On Dancing and Rowing: Reprise on Peter Eisenman

11.05.2015

By CHARLOTTE ALGIE (M. Arch ’16)

I studied my undergraduate degree in Melbourne, Australia under the supervision of one distinguished alumnus of Yale School of Architecture, very little known outside our remote Island colony, who works and teaches the life lived through architecture, framed by experiences of his training in New Haven. He said architecture is like rowing or dancing. Good training is not particularly intended to be sensorial, satiating, appealing. The training leads us to strength, and the aim is toward something like a muscle memory of the dancer, where a lifetime of repetitive acts breaks through the physical constraints of the human’s own mental or corporeal physique, to generate a greater thing – the coherent art of when everything comes together with music and choreography of the piece.

Having read Misha Semenov’s review of the Chicago Biennale which, in a wonderfully surrealistic paring, uses our own YSOA Professor Peter Eisenman as the great antagonist for the delights found at the exhibition, I thought it potentially opportune to describe the existence of a different experience. While Chicago proves to Semenov that the challenge clearly encountered by him in Peter’s class can ultimately be dismissed, as he doubtless would have liked, Semenov cannot yet see that this challenge is the precise point.

In Australia, Peter’s practice erupted onto a largely Anglo-Saxon community as the post-war condition challenged the national identity. Greeting an influx of traumatized post-War refugees from across the world, Australians faced a new augmentation and amalgam of the once mainly British language, culture, lifestyle, manners. Our community of people, who had only just given up their British passports in favor of Australian ones, newly realized the absurdity of eating roast beef and potatoes for dinner in the 35 Celcius (95 degree Fahrenheit) heat. The question of what type of architecture they should make became fraught and problematic, a source of great doubt. Our primary source of authority – once British Architecture journals – was now undermined, and incapable of expressing the new sense of place and new questions of local as it became separated from colonial. The baby-boomer generation of architects thus found a deeply propelling self-empowerment in the absolutely radical re-reading proposed by Eisenman’s ideas of deconstruction. The idea of ‘the copy as a new original’ empowered its own miniature renaissance in Australian architectural culture, where formerly modernist ideologies and forms had been unthinkingly preached and replicated despite having only ever been seen through magazines. Maybe an architecture which is about challenging the very notion of knowledge itself, was never likely to resonate through college town USA, and its products like Semenov.

The term social is frequently used, by Semenov, to contrast the objective of the Biennale with so labelled Eisenmanian approaches. The Melbourne experience clearly refutes this. A so-called Eisenman era in Australia coincides with broad awaking from a latent status-quo of imposed authorities of knowledge. Without doubt, the late 20th Century period of architectural thinking, set out and debated by figures including Eisenman, empowered newly liberated colonial (architectural) cultures in critical doubt globally, providing guidance to their search for re-structure long before Facebook united the Middle East. On the other hand, many social/ environmental claims are not what they seem. Semenov seems to favor a definition of social which he wants imposed on both Peter and a globe, other worlds like Australia and further afield– possibly to Africa for instance, where I travelled this summer on a KPF Travelling Fellowship. Through Central Africa, an imposed social world defined by aesthetics and phenomena is rife with problems. Social outsiders are held as thrill-seeking and self-serving, another brand of foreign NGO zeal. The latter could describe Joseph Grima himself, who has a track record of arguing the social brand indiscriminately and internationally, as curator and editor, a Biennale expert flitting between global metropolises, previously the Biennale Interieur Belgium and Istanbul Biennale. Subsequent to those curatorial positions also, Grima was editor of prominent Italian publication Domus, from 2010 until 2013. In this capacity, he frequently articulated an idea of social in exclusion to, or distinction from, traditional architectural endeavors. The latter point, that is – the separation of any social claim from the purpose and authority of architectural form would be a point that, in all likelihood Peter Eisenman, and certainly myself as a Melbournian trained in a modern day colonial world imbued with his thinking, would refute vigorously.

Today Peter Eisenman’s IBA social housing project of 1981-85 is a happily occupied dwelling block teeming with small families securely sustained in respectful and engaging private existences. A contemporary walk past the project sees Turkish children playing soccer, sheltered in the small nooks of the ‘Eisenmanian’ deconstructed cubes, functional in their social role as small safe and supervised spaces. Mothers with prams can enter safely into the glass gridded mezzanine and up the lifts to their homes. A supermarket is on the neighboring corner. The cold continental wind is broken down by the distorted grid extruded in moments of soffit and shelter. Whether this is a social place, or not, is left by Eisenman for you to decide, indeterminate as always.

Finally, my own inclination would have been to resist any kind of generosity to Semenov, in explaining, as I have done, the qualities and merits of other global experiences. This resistance would never have been shared by Peter Eisenman’s own pedagogy. Moreover, the strange and undisciplined juxtapositions in Seminov’s piece would, in all likelihood, be the right kind of mix to start with for Peter. But it remains the case, that both Chicago and Peter, the former a flash in the pan event and the latter a lifetime of practice and pedagogy, are only obliquely related at all. Myself, I will always think of architecture like rowing and dancing, as I was taught in Melbourne, Australia, where architecture is only equivalent to all those early mornings on the river, counting strokes and moving up and down.