The Current Concerns of Peter Eisenman

At the recent RIAS 2008 (Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland) gathering, Peter Eisenman was a keynote speaker. The thoughts he shared with the convention were organized into six major points, as recapitulated in a transcript at bdonline. Eisenman is known as one of the “New York Five” and, philosophically, as a “deconstructionist,” whose career has been problematic in some ways. In this speech, he makes a point about the widespread media craze for polls and popularity contests, a point which has been made by theorists in fields other than architecture:

Vote for this, vote for whatever stories you want to hear, vote for what popular song you want to hear, vote for what commercial you want to see. This voting gives the appearance of active participation, but it is merely another form of sedation because the voting is irrelevant. It is part of the attempt to make people believe they are participating when in fact they are becoming more and more passive.

He warns that people, especially students, have become increasingly non-participatory, content to just lie back and let their sensoria be flooded by tides of images. This is particularly dangerous in the case of students because it is the young to whom we look for the fresh ideas and the massive amount of energy it takes to effect changes in society. But now, terrible things are going on all over the globe, and students are inert.

Eisenman seems concerned by the ubiquity of media, and its inseparable intertwining with human endeavors at the most mundane level, to the point where people have almost become extensions of their own computers. He sees this as the cause of a widespread societal epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder, causing the inability to focus or concentrate on anything for more that a short time. Irrelevant information keeps multiplying, he feels, while genuine communication shrinks. In his view, architecture must resort to “more and more spectacular imaging” to counter this trend.

But, speaking of spectacular imaging, what about computer-aided design? Well, it seems that Eisenman thinks computers have a deleterious effect on design standards. There is a connection between what the hand does and what the brain learns, which he feels is being broken when students no longer draw with actual tools on actual paper. He goes so far as to say that computers are great for those who don’t want to think, an assertion that would surely be disputed by any student burning the midnight oil, trying to wrap her head around the latest software package. But his own students, he says, are no longer able to draw a simple diagram or plan, and this bodes no good for the future of architecture as a whole.

He goes on to discuss the difference between icons, symbols, and indices, and what the difference means in terms of real-world applications. He references the work of C. S. Peirce, explaining what is meant by the concept of the “decorated shed.” For some reason, which may or may not lay responsibility at the door of the CAD revolution, Eisenman sees a loss of values in architecture, resulting in an inability to judge.

He sees some importance in sorting out what phase architecture currently resides in, relative to its other phases both past and future. The phase architecture is in now, he says, is a period of late style, which contains no new paradigm, but represents the end of a historic cycle. Quoting Edward Said, he sees late style as, “A moment not of fate or hopelessness but one that contains a possibility of looking at a great style for the possibility of the new and the transformative.”

Eisenman goes on to reflect on the relationship between the part and the whole: the building is related to the site, which is related to the street, the immediate neighborhood, and the whole city. He concludes that to be an architect is a social act, and that this engagement with society is what needs to be concentrated on now.

(Pictured: one view of Eisenman’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”)

SOURCE: ” Eisenman’s six point plan ” 05/14/08
photo courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt , used under this Creative Commons license

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