Sunday, August 15, 2004

more archi-blather

I'm going to attempt a short essay, here... if you find this on google, just pass it on.

Comparing Eisenman

Peter Eisenman has always made it a point to place his own practice at the center of architectural discourse, contantly manouvering to stay relevant and avant the garde. As publicity and comissions increase for published, "celebrity" architects, this places him in a paradox: at the center, but constantly striving for the edge. This contradictary self-image is rich soil for intervention and discourse. In order to place Eisenman in a context (perhaps against his wishes), I am going to go ahead and compare him to two other stars of the community.

Eisenman / Gehry : Buildings

On the surface, these two practices could not be more different; Eisenman is unpredictable, contrary, at times even reactionary, and proclaims an interest in "deep structure," constantly isolating architecture from any but an interior referentiality. Gehry is more interested in assimilation, starting from a desired image distilled from context, and distorting it so that most description is a lateral slide of weak metaphor and association. Eisenman's buildings are often shrouded in obtuse theory, while Gehry's are explained in a disarmingly literal manner (while most people compared referenced Italian sculpture when describing the pipe organ in his LA concert hall, Gehry himself referred to it as "french fries.)

However, there is a striking parallel in their approach to construction as seperate from design; the form is distanced as a sculptural or signifying element that might as well not be built (Gehry might argue against this point). Their disintrest in nonvisible parts of a building leads to a "radically conventional" method of building. The process of construction is hidden, ignored, conceptually nonexistent. Building as communicator has succeded building as structure.

Eisenman / Tafuri : Writings

The recent coauthoring by these two men of a monograph of sorts on Giuseppe Terragni reveals striking parallels as well. Their essays are completely divorced, both on the cover and within the pages, and an almost hostile feeling pervades-- Eisenman writes the intro and first essay, Tafuri refutes and derides in a second, and Peter finishes it off with a framing essay in response. This leads to less of a dialectic than a simple binary or shotgun approach. You get it from both barrels.

However disparate the content, the essays do have one thing in common. They both supress the phenomenological in favor of the literary. For Eisenman, architecture is a series of traces in process that reveal a "textual reading" in the building's final version. Architectural process is thus a form of writing, and buildings are themselves a critique, albeit a self-referential critique of pure form. Geometry, pattern, alignment and other devices are placed above context and utility, as is evidenced by photographs with the surroundings and people carefully ommitted.

For Tafuri, architecture is textual in an entirely different manner. Sociopolitical context and preceding images and ideas provide lateral associations (generally myth and marxism) that reveals the architect's true or hidden (perhaps unknown) intentions. The production is essentially teatrical: this building is communication, revealing (or professing) value and ideology.

In both of these writings, the communicative aspect of the building is stressed and the operational and functional aspects are suppressed. This is more than a simply postmodern aim or emphasis. For both, the tests surrounding the building are more important than the building itself. Past versions, renderings, and texts by Terragni (often obstinately literal-functional) point to a true bias: this building is merely the afterlife, born out of a living process of thought that dies with completion. Every moment after the final drawings are submitted is just an echo.

Other than the obvious oversimplification of the design process that is suggested here (construction administration and finishes as part of process), what I find missing is the generation of meaning through use and production. Not just the weakly humanistic dimension of building operation, but the passive act of weathering, the shadows cast on the street, and the displacement of dirt by the basement. This is all important, and on equal footing with form in my opinion. Buildings are often more captivating in the midst of construction, their inner structure revealed and inhabited at odd hours by strange professionals, adorned by safety netting, makeshift fences, cables and impromptu lighting. It's difficult to talk about meaning in relationship to structure and function without sounding like a staid, devout modernist, but remembering these aspects has to be important, right?

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