Saturday, 6 February 2010

the state of the union, by peter eisenman

Galicia City of Culture model, Eisenman Architects.
“When I was a boy I used to buy my clothes at Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue. Not especially because it was Brooks Brothers, but because if you wanted the best clothes in New York, everyone knew they were to be found on Madison. But the genius loci of Madison Avenue has been destroyed: I can now buy Brooks Brothers in any place, in Newark Airport, in Macau, and so on…”
Eisenman, who spoke at the AA on Friday, made a convincing argument for the non-existence of place, or as he put it “the dissolution of the Hegelian dialectic of Zeitgeist versus Genius Loci” through the destruction of the latter by capital. And in this sense he essentially prolonged the arguments of Fukuyama’s Death of History (and to a lesser extent also those of Derrida).

The absolute dominance of capital as the driving force of contemporary global society is indisputable, and it has been the case for some decades. Saarinen’s TWA building at Newark (a magnificent structure even today) has been abandoned for no other reason than that it fails to serve capital any longer. A more contemporary example would be that of Dubai.

In Rem Koolhaas’ Junkspace he tells us explicitly what capital inevitably produces: ubiquitous, atopical detritus.

Eisenman recently won a competition in Milan, and the client came and asked him for a 40-storey building. The size of the site did not necessitate it, nor the context of the city lend itself to such a proposal. “Does the desire for a tower stem from theories of living?” he asked, and the client replied, “No, we want to make a statement.”

There can be no spirit of place to a 40-storey tower, or a 100,000m2 mall, because the scale upon which the building is founded is not that of architecture, but that of global capital. This demand requires larger and larger projects from larger and larger firms, with a necessary homogenisation of planning and degradation of detail quality. Additionally, we do not have a grammar to describe this contemporary situation: what is the grammar of a 40-storey tower?

Eisenman paused. “At what point do you refuse? Have I sold out? Is this the end of Eisenman as an architect? I don’t know…” In any case, the result will be a shed with signage, where the signage is the word ‘Eisenman’.
This degradation leads to an architecture that abandons space and concerns itself only with surface (he gave Zaha in the front row a pointed look).

When Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi flew to Las Vegas in 1968 they classified the architecture they found into two categories: the ‘decorated shed’ (a block volume with elaborate signage) and the ‘duck’ (a building whose form resembles its economic purpose, as in the giant duck that sells ducks). The two terms subsequently became widely accepted metaphors to broadly describe the approach of contemporary architectural projects.

“If you were a young Scott Brown or Venturi today where would you go to re-enact ‘Lessons from Las Vegas’? You couldn’t go anywhere, because Las Vegas is everywhere – it is New York, it is Milan, it is Singapore, and we have to ask ourselves… Is this where we want the world to go?”

Rem argued that, since Junkspace was unavoidable, better to embrace it. As a consequence his more recent projects (CCTV, Seattle, Casa de Musica) are really nothing more than ducks, albeit somewhat decorated-ducks. Although, and Eisenman didn’t mention this, it could be said these were conscious decisions on Rem’s part, foreshadowed in S,M,L,XL.

Ultimately the main problem with the dominance of capital in architecture remains the question of scale. Architects trained in the design of domestic-scale buildings struggle to imagine the scale of modern capital.

For Eisenman’s City of Culture in Galicia he was asked to design not one building, but six: “how can an architect conceive of 6 buildings simultaneously?” He mentioned a man he knows building a city in China for three million and he wondered how such a thing could be possible.

The other day Gehry was around Eisenman’s place trying to hawk his Catia program, saying how a program designed to realise architecture was indispensible for a practise like Eisenman’s. This set Peter on a rant: the younger generation behave like computers – they have lost the capacity to develop creative response, and instead limit themselves by the programs they use, like rhino, or maya, or max. These programs are not designed to describe space and time, but for film animation, or for other media, or whatever. He calls this thinking the “Parametric disease”, which is spreading, and whose origin is found under the thumb of capital… At one student crit recently a young woman had produced a script to generate a certain type of building, and Eisenman asked her which one she was going to choose. She responded “but choice is no longer the issue, any one will do!”

Peter’s comments about the spirit of our age, and particularly the prolongation of Hegelian history, seemed too good not to pick out and roll into Millennium People’s second post on the Digital Dialectic, scheduled for the 10th Feb. Be sure to check back on us then…

Cultural City at Galicia, under construction.


  1. I forgot to mention that "The State of the Union" was Peter's own informal title for his lecture...

  2. Was it Theodor Adorno who said modernity is not the new but the longing for the new? It seems to me that it's this paradigm that informs what Eisneman terms 'the dialectic of capital'. Really, his remarks seem a little passe to me - this is orthodox Marxian historical materialism, simply applied to architecture - and we've seen that before. Apropos 'the duck' - I prefer Reyner Banham's term 'zoomorphic', or any adaptation thereof, so, a donut stand becomes 'donutmorphic' &c. Anyway, if, as I have, you have stood on a cold winter night in New England and peered into the core of a crumbling Eisenman case study-style house, and seen its warped plywood and buckling floors (was it House 4 or 6? It's so hard to differentiate if you onl;y apply numerals), then it's hard not paraphrase Shelley: Look upon my futurity and despair...

  3. Thanks for the post!

    It was an interesting anti-capitalist lecture coming from a capitalist Zeitgeist. I guess when someone cares so much about architecture the only possible alternative is schizophrenia.

    If you want to watch the video of the lecture, you have it in: