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Interview with Peter Eisenman

June 18, 2009, Manhattan 


Vladimir Belogolovsky: Many of your projects are tied to Derrida’s denial of the idea of absolute beginning…


Peter Eisenman: Derrida said: “There is no value of origin.”


VB: He said that any beginning is preceded by a trace or series of traces. There is no one truth. There is no one absolute beginning. Everything is open to traces of beginnings. Before there was something there was a trace of something. In Santiago you identified four form defining local traces – historical downtown street grid, typography of the hill, abstract Cartesian grid, and symbolic sign of the city of Santiago, a scallop shell. You then superimposed these four abstracted traces to create an imaginary site condition, which became a real site for your project.


PE: Yes, the building form came out of that superimposition. The beginning therefore is not the actual site but the traces of the site in the Derridean sense.


VB: Why are these traces important to you?


PE: Well, because if you think that the belief in origin, in presence, in the metaphysical and the transcendental signifier is false and you accept Derrida’s thoughts, then these traces are very important. Because they show that it is possible to develop a project that doesn’t make primary of the actual physical site. Freud said that Rome is not what we see today, but it is many layers of history and of place. That is my concept of landscape. In every project we question the idea of the metaphysical character of the actual site. This is what makes our approach different, not better but different from other architects.    


VB: Are these traces important to you to develop a particular geometry or do you think it will be possible for the visitors to decode and identify them?


PE: Yes, I think so. I want people to experience these traces яand decode them, absolutely. The people who saw the project tell me that they feel the origins of these traces. 


VB: You once said that you don’t want to do a lot of buildings. Instead, you want to do 20 buildings because you have about 20 good ideas. What is the main idea about Santiago and how is it different from your other projects?


PE: First of all, the particular overlay of these local traces is different from any other project. What makes it different is that it produces different effects on the interiors. The materials are different. All materials here are local and the articulation of pavements and facades is all based on abstracted local traditions. There is a whole area of the interior where the mirrored glass is on the floor and the stone is on the wall, which reflects in the glass and makes you believe that you walk on stone. So you don’t know where you are. There are numerous such effects that one experiences throughout the project. 


VB: When I asked you about the Santiago project in relation to “green” and sustainable architecture you said: “I don’t know anything about ‘green’ or sustainability.”


PE: Because “green” and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture. Some of the worst buildings I have seen are done by sustainable architects.


VB: I would not argue with that statement. But you can’t deny that your Center of Culture is trying to negotiate a dialogue and peace deal with the surrounding landscape and nature. Isn’t it an attempt for creating a sustainable project?


PE: I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a sustainable architect. For example, I am using stone in this building and stone buildings last forever. I don’t think it would be difficult to do a sustainable building. To get a LEED certificate you have to do the bathrooms the right way and all kinds of strange things. Believe me I could get a certificate if I wanted to, but I didn’t set out to do a sustainable building, although I tried to be as honest as I could.


VB: You said that architecture needs to question traditions and be critical and that the great oxymoron of architecture is that it needs to create places, but instead it displaces places. Is it also true for Santiago? What is the displacement there?  


PE: Take a look at that glass floor. You begin to displace the ground that you are walking on. The roof of our building is the hillside. You cut the hill, put the building, put the roof over, and it looks like the hillside. Now the floor inside is no longer the ground. So we put the glass on the floor and it reflects the real ground, which is above your head. So we are producing our own commentaries by questioning such conventions as ground, floor, walls, facades, interior space, etc.


VB: In his book Landscrapers Aaron Betsky said: “Buildings replace the land. That is architecture’s original sin”. That is because by replacing land buildings take away space, sunlight, air, and so forth. Is Santiago project an attempt for redemption of such inherited sin of architecture?


PE: Well, I can’t disagree that you might read it this way, but I can’t claim that I was interested in such redemption.


VB: Wasn’t your purpose to recreate nature and not to take away from nature by building something new in its place?


PE: Not nature, but unnatural nature. Through advanced computation processes we have the capacity to create unnatural nature. I wanted to create something that would seem like nature, but under closer inspection one would realize that it is not nature. I call it unnatural nature. Our buildings in Santiago look like hilltop. They don’t look like they have been placed there. They are made to seem and look like they have come out of the ground like giant mountains. In other words, it is like a natural process – something that would take 10 million years has happened in 10 years. So if that is what you mean by redemption I’ll buy it.


VB: Your architecture is never about representation and now you are trying to represent and replicate nature.


PE: But it doesn’t represent nature. It is an unnatural nature. My architecture never represents anything. It is not representing an unnatural nature. It is an unnatural nature. This is not nature. But it is not against nature. There is man-made, there is natural. I want unnatural. This is the first time that I have done this.


VB: You have done buildings that look like they try to shake things up. They are intended to challenge, reorient, and disturb people. Was that still part of your intention in Santiago?


PE: No, not to disturb and shake things up. The intention here is to make people more aware of the natural environment because most people when they walk in the forest they just see trees and stones. Here people don’t just walk in nature. I want them to believe that they walk in the old city, in history, they walk in time. I want them to feel things, touch things, and to make them more conscious of their environment. Inside all the buildings, the spaces are very different. For example, in the library the book shelves are part of the flow of the space. The books feel like they are part of the ground. All six buildings feel different but they play as a kind of string sextet.


VB: You said not that long ago: “We are no longer in Modernism, we are no longer in Post-modernism, we are no longer in Deconstructivism, we are no longer anywhere.”


PE: I think we are in lateness. Something is coming.


VB: You don’t think “green” architecture can claim to be the next new paradigm?


PE: (Laughter) Oh no, Never! For sure not.


VB: Why not?


PE: The idea of the environment has always been part of architecture. It is not a theoretical position. It is just one aspect of architecture. The next paradigm shift will be tied to the fact that we are now leaving capitalism and moving into a kind of social economic structure. When “General Motors”, the symbol of American capitalism is owned by the government then we are no longer in capitalism. When the Chinese communists are capitalists, when the Russian communists are capitalists and the American capitalists are socialists this will lead to changes. This will change architecture as well, I believe.    


VB: How will it change architecture?


PE: I don’t know but it will. The next big paradigm shift in architecture will be driven by economics. 


VB: Your project in Santiago de Compostela consists of three pairs of buildings: the Galician History Museum and the Heritage Research Center, the Music Theater and the Administration Center, and the National Library of Galicia and the Galician National Archive. Today these buildings are at various stages of construction and the Galician National Archive is already in operation. Do you think this project is beautiful?


PE: I tell you – to be there, to walk there – it is amazing. It is so different than any of my other projects. The scale is incredible… It is extraordinary… Well, I don’t know what beauty is. I would say it is very effective, very sensual… 


VB: Did you try to make it beautiful?


PE: No, I didn’t. I never try to make anything beautiful.


VB: So your projects are driven by theoretical ideas alone and not by the aesthetics?


PE: They unfold.


VB: But don’t you try to tweak the outcome just a bit to make it more or less attractive?


PE: I don’t think so. No, not really. We do care about details. But that is not what makes the project beautiful. Those are little things… 


VB: Well, I think this project is beautiful because of its poetic relationship to the landscape.


PE: I didn’t say it is not beautiful, but I don’t use this term. I think if you go there you will say – this is beautiful. Let me ask Sandra if this project is beautiful. (Sandra Hemingway, the City of Culture project lead architect is joining our conversation). We have a question that maybe you could answer. I want a really honest answer and not a Peter Eisenman answer. Do you think this project is beautiful and if so, did we intentionally set out to make it beautiful?


SH: I don’t believe the project is beautiful in the conventional sense of beauty.


VB: Why? Did you try to make it beautiful?


SH: I think it is a provocative and an evocative project, which I think is beautiful. 


VB: Because the original form generating idea is beautiful or because it is beautiful to look at?


SH: I don’t think it is that simple. I don’t know what it means – to look beautiful.


VB: You know when you see it.


PE: I know that when I go there I feel wow! It takes my breath away... But that is not beauty.


SH: That is not beauty. It does something. It is evocative… It alters your spatial perception and expectations. Beauty comes with certain expectations. What this project does is that it defies your expectations. 


PE: And wouldn’t you agree, Sandra that it happened this way. We didn’t design it that way. We were surprised. No? We controlled the details but not the totality of the project.


SH: I can say that because I spent so much time with the project (since the project’s inception in 1999 – V.B.) I was not surprised to see the shapes of the spaces, but I was surprised to feel the power of the place.


VB: Do you claim responsibility for designing this thing or was it determined by your computer?


SH: No, I think it was an intentional and deliberate design act. We certainly conceived the set of rules by which the project was shaped but the end result is full of unintentional surprises: double curvatures, folds, reflections, tilting, leaning, hidden residual spaces and all kinds of alignments. They just happened. The powerfulness of these moments wasn’t intentional. It is so kinetic and dynamic. We couldn’t possibly foresee everything.   


PE: We were trying to make each of the buildings evocative onto itself and for the whole complex to have a sense of otherworldliness. This project is more sublime than beautiful. And many of its powerful moments could not be designed. Every time I go there I find something new.  


SH: I think beauty is a very passive term and this place is not calm, comfortable and serene. These spaces are very ambiguous. There is a great deal of tension there. We worked a lot with ever-changing contractions and expansions between very tight and explosive spaces. I think this project is very profound. We wanted people to be intellectually engaged with this building.  


PE: I think this project is not about liking or disliking. If you go there you know that you are in the presence of something.


VB: You are one of very few architects who are questioning very basic foundations of architecture. What did you learn from Santiago, which is your biggest project to date and what will it allow you to do in your next project?


PE: I don’t have many ideas. I think Santiago was a new idea for this office. Don’t forget this project is 10 years old and we have done three or four projects since then that are variations of the Santiago idea. We can’t say what we learned and we don’t have a new idea. We are yet to discover that. I think the idea of integrating building with landscape is a very powerful idea.