Interview with Peter Eisenman by Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture

Chang Qing and Plácido González

The Editorial Teams of Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture had the unique chance to interview Professor Peter Eisenman during his stay in Tongji University, where he was invited to launch the Chinese edition of his work The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture (Tongji University Press, 2018). Eisenman was paying his first visit to China at the age of 85, after decades of personal and professional experience in Asia (Korea, Vietnam, Japan, etc.), but without any contact with the country that he recalls seeing in the insurmountable distance of the border from the New Territories in Hong Kong in 1955. Many changes have happened in China since then, and the conversation shows how its current development and dynamicity are a cause of Eisenman’s admiration and wonder.

Architect and educator, Eisenman is an international reference for the history of architecture in the last 50 years, having received awards like the Medal of Honor from the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2001 and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2004 Venice Biennale. Currently the Charles Gwathmey Professor at the Yale School of Architecture, Eisenman’s theoretical and built work have been intertwined: from his first houses in the 1960s and 70s, Eisenman’s production relied strongly in the development of a reflexive corpus that highlighted the existence of architecture in the field of ideas, and as a separate entity from the imperfect, perishable nature of buildings. His comments on Palladio’s architecture, for example, have long appeared as a clear statement of his praise for the architectural thoughts of the Italian master, and of his despise for their material realization at the same time.

For this reason, the prospective of a conversation with Peter Eisenman about heritage issues appeared, at a first glance, as a complete challenge with little room for understanding. Nevertheless, the basis for the exchange of ideas was grounded in the shared interest from interviewers and interviewee in the concept of culture. Eisenman’s definition of cultural layering, for example, has informed his proposals for Canareggio in Venice (1978) and the Parc de la Villete in Paris (1987), and was later brought into practice in works like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin (2005) and Convention Center in Santiago de Compostela (ongoing). We may consider that Eisenman’s ‘layering’ strongly relates to today’s understanding of heritage as culture, and its post-structuralist basis is consubstantial to the undecidability of heritage as a process in constant evolution and change, that has been instated in international theory and practice since the beginning of the 21st century.

Thus seen in perspective, Eisenman’s ideas appear then as an architectural anticipation to established concepts operating today in the field of heritage. The interview also introduced Eisenman’s reasons for his understanding of preservation as nostalgia, which he illustrates with the reaction of preservation fundamentalists against the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which years after turned into protests against the Museum’s extension. But on the other hand, his vision also gives consideration to contemporary creation within the realm of present culture. In the conversation, Eisenman defines the future as a time that already exists in the present, evolving relentlessly and without consideration about the value of what remains. In Eisenman’s words, a scenario of undecidability, where Shanghai appears as the city of the World to be right here, right now.

Shanghai, March 18, 2018

[Chang Qing]

What does built heritage represent for the architecture of the future?

[Peter Eisenman]

I am not a historian, not a critic, I don’t know. I have no idea. I don't know about what does modern architecture have for the future, and what does any heritage have for the future. I have no knowledge of that – the future. You could say: what does the artificial intelligence have for future? I can’t answer that – what does a robot have for the future; what does modern science have for the future; what does the atom bomb have for the future – I don't have a clue. What does a nation-state have, I don't know anything about the future. I can tell you about today and yesterday, and my own experience of teaching, but I don't know about the future.

[Chang Qing]

Your appreciation of architecture as a cultural, conceptual and intellectual enterprise has been deemed as a ‘zero degree’. Do you think those abstract principles apply for the evolution of the built environment, which today relies strongly in its experience and its recreation?

Eisenman, Peter. 2005. Diagram Diaries. Translated by Xinxin Chen. Beijing: China Architecture and Building Press

[Peter Eisenman]

I don’t deal in experience. That is tourism. I deal in cultural longevity, let’s say – things that will inspire the culture from today to tomorrow. So my project is not good today. I think in 100 years it will be much better. I am really happy that they are publishing my book in Chinese; I’m really excited about that. I think that has more relevance to my projects than anything else that I could do, build, etc. So the first book that I did, my PhD dissertation, to me is still really important. It is important to my projects, whether it is ‘degree zero’ or not. It has nothing to do with the experience and recreation. I think the built experience means nothing to me. My experience of the city is, you can’t build in what I experienced. You cannot control how people experience the environment. When James Joyce wrote the book Finnegans Wake, people didn’t understand the book – this is not literature. But eventually it became an important book. Ulysses by James Joyce was voted the most important book of the 20th century. When it came out, people couldn’t understand it as it is not literature. So the experience of reading James Joyce is not necessarily the same experience as reading a travel guide, or looking at a menu for food, or ordering a dish. It is so many different things go into being, and I can’t come in on those two questions, because my project is not about experience or recreation, and therefore not as very important projects today because I know people want to design experience.

My son is in a hospitality real estate. He develops hotels, bars and restaurants for owners to make money. And he said, what people want, most of all, are two things: they want an experience, they want to be able to name the experience – the ‘degree zero’ experience, right? So they want that experience, whatever that is. They want to brand that, and then they want functionality. They want everything to function beautifully in their hotel room, in their lobby, in the parking, etc. He is interested in making money doing these things; he couldn’t care less about architecture design, etc. I’m interested in the culture of architecture, if I do a hotel; I’m not interested in what the client thinks about the hotel, I’m interested in what an architect should think of the hotel. I’m living in a very different world than my son. I love my son, he is a great guy. And he is doing very well. But he doesn’t need to hire me because I would be a problem for him.

The Canareggio project in Venice. Source: Eisenman Architects.

[Placido Gonzalez]

‘Unveiling the traces’ seems to be one of your main concerns for design since the Canareggio project in Venice. What ‘layers’ of the context (be them cultural, historic, economic) do you consider have a greater influence in your architecture?

[Peter Eisenman]

I mean, which traces do I think, which layers, like Freud, whole notion of Freud in Rome, of uncovering layers that exist. I’m interested in those layers that once you mark the table with the drink that spills, it will be there forever. I would assume that they are cultural traces. I would think cultural traces.

[Placido Gonzalez]

What kind of cultural traces do you understand are informing your projects?

[Peter Eisenman]

What I’m interested in is, for example, a map of Shanghai in 1938. I’m really interested in the Japanese occupation. I’m interested in the European migration that came after the Nazism and Communism that brought Europeans to the International Settlement. This was a place that I have a very close friend that became Secretary of the Treasury in the US [Eisenman refers to W. Michael Blumenthal], who was thrown out of Germany in 1938 because he was Jewish and came here, and spent his teenage years looking across the Bund at the Japanese who were on the other side. They were close to the West and it was easy (to kill and terrorize), but they didn't terrorize any people; they didn’t project to killing and torturing, etc., at least the International people. And, I’m really interested in what did Shanghai look like as a plan in 1938; what didn’t look like in 1920. I collect maps; I have maps of Rome, etc., and I’m interested in cartography and the kinds of things that you can learn from the traces of a map.

I’m not interested in Beijing, I’m not interested in Canton. I’m interested in Shanghai because it was a place of the International Settlement. I’m curious to why it was. I mean, I didn’t realize (I may be making this up). But as far as I understand, the French had a piece of ground called Indochina. I don't know what ‘Indochina’ means in English language. Because I had been to Vietnam, (I learned that) the French in order to get the French Concession, gave half of the land of North Vietnam (Hanoi) to the Chinese in return for the French Concession. I didn't know that. There was a division already in 18xx(whenever) or 19xx(whenever) the French gave up the half of the thing to get what was in Shanghai. That’s really interesting for me because I visited before the war of Dien Bien Phu, at that time I was in Saigon.

International Settlement,Shanghai. Source: coloniallifestyle.

I travelled up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. I travelled all through that area, I was in the service in Korea. I was in the New Territories, in Macau before they were Chinese. So to me, it was what the city was like then. What was it like in 1900, how did they develop, what were the energies that caused it developed, what was a problem.

I had a roommate in New York when I came back from Korea in 1956-7, whose brother was a famous American who was supposedly fell out of an airplane over China. He was a CIA guy [Eisenman refers to the case of CIA agents John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau]. So out of the airplane over China he was in the prison for thirty years. I lived with his brother so I knew the story, the CIA wouldn't say they were their spies and let him go. So these kinds of things are really interesting to me. Look, what’s interesting in architecture for me is that we never had Chinese students for many years, and Americans were not allowed to come. This is my first trip to mainland China. I did buildings in Tokyo but have never been here. These are interesting things for someone who is interested in the evolution of culture.

[Placido Gonzalez]

It is interesting that you have this appreciation for the architecture of the 1920s and the city of the 1930s, which have been interpreted by many in a nostalgic way. So we are also interested to know how we could find other ways to interpret that, not in a nostalgic way.

[Peter Eisenman]

I’m not in that. I don’t know what other ways. I’m not interested in nostalgic, I can tell you. But, if you said to me, here is a piece of land, and we would give you a project here, what will you do? I know what I’ll do. I would talk to Peter Eisenman and have nothing to do with what the problem is here. Because I don't think I solve problems, I create problems. I have no idea. I mean, I would go into the gardens tomorrow in Suzhou. We went to Yu Garden here and Hangzhou. So I see them, they are very pretty. What should I do with anything? They are very pretty, I’m glad they are here. How do they help the city? I don't know.

[Placido Gonzalez]

Your contempt towards materiality seems to be quite close to the conceptual considerations that apply to the conservation of built heritage in the last 25 years. Is there still room for material culture today?

[Peter Eisenman]

What is material culture? Blankets? Stones? Pieces of wood? I don't know what is material culture.

[Placido Gonzalez]

I refer to the meaning of material culture applied to architecture.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Source: Eisenman Architects

[Peter Eisenman]

Yes, there is room for architectural artifacts. Books, very important; buildings, very important; students and teachers, very important; ideas, very important. I think that is part of a culture. So I would say there is room for material culture. For example let’s say, two of my buildings have been already destroyed, I think this is a good thing. Buildings need to be destroyed so other buildings can take their place. I don't believe in ‘forever’. I hate going to Rome – ruins are really ridiculous. I’m not into ruins, when I go to Rome, I avoid ruins and I’d like to play. And I don't need to keep things from falling down, taking them away, and we could take away three quarters of Shanghai and we wouldn't miss anything. But what would we replace with? I don't know. And I don't know what would be better.

But I can tell you, as a Westerner, taking the train from Hangzhou to Shanghai is so disturbing as a landscape. I mean it’s a never ending bad landscape. There’s nothing relieving about it. More bad buildings after more bad buildings. This guy tells me that the buildings are half empty because they build for speculation. I said to myself: could we destroy half of them, it would be great to take them down. I think taking things down is part of material culture. I have a great feeling that everybody should take my buildings down. I know I built the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and they’re never gonna take that down. But I know the stadium I built, for example which is a very exciting stadium in Arizona today, in 30 years will be absolutely taken down. That’s what they do with any good stadium in the US – every 30 years, they take them down.

[Placido Gonzalez]

So it is not an issue for you that your architecture can be later transformed.

[Peter Eisenman]

Good idea! I’m not nostalgic about me. No. I often said that no one would be interested in Le Corbusier’s little white houses if he hadn’t written the book Vers une architecture. Because there are a lot of French architects doing these little white houses in the 1920s and 1930s in France, but didn't write the book. The same with Palladio. I’ve been to the villas, 20-30 Palladian villas, they are awful and terrible. But because he wrote the Four Books, everybody ohhhh! Robert Venturi wrote a book called Complexity and Contradiction better than anything that he had built. And going to see the built stuff you’d say, ha? Rem Koolhaas wrote Delirious New York better than any building he would ever build. Why I don't go to see Rem Koolhaas is because it is not as good as the book. So, to me, as long as we don't burn books, books last longer than buildings. That I’m happy.

I’m happy that they are publishing my book. I had two or three published in Chinese already. They are being published in Italian, German, French and Spanish. So, who needs the buildings? Because we get pictures of the buildings. You know, people take selfies all the time. That is the thing really worrying for me today, is the existence of the camera. Because when I used to go to lecture, (places like Tongji) students would come with their books then I would sign them. Then they would come with just pieces of paper. Now they come not with any books or paper, they come with the camera – take a picture with me. So, they do this kind of thing. And then they get lots of people. You’ll see, when I get my lecture, how many of the students will come up not to buy the book, but to take the picture. And then they put the picture on the Internet – picture with Peter Eisenman – I’m all over in Facebook, Youtube, you can’t get away from me, because these kids always put these stuffs on the Internet, and I’m an Internet star. But no values. They don't put what I say, they just put the pictures of them with me. So that’s the worries – where the millennial saw in terms of material culture? And if material culture is selfies, we are in deep trouble. We’re not going to solve the problem wherever they are through selfies.

[Placido Gonzalez]

You have researched extensively on the historic architecture of Palladio, Alberti, Piranesi, etc. In what sense do you think their legacy constitutes a heritage of architecture today? Do you still separate their architecture from their buildings?

[Peter Eisenman]

When somebody says, we talk about heritage, conservation, I get really nervous. I will give you a story. When Frank Lloyd Wright was designing the Guggenheim, the local people in the neighborhood appeal to fact that this was against neighborhood – the scale, the color, the material, etc. And they were for preservation. And preservation to me is a really ugly possibility. So these people blocked the scale of the Guggenheim, etc. Then, the people wanted to have an expansion of the Guggenheim 15 years ago, and the same preservation people said: “No! No! We can’t touch this wonderful Frank Lloyd Wright building. We can’t!” The Guggenheim needed to expand, because the population expanded, the collections expanded. But the same people who were against the Guggenheim at the beginning now defended keeping the Guggenheim the way it was. I thought, what a problem it is. So, I worry about preservation as democracy, I’m not for preservation at all.

And I don't see the reason for it, because let’s look at the former French [Concession in Shanghai] area, what we’re going to preserve there? The scale is already gone, there are too many tall buildings. Hopefully there is some protection in the former Concession for the scale of the buildings. But I know I would live in the former French Concession today. If I were moving here, that is where I would go. Maybe there are other nice places, but I think (the former French Concession is nice) in the heart of the city. How would I preserve it? And you should see in the heart city of these mid-block towers now (coming 50, 60 stories, pencil-thin towers). And you realize what the reason was that you all needed to compete with kinds of rights that developers had in Paris and London, all over. And so they had to keep the economy up, people occupied, so they resell that and you get the tall towers which were never allowed before, in the mid-block that used to be on the in-block. The mid-block towers are disasters urbanistically in terms of blocking light and air and scale, the traffic. Nonsense. I live in a 12-story building called the Rockefeller Apartment, which is a wonderful scale building. Built in the 1930s, it is a building of one side, one street, and the building on the other with an internal garden. Fabulously quiet and the scale is right. I’m doing a 12-story condominium in Milan right now, the scale is perfect. Anything more, but then if you don't have the density of the tall building you can’t compete in the urban market. So, I know the problems, but I also know the people need to work, they need to make money, they need to be competitive, and the liberal democracy. So this is all we have.

[Placido Gonzalez]

That is about a very conservative on conservation, but there is also a possibility to understand that heritage may be like the old material with which architecture can interact in order to produce something new.

[Peter Eisenman]

I agree. But I don't see it. I mean, the people who are interested in preserving things the way they are, we wouldn't have China today if people were preserving the Kuomintang. And we wouldn't have the Kuomintang if people were preserving the European strangling of China, for I can see in late 19th century. So there is a revolutionary process that has to continue. I think that right now China to me seems to be why I am here, seems to be the most important idea for the 21st century. It is not Europe, it is not the Middle East, it is not the USA, nor South America – it’s China. It is certainly going to be the place where possibilities exist better than any other place. I think, if I were being born today, I would like to be born in Shanghai. I think I would have more chances in the world than anybody else, it seems to me. And no one seems to care.

I mean, I can’t get Google, I can’t get email, but I say wow, wow, wow. And people say, “be quiet, you don't need Google”. There seems to me certain restrictions that exist in the world. I’m very conscious of seeing them. But nobody seems to care here about any restrictions. Hey, that’s the world, right? So we think that the restrictions we have in the US are going to be very different – it’s gonna be external restrictions, it’s gonna cut off the air that we breathe. I would rather get a better chance here, have a baby here, and bring it up here than New York City. I just have that feeling. I may be wrong.

So, what’s heritage? What we need to worry about the heritage of a place is: sanctuary is gone – the US, or England of the 18th and 19th century, or Italy of the 18th century. Why do I need to worry about those heritages, why not take care of today? Oh, take care of today. So where we should spend the heritage money? We should spend here in China. Do we care about the Japanese? No. Do we care about the Koreans? No way. You know, they have some funny little gardens, funny automobiles; they eat funny things. But to me, it is not heritage but future is right here.

Maybe there are things that are wrong; I don't see people begging on the street, by the way. I don't see people who are poor lying on the street as I do in New York. There must be some quid pro quo that gives these people something in return for something else. Everybody seems to be working. There doesn’t seem to be poverty. 20% percent of American children are living below poverty. What about that? Is there anybody concerned about that really? Here, it doesn't seem to be that poverty, maybe there is. But nobody in Shanghai seems to be worried about it.

We the have picturesque countryside in Italy. It is really picturesque, I love them. But they have big immigration problems. Now they cannot get a stable government, the right wing is coming back. I don't see right wing being concerned here. I mean, we have concern for populism in the US – the terrible president. But you don't have populist problems here. It seems to me a very benevolent government, I may be wrong. But it seems everybody is going along. No problem. It is not right for me, because I am too far gone. But if I had a little kid, this big, put him (or her) here.

[Placido Gonzalez]

All right. This is the last question, and refers to how your theoretical work has reflected on the architecture of the second half of the 20th Century; and it is an issue that is gaining interest in the heritage field in China. In which sense do you consider modern architecture to be today’s heritage? What are their values and how can they inform the production of architecture today?

[Peter Eisenman]

OK, I’m interested in that.

[Placido Gonzalez]

In which sense do you think the modern project can still inform today’s production of architecture?

[Peter Eisenman]

It seems that I no longer believe in them, I don't believe in the modern projects. I said active projects today. I’m never sure there was a modern project in architecture. There was a modern project in music, in film, in art and in literature. But, (I’ve written about this in several places) I think that the modern project could never happen in modern architecture. Why? Because there was an underlining promise in architecture along that there was a utopian project for social housing, or technology, new constructions for new ideas of land consumption, of material consumption. And all those things were idealized in the 18th century. In other words, there was a latent idealism in the ideas of modernism which corrupted the modern, because it ultimately was against the 18th century ideality. And yet it was the very same ideality that was against what’s perpetrated in the Modern itself. So the modern, as architectural phenomenon, was corrupted from the beginning. So therefore there’s no value. There’s no way to have an idea, like, Utopia doesn't exist. And Modern was all about some sort of Utopia – realized Utopia on Earth. And that’s what it was against. And the very critical modernity that I’m interested in was corrupted by its own internal ideology. I didn't find that out until later in life. So, right now, I’m in a little boat on the ocean more like this. One day the ocean will get too strong to tip over the boat, I will be gone. Right now, I’m still standing. Right?

You ask me “you believe in the modern project in architecture”. My answer is “NO.” So what do you believe in? Why do I need to believe in anything? I mean, is there any truth and belief? I’m a post-structuralist, I believe in the notion of undecidability. There is no such thing as a one-to-one relationship between this glass (I’m drinking out of it) and the symbolism of the glass, half full and half empty – maybe, maybe not. So, there is no one-to-one relationship between an idea and a thing. One should subscribe to that. You can float on the ocean very comfortably and not worry about anything. I don't believe. All I know is just – I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror, I shave every day, and I say: “I’ve got my whole life in front of me.” – which is true. And that keeps me going. I’m eighty-five. I told my daughters, my mother lived to a hundred and one. I say, God, keep me alive for fifteen years. You know, I think about dying in fifteen years. Right now, I’m going like hot cakes, and I don't worry about the ideality that corrupted my project fifty years ago. Now it doesn't matter. So I am no longer modern, I’m not post-modern.

[Placido Gonzalez]

So your appreciation is more oriented towards singular architecture rather than ideas.

[Peter Eisenman]

Yup, more interested in me. But I mean, hey, I teach, I lecture, I do books. They are publishing my first book, which is my most important book. It is great to the Chinese because the kind of lessons in that book are really pregnant to a Chinese mind. I think that is really more interesting than to a pragmatic western mind. I’m playing with the conceptual mind (if I can say that) as more chance to understanding what I write and think. So I think I could have made a great life by being allowed in China in 1955 when I first stood in the New Territories, looking at the fence, and said: “You think they would let me just stay in for a day?” And the guard said: “No, no, you cannot come in even for a day.” I said: “I can come right back. You can have my passport.” They wouldn't let me. So, there was a chance. The guard said “No”.
We’ve got to go. I don't mean to be this difficult. But you’ve heard what I have said.

[Chang Qing & Placido Gonzalez]

Thank you very much.

(Transcript by Jiang Jiawei, proofread by Placido Gonzalez.)

Co-sponsored by

Tongji Architectural Design (Group) Co., Ltd.
Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning and Design Institute Co., Ltd.
Arcplus Group PLC
World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region under the Auspices of UNESCO (WHITRAP)
Shanghai Construction No.4 (Group) Co., Ltd.

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