Peter Eisenman

Architect and theorist, United States
As an architect, writer, educator, and theorist, Peter Eisenman has consistently striven
to reveal the critical function of architecture. His commitment to maintaining architecture
as a critical practice has led him to adopt the role of architectural impresario, inciting,
supporting, and publishing the research and production of subsequent generations of
architects. Eisenman’s writings, most notably “Notes on Conceptual Architecture:
Towards a Definition” (1971), “The Futility of Objects” (1984), and “The End of the
Classical, the End of the Beginning, the End of the End” (1984), have become seminal
texts within architectural theory.
Eisenman was the founder and director of the architectural think tank the Institute for
Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS; 1967–82). At the IAUS, Eisenman was also one
of the founders and editors of Oppositions , a seminal and influential journal of architectural
criticism. It was during this period as well that a 1969 CASE meeting and exhibition at
the Museum of Modern Art, New York, cited Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles
Gwathmey, John Hedjuk, and Richard Meier as “The New York Five.” The Five, also
known as “the Whites” (because of their penchant for using pure white forms) shared an
interest in formal abstraction.
Studying under Colin Rowe at Cambridge University, Eisenman wrote a
doctoral dissertation (“The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture,” 1963)
that reflects Rowe’s influence; it also reveals how early it was that
Eisenman expanded formal analysis beyond the purely compositional to
explore the structural possibility of architecture. He contributed to the
broadening of the discipline of architecture by turning to linguistics,
philosophy, and art theory; namely, Structuralism, Poststructuralism,
Deconstruc-tivism, and other approaches including the writings of French
philosophers Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari.Between 1967 and 1980, Eisenman designed a series of houses that focused on revealing
the process of performing architectural abstraction. These houses, numbered rather than
named and documented with scientifically precise serial axonometrics, represented
research into the generation, transformation, and decomposition of architectural form.
The first four houses—House I (1967–68) in Princeton, New Jersey; House II (1969–70)
in Hardwick, Vermont; House III (1969–71) in Lakeville, Connecticut; and House IV
(1971, unbuilt)—examined within architecture what Noam Chomsky called “deep
structure”: a self-referential language devoid of semantic content. Beginning with House
VI (1975) in Cornwall, Connecticut, Eisenman moved away from the compositional,
transformative formalism of the early houses in favor of what he called a
“decompositional” approach, a strategy that focused more on relations and process than
on the formal qualities of the final object.
On founding his practice in 1980, Eisenman turned from the domestic to the urban
scale. The interest in the structure of the grid that had marked his houses was translated
into a horizontal-generating device in the Cannaregio Town Square housing competition
entry (1978) in Venice and the acclaimed Berlin Housing project (1982–86) in Berlin.
Eisenman’s first significant public building in the United States was the Wexner Center
for the Visual Arts (1983–89) at Ohio State University, which was the first project to
actively engage the ground plane. The Wexner can be understood as a constructed fiction:
a fragmented and reordered reconstruction of an armory tells one version of the story,
whereas another version is revealed by the gridded spine, which registers the discrepancy
between the campus and urban grids. The University Art Museum (1986, unbuilt) for
Long Beach, California, and the Choral Works/Parc de la Villette project (1986) in Paris,
designed with French philosopher Jacques Derrida, all illustrate an archaeological
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approach by which historic or existing forms were taken from a site and then scaled
according to a fictive scenario.
If the transition from the houses to the artificial excavation projects can be understood
as a move from object to site, Eisenman’s subsequent career shift represented a turn from
Cartesian geometries to supple geometries. This transition, facilitated by computer-aided
design, was initiated with a series of projects that engaged the Deleuzian concept of
folding. In these works, most notably the Rebstock Park Master Plan (1991) in Frankfurt,
Germany, attention is still paid to the site, but the design solution is one of folding the
ground plane rather than extruding it. Here, the architecture and the site fold into each
other, creating a continuous sequence across the site, which throws into question
distinctions between horizontal and vertical. This manipulation of the existing site grew
even more complex with subsequent projects, such as the Arnoff Center for Design and
Art (1988–96) at the University of Cincinnati, which employed a dynamic, nonlinear
mathematical operation to produce a sinuous, torqued curve that, when juxtaposed with
the repeated Cartesian geometry of the existing building, creates what theorist Sanford
Kwinter has referred to as a “Piranesi-effect of unforeseeable complexity” (p. 13).
Recent projects, most notably the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences (1997–
present) in New York City and the Galicia City of Culture (2000–present) in Santiago de
Compostela, Spain, continue this Piranesian propensity. Derived from complex computer
technologies, the generated geometries are fluid and smooth, creating extremely graceful,
innovative forms. Although the computer has been instrumental in aiding Eisenman’s
generation of complex forms, it is even more significant for its role in shifting his
intellectual focus. If the early houses sought the critical within the performance of the
process, this highly complex current work cites the critical within possibilities of
performance; that is, within any aspect of the work, any possibility inherent to the work.
As he describes the Galicia City of Culture design, “[It] produces a new kind of center,
one in which the coding of Santiago’s medieval past appears not as a form of
representational nostalgia but as an active present found in a tactile, pulsating new
form—a fluid shell.”
Eisenman’s work continues to challenge the limits of architectural form and the
boundaries of architecture, landscape, and urbanism; meanwhile, Eisenman the
impresario continues to further the intellectual project of architecture through his
writings, lectures, and provocations.

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