The American architect Peter D. Eisenman (born 1932) studied and made formal use of concepts from other fields—linguistics, philosophy, and mathematics—in his imaginative designs.
Peter Eisenman was born in 1932 into a middle-class setting in Newark, New Jersey. Although his grandfather had been a builder, Eisenman claimed that his decision to become an architect was not made until he discovered the world of architecture as an undergraduate at Cornell University. At Cornell (B.Arch., 1955) he studied under theorist/critic Colin Rowe, receiving the Charles G. Sands Memorial Medal awarded for exceptional merit in his senior thesis. Under the tutelage of Rowe, Eisenman was encouraged to re-examine the origins of modern architecture, particularly the early works of the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and thus was exposed to a set of ideas that were to form the core of his early practice and architectural philosophy. Following Cornell and a brief apprenticeship he matriculated first to Columbia University (M.S. Arch., 1960; William Kinne fellowship, 1960-1961) and finally to Cambridge University, England, where he received an M.A. (1962) and Ph.D. (1963) in theory of design.
Eisenman returned to the United States in 1963 to practice from an office in New York City and to teach as an assistant professor in the School of Architecture at Princeton University. Eisenman also returned to a lively debate among young professionals concerning the future of architecture, a debate in which he played a critical role. In 1964 he was a founding member of CASE (Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment) and in 1967 he founded and served as the director of the IAUS (Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies). The critical issues of the time were those revolving around the nature of the modern city and housing. In 1967 Eisenman, in collaboration with Michael Graves and Daniel Perry, proposed an urban megastructure for the renewal of Harlem. This project was the centerpiece of the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal. This was but one of innumerable exhibitions Eisenman participated in during this period, with this work seeming to clearly identify him as a third generation modernist, a perception he was soon to prove misleading.
In 1969 Eisenman, through an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art sponsored by CASE, became associated with a group of architects who quickly gained fame and notoriety as the New York Five. This group, with Eisenman generally acknowledged as the leader, included Charles Gwathmey (born 1938), Michael Graves (born 1934), Richard Meier (born 1934), and John Hejduk (born 1929). They sought a return to the origins of 20th-century modernism, as seen in the early works of Le Corbusier, the Italian Rationalist Giuseppe Terragni (1904-1943), and the Dutch De Stijl movement architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964). It was the more abstract and theoretical aspects of this architecture that drove the work of the New York Five. The resulting work was perceived, at its best, as powerful, inwardly directed, critical exercises which produced wonderful architecture for architects; at its worst it was derided for its penchant for ignoring client needs, functional requirements, and even architectural technology in its seemingly entirely self-referential pursuit of ideas. The New York Five's presence was most notable through their many exhibitions and the publicity generated by Five Architects, edited by Kenneth Frampton (1972). Eisenman's principal role was as intellectual provocateur with his newly proposed cardboard architecture at the center of the ensuing critical debate.
In 1967 Eisenman had begun the first of a series of residential designs, labeled cardboard architecture in reference to their thin white walls and model-like qualities, through which he explored the implications of his theories in built form. This practical application was a corollary to his intellectual investigations. These buildings embodied what Eisenman referred to as deep structure, through which he attempted to explore the notion of visual syntax. The complex nature of this work stemmed from Eisenman's interest in language and semiotics, gained through his study of noted linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky (born 1928). His designs consisted, in essence, of a floor plan ordered by a grid of lines and a structural framework of thin round columns. These were projected in three dimensions as a cubical spatial volume on which and throughout were placed a series of layered planes. In early designs these planes were placed perpendicular to each other within the cube; in later designs some planes were dislocated by rotational shifts in the plane grid and overlaid on the original grids.
A critical component of the design process for these buildings, which are referred to by numbers rather than client name as is typical—i.e., House I (1967) through House X (1982)—was the production of a text following each design effort through which Eisenman sought to explain his work. That an observer needed to read a text to fully understand his architecture was a point of considerable debate. Eisenman's literary efforts resulted in a steady stream of articles, eventually coalescing into two books: House X (1982) and Houses of Cards (1987), the latter dealing with House I through House VI.
By the late 1970s Eisenman had emerged as a leader in the Post Modern movement in architecture. The terms Post Modern and Post Modernism are somewhat problematic. Having originated in reference to literary theory, they were appropriated by critic Charles Jencks (The Language of Post Modern Architecture, 1977) to characterize the architecture that seemed to be supplanting that of the Modernist era. Although some observers question whether current architecture constitutes a truly new era or is the logical next phase of Modernism, what is clear is Eisenman's continued presence on the cutting edge of contemporary events. His work in the early 1980s was in part an elaboration of the theories embodied in the House projects. However, now he moved beyond pure geometry to examine scalar geometry, which is used in mapping complex structures such as weather formations; he was especially interested in these ideas as discussed by scientist/mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. From these investigations Eisenman derived what he referred to as traces: lines or echoes from other sources that could be perceived within any aspect of a design problem. One of the first works to demonstrate these ideas, and his first large-scale project, was the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio (1983-1989). Two trace features are a central walkway that slices through the building, with the angle of the walkway matching that of an airport runway located miles from the site, and abstract architectural elements which recall an armory that once stood on the site. His achievements during the 1980s were recognized by the Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded Eisenman with the Arnold W. Brunner memorial award in 1984.
Eisenman's later work sprang from an even more complex set of theoretical origins. In a project for the Biology Center for J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, he proposed a scheme derived from the structure of a DNA molecule interpolated through fractal geometry. However, the primary impetus of his efforts in the late 1980s was the philosophical/critical movement known as Deconstruction, which was developed in large part by French philosopher Jacques Derrida (born 1930) as a response to Structuralism. In Deconstruction Eisenman was seeking a new basis for architecture. While architects have traditionally relied on man as the foundation which informed and governed their work, Eisenman considered this position untenable in modern society. Instead he proposed three destabilizing concepts to guide his architecture: discontinuity, recursibility, and self-similarity. His project for the University Museum at Long Beach, California (begun in 1986), embodies these new ideas. Here past, present, and future collide, with the 1849 Gold Rush, the 1949 founding of the university, and the 2049 rediscovery of the museum informing the design process. Eisenman's commitment to linking past and present were also visible in a 1994 exhibit at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal called "Cities of Artificial Excavation," which featured eleven of his projects from 1978 to 1988.
Eisenman's work in the 1990s included a city plan for Rebstockpark in Frankfurt, Germany in which he concentrated heavily on a "fold technique." He also designed the Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the University of Cincinnati as part of that university's project to redesign the entire campus. Future projects include a San Francisco Jewish Museum and a new museum and ferry terminal for New York City's Staten Island. Eisenman's search for new architectural origins and his continued presence at the forefront of architectural criticism and debate prompt one often repeated question: What's next?
The two principal books by Eisenman on his work are House X (1982) and Houses of Cards (1987). Books on his architecture include Five Architects, edited by Kenneth Frampton (1972), A.D. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Eisenman and Trott (1990), and Eisenman: Recent Projects 1983-1989 (1989). Charles Jencks' The Language of Post Modern Architecture (1977) effectively sets the stage for Eisenman's work in the 1970s and 1980s, and Geoffrey Broadbent's Deconstruction: A Student Guide (1991) furnishes the most accessible entry into the complex world of Eisenman's Deconstruction-based architecture.
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Jacobs, Karrie. "The Ferry Godfather." The New York Times, 31 March 1997.
Muschamp, Herbert. "Making a Rush-Hour Battleground High Art." The New York Times, 6 April 1997.
—. "Eisenman's Spatial Extravaganza in Cincinnati." The New York Times, 21 July 1996.
—. "Repulsion is the Attraction." The New York Times, 24 April 1994.
Zimmerman, David. "Cincinnati: A Plan for Unity." USA Today, 2 April 1997.