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Getting the word out on Eisenman's six point plan
by Katy Purviance on 05/17/08 @ 07:47:20 am
Categories: Architects, Articles | 2082 words | 1548 views

Peter Eisenman set out his thoughts on architecture at RIAS 2008

Point one: Architecture in a media culture

Media has invaded every aspect of our lives. It is difficult to walk out on the street or stand in a crowded elevator without encountering people speaking into cellular phones at the top of their voices as if no one else was around. People leave their homes and workplaces and within seconds are checking their Blackberries. Their iPhones provide instant messaging email, news, telephone and music—it’s as if they were attached to a computer.

Less and less people are able to be in the real physical world without the support of the virtual world. This has brought about a situation in which people have lost the capacity to focus on something for any length of time. This is partly because media configures time in discrete segments.

Focus is conditioned by how long one can watch something before there is an advertisement. In newspapers stories keep getting shorter, the condensed version is available on the internet. This leads today to a corruption of what we think of as communication, with a lessening of the capacity to read or write correct sentences. While irrelevant information multiplies, communication diminishes. If architecture is a form of media it is a weak one. To combat the hegemony of the media, architecture has had to resort to more and more spectacular imaging. Shapes generated through digital processes become both built icons that have no meaning but also only refer to their own internal processes. Just think of any architectural magazine today devoted, supposedly, to the environment, and instead one finds media.

Point two: Students have become passive

The corollary to the prevalent media culture is that the viewing subject has become increasingly passive. In this state of passivity people demand more and more images, more visual and aural information and in a state of passivity people demand things that are easily consumed.

The more passive people become the more they are presented by the media with supposed opportunities to exercise choice. Vote for this, vote for whatever stories you want to hear, vote for what popular song you want to hear, vote for what commercial you want to see. This voting gives the appearance of active participation, but it is merely another form of sedation because the voting is irrelevant It is part of the attempt to make people believe they are participating when in fact they are becoming more and more passive.

Students also have become passive. More passive than students in the past. This is not a condemnation but a fact. To move students to act or to protest for or against anything today is impossible. Rather they have a sense of entitlement. The generations that remember 1968 feel that those kinds of student protests are almost impossible today. For the last seven years we have had in the US one of the most problematic governments in our history. Probably the most problematic since the mid-19th century and president Millard Fillmore. Our reputation in Europe, our dollar, our economy, the spirit of our people, has been weakened. In such a state of ennui people feel they can do little to bring about change. With the war in Iraq draining our economy there is still the possibility that the political party responsible for today’s conditions will be re-elected.

Will this have consequences for architecture?

Point three: Computers make design standards poorer

This passivity is related to architecture. Architecture today relies on one of passivity’s most insidious forms—the computer.

Architects used to draw volumes, using shading and selecting a perspective. In learning how to draw one began to understand not only what it was like to draw like Palladio or Le Corbusier but also the extent of the differences in their work. A wall section of Palladio felt different to the hand than one of Le Corbusier’s. It is important to understand such differences because they convey ideas. One learned to make a plan. Now, with a computer, one does not have to draw. By clicking a mouse from point to point, one can connect dots that make plans, one can change colours, materials and light. Photoshop is a fantastic tool for those who do not have to think.

The problem is as follows. “So what?” my students say, “Why draw Palladio? How will it help me get a job?” The implication is this: “If it’s not going to help me get a job, I don’t want to do it.” In this sense, architecture does not matter. In a liberal capital society, getting a job matters, and my students are in school precisely for this reason.

Yet education does not help you get a job. In fact, the better you are at Photoshop the more attractive you are to an office, the better you will work in that office.

If I ask a student to make a diagram or a plan that shows the ideas of a building, they cannot do it. They are so used to connecting dots on a computer that they cannot produce an idea of a building in a plan or a diagram. This is certain to affect not only their future, but the future of our profession.

Point four: Today’s buildings lack meaning or reference

The computer is able to produce the most incredible imagery which become the iconic images of magazines and competitions. To win a competition today one has to produce shapes and icons by computer.

But these are icons with little meaning or relationship to things in the real world. According to the American pragmatist philosopher C S Peirce there were three categories of signs: icons, symbols, and indices. The icon had a visual likeness to an object.

Robert Venturi’s famous dictum categorised buildings as either “a duck or a decorated shed”; the difference between an icon and symbol in architectural terms.

A “duck” is a building that looks like its object—a hotdog stand in the form of a giant hotdog or, in Venturi’s terms, a place that sells ducks taking the very same shape as a duck. This visual similitude produces what Peirce calls an icon which can be understood at first glance.

Venturi’s other term, the “decorated shed”, describes a public facade for what amounts to a generic box like building. The decorated shed is more a symbol, in Peirce’s terms, which has an agreed upon, or conventional meaning. A classical facade symbolises a public building, whether it is a bank a library or school.

Today the shape of buildings become icons which have none of these external references. They may not necessarily look like anything or they may only resemble the processes that made them. In this case they do not relate outwardly but refer inwardly. These are icons that have little cultural meaning or reference. There is no reason to ask our more famous architects: “Why does it look like this?”

There is no answer to this question because “Why?” is the wrong question.

Why? Because the computer can produce it. One could ask these architects: “Why is this one better than that one?” Or “Which one of the crumpled paper buildings is better?” Or “Which one is the best and why?”

There is no answer again to these questions. Why? Because there is no value system in place for judging, and there is no relationship to be able to judge between the image produced and its meaning as an icon.

These icons are made from algorithmic processes that have nothing to do with architectural thinking.

Point five: We are in a period of late style

Edward Said in his book On Late Style describes lateness as a moment in time when there are no new paradigms or ideological, cultural, political conditions that cause significant change. Lateness can be understood as a historical moment which may contain the possibilities of a new future paradigm.

For example there were reasons in the late 19th century for architecture to change. These included changes in psychology introduced by Freud; in physics by Einstein; in mathematics with Heisenberg; and in flight with the Wright brothers. These changes caused a reaction against the Victorian and imperial styles of the period and articulated a new paradigm: modernism.

With each new paradigm, whether it is the French revolution or the Renaissance, there is an early phase, which in modernism was from 1914-1939; a high phase, which in modernism occurred 1954-1968 when it was consumed by liberal capital after the war; and a period of opposition. The year 1968 saw an internal, implosive revolution, one that reacted against institutions representing the cultural past of many of the western societies. This was followed by post modernism’s eclectic return to a language that seemed to have meaning. The Deconstructivist exhibition at the MoMA in 1988 put an end to this cliché and kitsch style.

Today I say we are in a period of late style. A period in which there is no new paradigm. Computation and the visual may produce a shift from the notational but this in itself is not a new paradigm. It is merely a tool. The question remains: What happens when one reaches the end of a historical cycle? On Late Style by Edward Said describes such a moment in culture before a shift to a new paradigm. A moment not of fate or hopelessness but one that contains a possibility of looking at a great style for the possibility of the new and the transformative. He uses as an example Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, written at the end of Beethoven’s career. This was the composer’s response to the seeming impossibility of innovation. Instead Beethoven wrote a piece that was difficult, even anarchic, that could not be easily understood and was outside of his characteristic and known style. Beethoven’s later work is an example of the complexity ambivalence, and the “undecidability” that characterises a late style.

Point six: To be an architect is a social act

This last point deals with architecture and its unique autonomy. Since the Renaissance in Italy when Brunelleschi, Alberti and Bramanti established what can be called the persistencies of architecture—subject-object relationships—these persistencies have remained operative to this day. Alberti’s dictum that “a house is a small city and a city is a large house”, remains with us in all works that we see. In other words the relationship between the part and the whole: the figure and the ground, the house to its site, the site to the street, the street to its neighbourhood and the neighbourhood to the city.

These issues constitute the basis of what would be called the dialectical synthesis as an aspect of the ongoing metaphysical project. Thus one of the things that must be investigated is the problematic part-to-whole relationship—which is part of a Hegelian dialectical idea of thesis and anti-thesis forming a new whole or synthesis—and the relationship of building to ground.

Architecture has traditionally been concerned with these dialectical categories, whether it is inside/outside, figure/ground, subject/object. For me today, it is necessary to look within architecture to see if it is possible to break up this synthetic project from within. This attempt is what post-structuralism would consider the displacement of the metaphysics of presence.

If we continue to think that what is presented is necessarily truthful or what we see is truthful and also beautiful then we will continue to subscribe to the myth that architecture is the wonder of the metaphysics of presence. It may become possible with such an awareness to move away from what I call the hegemony of the image.

People always say formalism is the project of architecture’s autonomists. For me it is precisely this autonomy which is architecture’s delay of engaging with society. If it is architecture’s activity and its own discourse which in fact impacts society, then to be an architect is a social act.

This does not mean social in the form of making people feel better or happy. Or building houses for the poor or shopping malls for the rich or garages for Mercedes. I am talking about understanding those conditions of autonomy that are architectural, that make for an engagement with society in the sense of operating against the existing hegemonic social and political structures of our time. That is what architecture has always been.

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