Interview with Peter Eisenman: "I Am Not Convinced That I Have a Style"
10:00 - 11 April, 2016
Vladimir Belogolovsky: In the last several weeks, I have experienced two of your most representative projects to date: the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Both projects illustrate something you explained in our conversation back in 2003. You said: “Architecture requires the displacement of conventions; the history of any discipline is about displacing conventions… Architecture displaces in order to create what will be. Creation does not repeat what is.” Both projects displace conventions. In Santiago, your project emerges out of superimposition of traces, grids, and the city’s symbol, the scallop shell, while in Berlin, your memorial avoids using familiar iconography and idea of any representation. Is this an accurate reading of your work?
Peter Eisenman: Yes.
VB: Right after my return from Santiago, I told you that I read the complex not as an architectural project but as a text, a novel. In other words, the structures one finds there carry a particular meaning and even a narrative that one could read by exploring the project. To that you said, “That’s correct.”
PE: Yes, I agreed.
VB: And your question to me was, “Would you say this novel is closer to Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?” So this is something extraordinary. You go through architecture and you get entirely displaced from reality to the world of fiction. But unlike reading a novel you are displaced physically, spatially. I find this particular power of architecture to do so, absolutely incredible.
PE: Well, I am now reading about linguistic techniques of Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky called “baring the device.” The idea is that architecture is never about a meaning that is simply assigned to various parts to project a particular reading. The whole idea of my architecture is about stopping any communication and placing within architecture itself a device that causes you to react emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Without representation. My architecture means nothing. But the experience is something else. You walk through the Berlin memorial and it has nothing to do with what happened in the camps. It is about walking in that space and you get strange physical sensations such as undulation, tilting, leaning, and you feel perplexity, isolation, disorientation; you never know where you are. It is not about “…oh, I got the meaning, I understand.” It is about not understanding the meaning. There is no iconic representation in either Santiago or Berlin. The idea is to create a particular experience in the space by being in that space. Both of these projects have strong experiential qualities of intensely vibrating spaces and they are very different from my early work, which is more conceptual.
VB: You define architecture as language; you said that you are interested in language more than a story.
PE: By language, I mean text. Text to me is the manipulation of words to produce something other than a narrative. I want to stop any narrative.
VB: On the other hand, you also said, “I have lost the faith that language could be somehow an analogous model for architecture.” So do you still see language as your model for architecture?
VB: When did that shift take place?
PE: In the last decade. I became conscious of what I was doing.
VB: How did this change your architecture?
PE: Language is a conceptual analogy. Today I am looking for operational effects.
VB: In other words, you are now thinking a lot more about the people who will be experiencing your buildings?
PE: Not really.
VB: Yet, now you are interested in a more experiential architecture.
PE: You can argue that.
VB: Why is that? Were you influenced by what other architects are up to these days?
PE: Of course not! Let me tell you. When you get older and you are tired of what you have been doing, you need one last chance for thinking the project again. I would like to think that both Santiago and Berlin are the beginning of that rethinking. It has nothing to do with the people. Since I was never interested in people before, being interested in people now is a different condition of the work. I would like to call this my late style. For example, I am currently working on facades of buildings. I never worked with facades before. I was always working with plans. I am really interested in working with buildings’ surfaces. This is different from what I was doing before.
VB: Do you think it is important for architects to work with regional features and conditions as opposed to spreading global or individual ideas wherever they go? How do you deal with the fact that clients around the world want a Peter Eisenman signature project, not Peter Eisenman who would come to their city and blend with local characteristics?
PE: That’s correct. That’s the problem that Peter Eisenman has because I don’t have a single idea as some other architects. For example, Richard Meier does his buildings the same way no matter where he is doing them. My work therefore is contextual. I wouldn’t say it is vernacular, but it always begins with the context. So I couldn’t do the same building in Santiago, Berlin, or Phoenix, Arizona. Therefore, I don’t have a style. Buildings by Frank Gehry and Michael Graves all have the same look. Mine don’t have the same look.
VB: Wait a minute. Do you really believe that your buildings don’t share the same look? Wouldn’t you say you have a signature style?
PE: Do you really think so?
VB: Are you kidding me?
PE: Well, I am not sure.
PE: No, no, seriously! When I look at the work on my website, I think to myself, could someone recognize Peter Eisenman? I am not sure. I am not being disingenuous. I am not convinced that I have a style. Let’s put it this way – I have a style that’s not a style.
PE: Yes, I approach context the same way, always. OK? Not directly, but indirectly. So in that sense my work becomes a style.
VB: One of your goals in architecture is to displace certainty. Could you talk about why this is important?
PE: Being alive is being somewhere. To me the idea of architecture is to inhibit the routine nature of being, to introduce a new space and time to disrupt the routine of being.
VB: Let’s talk about details. You said many times that details are not important.
PE: That’s right, I am not interested in details.
VB: You said, “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 color of the material on the surface, etc. I couldn’t care less.” If you deny the idea of beauty in architecture what is the goal then?
PE: I am not interested in beauty. So?
VB: What is wrong about architecture that’s crafted well?
PE: Because it misses the point.
VB: You think so?
PE: Beauty does not disrupt anything. If you see something beautiful, you don’t pay enough attention to it. Beauty, because of its very nature does not demand close attention.
VB: I was just at the Fondazione Prada by Rem Koolhaas in Milan. I was looking for a concept or a narrative, but what I found were stunningly beautiful details. Gorgeous details everywhere. To me that was disruptive, although much less than Santiago.
PE: I was there too. I found the project to be ordinary. It didn’t seem exotic; it didn’t say Prada to me.
VB: It may appear that way from a distance. But come close and the details are quite inventive and beautiful, although very understated.
PE: Yes, but I don’t come close. I don’t know details. Close reading does not mean to come close. What I am saying is that I found it boring. Look, Rem is a very good architect, but he is interesting when his concepts are interesting. Many of his projects are terrific, but Prada is not a strong idea.
VB: Well, his work is not consistent because in every project he seems to want to say something new.
PE: But not being consistent is a dialectical style. By the way, I wouldn’t say that he is always not consistent.
VB: Well, obviously, when you run out of ideas you repeat yourself.
PE: I think he is lost to the machinery of success. He is too big and he doesn’t have the control he used to have on his projects. And his Biennale was like a tradeshow, catalog, internet shopping… The Biennale was not about ideas and how these elements go together.
VB: Architecture is not about taking things apart.
PE: No, it should not be about its parts, but the syntax. Architecture is about putting things together. To me it was boring and I am not interested in boring architecture. I am interested in projects that may seem boring at first but when you go there, they prove you wrong.
VB: Like your Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
PE: Thank you. All the stones seem the same but not really. That’s important.
VB: Would you say that what you are pursuing in architecture today is out of sync with what many other experimental architects are doing; does this worry you at all?
PE: I am what is called an outlier. Yes, nothing that I am doing relates to parametricism or sustainability or other tricks that architects are doing. It may worry me. But on the other hand, there is nothing I can do about that. I do what I do. I teach what I teach. Architecture lost its authority.
VB: You mean there is no longer common ground.
PE: No, and therefore the students don’t know what to do.
VB: Do you think it is OK?
PE: No, I don’t think it is OK. I think it is terrible. Look, when I first started teaching, we taught Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Stirling, Rossi, Venturi, etc; we had all their books on the desks. Now there is nothing. Students don’t have these books on their desks. They don’t have authoritative models.
VB: Do you think this may change in the future?
PE: Yes, for sure, it will go back. Look, we need to teach grammar, not a style but grammar. We need to teach classical architecture. I teach classical architecture, but I don’t teach what is happening today. I believe students need to understand what Alberti did, what Palladio did, Brunelleschi, Bramante, etc.
VB: Are we in a period of uncertainty?
PE: Yes, for sure. And it’s been for a long time now. Look at our leading architects today. Is anyone an authority as Venturi once was? Venturi is no longer an authority. Gehry, Bjarke Ingels... They are no authorities.
VB: They are stars.
PE: They are stars. The writer David Foster Wallace said, “Art must be different from entertainment.” Stars entertain; they don’t make art.
VB: Years ago, I asked you to summarize what is architecture for you. I want to compare my notes.
PE: It is a possibility of making a difference in the experience of being in space and time. And not through gadgets, tricks or gimmicks, but through a deep understanding of the relationship of subject to object. This is what architecture does; it makes us more fully aware of being in the world both mentally and physically. We, architects do it in space and time, and this is what any art form tries to do – literature, film, painting, sculpture, poetry, music – it is about trying to make more conscious, more fully aware of being in time and space, and in the world.
VB: Before you also said, “Architecture manifests how the society at any one time feels about itself.”
PE: Yes, but I no longer care about how the society feels about itself. People change. I changed.
Diagrammatic Analysis: The Space of Time, Part I—Lateness
Peter Eisenman, Elisa Iturbe
Spring 2017 Yale
The received history of architecture is marked by ruptures, when architecture fundamentally changes in response to—or in the service of—new cultural paradigms, such as classical high styles, or mannerist manipulations of these styles. For example, the distilled clarity of high modernism, which was the high style of the twentieth century, gave way to a formalism devoid of a social ideology, tending toward the eccentric forms of the latter half of the twentieth century. History often overlooks, however, those moments in which there is neither a recognizable avant-garde, nor a reigning high style and its mannerist re-capitulation. It is possible that the model of linear, historical evolution can be problematized by other temporal models. Following on the observations of Edward Said and Theodor Adorno, one such temporal model might be described as “lateness.”
There seem to be two ways to think about lateness. First, as a late style that emerges towards the end of an artists’ career. This attributes lateness to a biographical subjectivity, a certain confidence that allows an artist to prioritize expression over convention. This stance is challenged by Adorno, who provides a second reading of lateness through his analysis of Beethoven’s late works. For Adorno lateness is “incapable of being subsumed under the concept of expression.” Beethoven’s late works move away from the capricious use of anomaly and towards a use of convention that fractures conventional motifs such that the fragments do not become mere aberrations, but rather crystallized representations of convention scattered throughout the work. Convention is not transformed, it remains in the work, albeit splintered and displaced. If subjectivity emerges, it is in a contentious relation with convention, such that from that tension, emerges the formal law by which late works are constituted. The outcome is work that sustains tension, that binds together what strives to break apart while stubbornly resisting resolution. As Said writes, lateness “is in, but oddly apart from the present.” It is work outside of time.
Lateness, as opposed to late style, is a mode of temporal resistance that has an internal structural dimension with disciplinary implications. A late work can appear at any historical moment, but it is at those moments during which a dominant paradigm begins to lose its structural tenability that lateness emerges not as an aberrant artistic style, but as a capacity to register the unspoken contradictions within that paradigm. As such, lateness does not consist of negation, or of a rejection of the present. Late works are recalcitrant, “they show more traces of history than of growth,” writes Adorno. Yet they become the seeds of the new.
Today, the present of architecture seems anything but linear. A search for lateness is a resistance to the linear evolution of art, and may hold not only the seeds of a new architecture, but the unfolding of an emerging temporality. Most discourses around the modern deal with space. This course, however, would like to deal with a temporal phenomenon. Following Adorno’s study of Beethoven, students will study moments of fracture within the architectural discipline, ultimately asking: what is lateness in space.
This seminar will involve readings and drawing in a weekly format. The first three weeks will be dedicated to studying scholarship on lateness, beginning with the seminal text “Late Style in Beethoven,” by Theodor Adorno. Class discussion will center around discerning the nature of lateness, using models from literature, music, and painting. The rest of the semester will be divided into five distinct periods – Pre-modern, Modern, Post-Modern, Digital, Contemporary – in which students will be asked to select architectural works from each period and analyze them through drawing in order to find characteristics of lateness.
Assignments will take the form of analytic drawings. Students will analyze and draw buildings of their own choosing, dissecting them in search of signs of lateness. They will be expected to present these drawings in class, articulate the definition of lateness they are working with, and identify the architectural devices that produce that reading.
Part I: Pre-Modern
The pre-modern era was characterized by eclecticism and revivalist styles. Yet the tension between these various styles was paired with a desire to innovate with new materials and structural methods. If late style operates as a hinge between what has come before and what is yet to come, the tendency in this era to look forward and backward could provide some clues to the nature of late style.
Part II: Modernism
Clement Greenberg argues that the origin of Modernism was not a break with the past, but rather a crisis about convention. He argues that the romanticism preceding modernism had been drawing from the past in a superficial mode, pushing the idea of standards and conventions into a crisis point. Innovation became a way to renew the use of convention and to return to precision. If Modern works looked radical in form and appearance, it was not due to a zeal for innovation, but rather, as Adorno argues in Late Style in Beethoven, to free convention from subjectivity. Given that late works are often the seeds of the new, this section of the course will explore proto-Modernism in order to question whether what is late and what is new can co-exist within a single hinge point in time.
Eventually, Modernism evolved into a high style. The later stages of Modernism, however, began to exhibit traces of deviance and disciplinary fracture. The students’ task in this section will be to uncover works that not only deviate from new standards established by Modernism, but that register the contradictions of those same standards.
Part III: Post-Modernism
While there is much debate among architectural historians about the relationship between modernism and post-modernism, it is possible that lateness could be a lens through which the linear interpretation of architectural history is disturbed. As post-modernism fractured the high style of modernism, was it capable of producing work outside of time? Given that contemporary architecture is very different both from Modernism and post-modernism, did post-modernism, rather the producing the seeds of the new produce the seeds of disciplinary fragmentation?
Part IV: The Digital
The digital era has been marked with disciplinary uncertainty. Aesthetic trends have emerged without becoming ‘high styles.’ Parametricism, as a new way of generating form, implies a break with what came before it. Is the digital late relative to its historical context? Or is it late because it exhibits the formal properties of lateness – formal fragmentation and a resistance to resolution? Might the concept of lateness be useful in navigating the role of the digital in contemporary architectural thought?
Part V: Lateness Today
This section of the course will be highly speculative, drawing from discussions, analyses, and findings from the previous weeks. Students will be asked to analyze contemporary architectural works while using the lessons of lateness to theorize the state of contemporary architecture.
Lateness: A Theory of the Present
Peter Eisenman, Elisa Iturbe
Fall 2017 Yale
Before Theodor Adorno’s study of late works in Beethoven, late style was considered a phenomenon of aberrance, tied to subjective expression and the biographical timeline of an artist. Adorno’s study, however, unearthed another possibility for lateness, one in which late works could be understood as the seeds of disciplinary change. Adorno found this possibility in the late works of Beethoven, whose body of work developed at the cusp between a classical high style and the onset of modern music. His music operated as a hinge between the eras that preceded and followed him, laying the groundwork for modernity while remaining grounded in the conventions of his time.
In music, convention is an agreed upon disposition of form. For example, the sonata form consists of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. The form is tri-partite, but it is convention that determines that a sonata should be tripartite to begin with. Throughout different periods, convention drives the specific condition of form, leading ultimately to changes in both form and style.
While Beethoven operated within the conventions of his time, yet he challenged how form was conceived. For example, in his Missa Solemnis, a work analyzed in-depth by Adorno, Beethoven moves away from the evolution of motifs within a given structure (the standard in the Classical period) and instead generates imitative sections accumulating throughout the piece. In other words, a new formal structure began to emerge within the given framework of form, that of the fragment. Ultimately, the strength of the fragment created a denial of unity which conflicted with the ideal of aesthetic harmony prevalent in his time, yet the formal conventions of the music remained intact. These formal properties push the work to be, as Edward Said wrote, in and apart from the present,(1) which he identifies as an important characteristic of lateness. In other words, lateness is neither a full acceptance of the present (zeitgeist) nor an explicit resistance to it (avant-garde). Lateness is a mode of temporal resistance that does not reject its own time entirely, but rather dips a pen into the obscurity of the present, registering the unspoken contradictions within the current paradigm. We propose lateness as a theory of the present, applicable not only to today’s context, but to the contemporary in different eras of history.
1.Agamben, Giorgio. “What Is the Contemporary?” What Is an Apparatus?: and Other Essays, Stanford University Press, 2009, 44.
Every era must contend with the question of its own contemporariness, which is, as defined by Agamben:
a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it… Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.(2)
In other words, a belief in the zeitgeist is insufficient. Like the eye’s inability to focus on an object held too close, one cannot see the present without maintaining some distance from it. This, of course, raises the question of how to hold one’s attention on the present. One must ask, what are the conditions of our time, and what does it mean to be contemporary today?
In the wake of the twentieth century, in which Modernism was ultimately declared ‘over,’ and the avant-garde was announced ‘dead,’ the twenty-first century has given way to expressions of uncertainty and a loss of authority. Meanwhile, with the advent of the digital, architectural production today has become iterative, facilitating the generation of geometrically complex free-form architecture as well as processes by which those forms can be continually repeated and altered. The result is an architectural paradigm that spurs the endless iteration of anomalous forms as part of an autonomous process. Moreover, as advancements in building technology make constructability less of a concern, contemporary architecture produces increasingly more exuberant forms. The more anomalous the form, the better it fits into the status quo. The formal trends of contemporary design have rendered a model of deviance obsolete as a mode of resistance. Deviance would require a point of reference from which to deviate, suggesting a linear model of action-reaction, thesis-antithesis. But a linear, Hegelian progression in time is no longer possible because the current state of unlimited possibility has produced stasis, as the anomaly has become the norm in contemporary design.
Although Beethoven’s historical context was quite different from today, he also operated in a moment of stasis. The forms perfected by Haydn and Mozart had become the conventional drivers of most musical production at that time. The recognizable conventions of musical form (such as Ternary Form (ABA), Rondo form (ABACA or ABACADA), or Sonata Form (ABA – C – ABA), had stabilized and merged with social and cultural forces into the rigid standards of the era, shifting from convention (form) to the conventional (style).(3) In other words, Mozart and Haydn were no longer experimenting with form, but rather generating work prolifically within the boundaries of specific forms that were dictated by style. Michael Spitzer calls this the “extreme conventionalization of eighteenth-century musical material,” a phenomenon which makes it possible for Mozart to have written around six hundred works when he died at age thirty-six.(4) The classical style left little room for formal invention and thus entered into a suspended state while composers worked unquestioningly within its given forms.
As such, Beethoven is a relevant model for architecture today, because his late works operated against the decided forms of the classical, yet he did not fracture them directly. As Michael Spitzer writes, “the fascination of the late music is that it breaks the letter of the classical law while obeying its spirit ever more strictly.”(5) His approach was not one of deviance or transgression, but rather one that introduced undecidability in the interstice between legible forms, giving his work the quality of irresolution that opened the door for the fragmentation that was to occur later in modern music.(6)
There is a parallel between the classical period and now: once again, we find ourselves in a suspended state because the uninhibited production of anomalous form precludes a model of deviance effective against the status quo. In Beethoven, then, we can find a model for ushering in a temporal disjunction within our artistic paradigm. We propose lateness as a means to formulate a new theory of the present, one that challenges what is perceived as contemporary today.
2.An important component of our research during the Lateness seminar last semester was the role of convention in the context of lateness. In his middle period, Beethoven worked with virtuosic subjectivity, eluding structural rigidity. Yet Adorno identifies in Beethoven’s late work an adherence to convention. Adorno writes, “But what drove Beethoven, the composer of unfathomable richness in whom the power of subjective production were heightened to the point of hubris, to the point where man becomes Creator, towards the opposite tendency, of self-curtailment?…To the musical experience of the late Beethoven the unity of subjectivity and objectivity, the roundedness of the successful symphony, the totality arising from the motion of all particulars, in short, that which gives the works of his middle period their authenticity, must have becomes suspect. He saw through the classic as classicism.“ (See Missa Solemnis, pg. 151.) In other words, Beethoven is able to see past the trappings of style towards form itself. As such, his late works are the ones that open the door to modernity and that achieve a differentiation between form and style. Conventions, then, are the building blocks of form, while the conventional is the crystallizing of particular formal relationships into a style. Arguably, late works are those that can overcome the latter process.
3.Spitzer, Michael. “Notes on Beethoven’s Late Style,” Late Style and its Discontents: Essays in art, literature, and music. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2016. 193.
5.The difference between deviance and undecidability distinguishes the avant-garde from lateness: deviance, (the assumption of an avant-garde discourse), is the divergence from a known norm while undecidability (a characteristic of lateness) introduces a new condition between existing norms.