Architecture Words 1: Supercritical ­ Peter Eisenman meets Rem Koolhaas

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Architecture Words 1

Peter Eisenman & Rem Koolhaas SUPERCRITICAL


This modest book documents a remarkable meeting of two architectural minds that came together at the AA in early 2006 for an extended public conversation. More than 35 years after first encountering one another in Manhattan at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (which Peter Eisenman had founded five years before, and which Rem Koolhaas briefly participated in while living in New York following his graduation), today these two architects remain at the forefront of architectural culture. Eisenman and Koolhaas are also the two leading proponents (in ways that are at times openly opposed to each other) of a critical, conceptual form of architectural practice – a topic this book traces through an examination of their many activities: design and building, writing and teaching, debate and provocation, exhibition and public promotion. A couple of evenings after the public conversation between Eisenman and Koolhaas, their claims were subject to further amplification, open interrogation and non-stop interpretation by two of the world's leading theorists of contemporary architecture, Jeffrey Kipnis and Robert Somol. Focusing on the disciplinary and cultural connotations and consequences of the work, Kipnis and

Peter Eisenman & Rem Koolhaas with Jeffrey Kipnis & Robert Somol

Architectural Association London



Somol offer a tour de force of interpretative architectural criticism and analysis through a debate moderated by the AA’s Mark Cousins. The result, Supercritical, also includes two rare transcriptions of talks given by Eisenman and Koolhaas at crucial points in their careers, when they were first articulating ideas and ambitions that would go on to shape and influence not only their own work but subsequently that of many others. As an afterword, a 10 x 10 matrix of self-contained sentences offers additional commentary, written in a form more like a spreadsheet than a text, reflecting on the central role of writing in each architect’s larger experimental agenda. With this, we are pleased and deeply honoured to launch this new Architecture Words series by bringing together two architects and two commentators who are uniquely accomplished at and dedicated to architecture pursued as writing. A similar belief in the capacity of architectural words and writing lies at the heart of this series as a whole, which will appear periodically in the form of small, self-contained books offering a single, self-contained example of the enduring power of architectural words, in printed form, to define, reflect, be architecture. Above all, the books are dedicated to deflecting the overwhelming and relentless circulation of images, links, chat and data that makes up architecture today – not out of a sense of denial, but rather from the belief that architectural words, more than ever, retain a gravitational capacity to form, shape and bend architectural minds. My deepest thanks go out to everyone involved in this effort, for being able to communicate this project to you in the beautiful form that follows. Brett Steele, October 2009 Series Editor, Architecture Words

I: The Event 2. Peter Eisenman & REM KOOLHAAS, 2006 A conversation moderated by Brett Steele II: The Commentary 38. Jeffrey Kipnis & Robert Somol, 2006 a conversation moderated by Mark Cousins III: The Backstory 80. Peter Eisenman, 1975 in conversation with Alvin Boyarsky 88. Rem Koolhaas, 1976 introduced by Peter cook IV: The Afterword 94. 100 POINTS on Eisenman & Koolhaas 116. Mea Culpa V: The Evidence 122. Photographs, scans & screenshots


Following weeks spent swapping text messages, emails and phone calls trying first to fix a date (not easy) and then an agenda that each was comfortable with as the framework for an hour-long discussion (even harder, I learned), Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas arrived to a packed house at the AA in London in the evening of 30 January 2006 for a public discussion of their careers, projects, writings and architectural beliefs. After a few minutes of warm-up – when each established their initial positions – they launched into a fascinating, wandering exchange that illuminated their various projects and writing. The story of how they first encountered one another, at a Richard Meier lecture in 1973, led to the reflection, at the end of the talk, that the limitations of their own success might just perhaps be explained by the kind of success that an architect like Meier has long enjoyed. – editor

Part I: The Event 30 January 2006

Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas with Brett Steele, 30 January 2006


Supercritical: Rem Koolhaas Meets Peter Eisenman A conversation moderated by Brett Steele AA Lecture Hall, london brett steele Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas are two architects who certainly need no introduction – either to any of us here this evening or, most certainly, to one another. Each has been to the AA countless times before, going back to the 1970s – a time when Rem was a student and young teacher, and Peter a frequent and prominent visitor. From what I know, however, these two haven’t done before what they’re doing this evening – sharing a stage together. So I’m pleased that we’ve been able to arrange this event tonight, which I’ve titled with a made-up word, ‘Supercritical’, to give this public conversation the sense of Brett Steele urgency it deserves. The conversation should be fun for many reasons, and not just for the opportunity it provides for us to begin to disentangle some of the remarkable strands, shared (and opposing) sensibilities and biographical anecdotes that connect these two towering figures in contemporary architecture. On behalf of the entire AA, it’s a great honour for me to welcome both Peter and Rem back to the school this evening. Over the past few weeks the three of us have been exchanging phone calls, emails and text messages – we will see how far this bit of advance choreography takes us. Roughly speaking, there are four or five key topics we thought would be interesting to try and work into the evening’s discussion:



1. The idea of what might constitute a critical practice in architecture today, which of course both of our guests are acknowledged as having pursued for many years. 2. The relationship between what we might call the ‘discipline’ of architecture and the larger world in which the knowledge and practice of architecture is situated. 3. The question of form or figure today. 4. What might constitute the idea of an architectural subject (or subjectivity) today, which might relate to questions about what kind of audience each of these architects imagines that he and his architecture anticipates or works for. 5. How these interests might relate to the unique kinds of working methods, graphic and textual spaces each of you have been interested in throughout your careers. 6. And finally, a last topic, which is a fascinating one by which to begin to differentiate each of your practices – the relationship between architecture and the city. With that as an initial grab bag of topics, let’s begin. Thank you Brett. The idea for this evening germinated in New York City when Rem and I were on a panel, I guess two years or so ago, with two other architects. At the time it was very frustrating, because neither of us felt we could say anything regarding our own shared or differing interests in specific topics, out of deference to the other architects we were sharing a stage with. When we left the room we went to have a coffee together and I remember saying, ‘Rem, we really have to do a conversation between just the two of us’, and he agreed this would be a good idea. And then I said, let’s do a series of three conversations: one in your hometown of Rotterdam, one in my hometown of New York, and one in a neutral site. I guess it was my anglophilia that made me

peter eisenman


Rem Koolhaas Meets Peter Eisenman

think London would make a good third site. In any case, this is the first of our conversations and there’s a lot of energy and hope that if this one works out, we will still attempt another two. In any case, what is so interesting about Brett’s introduction is that as he was talking he listed six topics that don’t sound anything like the ones I thought we were going to talk about. [Laughter] So this is an example of how you can misread conversations, which we all do from differing points of view. In this case I think it’s useful and productive, and not a problem. I have our first topic of Peter Eisenman discussion as ‘architecture and ideology’, not ‘current problems’. I have ‘autonomy and engagement’ as the second topic, which is certainly different from the way Brett described it – as ‘disciplinary issues’. As a third, I have ‘content and form’, not ‘form and figure’, which is really interesting because I think there is enormous variation between content and form, which I wanted to talk about, and form and figure. The fourth was ‘subjectivity’ and the different ways of viewing it. In my notes, the fifth one was certainly ‘diagram versus figure’. And as I understood it, the sixth one was something to do with ‘modernism versus urbanism’. In any case, there are not many ‘versus’ between Rem and me, but I would like to go through the issues as I see them, which I will do by first briefly showing some images. You have to understand, however, that there are two things that I want to put on the table for our discussion tonight. First of all, as I recall, Rem and I began talking to each other as early as the fall of 1973. We were at Columbia, attending a lecture by Richard Meier. Richard gave one of his usual lectures at that time and Rem stood up afterwards and made a strong critical statement. I then stood up in order to defend my friend Richard, as was always my wont: I said, in effect, ‘you can’t attack Richard like that here in New York. Afterwards Rem told me he thought I was acting as a referee, rather than as another participant in the



audience. Needless to say the discussion continued between Rem and me after that event, back at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in Manhattan. So this incident was our first real discussion where some of our differences could be seen. There was another evening, and Rem loves to quote this episode, when I apparently walked into his office and said abruptly, ‘Rem, your problem is you don’t know anything about form’. (I say this trying to imitate Rem imitating me.) It sounds like something I might have said back in those days. I recently analysed Rem’s work in a seminar called ‘Ten Canonical Buildings of the 20th Century’. It is important to understand that architects, like philosophers and literate people and artists (the kind of architects we all should be), should be absolutely familiar with their colleagues’ work. Right now I am working on an article on Rem for the Spanish magazine AV, titled ‘Rem Koolhaas, Strategies of the Void: The Becoming Image of the Diagram’. It is an important piece for me, in order to understand where I am in relation to the kind of thinking Rem is currently doing. It is difficult for any of us to get past the news-speak, journalism and the media surrounding fellow architects today. Perhaps it is only possible through writing. Some people are certainly afraid to write about fellow architects for fear of losing their friendship. But I think it is important for architects to say and write things, not only for and to each other, but to stand up critically and talk about the issues. All of these thoughts I offer as the context for my comments tonight. So let me begin with a first topic, which I take to be that of ‘architecture and ideology’. I begin with an image of our Holocaust Memorial project in Berlin. This project raises two of the most important problems in my current work. The first is the question of how architecture relates to the dominance of opticality in our time, that is, how it affects the way we view and think about architecture as opposed to what we might call the problem of the metaphysics of presence, the fact that all presence is not only presence but the representation or the sign of presence.


Rem Koolhaas Meets Peter Eisenman

The second issue is ‘autonomy versus engagement’, which takes us to a library competition that both Zaha and I took part in. The project shows how I see autonomy today and deals with what I call the question of horizontal vectors. There is an existing church built on the site of a former church, where there are two grids, one real and the other virtual. For our project we took this and used a series of the horizontal vectors that you can produce on the computer to distort the structure Memorial to the Murdered Jews of the relationship between the two. of Europe, Berlin, by Eisenman In other words, instead of superposArchitects ing them as I would have done in the past, as a kind of process project, we allowed the two grids to interact with one another and create an internal vortex of space that is different from the vortex of space in Le Corbusier’s Strasbourg Congress Hall project. It is the kind of space Rem critiques in many of his projects involving voids, for example his Très Grande Bibliothèque and the project for the Jussieu libraries in Paris. The third topic that I imagined we would talk about tonight is ‘content and form’. Compare Rem’s Seattle Central Library with a model of our Hamburg library proposal. I would argue that there is no question that Rem’s library is an architecture where ‘content’ is form. But I would also argue that our Hamburg project is Competition entry for the ‘form as content’, and that there is Très Grande Bibliothèque an enormous difference between the by OMA juxtapositions of these two words – ‘content as form’ or ‘form as content’. The next topic is the difference between our ideas about the subject, or the subject as voyeur. I see the subject as no longer merely passive, but as a participant in the space of the project. We have been working on something I call radical passivity. You find this kind of subject – a non-passive passive subject


Image section


A clear path for locating the nexus of an architect's mind can be seen to follow from an imagined direct connection between an architectural idea, the mind it resides in and the eventual, inexplicable material realisation found in the form of a building, a space, a structure. This section of Supercritical provides comparison without commentary, allowing the reader to draw conclusions, not buildings, in the terms of his or her own imagination. – editor


Handwriting analysis: notes by Eisenman (top) and Koolhaas (above)

The Event

Peter Eisenman, Brett Steele and Rem Koolhaas, AA Lecture Hall, 30 January 2006

Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas, Aa Director's Office, 30 January 2006