Q+A> Peter Eisenman
Architect and writer Iman Ansari talks to the groundbreaking architect about his practice and the state of the profession.
Peter Eisenman
Chris Wiley

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Peter Eisenman conducted by writer and architect Iman Ansari. It was originally published in Hamshahri Archtiecture in Iran.

Iman Ansari: Between the object and the idea of the object, your approach favors the latter. The physical house is merely a medium through which the conception of the virtual or conceptual house becomes possible. In that sense, the real building exists only in your drawings.

Peter Eisenman: “Real architecture” only exists in drawings. The “real building” exists outside the drawing. The difference here is that “architecture” and “building” are not the same.

Did you ever wish your houses were not built?

No. If there is a debate in architecture today, the lasting debate is between architecture as a conceptual, cultural, and intellectual enterprise, and architecture as a phenomenological enterprise—that is, the experience of the subject in architecture, the experience of materiality, of light, of color, of space, etc. I have always been on the side opposed to phenomenology. I’m not interested in Peter Zumthor’s work or people who spend their time worrying about the details or the grain of wood on one side or the color of the material on the surface. I couldn’t care less. That having been said, it is still necessary to build. But the whole notion of the idea of “cardboard architecture” meant that the materiality of the work was important as an “anti-material” statement. Probably the most important work I did in the conceptualist realm was the cardboard architecture houses. Pictures of House II, for instance, were taken without sunlight so you have no shadows, and no reveals or things like this, and in fact one of the pictures we took of House II was in a French magazine that said it was a “model of House II.” I have achieved what I wanted to achieve, which was to lessen the difference between the built form and the model. I was always trying to say “built model” as the conceptual reality of architecture. When you see these houses and you visit them you realize that they are didactic and important exercises—each one has a different thematic—but they were concerned not with meaning in the social sense of the word or the cultural sense, but in the “architectural meaning.” I never thought I would want to build anything but houses because I thought they gave sufficient room to experiment with non-functionalities, since there is no one type of functional organization for a house, but there are architectural organizations. But that later proved to be problematic. The second thing was that I didn’t believe it was necessary to ever visit my houses. In other words, there were houses that for the first six months or year they were open I didn’t even go to see them because I thought it wasn’t that important; the important thing was laid in the drawing. The Canadian Centre for Architecture has 2,000 drawings for House II. I would draw and draw because I never knew what I was looking for. I knew the general parameters, but I had no formula for setting up how to achieve it. Each house has an idea behind it.

Do you think because these houses existed cognitively they lost their true meaning the moment they were physically realized—the moment the “real architecture” turned into the “real building”?

Manfredo Tafuri once said to me: “Peter, if you don’t build no one will take your ideas seriously. You have to build because ideas that are not built are simply ideas that are not built.” Architecture involves seeing whether those ideas can withstand the attack of building, of people, of time, of function. Tafuri said history will not be interested in your work if you haven’t built anything. I think that’s absolutely correct. If I had built nothing, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.

What would the building mean in that context? Do you believe the built house or the “real building” stands for the “built-model” of the “real architecture” that exists only conceptually?

Sometimes it does and sometimes it’s beyond, and sometimes it’s less. When you see the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, the spatial experience is extraordinary. The didactic drawing itself is another thing. But they are two different things. I had to build Cincinnati, I had to build Wexner, I had to build Santiago, which is my latest project. You have to see it because you cannot draw it. You cannot cognitively understand what is going on. One has to see it and experience it in a way that is very different conceptually in terms of what I was after. There are three phases in the work. One is the purely conceptual artifacts, which, as you suggested, may not have necessarily had to have been built. The second is the ground projects, which are at a different scale and many of them had to be built. And finally you have Santiago, which is a hybrid project because it is neither a ground nor a figure.

In your Cannaregio project, we witness a new order that initiated the Cities of Artificial Excavation, and characterizes your work after that: The movement from structure to site or text, or better, from structuralization of the object, to the textualization of the site. Or from linguistic operations to textual operations—because texts are quite correct about the site but they are no longer syntactic and grammatical, they are other. And if you say the early houses are analogically grammatical exercises to linguistic exercises, these are no longer analogical to language.

I have lost the faith that language could be somehow an analogous model for architecture. I thought I had to find what I was doing within architecture rather than without architecture. The reading that I’m doing, the work that I’m doing, has more to do with the text of architecture. And that didn’t happen accidentally. The first architectural biennale was Europa-America. Even though Paolo Portoghesi would like to think the Strada Novissima in 1980 was the first biennale, Vittorio Gregotti’s Europa-America in 1976 was the first architectural biennale. I met Vittorio some years earlier and he had appointed me as the head of the American section of the first architectural biennale in Italy. At the same time I was supposed to finish up the working drawings for House X. The client dug a hole waiting to begin the project. I spent the summer in Italy and didn’t pay attention to the drawings. I came back and the working drawings were not done, and the client was furious; he fired me and refused to pay my bills. I was depressed, and I realized that my intellectual side, or cultural side, and my entrepreneurial side had gotten way out of whack. So I went into psychoanalysis and began to learn about the difference between living in your head and living in your body, with the reality of the earth, the ground. When Tafuri wrote “The Meditations of Icarus” in Houses of Cards, he meant that Peter Eisenman was Icarus, and to be Icarus meant that you wanted to fly and to look into the sun, as Icarus did. And to look into the sun meant that you were totally out of touch with the reality of the earth and the ground. Icarus, of course, gets too close to the sun, his wings of wax melt and he falls to earth. Icarus was the son of Daedalus, who made a labyrinth that was guarded by a Minotaur. It was an interesting mythology, which had to do with the ground, digging into the ground and making marks on the ground. I realized that what was wrong with my architecture was that it wasn’t from the ground, from inside the unconscious, beneath the surface. So the first evidence of this occurs in Cannaregio in 1978, where for the first time I did a project totally in the ground. And it’s not only in the ground, it’s also urban. But it’s also not real. It’s conceptual; and uses Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital project as an initial context. In 1980, I’m invited to Berlin to do the Checkpoint Charlie project, which includes the garden of walls. You can’t walk on the ground of Berlin even though it is a project inscribed in the ground. Then I did the Wexner Center. A number of these projects fall within the concept of artificial excavations. The ground afforded me a critical dialogue with the then-current (1978–1980) theory of Figure-Ground Architecture: the black and white drawings of Collin Rowe and the contextualists, work done for Roma Interotta using the Nolli map of Rome. What I was doing was the reverse. I was attacking the historicizing obviousness of “figure-ground” and trying to make what I call a “figure-figure urbanism.” And that of course had to do with my interest in Piranesi, and his Campo Marzio.

Do you think that the role of drawing is diminishing in contemporary architectural practice?

I cannot read a book on a Kindle. I have to own a book, and I have to write in the book. When I read I take notes, I go back over it. You can see my books are full of notes in different pens and colors and times because when I read a book today that I may have read ten years ago, I read it differently because I’m different. I have to take notes over time in books, so I own books. That’s number one. To me, drawing and reading are the same thing. I can’t read on the computer. Anytime someone draws something in the computer, I want it printed so I can draw over it either with tracing paper on it or without it. You cannot make a plan in the computer by connecting dots. You have to think about a diagram or what it is you are doing. You have to think in drawing. So to me, all of my work, even the last competition that we won in Turkey, is drawn by hand first, then we give it to the computer guys and then they model it and then we get it back. To me, drawing is not making pretty things or making representations. It’s not representing anything. It is the incarnation of the thing. I’m not trying to represent something. I’m trying to make it real. And the only way it can be real is through my drawings. Architects and architecture students today have lost the capacity to think through drawing. They can only think through a computer. I watch people in this office sitting and looking at these things on their screen as they roll them around in space, and I think to myself, what the hell are they doing? It’s nuts. It’s totally wacko. You know, what does a section look like? What does a plan look like? They don’t seem interested in that. Then drawing comes as an after thought. Once you model the object in 3D, then you can cut plans and sections off it. But I start with the cuts. I build from the cuts.

Is it fair to say that you have moved away from the structuralist principles that defined your early work? When exactly does the individual subject of architecture and the subjective experience of space come into play in your projects?

The work up to Cannaregio was structuralist, and then became post-structuralist. Cannaregio was a hinge from the past to the present. The first project I did after Cannaregio was Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. That project dug into my own unconscious, producing a work that we don’t know whether it’s for the left or the right. In fact the mayor of Berlin said, “Look, I can’t build this because everybody is going to hate this project. The right wing is going to hate it; the left wing is going to hate it.” But it certainly had to do with the individual, and his or her being in the space. No question that when you walk on a wall that is 3.3 meters high it is the only space you can walk on, you are now walking on a new datum in Berlin, which is the datum of the Berlin wall. So the wall doesn’t even exist anymore, it is now part of the fabric of this project. And then when you go into the watchtowers and you walk up and you cannot see anything because there is no viewing out. And then you see the ruins below. All of this is about the experience of moving up and down and across of the human subject. So there is no question that the human subject enters the project, and you cannot understand the project unless you can conceptualize what it would be like to be the human subject. Even though it’s not built, you can conceptualize what it would be like. It would be quite an extraordinary experience. That’s why architecture, finally, has to involve the subject in an architectural manner.

Iman Ansari