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Peter Eisenman: Exploring the Possibilites of Form

David Kochman

May 18 th , 2002

Peter Eisenman has been one of the most influential architects of the late

twentieth century. His theories have led to a new way of thinking about architecture

in the post-post modernist world of architecture. This paper will explore the basis for

Peter Eisenman’s theories of dislocation, interiority, architecture as text and the

underlying processes that brought about their evolution into the next phases of his


To understand the underlying principals of Eisenman’s work, it is first

necessary to examine the origins of Deconstructivist thought in Architecture, as

Eisenman’s work has most in common with this genre.

At the end of Modernism, there was a general feeling among architects and

the general public that architecture, then known as the International Style had

become inhumane, monotonous, and hostile.







Although Modernism upheld that its





considered client needs, it was repressing its reality of the way functions and

activities interacted.

Thus, a need for a new way of thinking about architecture


Deconstructivism was one of the archetypal responses.

Working off many of

the principles set forth by those in the field of psychology and philosophy such as

Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida, Architects envisioned an architecture that

would reject fixed models, schemas, grand narratives or other total explanations on

the assumption that the order that they portray is built on a repression of the real

diversity of things.


The general method architects would use to derive a diverse architecture

generated by deconstruction principals is best understood by briefly studying its

development in psychology and philosophy, specifically with Sigmund Freud and

Jacques Derrida.

In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud pioneered new methods in the

way mental illness was treated. Believing that mental illness was the product of a

repression of childhood events, background, and past experiences, Freud noted the

way the patients avoided certain subjects, phrases, and figures of speech.


psychologist could then target those areas for analysis, a method known as


In other words Freud set out to ‘deconstruct’ the speech of his

patients in order to find the repressed source of their anxiety. In this way he could

get patients to reveal their repressed memories, thus curing themselves. 1

In the 1960s the French philosopher Jacques Derrida began to apply this

deconstructive technique to study the philosophical texts of his peers.

By using

Freud’s method to analyse these writings, Derrida believed he could reveal the

repressed ideas that underlay the apparently smooth, elegant and well-constructed

arguments put forward by other philosophers. Derrida believed that “no theory could

pretend to be absolutely consistent, logical or present itself as a self-contained and

whole system.” 2

If the writing did appear to be coherent, it could only do so by hiding

or repressing something that did not fit its view of things. As a method of illustrating

this repression to others, Derrida began experimenting with multiple methods of

representing a text. By compiling side-by-side comparisons of competing texts or

creating a montage of texts on the same page Derrida believed he could expose the

flaws of the arguments and make the reader take a more objective stance in

response to the topic.


Thus, Deconstruction in this sense means a method of

interpretation and analysis of a speech or a text. 3

It is around this time in the late 1960’s that Architecture and the philosophy

of Deconstruction converged with the initial meeting of Derrida and Eisenman, who at

the time had founded New York's Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. 4 As a

result of the partnership they formed, much of Eisenman’s theory and work are

derived from text analysis and deconstruction.

The first application of these ideas comes about with the series of houses

Eisenman designs following the completion of his doctorate. These houses manifest

the ideas of deconstruction in what Eisenman calls “dislocation.” 5

To understand

Eisenman’s theory of dislocation, it is first necessary to examine his views of the

origins of architecture as expressed in House of Cards. Eisenman believes that the

primary objective of architecture has always been thought to be the provision of

shelter. The first shelters, typically caves, responded to the physics of architecture,

and brought about the initial idea of what architecture was. This idea about what

architecture should be is the metaphysic of architecture. As time went by, the

occupation of architecture led to the discovery of different social institutions or

practices such as privacy; thus the act of architecture became an investigation or

reaction to the possibilities of form. As a result of this investigation brought about by

the occupation of form, cultural practices are altered or dislocated. Thus the act of

dislocation alters the metaphysic of architecture or the idea of what architecture

should be. The metaphysic of architecture can then be classified as an ever-


Eisenman bases the application of deconstruction in his argument that

architecture no longer creates new forms, and seeks to be in the service of

established practices, “perpetuating the current metaphysic” or idea of architecture.

Eisenman believes modernism failed to dislocate stating that its failure lay in an

“irresolvable dichotomy.” Modernism “promised the realization of” a utopian dream,

but it “anticipated the impossibility of achieving that vision and its own fatal

anthropocentrism.” Modernism was in fact not dislocating but very conservative in

that it sheltered the institutions of man from “anxiety and uncertainty” instead of

challenging the cumulative metaphysic. Eisenman asserts that the Hiroshima was

the final blow to the Utopian philosophies of Modernism, as man “could no longer

derive his identity from a belief in a heroic purpose and future.” 7

Eisenman states that man now lives uncertain of the future, where the

symbolism of higher-level markers such as a cross, history, or a stone and social

institutions of church, school, and house are all called into question.

In a world of irresolvable anxiety, the meaning and form of shelter must be different. …While a house today must still shelter, it does not need to symbolize or romanticize its sheltering function, to the contrary such symbols are today meaningless and merely nostalgic. 8

Eisenman’s early works seek to address this anxiety by developing

architecture’s interiority, or its capability to operate self-referentially as a record of its

own coming into existence, freeing architecture from its institutional control, thus

‘curing itself.’ Although this notion is similar to the attempts of the modernists,

Eisenman seeks to avoid the formal anthropomorphic references. Eisenman

believes that if he succeeds at doing this, architecture’s interiority will allow for a


To be self referential, the process must be able to operate independently of

the individual and cultural dispositions. Eisenman had the chance to test his

theories for the first time with a series of houses for affluent clients who were willing

to give Eisenman total design freedom. To reinforce a process that acted

independently of the individual and cultural dispositions, Eisenman avoided

reference to the clients in naming the houses and also any reference to context.

With House I Eisenman uses the diagram to separate form from function, instating

translational rules that Eisenman claims will allow the architecture to generate its

own form and create its own history without anthropomorphic reference,

disconnecting the object from its sign. 10

The architecture would create anxiety and distance, for it would no longer be under man’s control. Man and object would be independent and the relationship between them would have to be worked out anew. 11

This, he hoped, would create a genuine dislocation and allow new possibilities of

occupiable form. Eisenman addresses the question of anthropomorphic scale by

stating that as it was conceived free of external meaning and in abstract model form,

the house could have been any size. 12

Knowing that meaning can still be derived from an object by the way it works

in a system, Eisenman expanded his investigation with House III to include the

dissolution of perceived hierarchies, the relationships of which establish aesthetic

value and meaning for the participant. The participant evaluates these systems by

“arbitrary but established rules.” Ultimately then, these hierarchies have a direct

connection back to society and the existing metaphysic, as they are established by

society; therefore, equalizing these hierarchies was essential. These hierarchies


could include but not be limited to dialectics of oblique views and frontal views,

simultaneous perception and sequential perception of objects. 13

Eisenman is no

longer operating solely on an object level, but instead attempting to alter people’s

perceptions of the way systems interact with each other.

In House VI, Eisenman further expounds on his idea of architectural interiority

by allowing the house to exist both as an “object and a cinematic manifestation of

the transformational process.” 14

This follows the deconstructivist theory of the

building as self-analysis, a conscious effort to forgo repressing elements that give the

building its meaning. Eisenman later refers to this phenomenon as a trace. At the

same time, Eisenman comes to a realization about his work to this point: that by

using a formal system to create a dislocation, he is not creating a dislocation, but

merely a new set of rules. Although the process Eisenman is using seems to produce

an unlimited set of forms, he conjectures that there is a limit or bound somewhere

that would result in stasis. 15

This realization marks the beginning of a new idea in Eisenman’s architecture.

Additionally, this is also the point at which critics like Charles Jencks claim

Eisenman’s theories become both more accessible experientially and less accessible

theoretically, as it results in Eisenman’s theory of dispersal. Jencks states, “we find

two motives in conflict [with Eisenman’s architecture]: an exemplary desire to signify

some aspects of metaphysics, and a Deconstructionist desire to make all texts

obscure.” 16

The theory of dispersal comes to fruition in House X. Where in previous

houses Eisenman worked with the object as a signifier, this project attempts to

operate under the philosophy that the only understandable aspects of the house are


a “system of differences” experienced directly by its participants but simultaneously

almost impossible to decipher. 17

This reinforces the philosophy that the building is

an indeterminate system in constant flux, stopped at one moment in its evolution.

Roalind Krauss states about House X,

One encounters [dispersal] within the room with transparent floors and ceilings and opaque walls…The space in which the viewer finds himself is, then, one whose perspectives run vertically and diagonally through the system of the house rather than horizontally…the occupant is forced to view the space as a linked set of opposing terms, to encounter the “room” less as an entity than as one part of a system of differences.” 18

With the end of the House series came Eisenman’s first opportunities to apply

the theories he had developed throughout the building downturn of the 1970’s to

larger scale projects. In 1980 he established a professional practice in New York,

Eisenman Architects, to focus exclusively on building. 19

Critics questioned whether

Eisenman’s approach, which essentially ignored program and context, could work on

a larger scale. In Philip Johnson’s book Five Architects, Philip Johnson posed the

question of Peter Eisenman, ‘What would he do in a large building?” 20

To answer

this question, one must jump ahead to Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the

Visual Arts.

For Wexner Center, Eisenman incorporated both old and new theories into its

design, bringing issues of the diagram as generator, the grid, trace, and dispersal

with him from past projects to bring about a displacement, but also considering new

aspects such as context and program. R.E. Somol provides an explanation as to why

Eisenman would do an about face from his previous stance regarding program and



It is difficult to understand the Ohio State Center for the Visual arts without talking about the site…Eisenman’s former reluctance to admit that such circumstances affect architecture has, at least implicitly, changed…Peter Eisenman seems to have discovered that architecture needs to include outside parameters in order to be produced, and that only in the frame of its external circumstances does it acquire meaning.” 21

Rafael Moneo elaborates on Eisenman’s change of positions in the following passage:

Two projects are… key to understanding Wexner Center: the Canneregio project for Venice of 1978 and the building at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin of 1983. When Eisenman approached the Cannaregio project, he undoubtedly felt the weight of a city such as Venice. In spite of previous attempts to produce Architecture without circumstantial ties, here he could not escape the dense context of the particular site…the project starts by considering the Corbusian grid and the city. Here Eisenman discovers that value of a specific site. The new space generated by the rotation and extension of the Corbusian grid became an appropriate context to locate House 11a in a series of different scales.

His Venetian experience would prove extremely useful to the Berlin project. On the site adjacent to Checkpoint Charlie, only three buildings were left standing on a typical block. Working with these remnants of a city and the nearby Berlin Wall, the architect attempted to re-invent a context through a new interpretation. In so doing, Eisenman superimposed the Mercator grid- the most generic of the earth’s applied divisions-on the Berlin Urban grid. The encounter of these grids gave the architect a foundation to propose structures and spaces later outlined in the program requirements. 22

From the start the Wexner center provided a true opportunity for Eisenman to

bring about a displacement by challenging the way a center for the arts is used.

Eisenman does not give a definitive answer for what such a center for the arts should

be, however; but rather, what it is “not” through his theory of dispersal. 23 The design

focuses intensely on using the trace as a generator, although not in the same sense

as the early house projects. The House projects exhibited traces of their own coming


into existence; with Wexner center, Eisenman is using the trace as it derives from

context and historical reference to introduce meaning into the Architecture.

By utilizing two opposing property grid systems established during the

settlement of Ohio, Eisenman creates an interstitial zone that creates a connection

between the University and the urban fabric of Columbus. 24

The physical

manifestation of these grids becomes the spaces with which the program and the

artwork contextualize. Eisenman refers to it as scaffolding in the following passage:

“scaffolding traditionally is the most impermanent part of a building. It is put up to build, repair or demolish buildings, but it never shelters. Thus, the primary symbolization of a visual arts center, which is traditionally that of a shelter of art, is not figured in this case. For although this building shelters, it does not symbolize that function.” 25

Here Eisenman is providing the opportunity for the Architecture to be dislocating and

induce its patrons to use it in new ways.

Maybe more profound is the way Eisenman uses the historical reference as a

trace. During his investigation of the site’s history, Eisenman found that an Armory

had once stood on the site where the center was to be built. By reconstructing

fragments of this old armory, Eisenman is evoking a response from the Architecture’s

participants that through the process of dispersal, the fragment that now stands in

place of the armory is “not” the armory but a simulation that has been affected in

some way by Eisenman’s imposition of these new systems. Eisenman continues

establishing a fragmentary theme allowing much of the program to slip underground,

altering reference datums; additionally Eisenman establishes systems of “not-

entrances”, “not-windows”, “not-scaffolding”, and ‘not-etc.’ 26


Besides extending the idea of a trace to be not just interior to but also exterior

to architecture, this idea also strikes a chord with the very basis of Deconstructivist

philosophy: that what Eisenman is attempting to create is not-architecture. This

concept refers back to the very basic ideas of habitation. If the space is no longer

recognizable as architecture or even building, but seen as a fragment of a larger

indeterminate system frozen at a moment of its evolution, then any preconceived

notions about the way the space is used, a condition Eisenman refers to as a priori,

will be dismissed. In regard to not-architecture, Kurt Forster states:

In a few years who will suspect Eisenman’s handiwork in a diagonally scored sidewalk, in a grove of buckeye and gingko trees, or in strangely canted planting beds? In time, it will appear as if the architect had merely strung together parts and pieces of building. 27

Following the initial success of Wexner Center, Eisenman has received

commissions for additional buildings that utilize much of the same theory present in

Wexner Center. Some of these projects include a proposal for the Carnegie Mellon

Research Institute, the Nunotani Headquarters in Tokyo, the Greater Columbus

Convention Center, and a proposal for the Center of the Arts at Emory. 28

In a 1992 interview with Selim Koder of Ars Electronica, Eisenman proposed

the next step he would be taking with his Architecture, using the computer as a

design tool. 29 Eisenman speaks very enthusiastically regarding the computer’s

potential, heralding it as the first means of generating architecture that could truly

‘operate independently of the individual and cultural dispositions.’ In the following

passage, Eisenman states how one would begin to use the computer as a design tool

and how it would change the architect’s role in the design process:


One can set up a series of rule structures for inputting into the computer not knowing a priori what the formal results will be. Then the process becomes one of testing algorithms against possible formal results. The writing and correcting of these algorithms becomes one of the tasks of design. One can correct the images to make the rule structures more apparent or to make them more able to be built. These are set images loose from the history of architecture and the history of the individual who is conceptualizing. This allows the computer to open up what was previously repressed by the individual psychology or history and the history of architecture, which was assumed to be the entire knowledge and nature of architecture. But since architecture is always developing, an individual at any one time does not have access to its entire history nor to its possible future history; the computer accesses these possibilities…there is no beginning, there is no truth, there is no origin, and there is no a priori given. In other words, there is no longer the necessity to begin from a rectangle, a circle, or a square. 30

On the other hand though, Eisenman states that progress in the fabrication

and construction industries needs to occur to equalize the present disparity between

computer generated form and buildable form. He states that although the industries

of mass production use computers and robots to fabricate goods, no parts in

Architecture are standardized.

Therefore, the machine must be reprogrammed to

create each part of the building, which ultimately makes the cost of the building

increase dramatically.

Likewise when the construction industry encounters a non-

standard enclosure system or non-90 degree corner, they too respond negatively.

Eisenman concludes that, “Until we can free the computer from the designer, from

the process, and from construction, there is not going to be any change at all.” 31

Ten years have past since Eisenman’s interview with

Ars Electronica, and

since that time Eisenman has continued developing his rapport with the computer.

With buildings designs like Haus Immendorf, BFL Software, the Staten Island institute

of Arts and Sciences, and the Virtual house, he has experimented with the ways

forces of site and context can interfere with a volume to create an Architecture of


topology, re-investigated old issues of profile, poche, and section, and how they can

be manipulated in new ways through the computer. 32 With fellow architects of

Eisenman’s generation like Frank Gehry and architects of a new generation like NOX,

Foreign Office Architects, Morphosis, and Brauer & Gernot using advanced programs

like CATIA; computer generated form and buildable form are finally converging.

With House I over 30 years ago, Peter Eisenman catalyzed a Revolution in

Architecture, introducing concepts that had never been previously associated with


Today, thanks to Eisenman’s continued efforts to push the envelope

and the enthusiasm of others in the field of Architecture, that Revolution is

continuing, perhaps still beginning.

In conclusion, Eisenman’s lasting effect on

Architecture may be summed up best by his own post-script in the 1987 book, House

of Cards:

CAVEAT Imagine that you are holding a small glass vial in your hand.

Inside the vial is a blue gas.

against your fingers.

watch the blue gas slowly turn, folding in and through itself, reaching the side of the vial and moving off in different trails. The gas’ movement is perceptible through its blue color, but the glass enclosing it is unmoving. Then notice the small cork in the top of the vial. If you pull it, two things might happen. The blue gas might escape and dissipate into thin air: the container, emptied, would lose its definition. The one can only be seen against the other, their interdependence absolute. But in their differences are inscribed their particularities. The opening of the bottle might yet have another effect: the blue gas could be transfiguring, and through this action of opening you might never be the same again.

Now imagine that this book is like a vial. You have already opened it. Now just close it. 33

The little vial’s smooth shape feels cool

You could turn it around or upside down, and



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2 Jacques Derrida. Stanford University. 1999. <


3 Jacques Derrida. Stanford University. 1999.<


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7 Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,


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p. 172.

9 Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,



10 Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,

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12 Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.


13 Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,




14 Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,


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Press, 1989, p.37.

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18 Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999,



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Press, 1989, p.80.


20 Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martin’s

Press, 1989, p.48.

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Press, 1989, pp.41-51.

22 Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Ohio State University. New York: Rizzolli

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26 Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martin’s

Press, 1989, pp. 23-24.

27 Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martin’s

Press, 1989, p. 73.

28 Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999,

pp. 227-231.

29 Koder, Selim. “Interview with Peter Eisenman.” Ars Electronica. 1992.


30 Koder, Selim. “Interview with Peter Eisenman.” Ars Electronica. 1992.

31 Koder, Selim. “Interview with Peter Eisenman.” Ars Electronica. 1992.

32 Koder, Selim. “Interview with Peter Eisenman.” Ars Electronica. 1992.

33 Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.




Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999.

Eisenman, Peter. House of Cards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Eisenman, Peter. Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. New York: St. Martin’s Press,


Freud Page. Maria Helena Rowell. 2002. <


Jacques Derrida. Stanford University. 1999. <


Koder, Selim. “Interview with Peter Eisenman.” Ars Electronica. 1992.


“Peter Eisenman.“ Great Buildings Online. 2002. <


Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Ohio State University. New York: Rizzolli

International Publications, Inc., 1989.