"We know what to do with space," philosopher Abraham Heschel used to remind us, "but do not know what to do about time." To us, time is a sarcasm that steals from us all, that, in our lifelong panic, we try to deposit in space. But perhaps space, and the world of "things," is but a mask and a defense to hide reality from ourselves, and to hide ourselves from it. Heschel noted that the word for "thing" had no equivalent in ancient Hebrew and that the word davar in biblical times denoted nothing more than acts of speech, and, by extension, reasons and causes. This is because in the old Hebraic world reality was dynamic: It was related not to thinghood but rather to events. This undoubtedly derived from Hebraic cosmogony and theory of Nature: How, after all, did Yahweh make things? Historians of philosophy have long noted that for the Hebrews words effect and make happenˇthey trigger becomingsˇwhile for the Greeks the word simply "is." The Greek world was a static one, mired in Logos: The task of philosophy and art was to tell how a beingˇin its fixity and finalityˇis. And out of the Logos (gathering, arranging) came the stultifications we know as classicism.
In the ancient Middle Eastern world that gave way to the Hebraic tradition, words were seen as repositories of forces that could be unleashed, that could set matter into motion through the very act of utterance ("In the beginning was the word . . ."). The concept of the fixity and inflexibility of worldly "things" was as foreign to Hebraic thought as it is endemic to our own. Primal creative force (figured textually as Yahweh) manifested itself not in places or things but only in history, in events, and in time. Creation was inseparable from the sanctification of time. Thus where the Jew finds "place," even today, is understandably different than where the (Greco-) Christian finds it. The Jew has no shrine or cathedral outside of the sanctified moments or days, the actions and utterances that create places in time. "The Sabbaths," Heschel said, "are our great cathedrals." This tradition remained demonstrably active within the transformative scientific, political, and artistic works of the early twentieth centuryˇin Einstein, Sch÷nberg, Kafka, Bergson, Freud, Trotsky, Proust, et al. It provoked the well-known antimodernist slur that branded Jews "rootless cosmopolitans." The charge of rootlessness is a direct expression of our own culture's dread of abstraction and the invisibilities of rootedness in time.
Only against this background can one properly assess the strange labor one witnesses in Peter Eisenman's assiduously cultivated, long-deferred, and curiously unresolved study of Italian architect Giuseppe Terragni (1904˝43). The surprise recent appearance of Eisenman's three-hundred-page tome represents something both of a landmark and of an indigestible dÚjÓ vu. Eisenman's Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques has not only been forty years in the making but has been announced so often that most who still believed the study actually existed assumed it had appeared years ago, danced its solemn dance, and dignifiedly vanished. The work always possessed legendary status: It was rumored to be a masterpieceˇyes, at last, an Eisenman masterpiece!ˇa "definitive work," a roman Ó clef of sorts of Eisenman's own oeuvre, not to mention the first in-depth study in English of the works of an indisputable major modernist master. I myself enjoyed the perversity of citing it in footnotes as a work that would never appear.
Yet Eisenman remained unaffected and unconcerned by the irony and derision that the book's failure to materialize persistently generated. Perhaps he judged the murmuring useful, providing the ambiguous insinuation of both greatness and flaw that only together evoke the magical effects of charisma. Perhaps he was secretly intimidated, knowing its incompletion was actually testament to its uncompletability, a humiliation for the youthful lion whose reputation had always been to be able to wrestle anything to the ground. Perhaps it represented something bigger still: the final oedipal catastrophe that needed endlessly and at any cost to be deferred in order just to keep on going. The Oedipus I refer to here is no other than Eisenman's career-long dialogue-cum-rivalry with his father-mentor, the formalist critic Colin Rowe.
Rowe was not only Eisenman's teacher and doctoral thesis director at Cambridge in the early '60s, he was an insurmountable behemoth in the architectural analytical field, the pipeline through whom the great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century formalist German and Austrian aestheticians (W÷lfflin, Sedlmayr, Riegl, Wittkower, Panofsky, et al.) were channeled into modern architectural thought. He was also Eisenman's companion on his epic "Italienische Reisen" of 1961 and 1962. Naturally old Rowe was intending to inculcate his adepts with the glories of Rome and the renascenceˇincluding plenty of Baroqueˇbut especially with the mathematical firmament represented by systematic architectural thought that can be seen nowhere better than in the villa cycle of Andrea Palladio. Eisenman swallowed the Rowe hypothesis hook, line, and sinkerˇor almost. Rowe was both too brilliant and too damn English to afford Eisenman the room needed to think and draw creatively. To begin with, Eisenman was not an alcoholic, as seems requisite for English intellectuals, but more properly a neurotic. His energies could not be satisfyingly floated on a raft of cleverness and self-satisfaction; they needed to turn themselves to discharge outward and against.
It did not help that Rowe's system was stuffy, rigid, and closed. Although it possessed traces of magnificence it was also naively rooted in the presuppositions of the nineteenth century and deeply enthralled by classicism. His dazzling "re-masterings" of modernist worksˇespecially those of Le Corbusierˇseemed rather to close the great modern century and its aspirations far more than to open them up. Rowe's universe was missing something, and Eisenman knew that it was his task to get at what it was . . . although only with the father's permission. That something, Eisenman believed, could also be found in Italy, although not in the masters sanctioned by Rowe's idolatrous canon. He believed to have found it in the work of Giuseppe Terragni. Although Terragni's entire career spanned barely fifteen years (he died at the age of thirty-nine as the result of battlefield trauma from World War II), he realized an astonishing set of buildings and monuments around Como that were powerfully linked both to the Italian Fascist Party and to the anticlassicizing and antirevivalist movements of the 1930s. His "Rationalism" remains a touchy subject, both aesthetically and politically. In the end the permission from Rowe was formally withheld, but the abasing courtesy and genuflecting that were included within the request itself served as sufficient to establish a silent but knowing contract between Rowe and Eisenman. From Rowe's perspective, it was necessary (and tacitly required) that Eisenman should fail; from Eisenman's perspective, it was paramount to succeed at pitting Terragni against Rowe and thus to topple the father. Eisenman, however, was apparently either unwilling or unable in the end to accomplish the parricide. His dalliance with the Terragni text continued for forty yearsˇindeed until after Colin Rowe's death in 1999ˇonly then daring to appear with the bold and courageous declaration in its introduction and concluding essay of delivery sans resolution. The Terragni "problem" could not be solved by any single system of Eisenman's own construction: The logic that binds the 1933˝36 Casa del Fascio (one of the two buildings minutely analyzed in his book, a kind of community center/headquarters for use by Fascist citizenry and a building of considerable civic significance) into a single resonant pitch offers little explanatory power to set the 1939˝40 Casa Giuliani-Frigerio (a simple apartment block but of far more intricate elaboration) into resonance. The same bullet designed to take down the father appears to have been grievously menacing to the son all this time as well. The difference is that Eisenman turned the danger of the unresolvable problem into his lifework. The triumph, one might say, of neurosis.
Just as Eisenman's obsessively meticulous analyses of the successive versions (reconstructed from archival drawings, fastidiously hand-redrawn, and exquisitely printed here in two inks) of Terragni's two buildings demonstrate over and over again the perpetual presence and preservation of past operations, within the material itself, of the buildings' geometries and their consecutive states, so the history of Eisenman's reworkings of his own texts over the four decades reveals a clear map of his intellectual terrain (and, by extension, ours). Rowe's Protestant formalist science was arguably but an advanced form of historical calibration and connoisseurship, insufficiently "intellectual" for the happily and necessarily "rootless" Eisenman. (Even Manfredo Tafuri, a Jewish Italian, condemns Eisenman along with Terragni in the book's afterword to the graveyard of soulless modernists for their arid and "nostalgia-free" technicity; his code word for "rootlessness" is "Americanism," and he describes Eisenman's work as "architecture without a homeland.") Although formalism had captured Eisenman in a grasp that he would never elude, he was not about to go down without a proper fight. By 1965, two or three years after his Terragni "epiphany," Eisenman's four-decade-long obsession with technical method begins with his espousal of syntactic rules and simple transformations as generative of perceived, or merely apperceived, structure. If this sounds like Chomskyan linguistics, it is. The concept of active grammars that determine and guide the assembly of parts but are not that assembly itself becomes the first nuance with which Eisenman begins his deliberate but asymptotic dissociation from Rowe's "transcendent" geometric "templates" (transcendent endowments are the bugaboos of '60s and '70s thought attempting to free itself from fuzzy phenomenologies). I say "asymptotic" of course because Eisenman never really does overcome Rowe but rather is forced to accept him as his eternal interlocutor and adversary. Their forty-year-long dialogue is a relentlessly legalistic one with very little that is foundational ever coming to be at stake. While Eisenman always maintained the impression of having the upper handˇthe position of the predator hectoring its preyˇhe never found his way to a convincing coup de grÔce. His Terragni book is a testament to this unfinished business. But the Chomskyan method was liberatory, even if it represented only a tactical move. From then on Eisenman was on the side of pure and often extreme intellectualism, of abstract structure and its unfoldingˇits "reading out"ˇas constituting a literal place. A place to be existentially, and a place from which to produce work. It situated him firmly within the linguistic analytic tradition opened by Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx while giving him a kind of Jewish purchase on history: It made him an outsider, a revolutionary, and most of all a pain in the butt. No one really wanted to read his turgid texts of the period, but one was well aware that they had better: The very structure of knowledge was changing, and architecture could ignore this fact only at its peril. Eisenman had also by the late '60s incorporated a full-blown millenarianism into his discourse (exceeded only by the morose and arch-conservative Marxist critic Tafuri) that invoked the ovens of Auschwitz as a kind of end to "human" history. Something about the encounter between generative grammar and genocide made it hard not to take notice. Either way, something clearly nontrivial was winding up to pitch here, and the new mood across the spectrum of cultural endeavor was rife with the promise of some kind of renewal.
From this beginning of seeing architecture as an intelligent and complex artifact of history, generated by precise rules drawing on invisible systems and continuing to generate them even after the midcentury apocalypse (when the world had arguably nothing further to contribute to the civilized elaboration of structure), something new had begun. Chomskyan linguistics could account for the indestructible competences that generate rudimentary formal chains like sentences, but soon along came structuralism, which extended the purview of rigorous method to the organization not only of sentences but of entire texts. Eisenman's Terragni is manifestly anchored in the concept of architecture as "text," susceptible to "readings," polysemous bottlenecks, and undecidabilities. While Eisenman clearly purged much of his structuralist jargon for the final publicationˇone is blissfully spared most references to "signs" and "signifiers"ˇthere is no doubt that the bulk of the analysis pivots on the Derridean concepts of textuality as intellectual constructs whose purpose is to replace classical generative models of lineage (origins and the like) with affiliative webs of relations. If texts are tissues of relations, well then, "What else is architecture?" Eisenman seems to ask.
The difficult thing here is that Eisenman is left wanting things two ways but does not succeed in resolving them. He wishes to emphasize relations over matter, points, and things and wants to show how much of Terragni's work does so too, but he is unable to overcome the paradox of how to incorporate the brute materiality and organizational physicality of architectural facts within the "textual" system. His entire analysis of Terragni centers on method: how to explain structure in terms of movement rather than disposition, how to grasp the temporality that haunts organized matter and in so doing to give place to a fully independent theory of form. He settles for the concept of a "critical" architectureˇwhich he has massaged like an elusive Grand Unified Field Theory for over thirty yearsˇas the very definition of an architecture that is founded within, and that acknowledges, abets, and draws on, this very contradiction for its effects. Interesting and fecund to be sure, but the mere acceptance of dialectics and struggle within the metaphysics of structure and form is hardly sufficient to escape the gravitational field of Colin Rowe's geometry-apotheosizing formalism.
Jacques Derrida is not the only figure looming over this period of Eisenman's (and architecture's) history. The other is the American structuralist Rosalind Krauss (I use the qualification "American" to signal that it is a supple and hybrid structuralism with which we have to do rather than a doctrinaire one). Krauss's isolation of an "indexical" parti within American artmaking of the late '60s and '70s went a considerable distance toward resolving the apparent abyss that lay between linguistic-textual meshes and concrete material ones. Indexes were highly meaningful marks that, paradoxically, in no way transcended the matter they marked. There was at least an apparent consubstantiality achieved here between concrete and textual milieus, in any case one sufficient and lasting enough to permit Eisenman to proceed with the next few years of his projects and writings.
One notes throughout Eisenman's analysis of Terragni's buildings an almost animistic belief in the agencies that dispose and displace the walls and perforations within their respective cages and blocks. Every time somethingˇplate, integer, or massˇslides to a new position along a virtual track, the trace of its travel, narrativized as literal, is exposed. This is not only an attribute of Terragni's marvelously charged and rhythmized solids, syncopated in the Casa del Fascio to the limits of the lyrical and in the Casa Giuliani-Frigerio, beyond classical legibility, but an essential aspect of Eisenman's own vocabulary of operations throughout his work of the '70s and '80s in his notorious "Houses" series. (Eisenman's Housesˇhis "early work"ˇrepresent a sustained fifteen-year exercise in formalist transformation: The works are explicitly generated by geometrical interactions and conflicts engineered to preclude any tainting of the resulting structures by the psychological baggage of bourgeois or "humanist" creativity.) Eisenman's Terragni is in fact more than anything a "user's guide" to his own experimental manipulationsˇmostly on paper, but not exclusively soˇof his early period. So he declares with what seems like pomposity in his introduction, "this book is the work of two architects," and thereby sidles up to posterity in an apparently counterfeit manner. But in no time one realizes that the claim is not grandiloquent, but humble. It says, "I too became lost in this forest, and I too will die here if I do not think my way out."
It is no longer at all clear that he will get out, but it now matters much less. Eisenman's struggle to think his way out began with his dissertation, "The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture," which obediently slogged through the work of the modernist "gorillas," as he calls them: Wright, Aalto, and Corbu. But those were meant more to appease Rowe and the Cambridge dons. For himself, Eisenman reserved a secret weapon, a backdoor entryway into canonical modernism that would throw the pat assumptions of the academy into disarray. The fourth subject of his doctoral study was, of course, the renegade Terragni, whose perverse architectural deliberations clearly pointed well beyond the "Rationalist" moniker with which he is still saddled today. That fourth subject pointed to something not rational at all. Indeed, it pointed to everything else that happened in the twentieth century that could not be explained within the systems of thought that the century had inherited from the previous one. It pointed to the need to start thinking unfettered and anew.
In Terragni generally, and in the two works chosen for analysis in Eisenman's book especially, as in all of Eisenman's own early projects, the fundamental datum of the cosmos is the cube. All of creation is an adventitious assault and modification of this preexisting "condition." All action is transformation, and substance is simply an organization of accumulated marks that are the residues of these transformations. The task of the architect/critic is therefore Talmudic and cryptological: to release the multiple meanings embedded in the web of traces, marks, and tracks. Solid objectsˇarchitecturesˇliterally buzz with deposited activity that is never finally stilled. Think of this in the same way that science understands brute matter and its relation to cosmogenesis. For every atom bears in its nucleus the memory and mark of the big bang that are not only discernible in many chemical elements but even measurable. Matter, quite simply, is not "thing" but "event."
Geometry here has come to represent the "eventalization" of matter so that to embed events into matter, and to extrapolate events from it as so many marks to be "read," was the primary project on which Eisenman embarked somewhere between Como and Cambridge in the early '60s. The project was not at all an innocent one even if it was (and remains today) a largely blind one. Eisenman discovered the end of formalism just a short way down the Autostrada from Palladio's Veneto. It must have been a great shock to someone so schooled in listening "structurally" to the frozen music of plans and facades to see Terragni's restlessly pulsating forms still elaborating their dance. Eisenman saw movementˇmaddening oscillationˇand in doing so discovered, or shall I say fell into, the problem of time. It was this temporal dimension and its capacity to lay to waste the platitudinous metaphysics of formalist aesthetics that triggered the move away from and against Rowe. Except that Eisenman could not fully grasp the thing directly.
If Eisenman's Terragni is in some ways a tortured bookˇhe himself calls it as unfriendly for the reader as a "root canal," although it is not this at allˇit is actually a marvel of patience and limpid exposition. Almost completely free of jargon, obfuscation, and terrorisme intellectuel, it represents rather a tour de force of technical analysis. Very few people know how to "see" architecture or how to apprehend the labor and artifice within resolved formal invention. Yet any ten pages of this book could serve as a near A-to-Z not only on how to "read a building" but on how to understand the vocabulary of modernism within the broader context of secular Western history from the Age of the Cathedrals on. This is no small claim. There is no work anywhere to my knowledge that attempts with the precision and stamina of this one to anatomize a compositional process down to its very last move. It has almost the delirious comprehensivenessˇand perhaps hubrisˇof a genome- description project. And yet, it is not a book of a type that we commonly see today or for that matter seek to engage. Still, this too may well be a strength. For nor would we expect a composer to make demands on us today as they were made on us thirty years ago by a Karlheinz Stockhausen, or by a filmmaker as they were made on us by an Antonioni or a Godard, or, alas, by an author as they were made by a Thomas Pynchon. The world and the sphere of culture are simply no longer seen as a massive laboratory-school but rather as an emporium of entertainments and pleasure. The glorious culture of difficulty that was a paradoxically unproblematic part of the Dionysian '60s and early '70s has vanished. Or at least all but. The considerable "lateness" of this particular book, if it does nothing else, at least serves to remind us that culture could look very different were it not so uncool at present to think, loudly and publicly and with risk. The book has notably not been rewritten for quick use within the current environment. This makes it feel curious, nostalgic, and prickly, but strangely fresh as well.
Professing indifference to the reception of his book, Eisenman describes its writing as a necessary but purely personal activity, "like davening." (Davening is a Yiddish word that refers to the transformation of written text into the rhythmic incantations of prayer.) Although no one understands the text one is performing, one davens anyway, repeating, transforming, re-creating . . . all the way into trance. Eisenman's assiduous "formalist" analysisˇmore than a hundred pages per buildingˇis undoubtedly too a type of prayer. Like the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead made a household word by Allen Ginsberg and one of the most hypnotic songs (really prose poems) in the Jewish liturgy, Eisenman's sustained, lifelong reworking of his Terragni textˇcertainly the most significant book he will writeˇis also more than anything a vigorous secular declaration of faith in a new coming. (Kaddish: a consolation for death and the destruction of the first temple as well as a messianic promise to raise all the dead along with a new temple.) The Kaddish is in fact a litany of word-sounds so powerfully rhythmic and recited so often that the sages once warned against mistaking it for magic. The promised resurrections, however, here as well as in Eisenman's book, recede very much as they do in a work of Beckett into a miasma of sound and partial objects that each successive "reading" rearranges without visible progress and which soon detaches to become an independent activity of redemption and intoxication itself.
Eisenman posits at the outset the (ontological) possibility that every primordial cube is either solid or void or, more truly and problematically, both at once. All articulated features that emerge within this cube are products of either deletions or additions. From this dyadic foundation, this essential antagonism rooted in an originary conundrumˇis the world primordially solid or void?ˇarises all friction and pattern and difference, all architectural features and substance. Architecture, he means to show, in its deepest essence, is active conflict, instability both physical and semantic, and therefore permanent undecidability. Terragni was the master, he implicitly claims, the one who distilled this fact down like a grappa to its most basic and refined expression. That is, until Eisenman himself came along to invest this fundamental paradox within his own work with heuristic and existential values.
But this represents exactly the problem that Heschel warned of, for in the end Eisenman learns very well what to do with space but never figures out exactly what to do with timeˇdespite his precocious intuition that it is precisely the temporality of Terragni's metabolically active solids that matters. Because the Casa Giuliani-Frigerio will simply not stay still long enough to allow a coherent reading of even one of its fragments, it is cast as somehow "defective," unstable, and in the throes of a "critical" self-decomposition. (The Casa del Fascio approximates the "solidity" of the juggler's vortex; the individual elements are in motion but maintain their reciprocal relationships to one another over the duration of any "reading.") Yet the stability of the Giuliani- Frigerio is simply a stability of a different kind: If not stable in space, it is stable in time. Like a child on a bicycle, it draws its stability from another dimension, from the vector of its own cyclic motion. Here we have to do with a much more radically modulated intervallic structure, one characteristic of polymetric musical compositions in which "incommensurable" rhythms communicate with and play off of one another within a flexible equilibrium. Giuliani-Frigerio continually exports its entropy across its facades, into the building's interior, or through the slots and evacuations at its edges and corners. As Eisenman points out, the local order doesn't disappear, but it does get brilliantly managed. Clearly Eisenman grasped just enough to make this feature central to his own practice. What, after all, has Eisenman's impact on architectural culture been, if not to subvert classicism by rendering continuous and active what was previously separate and inert? His project has always been to introduce continua into discrete and disjunctive milieus in order to release processes of communicative disruption. But the emphasis has always been on disruption rather than on the more organic communicative features.
The limitation here lies more than anywhere in the method, within the philosophical machinery that Eisenman deploys. The language of structuralism does not easily permit of dialogical or polyphonic qualities, does not permit one easily to theorize the principle of multiple regimes embedded within a single and same module of matter. (The familiar "polysemy" of linguistics does not qualify here as a true "multiplicity" because it concerns only the manifold qualifications that a single element can bear and not the management of a diversity of different regimes with entirely different logics and scales of operation held in communicative equilibrium.) And yet the emergence of this latter phenomenon represents one of the constitutive discoveries of the twentieth century regarding the organization of the material world: the discovery that matter can exist simultaneously in two states at once.
While there are many examples of matter inhabiting multiple states or exhibiting multiple behavioral profiles from metallurgy to organic chemistry (most glasses, for example, exhibit strange sets of contradictory properties), the example that stands above all others is the case of the superposition principle and quantum indeterminacy. Between 1923, when equations describing matter waves are introduced by Louis de Broglie, and 1935, the year of the eerie Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox that extends the concept of matter waves to the entire known universe (thus providing the foundation of modern teleportation theory), the understanding of the physical world and matter undergoes the greatest transformation in its history. Quantum mechanics introduced throughout these years an array of bizarre models that destroyed not only the last vestiges of the classical worldview but in many ways Einstein's relativistic one as well. It should not be a surprise that correlatives of these mind-boggling and counterintuitive models would appear somewhere within adjacent fields of cultural endeavor. The architecture of Terragni just happened to be where it occurred.
Particles and waves were discovered both to coexist within one another and to spread throughout space by means of a new type of field phenomenon that Erwin Schr÷dinger called the wavefunctionˇa standing wave that if left uninterrupted contains all possible locations and outcomes within itself and everywhere. Thus a structure can both interact with itself and contain incompatible information about its own status and character. This was the very problem that Eisenman had come up against in Terragni's structures and that he could at best refer to as "critical." But critical doesn't adequately cover it. The lesson is that matter and structure actually invest space and are space itself, indeed that they tirelessly propagate. By interrupting the wave-particleˇthrough an act of measurement, or in our case, of "observation"ˇone "collapses" the wavefunction, causing it retroactively to "localize" and present fixed positional and qualitative information. In other words, matter neither can nor should present itself as stable! What Terragni gave to the twentieth century was an astonishing glimpse of material organization as the quantum revolution of the '20s and '30s had seen it: as a wave-field function with particulate possibility but with such solid possibility only. The main historical concept sacrificed here was that of causality, but it was a principle that the great post-Newtonian models of the modern era benefited greatly from doing without. Of course, Einstein himself famously couldn't get with the new picture, for he simply couldn't accept a god who threw dice. The formalist Rowe had no plans to accept the implications of the Terragni wave model either. (It is fascinating to note, given our oedipal propos, that in 1906 Joseph Thomson was awarded a Nobel Prize for his proof that electrons were particles, while his own son George won the prize in 1937 for demonstrating that electrons were waves.) Peter Eisenman, though, has been sitting on it for forty years.
New Yorkşbased writer Sanford Kwinter teaches design at the School of Architecture, Rice University.