Architectural Blatherations

Peter Eisenman: Genius Without a Brain?

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The Good Oil

We never cease to be impressed by architecture's intellectual parasitism. Magnificent though the best of their creations are, architects really should stick to designing great buildings, rather than adopting crackpot half-understood theories to justify their creativity.

Nothing is sadder than seeing a first-class building designer trying to justify himself or herself with claptrap that would not pass muster in Philosophy 101. As our favourite historian Paul Johnson noted in his book Creators (2006), you can be a creative genius without having a brain: he gave the examples of Charles Dickens (our favourite author) or Victor Hugo (nup, read nothing) as likely candidates. We would add every major architect of the past 200 years to this list.

This discussion is taken from Dr Garry's last book, The Favored Circle, with a few updates.

Ghirado versus Eisenman

As an example we cite the altercation between the architectural academic Diane Ghirardo and the architect Peter Eisenman1, way back in 1994. In an article in Progressive Architecture (PA) (Nov 1994, p 72) Prof Ghirardo charged that Dr Eisenman had succeeded in transforming what was a scanty and mediocre oeuvre into a major movement:

More than almost any of his peers, Eisenman's prominence rests on his extraordinary ability not only to advance his own cause with unparalleled skill, but also to convince others to thrust him into prominence.

The concept that best describes Eisenman's enterprise in general is that of a game, a game with the double objectives of winning and never ending. With a canny talent for showmanship more akin to P.T. Barnum than to Walt Disney, Eisenman in the early 1970s managed to parlay a minuscule design portfolio and a wide range of acquaintances into the New-York-based Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. In a decade when he designed approximately one small house per year, Eisenman propelled his own name to the forefront of the architectural community through periodic articles in the Institute's journal, Oppositions, its monthly magazine Skyline, and a regular series of events at the Institute.

We happen to think that Prof Ghirardo was on the wrong tack here. Such tactics were not invented by Dr Eisenman. Self-promotion is everywhere in the architectural avant-gardes. Illustrated lectures, articles in both professional and popular press, exhibitions, one-man shows have all been routinely used to promote one's ideas for at least the past century. Before that, of course, one wrote treatises. Ruthless self-promotion and the mobilization of social capital—friends in the right places—are of the very essence of all attempts by those in subordinate positions in the field to propel themselves to the top. Many of the heroes of the Modern Movement did exactly the same thing.

But this is not the point we wish to make. It is Dr Eisenman's reaction to this article that so deftly illustrates a disturbing failure of intellectual creativity at architecture's heart. Dr Eisenman adopted exactly the same tactics employed by his mentor Jacques Derrida in the latter's skirmish with Thomas Sheehan over Mr Sheehan's review of a book on the Heidegger controversy (see the New York Review of Books (NYRB), January 14 through April 22, 1993).

Mr Sheehan claimed that the book in question was suppressed following legal threats by Prof Derrida over remarks critical of Prof Derrida in the book's preface. Over several months of name-calling and vituperation in the NYRB, the mud-slinging concluded with a huge petition by 25 scholars supporting Prof Derrida. Not Derrida himself: just his closest 25 buddies. We cannot comment on the validity of Mr Sheehan's initial claim, but we agree with him that Prof Derrida's general reaction both to the Heidegger book, and to Mr Sheehan's review, was bullying.

Eisenman's friends versus Ghirado

Dr Eisenman was a fawning acolyte of Prof Derrida. Two years after Prof Derrida's NYRB fracas, Dr Eisenman found himself in the same invidious position as his teacher: being attacked by a critic, Dr Ghirardo. In a breathtakingly derivative move, Dr Eisenman exactly replicated Derrida's wounded tearful response with a huge petition to PA. But he could only muster 17 friends to wreak vengeance on the hapless Prof Ghirardo in an equally browbeating overkill of a reaction (Progressive Architecture, February, 1995, p 88). In four densely printed pages his friends were allowed to present a critique of Prof Ghirardo some ten times the length of her own article, although with about one-tenth the intelligibility.

It was all rather sad. Why did 17 of Dr Eisenman's best chums have to take it upon themselves to respond on his behalf? Why didn't Dr Eisenman respond to the attack in the article? Was he incapable of defending himself? Was too busy having tiffin with Prof Derrida? Was it simply beneath his dignity to do so? Perhaps too many commissions on his plate? We wish we were so lucky to have so much work!

1. The topic was admirably treated in a course by Prof Mark Jarzombek at MIT in 2002. There should be more of this sort of thing. As of this writing, Dr Eisenman is the Louis I. Kahn Visiting Professor at Yale University. Prof Ghirardo is a professor at the University of Southern California.