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Friday18 August 2017

Deconstructing a visit from Eisenman

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Last week, the new Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture enjoyed a celebrity visitation. Crash barriers — yes, crash barriers — had been erected around the lecture theatre, and all society was there. Most students were, I suspect, too young to know who Peter Eisenman is, but they came anyway.

He is a grand old American showman. He claims to suffer mild, if not terminal, qualms about the ethics and aesthetics of building skyscrapers in Milan, or a shopping centre in Naples, and told us he had little time or inclination to visit his sites. “If you’re asked to design a city for three million in China, then there’s no ‘there’ there in the first place,’’ he drily stated.

Most Edinburgh architects would dearly love to be thus vexed; many of them are praying for the next kitchen extension. But Eisenman is no commercial whore. He was the architect who introduced us to deconstructivism and he spoke for authenticity, and for the honest expression of the zeitgeist and genius loci in architecture.

Contemporary architecture expresses neither, he argued. Vegas — a phantasm of Parises and Hiltons conjured up in the middle of nowhere — is the quintessence of the contemporary city. It could be anyplace, anytime.

The grand gestures of his starchitect pals are no different, substituting empty spectacle for architectural rigour.

Then Eisenman showed us a building of his own: a cultural centre in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This isn’t a review but suffice to say that the parti was a bold statement of genius loci. A mountain had been razed, and replaced with a group of buildings traversed by the ancient pilgrim routes into the city. With these elements, Eisenman created his zeitgeisty brand of complex uncertainty.

But then the great architect started talking about detail. We were shown the miradores of Galician townhouses, and asked to compare them to acres of glazed curtain walling. Slides of tiled patios were juxtaposed with hectares of paving imported from Brazil — after the local quarry ran out. A vast and complex stone cladding system was airily referenced to the crumbling walls of local farmhouses.

I’m afraid I believe there’s only one sort of modern architecture that can do crumbling walls and picturesque nooks, and that’s found inside a themed casino. Eisenman’s rhetoric is authenticity, but what he is creating in Santiago is, when it comes down to detail, a high-culture theme park, a spectacle as weird as Vegas, and as banal as your local mall.

The authenticity of all the cute old stuff he was referencing comes from the poverty (and ingenuity) of the society that patiently constructed it, century upon century. That can’t be magicked up by anyone, and Peter Eisenman knows it. Before he flew away, he observed that people want his signature, not his architecture. He’s famous. That was why he was invited to speak in the first place, and why we all turned up to listen to him.

And oddly enough, in our strange times, there’s nothing more authentic than that.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I think this is a fair summation of what was a lecture of two halves. The first half a reasonable summary of Eisenmann's position and opinion on modern architecture in the past 50 years (because after all, he is the self-proclaimed "oldest teaching architect alive"); the second half was more troubling, an attempt to justify the most obscene, unsustainable, arrogant piece of starachitecture I've seen in some time. A mountain has been removed, some dubious 'pilgrim routes' overlaid on the usual Eisenman grid and some very unlikely programmes suggested for the tricksy internal spaces. Genius loci? I don't think so.

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  • I find it hard to take that anyone could promote Mr Goodwin for anything, how many lifes has been ruined by peope like that in the past year or 2. Do you know the figures!. Yes it is very beneficial to have someone with that financal expertise backing a company or organisation, but dont you think that there may be more than just Goodman in this country who is worthy of the position with equal if not better skills for the job. I certainly do

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