Peter Eisenman reflects on practising in uncertainty, and the notion of authority

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with American architect Peter Eisenman on architecture that is detached from responding to a particular function, and the 'starchitect' myth.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Apr 30, 2020

Even though I studied architecture at Cooper Union in the 1990s, when Peter Eisenman had been teaching there full time, somehow I missed my chance to be his student. I don’t remember avoiding him consciously, but anyway, apart from listening to some of the critiques he gave to his students, we never met until seven years after my graduation when I attended one of his talks in Manhattan in 2003. It was at that point that I decided to talk to him properly. By then I was already interviewing leading architects on a regular basis, and it was only a matter of time before I talked to him.

Potrait of American architect Peter Eisenman | Peter Eisenman | Eisenman Architects | STIRworld
Potrait of American architect Peter Eisenman Image Credit: Chris Wiley

Still, my initial conversation with Eisenman in October 2003 proved to be so rewarding that another interview followed in June 2009, and then another one in February 2016. These three intimate talks became the foundation for my book Conversations with Peter Eisenman: The Evolution of Architectural Style (DOM Publishers, 2016) with a particular focus on two of his realised projects – The City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1999-2013) and Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany (1998-2005). 

City of Culture of Galicia (2011) | Peter Eisenman | Eisenman Architects | STIRworld
City of Culture of Galicia (2011) Image Credit: Eisenman Architects

Peter Eisenman’s main contribution to architecture as a discipline is that it can be detached from responding directly to a particular function. In other words, architecture can be about itself. What this means is that architecture must have theory. What a seductive thought! Concepts can come from all kinds of territories: context, geometry, mathematics, art, metaphors, history, mythology, memory, philosophy, literature, architecture itself, even music.

Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) | Peter Eisenman | Eisenman Architects | STIRworld
Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) Image Credit: Eisenman Architects

In this feature, I am presenting a 10-minute audio excerpt from my third and final conversation with Eisenman. This audio-visual was originally presented in 2019 as part of my exhibition titled, I am Interested in Seeing the Future, at Fab-Union Space gallery in Shanghai where I showed 10 conversations – five with Chinese and five with American architects.

  • Wexner Center (1989)| Peter Eisenman | Eisenman Architects | STIRworld
    Wexner Center (1989) Image Credit: Eisenman Architects
  • Wexner Center (1989)| Peter Eisenman | Eisenman Architects | STIRworld
    Wexner Center (1989) Image Credit: Eisenman Architects

The following text is a short passage from the Eisenman transcript about the role of authority in architecture and what architecture means to him.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You define architecture as language; you said that you are interested in language more than a story.

Peter Eisenman: By language, I mean text. Text to me is the manipulation of words to produce something other than a narrative. I want to dam up any narrative.

  • House VI – Split bed (1975| Peter Eisenman | Eisenman Architects | STIRworld
    House VI – Split bed (1975) Image Credit: Eisenman Architects
  • Santiago Compostella | Peter Eisenman | Eisenman Architects | STIRworld
    Santiago Compostella Image Credit: Vladimir Belogolovsky

VB: Are we in a period of uncertainty?

PE: Yes, for sure. And it has been for a long time now. Look at our leading architects today. Is anyone an authority as (Robert) Venturi once was? Venturi is no longer an authority. (Frank) Gehry, (Zaha) Hadid, 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.

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About Author

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Belogolovsky is an American curator, critic, and a columnist with STIR. He graduated from the Cooper Union School of Architecture (1996) and after practicing architecture for 12 years, founded New York-based Curatorial Project for curating architectural exhibitions. He has written nine books, including Conversations with Architects, curated over 50 international exhibitions and has lectured in more than 30 countries.

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