, I’m not interested in green architecture. I think these are charades, I think they don’t get at the fundamental issues. I think those are the people who are immoral, because they’re selling something that closes off the real possibilities of doing something in the environment.
Sun: Does architecture have to be, by its very necessity, a top-down and large-scale organization?
PE: What does that mean?
Sun: There are certain types of form-free culture: for example, computer software. I would call that more bottom-up organization, whereas architecture, “starchitecture” as it’s known today, as you practice it …
PE: As I practice it, it’s top-down . I don’t believe that democracy produces art … Cultural artifacts stand against bottom-up decision making. You cannot have an artwork, a film, a painting, a literature, you may not even have a politics that’s bottom-up. And I don’t know of any communal art; someone is always a leader. People who vote in a block, let’s say, are against art and are against speculation. They want stability, sameness, etc. So, bottom-up to me wants the status quo. They want that capacity from the bottom to have their voice heard. I understand that. They should go and knit and sew or do something else, but they shouldn’t be architects.
Sun: What about signature and “starchitects?”
PE: What has fueled architecture for the last 20 years is media. Media has been the root of the star architect idea. When people hire me, they’re not hiring me for what I do, they’re hiring me because I attract media … What the media does is to force the star architects to constantly invent the new.
Sun: You’re saying that you and Rem Koolhaas and Richard Meier ’56 aren’t any better than many other architects, you’re just better at co-opting or manipulating the media?
PE: No, no — we just have something the media is interested in … Honestly, it’s something we have that the media wants … And they need me for ideas … The media has roles that they want you to fulfill, [but] I don’t want you to put me in a box. I’m mediated precisely because I’m difficult to mediate … I don’t have a signature … A non-signature’s a signature.
Sun: But you position yourself that way.
PE: The question is whether I do or you do. I haven’t positioned myself at all. You do. Had it been up to me, I’d have talked about football. I had dinner with the football coach last night … You positioned me by your questions a priori. [You didn’t say], “Hey, Peter, what do you want to talk about?” … You couldn’t talk about football.
Sun: Probably not as well as you can.