When called upon to discuss their work they hedge. They’ll talk about baseball and fish, Derrida and Oldenburg, lit theory and pop art, new girlfriends and children. Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry are the Corleone brothers of avant-garde architecture, refusing to talk business at the table and blowing smoke in our ears. What is the profession to make of such evasion from these “pied pipers” of new design?
No, they didn’t ask to be father figures, and the Oedipal (or Electral) complexes of youngsters aren’t theirs to work out. They, after all, have clocked their time in analysis and therapy. Though Eisenman prides himself more on his affiliations with French intellectuals, the most influential relationships of his career have been with anonymous psychoanalysts, men whom Eisenman is said to quote with reckless abandon when talking to clients. No stranger to the couch, Gehry attributes the major turn-about of his career – his rejection of the institutionalized 60s mod· block for the free-associate sample parks of the fast two decades – to the revelations he arrived at through therapy.
But we weren’t there and are now left with very few avenues of insight into the minds of the Masters. As members of the medical profession, the thankless souls that counselled this high-powered pair remain inaccessible and the patients themselves are less than forthcoming on the topic of their designs.
But there are clues to their thoughts. We can learn much from the way Eisanman and Gehry talk around their work, the way the former masks design with inaccessible and admittedly absurdist texts, or the latter substitutes personal anecdote and tangential discussion for explanation of his buildings. We can infer a lot about both from their criticisms of others, words jarringly straightforward when contrasted with their self-analysis. We might trace (to reclaim this term as a verb) the development of the public persona in the lives of each. And, at the end of another day, we could follow their own advice (the directive given by most artists) and look to their work for answers.
The best and most often used foil against incisive questioning, disownership, has served both Eisenman and Gehry well. They simply didn’t do it. There were traces and visions in that night, palimpsests and distracted thumbnail sketches. (Granted, Coop Himmelblau upped the ante with blind-folded thumbnail sketches.) In any case, they weren’t responsible. The sub-conscious, either their own, collective, or both, is to blame. Not that anyone finds fault – as long as it’s sexy, thereby cashing in on our own subconscious confusion.
No architect enjoys hearing they are on the cutting edge of good taste, unless they’re being paid well enough to absorb the blow. It’s akin to showing your work to someone and having them compliment your outfit and walk away. This Terror of the Tasteful approaches neurotic proportions in the cases of Eisenman and Gehry. (Or, it did until fortune smiled hard on them.) Both Eisenman’s inversions of architectural conventions – windows for doors or floors for walls – and Gehry’s embrace of nether materials, such as chain-link and raw framework are held up as heroic investigations of architecture’s inner depths and assumptions. However, these and other heavy-handed departures from the norm are more easily explained as just that: escape from the normative, or fear of the average. Though most people (especially those with the most) dread resembling others, this does not a movement make.
Psychoanalysis doesn’t end. Most of psychoanalysis has to do with learning to accept that you don’t get “cured”, you don’t put a cap on things. Don’t be so teleological. Clearly this line of reasoning (maybe mode of reasoning would be less oxymoronic) has left its mark on our objects of inquiry. Eisenman and Gehry embrace the partial, the unfinished, and commodify the moment for us all. As Gehry savors tile work under construction, hidden in scaffolding and promising far more while concealed than most buildings deliver on completion, Eisenman discusses his briocollage as collected traces, jumbled shards of ordering systems unearthed or reinvented on site. From a legal standpoint, no selling point could be more savvy: their buildings don’t leak or forbid circulation of air or pedestrians, they simply expose the essential incompletion of human existence.
It’s best not to hide one’s feelings, and neither Eisenman nor Gehry do, though the former could be considered more in touch with himself than, the latter in this respect. Hands down Peter Eisenman is the foremost performance architect of his generation. His alter ego, Leon Krier, can barely keep pace as his whipping boy. Only Eisenman could do all of the following in the course of a single discussion panel:
(I) Accuse Robert Venturi of cowardice (dating back to 1963)
(2) Berate Denise Scott Brown for surrogating in place of her wayward partner
(3) Defend the Big Six 01 corporate design
(4) Disparage a “classic knee-jerk liberal” response to the work of Gordon Matta Clark
(5) Disavow almost all current experimental architecture, and
(6) conclude that the presentations had wasted his and all the participants’ time.
Though hardly in the running on this score, Gehry did his part recently to consign the young Californian architects to oblivion, when in a lecture at Cooper Union on the “California Scene”, he mentioned that he hated most of the tile work coming out of his home state these days. Though his distaste for the “ultimate form of flattery” at the hands of the “Son (and Daughters?) of Frank” is understandable, he might have remembered that he had just consented to write the preface for the forthcoming book on his children and given a little thought to sales.
Veritable industries (not to mention office baseball teams) have been spawned on either coast in the wake of Eisenman’s Rubic rancheros and Gehry’s friendly fortresses. With each new commission, both architects ride closer to the center of a profession they once claimed the margins of and, given what precedes them as benchmark design, it’s hard not to applaud the changing of the guard . Will an architecture of paradox, an underhanded humanism that proves beautifully livable despite the wishes of its authors, lead design out of this, the most violent and corrupt of human centuries? Ten years and many more hundred dollar-an-hour sessions will tell. But perhaps by then, there will be an architecture of the Twelve Steps.
To be understood is to be undermined, and given the reactionary nature of most architecture of the last five years, it may seem both cruel and stupid to attack the leading purveyors of progressive design. Oddly enough, both Eisenman and Gehry seldom comment on each other’s work or that of similarly intentioned architects, reserving their wrath for the neoconservative wing of the profession.
Rather than nodding at work that obviously shares our discontent with the present, young architects must begin to reorient the critical facility that has exposed the philosophical (and now fiscal) bankruptcy of recent “traditionalism” and ”historicism”. Instead, we must reassess the alternative work of the last decades and evaluate the effectiveness of these designs in light of what did get built – or even widely published. Why was so little built, and why were tile designs built so often drained of the ideological premises from which they were formed?
Though most of the barriers to viable alternative design are obvious – cost, complexity, the counter programmatic tactical of some of the work, the point that the best of these designs are best because they so effectively critique exactly the structures of power that control their being built – some barriers are less self-perpetuating. As Eisenman proved with Oppositions, critical debate of American design can take place and secure an audience, if primarily at an abstruse and apolitical level. Without the dialogue of publications such as Oppositions and its offspring, countercultural design remains just fine lines on paper.
To be Frank (if not Peter) there is little or no theoretical discourse to support the conceptual design going on in Los Angeles. If it’s happening in the schools, it’s not making it to print, though avenues do exist to publish. Since the demise of Arts and Architecture, Western design has taken place in a theoretical vacuum, an empty realm between the lightened monographs of specific designers usually published years after their impact has been gauged in the field, and the academic journals of our architectural schools – supportive for students, but read only for sentimental value by practitioners.