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Interview: Peter Eisenman

Peter Eisenman talks to Iman Ansari about how the true architecture of his work resides in his drawing of it, and why − despite this − he still feels the imperative to build, in order to be taken seriously

Peter Eisenman is one of the most significant architects and theorists practising today, notable for his involvement with Derrida’s Deconstructivist project and his pioneering use of computer-aided design. His major buildings include the Wexner Center in Ohio (1989), the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (2005), and his unfinished City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela (begun 1999). His interviewer, Iman Ansari, is a practising architect, urban designer, and a lecturer in architectural theory at City University of New York.

Iman Ansari: In your career you have sought a space for architecture outside the traditional and conventional realm. You have continually argued that modern architecture was never fully modern as it failed to produce a cognitive reflection about the nature of architecture in a fundamental way. From your early houses, we see a search for a system of architectural meaning and an attempt to establish a linguistic model for architecture: the idea that buildings are not simply physical objects, but artefacts with meaning, or signs dispersed across some larger social text. But these houses were also part of a larger project that was about the nature of drawing and representation in architecture. You described them as ‘cardboard architecture’ which neglects the architectural material, scale, function, site, and all semantic associations in favour of architecture as ‘syntax’: conception of form as an index, a signal or a notation. So to me, it seems like between the object and the idea of the object, your approach favours the latter. The physical house is merely a medium through which the conception of the virtual or conceptual house becomes possible. In that sense, the real building exists only in your drawings.

Peter Eisenman: The ‘real architecture’ only exists in the drawings. The ‘real building’ exists outside the drawings. The difference here is that ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ are not the same.

House II axonometric

An axonometric drawing of Eisenman’s House II, (1975)

IA: So with that in mind, did you ever wish none of your houses was actually built?

PE: No. Let me go back because you raised a lot of questions. If there is a debate in architecture today, the lasting debate is between architecture as a conceptual, cultural and intellectual enterprise, and architecture as a phenomenological enterprise − that is, the experience of the subject in architecture, the experience of materiality, of light, of colour, of space and so on. I have always been on the side opposed to phenomenology. I’m not interested in Peter Zumthor’s work or people who spend their time worrying about the details or the grain of wood on one side or the colour of the material on the surface, and so on. I couldn’t care less.

Having said that, it is still necessary to build. But the whole notion of ‘cardboard architecture’ meant that the materiality of the work was important as an ‘antimaterial’ statement. Probably the most important work I did in the conceptualist realm was the cardboard architecture houses. Pictures of House II, for instance, were taken without sunlight so you have no shadows, and no reveals or things like that. And in fact one of the pictures we took of House II was in a French magazine that said it was a ‘model of House II’.

So I achieved what I wanted to achieve, which was to lessen the difference between the built form and the model. I was always trying to say ‘built model’ as the conceptual reality of architecture. So when you see these houses and you visit them you realise that they were very didactic and very important exercises − each one had a different thematic − but they were concerned not with meaning in the social sense of the word or the cultural sense, but in the ‘architectural meaning’. What meaning they had and what role they played in the critical culture of architecture as it evolved over time. So while the work was interested in syntax and grammar, it was interested to see what the analogical relationships were between language and architecture. And of course that’s when I got into working with Jacques Derrida.

House II Photograph

A photograph of House II was mistaken for a model by a French magazine, a confusion that greatly pleased the architect

IA: What influence did Derrida have on your work?

PE: Jacques was important in the later stage of my work because he said that it was possible in language to separate the sign and the signified − that is, the thing and its sign. What has made architecture interesting for Post-Structuralist philosophy is that architecture is about the relationship of the sign to the signified, that the column, for instance, is the sign of the column and the column itself; or the wall is the sign of the wall and the wall itself. In Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai, there is both a grid system and a wall-bearing system, which says there is a redundancy or duplication of structural systems. This is also the case in my House II where there is a redundant structural system too. I would say my projects are ‘Modernist’ not only in a Modernist style but also philosophically and critically, in the sense of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and others. So when I built House II with a wall system that could support the house and a column system that could support the house, there is a sense of redundancy with the two systems. When you have this redundancy, the walls are either structural or signs. Is it possible, as in language, to separate out the sign and the wall to have what could be called ‘free floating signifiers’?

This is where the world starts to become more complex in my work, and more problematic in terms of meaning. And then you get away from the house, because the house is too small to sustain an investigation at a different scale, which gets you to the architectural subject, which gets you to levels of sophistication of representation and lots of things happen.

Now going back to the houses and to conclude that question. First, I never thought that I would want to build anything but houses because I thought that the house gave sufficient room to experiment with non-functionalities since there is no one type of functional organisation for a house but there are architectural organisations. But that later proved to be problematic. The second thing was that I didn’t believe that it was necessary to ever visit my houses. In other words, there were houses that for the first six months or year they were open I didn’t even go to see them because I thought that wasn’t the important thing; the important thing was laid out in the drawing.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture, where part of my archive is, for example, has 2,000 drawings that I made for House II. I would draw and draw and draw because I never knew what I was looking for. I knew the general parameters of what I was looking for, but I had no formula for setting up how to achieve it. Each house had an idea structure behind it. They all had a different investigation and started to get into bigger and bigger ideas and include more and more things that the earlier houses dogmatically left out. So essentially, that was a very important period of my work that stretched from 1967 to 1978 with Cannaregio. In Cannaregio something else happened.

House II Sketch

One of the 2,000 sketches that Eisenman produced for House II, which make up part of the Canadian Centre for Architecture archive.The project plays a double game of signification and structure by including both columnar and wall systems of support, either of which could be superfluous or necessary

IA: Can we pause here for a second before talking about Cannaregio. So do you think because these houses existed cognitively they lost their true meaning the moment they were physically realised − the moment the ‘real architecture’ turned into the ‘real building’?

PE: Manfredo Tafuri once said something very important to me. He said, ‘Peter, if you don’t build no one will take your ideas seriously. You have to build because ideas that are not built are simply ideas that are not built.’ Architecture involves seeing whether those ideas can withstand the attack of building, of people, of time, of function, etc. Tafuri said history will not be interested in your work if you haven’t built anything. I think that’s absolutely correct. If I had built nothing, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.


Peter Eisenman’s unrealised Cannaregio project excavated Venice’s non-existent past by making voids in the city following the contours of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital (click to see larger image)

IA: So what would the building mean in that context. Do you perhaps believe that the built house or the ‘real building’ stands as what you called the ‘built-model’ of the ‘real architecture’ that exists only conceptually?

PE: Sometimes it does and sometimes it’s beyond, and sometimes it’s less. When you go to Cincinnati to see the Aronoff Center, the spatial experience is extraordinary. The didactic drawing itself is another thing. But they are two different things. I had to build Cincinnati, I had to build Wexner, I had to build Santiago, which is my latest project. You have to go and see it because you cannot draw it. You cannot cognitively understand what is going on. One has to see it and experience it in a way that is very different conceptually in terms of what I was after in the first place.

There are three phases in the work. One is the purely conceptual artefacts, which, as you suggested, may not necessarily have had to have been built. Two, are the ground projects, which are at a different scale and many of them had to be built. And finally you have Santiago, which is a hybrid project because it is neither a ground nor a figure.

Santiago de Compostela Museum

Commencing in 1999 and still unopened to the public, Eisenman’s rupturing City of Culture outside Santiago de Compostela has been plagued with delays, a project that he found he was ‘unable to draw’

IA: Let’s talk about Cannaregio. Your early work was concerned almost exclusively with isolating and elaborating the architectural elements and operations that would ensure the autonomy and self-reflexivity of the architectural object. But in the Cannaregio project, we witness a new order that initiated the Cities of Artificial Excavation, and characterises your work after that: the movement from structure to site or text, or better, from structuralisation of the object, to the textualisation of the site.

PE: Or you could say from the linguistic operations to textual operations − because texts are quite correct about the site but they are no longer syntactic and grammatical; they are other. And if you say the early houses are analogically grammatical exercises to linguistic exercises, these are no longer analogical to language. I have lost the faith that language could be somehow an analogous model for architecture. I thought I had to find what I was doing within architecture rather than without architecture. So the reading that I’m doing, the work that I’m doing, has much more to do with the text of architecture. And that didn’t happen accidentally.

The first architectural Biennale was Europa-America. Even though Paolo Portoghesi would like to think the Strada Novissima in 1980 was the first, Vittorio Gregotti’s Europa-America in 1976 was. I had met Vittorio some years earlier at a conference in Spain, and he had appointed me as the head of the American section of the first architectural Biennale in Italy, which included Raimund Abraham, Emilio Ambasz, César Pelli, and a great montage of American architects.

At the same time I was supposed to be finishing the working drawings for House X. The client had dug a hole waiting for September to begin the project. I spent the whole summer in Italy and I didn’t pay attention to the working drawings. I came back and the working drawings were not done, and the client was furious; he fired me and refused to pay my bills.

Cannaregio Grid

The Cannaregio project - an excavation of architecture’s repressed subconscious - was partly a response to Eisenman’s own experience of psychoanalysis

IA: What effect did that have on you?

PE: I was depressed. I realised that my intellectual, or cultural, side, and my entrepreneurial side had got way out of whack with where I needed to be. So I went into psychoanalysis, and in analysis I began to learn about the difference between living in your head and living in your body, with the reality of the earth, the ground.

When Tafuri wrote ‘The Meditations of Icarus’ in Houses of Cards, he meant that Peter Eisenman was Icarus, and to be Icarus meant that you wanted to fly and to look into the sun, as Icarus did. And to look into the sun meant that you were totally out of touch with the reality of the earth and the ground. Icarus, of course, gets too close to the sun, his wings of wax melt and he falls to earth. Icarus was the son of Daedalus, who made a labyrinth that was guarded by the Minotaur. It was an interesting mythology, which had to do with the ground, digging into the ground and making marks on the ground.

Through my psychoanalysis sessions I realised that what was wrong with my architecture was that it wasn’t from the ground, from inside the unconscious, beneath the surface. So the first evidence of this occurs in Cannaregio where for the first time I do a project that is totally in the ground. And it’s not only in the ground, it’s also urban. But it’s also not real. It’s conceptual; and uses Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital project as an initial context. This is in 1978.

In 1980 I’m invited to Berlin to do the Checkpoint Charlie project, which includes the garden of walls. You can’t walk on the ground of Berlin even though it is a project inscribed in the ground. And then I do the Wexner Center. A number of these projects fall within the concept of artificial excavations. The ground afforded me a critical dialogue with the then current (1978-80) theory of Figure-Ground Architecture: the black and white drawings of Colin Rowe and the Contextualists, work done for Roma Interotta using the Nolli map of Rome.

What I was doing was the reverse. I was attacking the historicising obviousness of ‘figure-ground’ and trying to make what I call a ‘figure-figure urbanism’. And that of course had to do with my interest in Piranesi, and Piranesi’s Campo Marzio − actually we did an exhibition at the Venice Biennale last year on the Campo Marzio. So all of these things come together. It’s not all gratuitous or superficial, in a certain way it’s a kind of life work for me. My own psychological work and my own thinking, my teaching, is of a piece. I cannot say that the first period was better or the second period was better; they were different and I was at a different stage in my life. And they all have relevance; they are both in text and in built form. I have both built and written in all three phases of my work. So that’s basically how I get to Cannaregio.

IBA Diagram Sequence

IBA Plan Drawing

Eisenman’s Checkpoint Charlie project for the Berlin IBA represented another approach to urbanism, history and absence - this time by reviving the grids of 1760 and 1830

IA: I want to ask you about the use of Le Corbusier’s hospital in Cannaregio. Here you are suddenly confronted with the idea of a site − a real site, and in fact a very rich one: Venice. Yet, interestingly we see that even then, your approach was to invent a site, in fact an ‘artificial’ one. And what interests me the most is how you used Le Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital in Venice as point of departure, and used the grid of the hospital as a generative system in your project.

And finally when you draw the project you include the hospital with your project with no notational difference. How do you read Le Corbusier’s hospital in your drawings? Were you suggesting that the hospital is part of your proposal and meant to be built along with your project? Or were you implying that your project should also remain unbuilt as Le Corbusier’s hospital did? Or was it neither or both? A meaningless clue?

PE: First of all, it’s not a meaningless clue. But I was suggesting neither. You are reading them in an interesting way, but I didn’t think about that. Here is what I was thinking about: I needed something in the site, in the context of the Derridean notion of absence and presence. To me the discourse of absence is very important in the ground projects and in the idea of the trace. Freud talks about how Rome was built on a series of traces of levels; that going into the unconscious is digging into the traces of history that have been sedimented; your own history, cultural history that you have to get at. And so Corbu offered one layer of that cultural history. In other words, you’ll see in Berlin I did the same thing with the grid of 1760, the grid of 1830, and superposition of traces, which is how Rome evolved, how Berlin evolved, how cities evolve. I have always been interested in the evolutionary process of the physical traces left by the previous building. It didn’t matter if it was built or not built, and it didn’t matter whether I was going to build my project or not. What mattered was the idea of using the trace as a key, as a beginning to project something, to make a project. To me Cannaregio was the turning point in my work. It is that hinge that Derrida talks about, the hinge between the before and after. So it becomes an important project. It was necessary to find a way to make a project − because there was no programme.

And if you notice, all the projects were different. Venice was losing population; it didn’t need housing, it had an adequate housing stock; so I said, let’s make holes, and that’s what I did. But also, is the ground the holes or is the ground the stuff around the holes? And is the figure the ground? And the kinds of questions that these pose. And of course the question of scale came in, because I used my House IIa here at three different scales: a real scale or the house scale, and model of the house scale, and then the house becoming the model of a larger project. So the question of scale came in which had never been in my work, the question of ground came in, the question of trace came in, and many of the issues that would subsequently articulate my work are manifest in Cannaregio. But looking back, can I say I was conscious of all these things I’m telling you? I don’t think so. No matter how conscious the work seems, a lot of it was swimming under cloudy water trying to find the edge of the pool where I could get out. It wasn’t so clear that I knew exactly what I was doing. I never have known what I was doing. In fact I teach the idea of project in my classes at Yale, and I still don’t know what my project is. I know I have a project; I know Le Corbusier had a project; I know Mies had a project. If you said look Peter, you talk a lot about the idea of a project, what is your project? I’m still trying to figure out what my project is.

Corbusier - Venice Hospital Project


Corbusier - Hospital Grid

The Cannaregio project was also inspired by Le Corbusier’s 1965 Venice Hospital project (top), designed to extend the road and canal networks of La Serenissima into the lagoon. (Above) the ghostly grid of Corb’s hospital is superimposed on Venice to plot out the project

IA: I think my understanding of Cannaregio and the use of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital as the point of departure is that the hospital becomes for you what Venice was for Le Corbusier: a site, but here it is one that is not actually there. And what that brings me to is the role of drawing. If the drawing is the site, then the drawing is there, but if Venice was the site, Le Corbusier’s hospital wouldn’t appear there. The Cannaregio project only makes sense as a drawing. So it seems to me that drawing in your work emerges as the fundamental medium analogous to writing in language. So with the advancement of our tools, do you think that drawing’s role (that direct cognitive relationship with the drawings and the physical act of drawing) is diminishing in contemporary architectural practice?

PE: I will tell you this: I cannot read a book on Kindle. I have to own a book, and I have to write in the book. When I read I take notes, I go back over it. You can see my books are full of notes in different pens and colours and times because when I read a book today that I may have read 10 years ago, I read it differently: because I’m different. I have to take notes over time in books, so I own books. That’s number one.

To me, drawing and reading are the same thing. I can’t read on the computer. So when someone draws something on it, I print it so I can draw over it either with tracing paper on it or without it. You cannot make a plan in the computer by connecting dots. You have to think about a diagram or what it is you are doing. You have to think in drawing. So to me, all of my work, even the last competition that we won in Turkey, is drawn by hand first, then we give it to computer guys and they model it and then we get it back, etc.

Drawing is a way of thinking. I can’t think or write ideas on a computer. I don’t type on a computer. I write and if you look at my desk, it’s full of paper. So to me drawing is a form of writing, and a form of reading what I write. I don’t see any difference. To me drawing is not making pretty things or making representations. It’s not representing anything; it is the incarnation of the thing. I’m not trying to represent something; I’m trying to make it real. And the only way it can be real is through my drawings. Architects and architecture students today have lost the essential capacity to think through drawing. They can only think through a computer. I watch people in this office sitting and looking at these things on their screen as they roll them around in space, and I think to myself: what the hell are they doing? It is nuts, it’s totally wacko. You know, what does a section look like? What does a plan look like? They don’t seem interested in that.

IA: In that sense drawing almost comes as an afterthought. Once you model the object or the ‘thing’ in 3D, then you can cut plans and sections of it.

PE: Exactly, but I start with the cuts. I build from the cuts.

Max Reinhardt Haus

The unrealised Max Reinhardt Haus was to be a 34-storey Möbius strip designed to memorialise the great impresario

IA: You have said before that if we as architects make two or three ‘canonical’ buildings in a lifetime − buildings or architecture that is on the edge, that’s already a lot. I want to ask you, which one of your projects do you think is the most canonic, in that it represents those critical moments in your work? Or which project do you wish to be remembered by?

PE: Well, I would say Cannaregio would certainly be the first but it’s not built, and you have to have a built project. Then it gets fuzzy. I can’t tell about Santiago because it’s not finished yet. Berlin is too off on the side. You might say my Cincinnati project. You could say the Reinhardt Haus, but again it’s not built; it’s a provocative project. My favourite unbuilt project was the Quai Branly museum in Paris. I think it’s a fantastic project and I really wanted to build that project.

But there are so many projects − over 150 projects, and I only built about 25 of them. But here is where I think your question is wrong. I believe that some of the texts are as important as the building projects. Because I’m not just a ‘building architect’, I’m also a ‘writing architect’ and a thinking architect and a teaching architect, so to me the writing is as significant in my work as the buildings because they are both the same.

Quai Branly Museum - Paris

Eisenman says his Quai Branly Museum in Paris is his favourite unbuilt project

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