Peter Eisenman "The Matter of Architecture" Cornell University 2004.02.04
The title of this talk is really in the form of a question. I do not know if, in fact, it will answer any questions. The reason why I ask is that every year at my introduction to teaching either at Yale or at Princeton I ask my students to name ten Italian architects from the period 1450 to 1600. Since I have in total approximately about eighty of them, even though that would not be a cross-section of intelligence in America or in architecture, the results tell you something. The usual score is three. High is four, rarely five. When I make it more difficult and I say, name ten buildings by those ten architects, everything goes blank. And then, if I ask, who was the architect who painted "The Fire in the Borgo," they look at me like I am crazy. And the question is, maybe they are right. They look at me as if to say, "Why do we need to know these things?" And I think that is a very interesting question. Why indeed? What I am going to do tonight is to try and offer some possible reasons that the history of one's discipline is important and not in any sense as a sentimental recall of times lost. But for me, history is part of the interiority of any discipline.
Now I realize that I may be running against an enormous current. For example, when I watch my own children, especially my twelve-year-old, when he gets on a computer and does something called IM-ing (he is allowed an hour of IM-ing a night) and an hour of x-boxing (a computer game console). Sometimes I see the messages in IM. There are no capitals; there is no punctuation; there is no sentence structure. It is just run-on stream-of-consciousness – orality at its most promiscuous, but it is written. Even before IM-ing, the notion of writing a letter for most of us has been also lost by email, because we no longer write letters. I do not do email because I do not type fast enough.
I write things longhand and send them by fax, which is also becoming obsolete, but one cannot yet send longhand letters by email. Perhaps I am an old-fashioned person in that I deal in paper. For example, when I am writing a text I have to print it out and then take a pair of scissors and I cut paragraphs and move them around visually, even though I have heard you can do this in a computer. However, I cannot see it. I do not know which keys to push. And so I prefer to put the paper out like a long scroll and see which paragraph goes with which paragraph. Of course, people who are typing these things say, we don't know where these paragraphs came from, and it probably screws everybody up.
This problem extends to paper in architecture and to paperless studios, to building real architectural models, and doing what I call real architectural plans. We get students in our office, particularly from this institution, who are fabulous at 3D Studio Max and Rhino and Maya and the new languages, but then I ask them to make a plan. They do not know how what making a plan is; it is not connecting dots on a computer. They have no idea about making a parti even to make a more contemporary idea – a diagram, it cannot be done by connecting dots. One still needs an idea first. Students today have no concept of the plan. The question is, do they need to?
The general question that I am asking is what is the future of the history of the discipline in relationship to architecture. This assumes that there is a dividing line today between what could be history and what is the present. For architecture this could be conceptualized as today being between the analog and the digital. And I think the edge of that analogy is between Frank Gehry and Greg Lynn. Frank, no matter how much he uses computers, is an analog architect. He works his things out by crunching paper, moving it around, etc. in an old-fashioned way and then uses the computer to systematize the crunching. Whereas Greg starts with the possibility of the algorithms of the computer to crunch form and space for himself. There are basically the two poles.
For argument's sake, the digital model is in a sense a dumb model when it comes to architecture. Does it contain anything that one could call architectural since the algorithms that are in use are not designed or have no basis of knowledge of architecture? It could be argued that to use digital algorithms as they are and produce what is called architecture today, assumes the possibility of no knowledge of history. I would ask how one assesses value in digital work, how one produces algorithms that in fact deal with the discipline as opposed to are imported into the discipline and if in fact there is such as thing as any disciplinary expertise.
That having been said, what does one teach? How does one teach values as an expertise as opposed to mechanisms as an expertise? I teach Palladio. Why do I teach Palladio? It represents in a microcosm an idea of the discipline. Similarly one could teach Le Corbusier or Piranesi, as a model for how to use historical precedents today. On the other hand, it would be difficult to teach Frank Gehry or Greg Lynn not because they are of the present, but I personally do not know how to think their work, to frame their discourse. Since I am still teaching, one could ask why should I still be teaching. Perhaps as an antidote to these other kinds of pedagogies.
I make all of my first-year architectural students draw for the whole year. They are not allowed to use computers because they need to understand what it is in one's hand to draw history, to draw differences between a plan of Palladio and one of Vignola, even if they never use it. On the other hand, I don't hire people because they can draw. They have to have computer skills. But in order to have computer skills, I believe you have to know how to draw. You have to know the scales before you can write operas. The second thing is that I believe any discipline, whether it is the law, medicine, engineering, philosophy, language, etc. is a tool not only for knowledge, but also for thinking. I think you have to learn how to think in a specific discipline. And I believe what I call thinking in architecture is a second sight. It is something which non-architects do not have. When tourists go to Venice, because they do not have a second sight they cannot look at Palladio; they cannot look at Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore because they do not need to know how to do this. But an architect does need to know this. And therefore an architect needs to develop what I call a second sight. And that for me is a tool for thinking.
I teach Palladio first because Palladio is also a critical vehicle. In his time and in his place, Palladio challenged the conventional wisdom that had started with Brunelleschi, to Alberti, to Bramante, each one challenging the next. In other words, each one displacing architecture as it was known. Palladio did two things, which makes his work critical. He both designed buildings and built buildings, yet then, in 1570, at the end of his life when he had built all of the projects, he redrew all of the buildings, not as they were built, not as measured drawings of buildings, but as he conceptualized or conceived them. He produced a book called I Quattro Libri, the Four Books of Architecture. Such a book represents part of what I consider to be a critical practice. That is, he recorded a critical view of his own production. I believe that without those four books no one would ever go and look at the little houses of Palladio. As a matter of fact you can watch tourists go to Venice and follow their tracks like ants through honey or sugar and they avoid assiduously all buildings by Palladio because they cannot see them; they cannot see their critical nature. Thus for me the first value of history is its criticality.
Now, the second argument for history is something like this: that Alberti said to start off the chain, even after Brunelleschi, that the most important thing for a discipline was history. That is, what he said was "storia," and he said that every discipline had to have a history in order, one, to exist but two, to be able to change. It is like Colin Rowe's argument that if you do not have a constitution, no change is possible. He always says that England is never able to change because it never had a moment of change. Most of the books that are written in fact are books which are categorical treatises which in a sense remove criticality from the issue of history and like the book by J. N. L. Durand, by Guadet, Choissy, Talbot-Hamlin, people who produced categorical treatises on the way architecture should be. And they are important because if we do not have a categorical treatise we do not have a way of reacting against the concordances of its coherence. What Alberti said was that there has to be a moment where history is recorded so change can be made from that moment to the present.
Because architectural history, its coherence, is different; it does not in its history confirm the zeitgeist but in fact is always a disturbance to that zeitgeist. And so history became a sequence of what I would call critical displacements. Now, for architecture I think this is a unique situation because actually architecture is the only critical discipline which displaces in order to place or places in order to displace. In other words, it has the function of placing, of situating, of concretizing matter in such a way at the same time that it must displace. A building would be nothing in the history of architecture if it did not displace the given conventions that were existing at that time. An architecture that is displacing is one that in fact contains a level of criticality.
In fact the only history that we read is a history of those architects that displaced those conditions that always attempt to hold the discipline together. Displacement attacks coherence but does not eliminate it. So architecture is a struggle between a necessary coherence and its necessary displacement. Freud said that the reason for psychoanalysis is to bring forward those elements that keep an individual from gaining his or her autonomy. The critical nature of architectural history is that condition that allows architecture to bring forward its autonomy. That autonomy, whatever it may be at any given time, is what makes the discipline alive. Thus there is an intimate link between displacement, criticality, and autonomy that exists uniquely in architecture.
Now what I am putting forward tonight is since architecture is a displacing condition, since it must displace in order to move forward, is it not fair to ask the question should it not displace its own history? In other words, should it not say that Alberti – to learn the sequence Brunelleschi, Alberti, Bramante, Palladio, Borromini, Piranesi, etc. – is unnecessary. In other words, because if in fact architecture should displace why should it not displace its own history?
The issue is the question of the future of history. Which is, how do you displace the history of the discipline in order to open up the discipline. And a related issue is the question of the relationship of architecture to what I call the present or the zeitgeist. There are two ideas about history. One is Mies van der Rohe's idea that architecture is the will of the epoch translated into steel and glass. In other words, that you find a historical moment; you understand that historical moment and you translate it somehow, whatever way one is supposed to do that, into built form. And the other is the anti-zeitgeist argument and that is that you take the geist and you say that it is problematic and the one thing you do not want to do is to create something that continues that moment in time forward into the future. And I would argue then that we are in a situation today where that geist is now defined in a very different way than it was defined, let's say, fifty years ago.
And that is, in terms of media. And media has turned information into a commodity and has caused people to think in very different ways. They think in sound bytes; my kids all watch advertising on television and they don't watch the programs, because the advertising is clearly better than the programs. And so therefore we are all prisoners of media. We behave as media wants us to behave. There are these reality shows. Three weeks ago I went to Italy to a conference. I gave five interviews and five photo ops, all about media which took more time than my twenty-minute presentation. The only reason I was there it seemed was because media demands people to consume and I was one of the people that was brought in to be consumed.
The question goes back to Guy Debord's book The Society of the Spectacle in 1968, and there are two issues in Debord's book which I think are important. One is that the spectacle is a condition that is constantly eroding away and opening more and more demands on image, on information, etc. and therefore we become more and more passive. And I think the big moment for me that I realized about that was the spectacle of the World Trade Center which turned into a media spectacle all around the world except for all of us who were living in New York where it was a real event. And the difference between the reality of being in New York and the spectacle of the media are such different moments in time and place which then recalls the whole idea of placing and being in a place that architecture somehow is about. So that was a critical moment.
The second critical idea that is implied in Debord and others talks about is the idea of explosion versus implosion. Our mediated, capitalist society is about explosion, about getting more and bigger markets. But what you realize as you go around this country is that we may need to contract, to have our plans implode. For example we are doing a project in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which at one time was a thriving downtown with an active economy. It is a city of four hundred thousand people, and it has only one Double Tree Hotel and a Ramada Inn. The entire downtown is a parking lot filled with churches, or churches in parking lots, and on Sunday, the city is very active because it is called the "buckle on the Bible Belt." Because everybody from the suburbs comes to services in these grand old churches that were built in downtown Tulsa, fills up the parking lots, and Tulsa is an active city for four hours on a Sunday morning and then it is like a ghost town. What probably should happen in Tulsa is to suggest that instead of exploding, Tulsa ought to implode, in other words, it ought to become smaller. It ought to condense its urban grid and fill in its fabric because there is not enough economic activity to warrant filling it all in and yet it must have a certain density to sustain any meaningful infrastructure.
There are many cities that ought to become smaller. How do we use a history that teaches us how to grow, to add new things, how to build onto something, to make something smaller? You have to find out how it became bigger and what are the environmental conditions that have caused it in a sense or need to implode. And if there would be one idea about the history of the future or the future of history is how do you deal with the concept of implosion as an architectural idea?
When I was in school, we all believed that there was a future and we believed that architecture could influence and add to that future. I think there are very few students in this audience or in any school that believe that anymore. Architecture was proven unable to carry out that promise of a St. George figure slaying the dragon of the past or a St. Paul figure pointing the way to a better future. My argument would be that there were a series of texts that we all read. We all read Vers une architecture; we looked at the Oeuvre Complete; we read Rossi's Architecture of the City, Tafuri's Theories and History; we read Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction, we read Reyner Banham's Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. These were common texts that had common currency between 1955 and 1975. We all had access to these texts. As a matter of fact, when we found out Le Corbusier died, Michael Graves and I took every page of the Oeuvre Complete, took it apart and covered the walls of the front gallery of the architecture school at Princeton, from floor to ceiling, with these books, and then put black crepe paper Xes over these pages. Now that gesture would be improbable today. When a James Stirling died, when a Aldo Rossi died, who would do something like that and what would they do? What would be the artifacts that would symbolize this passing?
The suggestion is there is a link between a rather critical attitude to the present's capacity to project the future and a certain loss of the discipline as a history in the lack of any common artifacts, particularly books that have a common currency. Not since Delirious New York has there been a book that one needed to have, that one would take on a desert island. This says something about your situation, there are no books perhaps because it is felt they are not needed. Perhaps why the students do not know anything about the Italian architects of the Cinquecento, or how to draw plans, is because it is felt they do not need to know. And the issue then is, if not, what is it that they need to know other than Maya, Rhino, etc.? The question is as architecture is displacing – can the idea of a plan, the idea of a parti, and ultimately also history be displaced? But how much displacement can there be before there is no coherence? For me that coherence is not clear.
A final thought: I want to encourage all of you to go and rent the film "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" by Alain Resnais. It is a film about a Japanese architect and a young French actress set in Hiroshima in the 1950s. It is a stunning movie. And then, go and see "Lost in Translation" which is the Sophia Coppola film of present-day Japan. Both films are supposedly love stories, but they are basically about architecture. If you want to see a difference in the idea of architecture today, you have to see these two films together. "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" could not be made today. I remember seeing Antonioni's "L'Avventura" and seeing the towns of Avila and Noto; I was stunned by the sort of emptiness, the silence of those movies. I see them today and I realize how off-the-charts my nervous system is, that I cannot sit still. I cannot sit and watch nothing for two hours. I remember we used to go watch Andy Warhol five-hour films, watching nothing, or Peter Kubelka's flicker films, watching black and white, black and white, and sit there mesmerized. Today, you all would look and say, "Wha? What's that stuff?" But I would like to believe that Sophia Coppola could not have made "Lost in Translation" without seeing "Last Year at Marienbad" or "L'Avventura," certainly "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," without understanding the discipline and how the discipline can come into being today.
Jean-Luc Godard said at the time of the film that it is a film that would be actually inconceivable in terms of what we already know about film. The question for me then is, how does the discipline of architecture come into being today in a way which would be inconceivable in terms of what we already know about architecture? I leave you with that question.