Born into a well-off family of non-practicing Jews, young Peter only became conscious of his origins when the upheaval of the United States’ entry into the war stoked the flames of antisemitism. With both sides of the family coming from the eastern and western edges of Germany, a country that exercised an indisputable scientific leadership in the early 20th century, his father was an organic chemist, which influenced Peter to begin a degree in chemistry at Cornell University. After just a year of study, his love of drawing and the recommendations of an advisor led him to architecture, a degree he would later pursue at Columbia University, where the strict demands in terms of time and dedication proved incompatible with swimming, a sport he had practiced with the intensity of an elite athlete since the age of seven. In 1960 he moved to Europe on a Fulbright grant, participated in his first architecture competition, and started teaching at Cambridge University. Three years later, he defended his doctoral dissertation there, under the direction of Leslie Martin, focusing on “The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture” as his topic. During that period, he also met the first of his great mentors, the British critic Colin Rowe, who, over the course of two long summer trips to Italy, awakened in the young American a fascination for Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
THE LABORATORY OF HOUSES
Back in the US, Eisenman founded CASE, a debate group focused on contemporary architecture – modeled along the lines of Team X – which, with the support of various institutions, from the Graham foundation to MoMA, laid the groundwork for the New York Five: five architects (Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, Richard Meier and Eisenman himself) who were influenced at the time by the white language of Le Corbusier’s villas, and whose diagrammatic rationalism became very popular, in contrast with the postmodern realism of the so-called “Grays”. Eisenman’s first projects, all of them houses, reveal his familiarity with Le Corbusier’s early work, but also with that of Terragni, whom he had discovered in Como under Rowe’s influence: houses built almost like cardboard models – which led to the term “cardboard architecture” – in pursuit of an extreme abstraction that presaged the theoretical interests that would weave through the architect’s entire career, and which reached their most programmatic expression in the unbuilt House X from 1975. Around the same time, his friendship began with another significant mentor, the Italian historian Manfredo Tafuri, who convinced him of the importance of construction in garnering respect for his ideas within the profession.
Eisenman was also a driving force behind the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, as well as the journal Oppositions, which became the vehicle for intellectual communication in the 1970s between the avant-garde on the American East Coast and its European counterpart, with its most dynamic hub in Italy at the time. Those ties with the Old Continent encouraged him to participate in various competitions there, and that attention resulted in influential designs like the one for Cannaregio in Venice or “Romeo and Juliet” for Verona, where he explored the idea of “artificial excavation”, generating tension or contrasting the formal abstraction of his architectural language with the specificity of the topography or urban footprints. During those years, the most stimulating and fertile ideas and forms circulated back and forth across that theoretical and artistic bridge between New York and Milan, and the dialogue between texts and cities proposed by Eisenman’s projects is one of the most significant products of that period in architecture, illuminated incipiently by Aldo Rossi and Robert Venturi’s books in 1966, but largely exhausted two decades later with the impetuous rise of deconstructivist currents. At the cusp of turning 50, Eisenman was an architect with just a few built houses, but around that time both the Institute and Oppositions were shuttered, and the New Yorker decided to follow Tafuri’s advice and turn his efforts toward construction.
DECONSTRUCTION IN OHIO
The setting for one of his first important undertakings was the state of Ohio, where he successively built: the iconic Wexner Center in Columbus – a provocative collage of forms and intentions that sparked extraordinary interest and a very heated polemic; the colossal Aronoff Center in Cincinnati – the construction of which stretched out over a decade; and the Columbus Convention Center – like the previous two, a manifestation of the dislocated volumes of the deconstructivist aesthetic. The inspiration for this artistic revolution was the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whom Eisenman met in 1986, and who became, for the following decade, his third great intellectual mentor. That same year, Eisenman started psychoanalysis, which he continued for 20 years, under the care of two different psychoanalysts simultaneously, whom he visited weekly, and who helped him shift his attention from his head to the ground, which, in his mind, explained the shift from books to buildings, from architecture on paper to construction. The influential MoMA exhibition on deconstructivist architecture, curated by his supporter Philip Johnson and by professor Mark Wigley, featured Eisenman among its main figures, and his fractured designs acquired a symbolic visibility in the following decade that was not unrelated to their growing sculptural quality.
In the 1990s, Eisenman’s work was spread across various continents, and the Any Conferences organized with his wife Cynthia Davidson gathered many of the most eminent architects and critics in different cities across the globe. This internationalization of the office was illustrated in Asia with two corporate buildings: the headquarters of Koizumi and Nunotani in Tokyo; in Europe, with the extraordinary skyscraper Max Reinhardt Haus, which was designed for Berlin, where he had already built the Checkpoint Charlie apartments; and in America, with the stadium for the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, a colossal complex with 80,000 seats with a retractable roof and field, which combined technical innovation and formal audacity with the architect’s passion for sports. All designs with an iconic intent, their compositional grammar moves from seismic fractures to the twisting or warping of the meshes that organize the projects, and in many cases with an entirely free use of color, where pastel tones replace the white, black and red palette associated with the constructivist roots that characterized his early drawings and theoretical beginnings.
EXERCISES IN MEMORY
The most important commissions in Peter Eisenman’s career came at the end of the 20th century and were largely carried out during the 21st century. In 1998, together with Richard Serra, he designed the Berlin memorial for the six millions murdered Jews of Europe, an effort from which the sculptor later withdrew, leaving Eisenman alone facing a project whose political and symbolic importance is difficult to exaggerate, and which ultimately transformed into a fundamental monument in the German capital and the most moving project of his career. The following year, he won the competition for the titanic City of Culture of Galicia, situated on a hillside outside the historic center of Santiago de Compostela, which the architect modelled by arranging a complex of buildings with topographic sensitivity in a footprint that evokes that of the monumental center of the city. For a New Yorker, the trauma of September 11 is hard to forget or to heal from, and, as such, it is perhaps fitting to provisionally close out this summary with his unique design for the World Trade Center, which eloquently expresses the positive forces of metropolitan life at the tragic site of Ground Zero.