41 W. 25th Street
New York, NY 10010
Interview with Peter Eisenman
October 2003, New York
Vladimir Belogolovsky: How did you become interested in architecture?
Peter Eisenman: Growing up, I knew nothing about architecture. I never knew there was such a person as an architect. I was always interested in art and drawing, but in the 1940’s and 1950’s, in the United States boys did not take art. They were much more interested in woodshop and auto mechanics. Girls took art. So I never took art. When I went to Cornell, my senior adviser was an architecture student. He was building models and drawing and I would help him because I used to build model airplanes when I was a boy. That was very popular during the war. And I thought to myself, you could go to college and do this? This is great! Because of my accidental contact with this person I decided I wanted to be an architect. It was the only thing I ever wanted to be. So that is how it began.
VB: So there were no architects in your family?
PE: No, my father was a chemist and my mother was a housewife.
VB: Why do you think architecture should engage in a theoretical discourse and why should it be critical?
PE: All architecture that we know throughout history has always been a critical discourse. Architecture requires the displacement of conventions; therefore it is critical. The history of any discipline is about displacing conventions. Architecture’s uniqueness is that its autonomy comes from the fact that it displaces what it must place. In other words, architecture must make places and at the same time it displaces places. It must make functions and yet it displaces functions. It is the only discipline that does this. Any great work, whether it is film, music, or art is of its own nature critical. That is, in responding to what exists, it displaces in order to create what will be. Creation does not repeat what is.
VB: What is architecture?
PE: That question is almost like, what is life? I think it is quite obvious what architecture is. It is a critical cultural activity. It manifests how the society at any one time feels about itself, the same with music, literature, or poetry. It is a very broad view of the built environment. It is not just a shelter, nor function. It does not solve functions; it problematizes and thus creates functions. It does not answer questions; it asks questions. It does not solve problems; it creates problems.
VB: The client hopes it would solve problems.
PE: But it does not. That’s where people have a wrong idea about architecture.
VB: What words would you chose to describe your architecture?
PE: Critical, weak form, blurred, non-dialectic, anti-metaphysical, concerned with the interior of the discipline, implosive, concerned with the figuring of the ground.
VB: Piranesi, Chomsky, and Derrida are the names that are frequently mentioned when one reads about your work. How is your work related to each of the three?
PE: First, Piranesi was a critical architect. He made projects which combined real buildings with invented buildings. He invented landscapes and different ideas of space and time. I would say my work relates to Piranesi in the idea of interstitial space. What Piranesi created in his Campo Marzio was an interstitial space that is a space between. It was not left over space, but articulated space, a positive articulation of space that was residual.
Chomsky, I discovered very early on, when I was working with the idea of linguistics. There is an organizing idea in languages, called deep structure. Any language is based on an intuitive mechanism of what you and I understand. All languages have deep structure and that is where I relate to Chomsky. Linguistics was an attempt to move architecture from its formal conventions.
Derrida says there is no one metaphysical signified. There is no one thing before anything else. There is no one truth. There is no beginning of value. Everything is open to a texture of traces. Before there was something there was a trace of something. Before there was something there was not something. Derrida would argue that an absence always came before a presence. Those are the issues that relate me to Derrida, the tissue of traces or what I would call – intertexuality.
VB: You have designed and built very provocative houses. How come an abstract idea generating space is often more important than the necessities of the daily rituals of a specific client?
PE: Well, because the daily rituals of a client are not interesting. They do not produce architecture. Let’s take Borromini’s and Palladio’s churches. You don’t ask, what was the function of the church? Why is Borromini’s church San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane different from Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore? It is not because the function of the church changed, but because the idea of architecture as a vehicle changed. So living changes, the requirements change, but architecture has its own requirements. You do not need an architect to put a bathroom next to a bedroom, right? You need an architect to do more. So it has nothing to do with functions or client’s requirements.
VB: A church is probably not as convincing example as, let us say, a house.
PE: Some of the most didactic building type ever done. Palladio, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Write changed the whole idea of a house. Narkomfin apartment block by Moisei Ginzburg changed the way the world was. You know, a house can change the way the world is. And in a house there is an idea of a city. As Alberti said “A house is a small city and a city is a big house”, so ideas of cities and houses are interconnected.
VB: Are you working on the Sagaponac project with Coco Brown?
PE: No. I was invited, but I don’t want to do it. I am not interested anymore in houses. They are too much trouble; and besides, I have nothing more to say about houses.
VB: So that chapter is closed?
PE: Yes. It was closed a long time ago. You know, people write certain music or novels at a certain time and they change. Picasso went through his blue period, analytic cubism, his synthetic period, his collage period, his cutouts… He changed, right? I changed.
VB: Would you ever do a house for your family?
PE: No. I live in my apartment in New York, designed by another architect, a former student of mine. I do not want to live in my work. Art and life are different. I don’t say people have to live in architecture. People who come to me and say they want to live in architecture I send them to other architects. I do not want to do houses.
VB: So you would not do, let’s say, a condominium?
PE: No, that’s different! That is an urban project. I would do social housing or multiple-unit housing, but not individual housing.
VB: You have compiled a list of the most important buildings of our time. What are they?
PE: They are not the most important; let us say they are the most critical buildings built from 1950 to 2000. They are:
Congress Hall in Strasbourg by Le Corbusier
Peter Lewis Building in Cleveland by Frank Gehry
Jussieu Library project in Paris by Rem Koolhaas
Casa Girasole in Rome by Luigi Moretti
Adler and DeVore houses in Philadelphia by Louis Kahn
Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind
Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe
Engineering Building at Leicester University in England by James Stirling
San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena, Italy by Aldo Rossi
Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia by Robert Venturi
VB: There is no Eisenman building on your list?
PE: No, because I was acting critically, outside of my work.
VB: What do you think is the main contribution of the Wexner Center?
PE: No, that is not a question you can ask me. You have to ask the people of the Wexner Center. You cannot ask me a critical question about my own work. I don’t know how to answer that question.
VB: It is known that your buildings contribute to making some people feel disoriented and even nauseous. Is it intentional? What message do you try to communicate in your work?
PE: I am interested in displacing traditional reactions. I want people to be aware of their physical surroundings. I do not necessarily want them to be sick. I want them to feel differently, to be active rather than passive because the media world that we live in, made us become passive. There is no connection between body, mind, and eye. What architecture can do, which no other discipline can, is to relate the body, the mind, and the eye.
VB: Do you still teach at Cooper Union?
PE: No, I am on leave from Cooper Union. I teach at Yale and Princeton.
VB: What is your favorite design assignment for students?
PE: Analyses of great historical projects by Borromini, Bramante, Palladio, Schinkel, Piranesi, Corbu, Loos… or I have them read William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, James Joyce.
VB: Read, analyze...
PE: And draw. Read, analyze, and draw.
VB: And the purpose of this study would be… to design a project?
PE: No! The purpose is to educate, to open the students to new ways of thinking and experiencing, and making architecture. Look, when a composer goes to school of music they do not sit down and say – compose a sonata. They do not know how. They listen to concerti by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Before they can do anything they have to know what music is and what is possible. What is the deep structure of music? You can’t do architecture until you know what architecture is. What is the so-called interiority of architecture? I teach what is architecture, not how to do it.
VB: What is the main idea behind the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and what is it going to feel like?
PE: I can tell you what the idea is, but I cannot tell you what it is going to feel like until it is done. My intention is the idea of silence. That is, I do not believe in nostalgia or guilt or in redemption. To have an experience in the present, one that challenges your expectations of space and time. When you are in the field of stones you feel disoriented, lost in space, alone, analogous feelings to what it must have been like in a concentration camp or Gulag, but with no meaning, just the experience of being lost and alone. If you feel that, than I will have succeeded.
VB: Why is there 2,751 blocks?
PE: It is just to fill the site. This number has no meaning. Everything has a meaning in a city. Our project is an aporia (confusion) in space and time. Similar to the aporia that was the Third Reich between 1933 and 1945. It is a project of silence, to hear the voices of the dead, not the voices of the living. It is the voices of the dead which will speak!
VB: Very powerful. Is there future for Staten Island Institute of Art and Sciences?
PE: No. After September 11, the City stopped the project. 48 million dollars was in the budget but after 9/11 the money went into security and rebuilding the infrastructure.
VB: Are you working on any other project in New York?
PE: No one is ever a hero in his own country. I am working on projects all over the world but not here.
VB: Why did you enter WTC competition as a team member and how would you describe the experience?
PE: First of all, I personally felt it was a moral responsibility for somebody from New York who was here when it happened and experienced it first-hand to enter this competition. I did not feel that alone I would be able to do such a major complicated project. My friends (Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, and Steven Holl) felt the same way. The only way we could approach this project was as a team. It was difficult because we are all individual architects, but we produced a fabulous project. I am very proud of this collaboration, and it was very important for me and for members of our team to do this – not to win, but to be involved. Often you enter competitions because you have an obligation, not because you need to win. If you need to win, you should not enter.
VB: What do you think about the Libeskind project?
PE: I do not think about it; I do not comment on my competitor’s work. I do not comment on competitions that I enter and lose.
VB: He was your student, right?
PE: Yes, he was.
VB: What other projects are you working on now and which ones are being built?
PE: We are working on: the stadium for the Arizona Cardinals; six buildings in Spain – a City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, which will include an opera house, two museums, two libraries, and administration building; a resort community in Italy; a soccer stadium for Deportivo in La Coruña; and an Olympic Stadium in Leipzig for their bid for 2012.
VB: Against New York’s 2012 bid, right?
PE: Yes, against New York.
VB: Was Santiago de Compostela project partly designed by John Hejduk?
PE: No, no, we won the competition. Prior to the competition my friend John Hejduk had done a symbolic project in Santiago. When he was dying I went to him and on his deathbed I promised him that I would build his two towers. So I insisted on it being built first, because otherwise it never would have been built. It was built first as homage to John Hejduk, but it has nothing to do with our project.
VB: What is your dream project?
PE: It is still in the future! If you said to me – where would you like to build in Russia? I would like to build a cultural project in St. Petersburg or in Moscow. I do not want to build in Vladivostok. I would be interested in building, let’s say a new Russian Orthodox Church or a high-rise building, or a prison. This should be a new experience for me. There are lots of things I want to do. I do not want to do things I have already done. I do not want to do another museum. I am looking for new experiences. I like stadiums. I could do two or three more of them. I would like to build in my hometown – New York, a major project. I would like to build in my university, Cornell, a major project. I do not want to build in Perth, Australia because no one is going to see it. I want to build in Warsaw, Budapest…
VB: So when you are talking about projects you think of places first.
PE: Absolutely! I am interested in places. I have three Polish students here. The reason I am doing this interview, I would like to have Russian students here. We never had Russian students in my office. I think the future is in the East, in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Belarus, Russia... To me, this part of the world, the part of Europe that was cut off is really interesting. We are an international office: we have Italians, Germans, Argentineans, Spanish… They come from all over. Just send us some Russians!
VB: Can you recall the most memorable questions about your architecture?
PE: I don’t think I could answer that question. I have had many good interviews. I could say some of the most memorable critics, such as Manfredo Tafuri’s essay on the meditations of Icarus is one of the most important critical essays on my work. I think Rosalind Krauss’s “Death of a Hermeneutic Phantom” is another. The most serious critical essays pose questions for me in their writing and the way I see myself through their eyes. So I would say Tafuri and Krauss offer the most difficult picture of me.