Peter Eisenman shares contentious views on design vs. architecture

March 19, 2010

Characterizing the discussions about renaming AAP a “college of design” as a “provocation,” Peter Eisenman (B.Arch. ’55) gave an opinionated and discursive public lecture on March 10, in Goldwin Smith Hall. "Architecture or Design: Wither the Discipline?" was part of Eisenman's visit to Ithaca as a Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor.

“Despite a wide-ranging intellectual orbit, Professor Eisenman maintains a papal-like devotion to architecture, and takes particular umbrage at those who would dilute the disciplinary primacy of architecture by conflating it with the all too generic term ‘design,’” said Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art, and Planning, during his introduction.

"The architectural process is always looking for norms [such as program and shelter],” said Eisenman. "There are no new paradigms with which to challenge exceptions. … I find myself in a very strange time as an architect and as a teacher."

He explained that his book The Ten Canonical Buildings was an attempt to document movements and changes in architectural thought, and "cusp buildings" that challenged architectural norms; the exceptions became a normative new style.

"The argument is that all normative states become a condition of the zeitgeist — what it is today. As time moves, the zeitgeist also transforms, as do the conditions that we call normative," he said. 

In 1949, he said, "the norm of architecture was space." By the early 70s, Eisenman said, that had changed; and architect Robert Venturi "proposed that space was no longer normative, but surface was."

"For me, architecture has the function to deconstruct, without an a priori goal," Eisenman said. "Design always depends on an a priori goal — and they are two parts of the same coin."

He also discussed what he considers proper disciplines.

"Landscape architecture, to me, is a parallel discipline," he said. "Interior and lighting design are subsets of architecture, not a discipline," he said.

Eisenman showed slides and discussed material, program, and design issues related to the City of Culture, with undulating buildings he designed, now being built at Santiago di Compostella, Galacia, Spain, and slated to open in 2012. The cultural complex is in a poor rural area and includes an opera house, museum, and archive, and a library for 1 million volumes.

While on campus, Eisenman also led three consecutive "Haunting Licenses" seminars for 25 students with majors in architecture; English; German studies; romance studies; theatre, film, and dance; and comparative literature and English, who prepared by reading assigned texts and viewing films. 

"Because of Eisenman's immense interest in philosophy, literature, and literary theory, he asked me to organize a series of interdisciplinary seminars" during his visit, said Anette Schwarz, chair of German studies.

At the heart of the seminar discussions were the points of contact between architecture and the humanities and problems both share, Schwarz said. Among these points are a shared interest in semiological systems, questions of self-definition, and chances for paradigmatic shifts.

"He gave the perspective of an architect on some of the critical questions that come up in the humanities," said Paul Buchholz, a graduate student in German studies.

Schwarz also organized a seminar for humanities and architecture faculty, exploring Eisenman's On Lateness and the Politics of Surface, which deals with issues of memory, temporality, and the politics of art and architecture.

Eisenman, principal and founder of Eisenman Architects in New York City, is also teaching an architecture studio in Ithaca this semester with Lecturer Caroline O’Donnell.

Linda Glaser, a staff writer in the College of Arts and Sciences and Dan Aloi, staff writer for the Cornell Chronicle, contributed to this story.

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