Hannes Richter

An Interview with Peter Eisenman

Hannes Richter
Renegade of the Architectural World

To this day Peter Eisenman, born 1932 in New Jersey and educated at Cornell, Columbia and Cambridge universities, remains one of the most radical contemporary architects and a source of constant irritation. This was reconfirmed by the reactions to his  Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

All his works are based on the concept that architecture should be based on disruption and subsequent reconstruction, the objective of which, according to Eisenman, is   a perpetual metaphysical renewal. In 2005, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna presented an exhibition on Eisenman’s work entitled,  Barefoot on White-Hot Walls.

U.S. Architect, Peter Eisenmann

Peter Eisenman, are we suffering from an inflation of architectural publications and exhibitions? Is architecture possibly being overestimated?

No. Architecture will always continue to be underestimated. We are used to consuming media, but we don’t participate in architecture. Why do people go to fitness clubs, or go jogging? In order to be a part of something. But they fail to use their mind, and instead use their body. Architecture is the only discipline which incorporates mind, eye and body. It is more important than ever. Architecture is apparently more relevant to the Italians, the Spanish, Austrians and Germans than to the Anglo Saxon countries. I don’ t think that the British or the Americans care who builds what. Why is this exhibition running in the museum in Vienna? I never had an exhibit in New York’s MOMA.

How do you attempt to explain that?

Because the people in the United States don’t care. Take the example of Austria. You had Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner, who all played a significant role during a particular period. Architecture was a part of the culture of Karl Kraus, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and the Sezession (Art Nouveau). Today in Austria there is Hans Hollein, Gustav Peichl, Wolf Prix. Whenever there is an important project to be carried out in Vienna, Austrian architects will often be commissioned for it because architecture is a decisive part of their culture, politically and socially. In America, that is not the case.

Model by Peter Eisenmann exhibited in Vienna

So, does the U.S. suffer from a lack of culture?

No, not from a lack of culture but from a failure to perceive architecture as a cultural phenomenon. Just look at the New York Times. Architecture is always relegated to the back pages; seldom does it make the front page. Every country judges architecture differently. I can never go to Germany without being interviewed by the press, particularly in respect to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. In Germany, there is a healthy debate going on; that’s not the case in New York.

New York City in one hundred years. Can you imagine what it will look like?

New York was never friendly to architects. Since 1986, when the Biennale started awarding prizes to cities, it was never bestowed upon New York. That has its good reason: there is little architecture in American cities. Tourists come to America to see its nature, the Grand Canyon or the Prairies. Chicago has interesting architecture. But if someone travels to St. Louis? No. To Kansas City? No. The majority of cities are urban deserts. I could immediately name ten European cities which exhibit greater architectural culture than most American cities. None of the political parties has ever concerned itself with architecture. They are neither interested in social building projects nor in public places. Architecture doesn’t bring in any political votes.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, Germany

How does architecture come about? Where do you begin? Which questions initially arise?

First we have the question of presence. In the Western world we assume that architecture is the locus of presence. But why do we take this assumption as a fact? Because architecture is always  located. But couldn’ t we have an architecture which is  locus and, at the same time, non-locus, presence and non-presence?

So how does one make an architecture of non-presence?

This very question has propelled my work for forty years. One can look at it in various ways... Isaac Newton asked about the design of the universe and since then we have Newton’s physics. Then came Descartes, then Einstein and then Heisenberg. They were thinkers who tried to understand the assumptions of the others. That is why today, we have become something different. There is scientific progress and progress in philosophy, so why shouldn’ t one try to advance the culture of architecture?

Let us talk about your exhibition. Strange. Is that the reaction that you wish to produce from those visiting it?

Are you familiar with the pictures that are part of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin? It is strange. People are speechless; they don’t know what to say. They don’t lose themselves per se, but they have a feeling of being lost in space. In reality, it is impossible to lose oneself. But how would it be to feel lost for just a moment? Very exciting.

Is the ideal of architecture not an open, illuminated space, in which one is happy to be? You want, however, the visitor to feel oppressed.

In order to make people aware of light and happiness, one needs darkness. Vienna is the city of darkness, of shadows and of the subconscious. Where there is whipped cream, there has to be darkness. Freud discovered the darkness that is hidden in all of us, which we must try to understand. Modern literature is full of figures in a dark universe. Architecture must also look for a point of contact with it. We architects cannot be only  happy people who provide for comfort. I wish that the visitors be confronted with their feelings.

Vienna as  city of darkness. Could you explain that a bit in more detail?

I think that this exhibition has much to do with Vienna, with Freud, with Loos, with the modern age. The modern age in the United States means technology, not ideology. Marxism, Faschism, the Nazis, they have all used architecture as politics, and understood it as ideology. And in a way, they were right, because architecture will always be ideological. It is always political and social, but within its own autonomy of discipline. And that’s what the exhibit is all about.

This article is based on an interview with Peter Eisenman published on 12/11/04 in the Daily, Die Presse.