Dec. 10, 2014
Peter Eisenman, FAIA, the iconoclastic educator who’s done the most to bring rigorous architectural theory back to the forefront of academia since the early 20th-century Modernist reformation, is the recipient of the 2015 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. Jointly awarded by the AIA and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), the Topaz Medallion honors an individual who has been intensely involved in architecture education for a decade or more. Eisenman’s accomplishments will be celebrated at the 2015 ACSA Annual Meeting in Toronto and at the AIA Convention 2015 in Atlanta.
“I will prepare you to enter that reality”
Alan Balfour was an avowed socialist who had come to Princeton in 1963 to study political revolutions writ in glass and steel in the grand Modernist tradition. Upon arriving in New Jersey, he was soon taken aside by his professor, Peter Eisenman, and told he had it all wrong. Architecture, Eisenman told Balfour, does not have to be defined by politics and culture, and, moreover, there is an internal logic of architecture that is far more enriching than an architecture that responds to shifting social or political ideals. “I will prepare you to enter that reality,” Eisenman told Balfour.
“He was then and remains the great iconoclast—unrivaled, unrepentant—who has spent a lifetime breaking past certainties and images of architecture, to allow the emergence of the new,” noted Balfour, a Topaz Medallion recipient and past dean of Georgia Tech’s architecture school, in his Gold Medal recommendation letter.
Balfour is just one of thousands of students to have been brought into radically inventive ways of viewing architecture by Eisenman. After 60 years of teaching, the shadow cast by his tenure looms over generations of architects: Tod Williams, FAIA; Daniel Libeskind, AIA; Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA; and another Topaz recipient, Harrison Fraker, Assoc. AIA, all studied under him.
From the perch of some of the nation’s most prestigious architecture schools, Eisenman has operated much more like a public intellectual than a workaday professor. He draws from many fields outside of architecture, including linguistics, philosophy, art, and psychoanalysis, to “[raise] the intellectual credibility of our field,” wrote University of Minnesota School of Architecture College of Design Dean Thomas R. Fisher, Assoc. AIA, in his recommendation letter.
In his recommendation letter, Henry N. Cobb, FAIA, praised Eisenman’s “extraordinary intellectual courage, generosity, and integrity that in my personal experience has consistently characterized [his] lifelong dedication to teaching and learning.” Eisenman, said Cobb, is “arguably the greatest living teacher in our field.”
A world unto itself
Eisenman’s approach to design, in both practice and academia, is perhaps the most meticulous and complex theoretical framework for architecture since first-generation Modernists such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier recast architecture as a cultural and political battleground for social uplift and progress. He questions assumptions that seem so fundamental they’re entirely overlooked.
Architecture, for Eisenman, finds its highest and noblest expression as a pure thought experiment, not as a product of culture or a functionalist means for shelter and human comfort. It’s a conceptual medium, not a visual one. Architecture should reject its own historical continuum, the explicit polemics of the Modern movement, and the superficial historical pastiches of Postmodernism. In other words, for Eisenman, architecture should reject anything that’s not inherently native to its own logic.
“Architecture has, quite simply, never had a provocateur and polemicist as productive and as powerful as Peter Eisenman,” says Fisher.
Born in Newark, N.J., in 1932, Eisenman graduated from Cornell University with a B.Arch in 1955. He continued his studies at Columbia University, where he received an M.Arch in 1959. He moved to England in 1960 to earn a doctorate in architecture and teach at Cambridge University. He returned to the United States in 1963 to teach at Princeton University, alongside Michael Graves, FAIA.
In 1967, Eisenman began his private practice with a series of houses located in the Northeast. The same year he founded the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City, which attracted a consortium of liberal arts schools that sent undergraduates to study architecture in a nontraditional environment. Fisher called it “the first architectural think tank.”
Throughout his career, Eisenman has been celebrated for his writings, research, and scholarship as well as his commitment to teaching. He’s primarily known for his long associations with Princeton, Harvard, Cooper Union, and Yale, where he’s been a full-time professor since 2005. He’s been a visiting critic or professor at nearly a dozen schools across the nation, and he’s lectured at countless more. “There are probably very few schools of architecture where Peter is yet to have lectured,” wrote Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, in a recommendation letter.
He founded the journal Oppositions in 1973, which became a vital forum for debate for more than a decade and is today considered an indispensable record of architectural discourse during a pivotal time in both practice and education. In his letter of recommendation, Harvard Graduate School of Design professor and former Eisenman student Preston Scott Cohen called Oppositions “the most important journal of architectural thought in the last half-century.”
Eisenman has written more than a dozen books, and his work has been the subject of more than 90 exhibitions. Although his buildings are often considered avant-garde and outwardly discordant, much of his scholarly research and many of his exhibitions focus on constructing a rigorous classical argument about some period in architecture’s history. For example, his 2012 exhibit for Yale, “Palladio Virtuel,” reflected Eisenman’s decade-long analysis of Andrea Palladio’s villas. “The Piranesi Variations,” mounted at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, reimagined Rome per the 18th-century fieldwork conducted by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. True to form, Eisenman invited students to participate in the development of both exhibits. Notably, the Museum of Modern Art in New York featured Peter Eisenman Architects (along with six other firms) in its influential 1988 exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture,” which framed a new spirit of “disharmony, fracturing, and mystery” in architecture.
If incongruity ruled the day, however, how can architecture even possess a self-sustaining and insular logic, as Eisenman long argued? It is a matter of perception—how we talk and think about form, rather than the measurements of form itself.
In both practice and the academy, architecture for Eisenman is a search for deep structures so inherent and hidden that they requires various academic disciplines to be used as crowbars to pry loose and reveal what lies below. Chief among them are philosophy and linguistics. Both disciplines offer Eisenman something he’s looking for in his own field: a set of inherent structural rules independent of history or culture. In philosophy, these rules come from a basic consensus on what constitutes reason; in linguistics, they come from the biological limits of human hearing and speech.
In his 1967–1978 series of houses, Eisenman illustrates this theoretical approach most directly by blending functional and nonfunctional elements: walls, columns, staircases. It’s a deconstruction of the elements of a house that, through the comparison of functional and nonfunctional elements, attempts to reveal an inherent self-contained logic of architecture. This wholesale de-emphasis on function could be applied to nearly any design discipline, but it’s most revolutionary in architecture because architecture is so omnipresent and relied upon for functional needs. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, described Eisenman’s exuberance for the uncanny as a romantic notion, a nostalgic sentiment for the avant-garde, instead of an arbitrary slash at disruption.
For Eisenman—unique among architects—drawing is not representation. It is the thing itself. “It is the incarnation of the thing. I’m not trying to represent something. I’m trying to make it real,” Eisenman said in a 2013 interview with Iman Ansari. Drawings, diagrams, and models are “architecture.” The more a building can resemble a drawing or model the better. When a French magazine once mislabeled a photo of one of his houses as a model, he didn’t call the editor. He smiled. “I achieved what I wanted to achieve,” he told Ansari.
For Eisenman, the clarity of raw conception gets lost with bricks and mortar in three dimensions. A material better-suited for him is pure thought. Early in his career, Eisenman was derided as only a theoretician—a “paper architect”—but in the long view his career has been marked by several important building projects, including a firehouse for Brooklyn (1985), the Columbus, Ohio, Wexner Center for the Arts (1989), and, most recently, the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago di Compostela, Spain (ongoing). Although “disharmony, fracturing, and mystery” (in MoMA’s view) define the Deconstructivist approach to which Eisenman is so closely tied, his oeuvre—writing, teaching, researching, designing—suggests coherence, determination, and courage to pursue a radical new vision of architecture’s purpose and nature.