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Peter Eisenman nterview

In conversation with Caroline O’Donnell + Ling Fan

LF: A year ago you retired from Princeton for the third time. How do you

PE: Books last longer than buildings. If Palladio had not written, nobody

feel about Princeton in retrospect?

would look at his villas today. Alberti, Schinkel, Brunelleschi, Le Corbusier, Rossi, Venturi, Koolhaas, all leaders, wrote. It is in the critical tradition to

PE: Leaving Princeton the first time was the luckiest thing that ever

write. Le Corbusier once said that he wanted to write a book for every building

happened to me: I was able to start the Institute for Architecture and

that he built. There is no guarantee that through writing one becomes a good

Urban Studies. Had I not left, I would still be there as a tired, perhaps bitter

architect. Greg Lynn has written two of the most important books of his

man wondering why I stayed. The second time I left, I was a finalist for

generation. He is an important architect. Had he not written those books, he

the deanship with Ralph Lerner, and he won. Had I become dean, I would

might not be as important. One has to do both.

never have built the buildings that I have built. The third time I left, which was last year, I again felt fortunate. I have a new life, which is very different

COD: As well as writing, reading is an important part of your work. For you,

from what I would have had if I had stayed in Princeton. I have always said

architecture should be read. Why is that so important?

that Princeton was too small, too claustrophobic. While there is value in the intimacy between faculty and students in a small school, ultimately

PE: What distinguishes literature from trashy novels, what distinguishes film

quantity brings quality. Princeton has very good students, there is no

from movies, what distinguishes great art from mediocre art is the necessity

question about that. But if it were bigger, it would be better.

and capacity in each to be read closely. Great film has always needed to be read. Learning how to close read, both words and buildings, is very important.

LF: It seems to me as I move from academia to the world of practice, that

If you can close read, eventually you can design. I do not know how to read

there is a disjunction between practice and theory in architectural

literary work or film or painting, but I know how to close read architecture.

education in the US. How do you see that relationship?

That is why I am so confident in my capacity to be an architect. It is not a great thing, necessarily. I do not think architecture is better than any other arts. In

PE: First, my teaching and practice are not different; they are one and the

fact, I think it is dumber in many respects. I get more joy in watching a film

same. I have often said that university does not have enough reality to

for two hours and learning how to close read a film than I do in looking at a

sustain theory, and that practice does not have enough theory to sustain

building for two hours. I think I get more joy out of reading a novel closely

reality. To learn to be an architect, you have to learn what architecture is. You

for three or four hours than looking at a piece of architecture. I think that

have to learn how to see as an architect.

architecture is one of the lowest of the reading phenomena. If you ask me, what would you replace studio with, I would say I would replace studio with

LF: Since Oppositions, you have continued to write and publish prolifically.

close reading—learning how to use analytical tools to close read projects.

You are one of the few architects who manages to balance this with a successful practice. Why do you feel that it is necessary to do both?


COD: In recent years, you have moved from advocating the legibility of the index towards what you have called “unintelligibility.” Why is that?


PE: The index has gone through its time. The time of index started around 1972. Today, the work is about such things as partial figures, illegibility, incomprehensibility. Following Edward Said’s On Late Style, I believe in “the moment of lateness” instead of a new paradigm. Said describes lateness as something that involves the non-capacity to receive information. Particularly in the media era, we are so saturated with information—finding out who did this, or what happened, etc.—that information becomes boring. To produce information from close reading is not what my work is about. Rather, it is about the frustration of information by producing a reading in its place. Think about the new cuisine, for example. Ingredients are combined in ways that are unintelligible; you cannot identify what you are eating. You are merely receiving sensations. Our Hamburg Domplatz project was a project that was unintelligible. That does not mean it cannot be read; it means you can read it but you cannot get information from this reading. COD: Recently, Charles Jencks accused you of being a “Duck in Denial” (Log 9,

PE: Well, is it possible to be not spectacular and win? You cannot win

p. 11) - Is it possible not to be spectacular?

today if you are not somehow part of the spectacle. We are in the Rococo phase of modern architecture when even the critics, the most stubbornly conservative critics, need the spectacle. How is it possible to not be involved in the spectacle and be involved in it at the same time? Projects are bound to lose competitions because they are anti-iconic. On the other hand, building a measure of anti-spectacularity might give some sense that all is not well with the spectacle. In the age of spectacle, to be not spectacular is to not be part of one’s age. There is a component of the spectacular in Santiago. You

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go to those buildings and you just go “wow!” I would like to think those

PE: Context matters. It is true that in my earlier projects context was not

are not spectacular buildings. It remains to be seen whether or not they are

a factor. In fact, these projects were a denial of context. One cannot begin

successful. We won that competition because we were spectacularly anti-

again without acknowledging something that has gone before, i.e. context.

spectacular. In other words, we did not give them an image. We gave them

Context is what I call a persistency but not precedent. Persistencies are

an image of a non-image. If you can make non-image images, that is where

precedents without value. Therefore, I can be interested in context without

the world is.

becoming a Colin Rowe, a New Urbanist, a contextualist. Persistencies reflect history. It is not possible to transform anything without beginning

COD: And if there is not a competition, if you don’t have to deal with that

somewhere. In another words, if design is the move from A to B, you have to


understand what A is. And A is the context, program, etc. The places with the most context are for me the most interesting because it gives the chance to

PE: Competitions put you on the edge in a certain way, which I like. I am a

take a very rich A and transform that rich A into a rich B. That is not the way I

competitive person. If you do not have a direct commission, competitions

used to work. Ever since Cannaregio—which represented a big change in my

push limits, which then have to be accepted by a client. Whereas if you are

work—context has been radically important.

given a direct commission, those limits may have to be accepted. COD: And that was not even a real context. COD: We know that form matters to you. Your project in Santiago is almost complete and you are still shifting around programs. Do you still say that

PE: It was a fictional context. Reality and fiction are more or less the same,

program doesn’t matter?

just different ways of looking at something that may or may not be true.

PE: First of all, it is the client who is constantly changing the program, but

COD: Something that keeps me here in this office is your constant

they tell us they do not want to change the architecture. Even in history,

questioning of your work, reinventing yourself. What’s next?

after some of the best buildings are finished, the client changes their functions. Ultimately, it is form that matters if you are an architect. If you

PE: One cannot be an enfant terrible at 75 years old. One has to act one’s age,

are a sociologist or a demographer, perhaps not so much. The client can

at least sometimes. How many times can I have new ideas? I do not need

fill those buildings with anything they want, and it will not hurt those

to have many new ideas. I am rethinking ideas. I am always teaching new

buildings. Certainly program does matter. There cannot be spaces that

things. When I go to Santiago, I learn from looking at things. I don’t want to

refuse program.

just repeat Santiago. I am trying to think things through differently. Do not forget, Pompei was my first centralized project.

COD: Your position on the role of context seems to have completely shifted


since the sixties. In some recent projects - Santiago, Hamburg, Pompei, for

COD: In terms of projects, is there anything that you haven’t done that

example, a code is derived from a reading of the site, and then that code is

you’d like to do?

obliterated. Why is site becoming more important in your work?


PE: Nothing that I have already done. When I think of a stadium, for example,

you want to kill Daddy. I understand that everybody wants to kill me, if I am

what would be another stadium? Or another house? I would like to build

considered Daddy. Let them try. So far they have not. But maybe they will. It

one of my tall building ideas—not that I believe in the tall building. I would

is good to try.

like to do a prison. I want to do an aquarium. I think architecture is boring. Architecture is like sex, once you do it enough, it is all the same. So why do you want to do things you have done if they are already boring? Because life without sex and architecture would be more boring. LF: There is a group of architects and theorists who are proposing a projective theory and most of them are your protégés. Do you feel instrumental in the development of Projective Theory?

PE: I do not understand the term. What does it mean projective, projecting towards a better future? My work does not do that. What I think they mean is that there is no negative in the projective; that is, there is no dialectic in the projective—and that my work has to do somehow with the recognition of dialectic. Now, I believe that to have positive anything, you have to have negative. To have space or place, you have to have non-place; to have solid, you have to have void; to have presence, you have to have absence. Those are the persistencies of the affective realm of being. That is a phenomenological realm of being. And they do not go away. Negative thinking has been one of the most positive conditions of modern thought. Modernism was, if nothing else, about negative thinking. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Derrida, Benjamin, Cacciari, do we just want to abandon negativity and say: we are going to be positivists? Sounds like a Wittgensteinian return to positivism. I do not understand this kind of thinking. I learned from psychoanalysis: if you do not recognize your unconscious, the shadow, the negative, it will

Ling Fan (2007) and Caroline O’Donnell (2006), both former students of Peter Eisenman at Princeton

escape somehow. You must let it out. After Freud, it is impossible not to

University School of Architecture met with Peter at his office in New York in July 2007. Ling Fan is an

deal with the negative, the shadows, the dark side, the unconscious. I do

architect practicing in Beijing and the guest editor of “Time Architecture” magazine based in Shanghai.

not know a psychology that does not use Freud as a basis for psychological

Caroline O’Donnell is the project architect for Hamburg Domplatz Library and Pompei Railway Station at

understanding. The projective is ultimately naïve. It is a Freudian attempt

Eisenman Architects.

to deal with the Oedipus complex. I think Oedipus complexes are natural:

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Peter Eisenman InterviewIn conversation with Caroline O’Donnell + Ling Fan  

Published in PIGIN