The editors of Paprika: Masks sat down with Peter Eisenman, Architect, Theorist, and Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at Yale University School of Architecture.
Paprika: Where did the idea of deep reading in your work originate?
Peter Eisenman: When I came back to the United States in 1963 and was at Princeton, there was a series of little blue books published by a Dutch publisher on philosophy and linguistics. One of the books was called Syntactic Structures by a Noam Chomsky. I began to calibrate my theoretical work differently from how I had originally conceived it. The basic idea was, how does one produce an architecture outside of oneself? Controlled by oneself but outside oneself. How does one produce a grammar, a syntax? What we are doing in the studio today is working, in a sense, on a grammar that denies the iconic, the symbolic, the semantic and the phonological and says, on the socio-political side, the problem with architecture is that it always serves power. It serves power by communicating images, messages, et cetera, from the first churches when they were painting the scripture on the walls because people couldn’t read Latin, to Fascism in Italy, to Nazism in Germany, to Communism in Russia. All of these regimes used architecture as a way of sedating the masses. The more easily accessible the message, the more subservient the people. This can be called a form of activism. In other words you can have the activism of social thinkers, such as [Alejandro] Aravena at the Biennale this year, or there is another form of activism which counters the underlying power of architecture to have a submissiveness. Since your generation is against authority and power, I would have thought it would be an interesting idea to think about how architecture in fact can be dammed up, that is, stopped from delivering these messages. In 1964 I hadn’t connected it to activism or to power, I just knew there was some way I wanted to make it more difficult, in other words, the easier the communication, the more subservient the people. The more difficult the communication, the more problematic for the people. I wanted an architecture
that could not be easily absorbed. Jeff Kipnis in a recent essay summed up this activism as “by other means.”
Call it a deep structure, call it the need for close reading, there are any number of paths that I’ve taken through the thirty or forty years, but I became disappointed in the too easy analogy of deep structure and began reading people like Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and others in the mid-sixties. Derrida says that there is no one-to-one relationship between a sign (that is, an architectural sign) and a meaning—that there are free floating signifiers. The whole idea was to problematize the relationship between the subject and the object, that is, to make it a less powerful connection. The work that I’ve been doing: teaching, building, writing, has always in some way involved this kind of idea. I believe all of us are taught to make powerful architecture. That is what one could say results from a bourgeois mentality. I suffer from that, in that, I want my architecture to be beautiful, but I’m fighting against this impulse that stems from my education. So Peter Eisenman and his students fight against their own natural instincts to try and produce an architecture against power.
P: Do you get the sense that when people come to you with a project, they have an understanding of that problematization?
PE: [leaning in] That’s why they don’t come. I think that people can tell the difference between Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry. He has many clients, I have few clients, because I am an outlier.
I don’t necessarily broadcast this as my work, but clients feel it. We are not into making subservient clients. We want them to aspire to understand even though they may not have the tools to do that. That’s what I would like to think that I teach here, that is, for students to aspire to reach the possibility of their potential excellence. What that means to every individual is something different.
P: So many of your projects are situated in incredibly charged political territories, or they have a significant architectural past. This is a far cry from your early houses, which were meant to be site-less. What brought about that evolution?
PE: Site-less meant they were not concerned with the ground as datum, that is, they were trying to deny what is the normal condition of any building and any human being where there is a datum between the building and any individual walking on the ground, whether it’s a plinth, whether it’s a hole, whether it’s stairs, there is a ground relationship. The houses were an attempt to erode that grounded architecture. It got to a point where in House X, I became too much in the head and the client, who had dug a hole for a foundation said, “You are not interested in filling this hole, you are just interested in filling up ideas. I’m firing you.” So I lost House X. That was a big blow.
P: Was the client correct about that?
PE: I went to psychoanalysis for twenty years. In psychoanalysis I learned that I was a head person. I had dreams about looking into the sun like Daedalus and Icarus. Manfredo Tafuri wrote an article called “The Meditations of Icarus,” which said that my wings burned because I flew too close to the sun. My analyst said you need to be related to the ground, and that’s when I started to do ground projects. Cannaregio, which was the first Urban project I did, are holes in the ground. Berlin—in the ground. The Holocaust Memorial—in the ground. I became more interested in the ground as a datum, as an idea to overcome my natural psychological tendencies to be ungrounded. I have tried to do that in teaching. So, through a process of analysis, I was able to come to terms with some of these psychological problems that I had and became much more able to deal with reality. I used to live in a fantasy world of ideas. Now, having a family, having children, having grandchildren, I live in a more real world.
P: You’ve said how your work is a sort of damming up of its connection to reality and an attempt to make that connection problematic. I wonder then, to the person you would speak to in the bar—when they come across a project that is intentionally problematic…
PE: No, they wouldn’t know.
P: Is it possible that they would be more desensitized to architecture because of it’s being problematic?
PE: Let me put it this way: I’m reading Ulysses. Can I understand Ulysses? No. [laughter] Have you ever read Ulysses? Try it. Do you think Joyce gave a damn whether I could understand what he was writing about? No. Joyce didn’t give a damn who read or understood what. He did his writing. A surgeon doesn’t give a damn if you understand what he’s doing or whether or not you trust him. I go to the opera and I think, “What the hell is going on?” Should they play down to me? No! They should play up! It’s the same with architecture. We cannot dumb-down the world. The world is a difficult world and we will always be in a situation of difficulty. What we don’t want to do is desensitize people by dumbing them down because architecture overpowers them. I don’t think intellectual things overpower people in the same way that aesthetic things do. I believe aesthetics is one of the most powerful, drug inducing conditions that there can be. I think aesthetics is a narcotic. That’s why I don’t teach aesthetics. I teach the expression of ideas. I have to answer you by saying there are two ways to look at how distanced people become. As long as they’re being overcome by aesthetics, they’re not going to like what I’m doing anyway. That’s the danger in the politics of today in this country, it’s the danger that the people are being overcome by easy ideas. I think architects, writers, poets, everybody has to try to overcome the desensitizing condition of the aesthetic.
P: Interestingly, this is very much how Keller [Easterling] describes the way architects need to operate in the world. The typical
operation is in subservience to the aesthetic, where we become tools of power or aesthetics. That’s what we’re taught. You both propose something different. First, to get in the door—which is something that is very difficult—and once you’re there, to work against power. The architect must masquerade.
PE: Look, you cannot tell a client, “Well I’m not interested in your message.” But you can say, “I am going to do my moral best to serve you,” which I believe is my position as a teacher, a human being, a father, and a husband. It’s a moral position. That’s the way I live my life. So, whether I’m telling a white lie, I believe it’s in the overall sense of the morality of what I believe.
P: I would like to discuss the Berlin project. You pushed to keep information away from the public while they were experiencing it.
PE: That was a bit of a mistake. They did put an information center underneath. They wanted a big information center on the ground and I didn’t want it. The whole idea was no inscriptions,
no markings… you can interpret it how you want.
P: Is that because it just denies reading through lack of information, as opposed to complicating it or damming it up?
PE: Well it certainly denies more than complicates. It’s one of the ways I work. What you see is not what it is. Walking in it is not going to help you understand what it is. What it is is two topological surfaces that don’t intersect and don’t have any relationship to one another. They’re just arbitrary surfaces, one on the ground, one ten meters in the air. The pillars connect the points from one surface to the next. People can say whatever they want, but it has nothing to do with what they think. This young rabbi came up to me on the day of the opening, and said, “Mr. Eisenman, what is the magic in the number of the stones.” I said, “There’s no magic in the number of stones.” He said, “How many stones are there?” I said, “There are 2711.” He said, “Do you realize that the modern Jewish Talmud is 2711 pages?” So, it happens.
P: You talked a little bit about how architecture today is ruled by the aesthetic. Is the role of the architect, or at least the outlying architect, to dam up the aesthetic?
PE: I think you do that if it’s not meaningful and not symbolic, and then it’s empty. So damming up meaning, symbolism, iconography, makes the aesthetic empty. We’re trying to denature power, we’re trying to take the alcohol out of the liquid. We’re trying to make architecture not a powerful tool of centralized governments or institutions. Whether it’s Yale, corporations, the President of the United States, or Mussolini, I’m trying to remove the possibility of architecture as an opiate to the people.
P: What do you make of the fact that your career is bouncing from institution of power to institution of power?
PE: [laughter] Look, we have to struggle against those things in order to produce something beyond that, because that instinct for power is not what produces great architecture, or great poetry. It’s the denial of that force, that energy, that allows us to go beyond that. That’s what I try to teach.