Monday, May 31, 2010

Influences: Christopher Alexander & Peter Eisenman

An earlier blog entry of mine, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who influenced my architectural world view. This is the third post in the series.

At first glance, there may appear to be no more diametrically opposed approaches to the creation of architecture than those represented by Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman. Regardless, both these septuagenarians, long since passed by other theorists as les enfants terrible, exert an inexorable influence upon my current thinking about the making of architecture.

The two famously sparred during a 1982 debate held at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. I originally intended to address the importance of each to me separately; however, having rediscovered the transcript of this event online, I decided to combine two posts into one.

“Complexity is one of the great problems in environmental design.”
Christopher Alexander

The Lost Prophet - Intolerant, dogmatic
Christopher Alexander is well-known to many of us who received our education at the University of Oregon. It was during the early 1980s that I encountered Alexander acolytes and UO faculty members Don Corner, Jenny Young, and Howard Davis. The University of Oregon had also notably been the laboratory a decade earlier for The Oregon Experiment, in which Alexander and his collaborators defined discrete “patterns” that codified a community-based approach to campus planning. Alexander would go on to publish The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, building upon the lessons documented in The Oregon Experiment.(1)

For me, A Pattern Language is one of the most important texts on architecture ever written. It offers a practical application of Alexander’s ideas, which have pointed him in the direction of what he conceives of as an all-encompassing theory of life, one based upon notions of organic wholeness and scalable, self-sustaining systems. However, the book’s importance has been overshadowed by its accessibility (it’s remarkably easy to read), its spiritual New Age overtones, and the guru-like pronouncements Alexander sprinkles throughout. Since the original publication of A Pattern Language in 1977, the application of pattern language theory has taken root in other fields, most notably in computer software design.

Many architects (and no doubt more than a few of my professors at Oregon who occupied other camps of thought) could never accept the fundamental premise of A Pattern Language. They took exception to seeing their art apparently reduced to a repeatable formula. They valued newness and a critical approach to design, whereas Alexander favored authoritarian rules and disdained intellectualism.

Author Wendy Kohn wrote a brilliant treatise about Alexander for the summer 2002 issue of the Wilson Quarterly entitled The Lost Prophet of Architecture. In it she posed the question why it is that Alexander’s colleagues in the American architectural establishment would have nothing to do with him. She concluded that it is “the simultaneously intimate and all-knowing tone of his writing (that) sounds unbearably condescending to practitioners who take pride in having invented some of their own solutions to the problems of architecture.” Kohn also asserted that Alexander’s commitment to absolute certainty had led critics to dismiss him as “a utopian, a messianic crank, and contrarian who produces words instead of buildings.”

It is true that Alexander has designed little and built even less. The completed buildings designed by Alexander and his associates at the Center for Environmental Structure are mostly small and unremarkable.(2) This hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for what he has accomplished by prefiguring a new paradigm for the design of our built environment.

"In the absence of a new paradigm, architecture is flailing about for its raison d'être.”
Peter Eisenman

The Provocateur - Arrogant, intellectual
Peter Eisenman came to my attention even earlier than Christopher Alexander, in the course of the first years of my architectural training at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (1977-79). The book Five Architects had recently been published and its underlying thesis – that the work of these architects was shaped in the service of well-developed theoretical bases – was a revelation. The five – Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier – were friends who shared a superficially Corbusian vocabulary and a common penchant for elitism and treating architecture as high art. Each would eventually pursue individual ideologies, with Eisenman most often associated with the Deconstructivist movement.

Eisenman is famous for wanting to free architectural form from all meaning and establish the autonomy of the discipline. His 1963 Cambridge University PhD dissertation (The Formal Basis of Architecture) argued for the analysis of a fundamental architecture outside the perceptual, metaphorical, and subjective realms. He borrowed liberally from linguistic philosophy, and was influenced by his friend, philosopher Jacques Derrida, and the linguist Noam Chomsky among others to develop a generative grammar for architecture. Eisenman focused on arbitrary structural rules that would govern the formal composition of his designs. Extending the linguistic parallels, it’s important to emphasize that Eisenman’s interests centered on syntactical structure rather than the study of meaning or semantics.

House VI

Ultimately, this would lead Eisenman to a theory of “post-functional” architecture. He would not regard his completed buildings as ends in themselves but rather as records of the process by which they were created. The apotheosis of Eisenman’s nihilism would be House VI (a.k.a. the Frank House, although Eisenman considered the owners of all of his projects superfluous and thus preferred the detachment of numbers to identify his early series of house designs). The design of House VI was the product of a sequence of moves based upon predetermined rules, not unlike the execution of a computer program.

House VI became notorious because its methodical manipulation of the grid resulted in columns suspended in mid-air, doors that are open when closed, and an absent beam dividing the marital bed. The owner, Suzanne Frank, wrote a book – Peter Eisenman’s House VI: The Client’s Response – documenting the trials and tribulations of her family’s life in a structure that was less a home and more a Brobdingnagian Rubik’s Cube.

I lapped this stuff up when I was young. Eisenman’s work appeared so avant-garde, its theoretical underpinnings so radical, that it perversely made architecture make sense to me. Before initiating my formal studies in architecture, I did not understand that it was possible to approach design with intentions beyond the solving of a given problem. I credit Eisenman in part for awakening me to the potential of architecture to communicate ideas.

Convergence and Divergence
The title of the 1982 Harvard debate involving Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman was “Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture,” surely a curious framework for Eisenman in particular, given his indifference at the time toward notions of aesthetics and the fact that his work displayed as much dissonance as it did harmonic consonance. Nevertheless, the exchange between the two was highly entertaining and enlightening, perhaps hinting at an unexpected convergence of ideologies.(3)

Specifically, both Alexander and Eisenman were and are interested in the process of design, although Alexander defined design as “the process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function“, whereas Eisenman would not initially concern himself with function, aesthetics, or any meaning attendant to the emergent form. The obvious example is that A Pattern Language, with its 253 patterns written as a set of rules, is a generative grammar in the same way that Eisenman’s arbitrary strategies of self-referential rules were.

Where they differ is the end to which they apply their processes. Alexander, educated as a scientist and a mathematician, looks to science-based ways of approaching design in the immodest pursuit of nothing less than uncovering the nature of order and the universe. He opposes abstract or formal design methods, favoring empirically-acquired knowledge based upon observation and experimentation.

Alexander also has a profound belief in the practice of “timeless” ways of building, those grounded in centuries of trial and error that foster comfort, harmony, health, and sensual gratification. By contrast, Eisenman views such a belief as surrendering to complacency and passivity. The perspectives of both architects are revealed during their 1982 debate as complementary opposites within a greater whole:

PE: I am not preaching disharmony. I am suggesting that disharmony might be part of the cosmology that we exist in . . . I do not believe that the way to go, as you suggest, is to put up structures to make people feel comfortable, to preclude that anxiety.

CA: Don't you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?

Both sides of the argument are valid. I posit that we need both an architecture that is physically, emotionally, and practically comfortable, as well as an architecture that, in Eisenman’s words, would more closely approximate our innate feelings today. The key is balance, and in this instance, that balance is achieved with a predominance of the former over the latter. The impoverishment of our built environment is in part a consequence of failing to maintain this balance, although both are collectively outweighed by the prevalence of completely thoughtless design.

Alexander’s four-volume magnum opus, The Nature of Order, is his attempt to understand and explain the underlying structure of beauty, wholeness, and spirituality – his own transcendent “theory of everything.” His life’s quest is akin to and has been no less ambitious than the work of theoretical physicists who are seeking a Theory of Everything that would unify all of the fundamental interactions of nature. Like them, Alexander’s work has touched upon the metaphysical and the sublime, with a tip of the hat to complexity science.

In the later phases of his career, Eisenman continues to base his design strategies on techniques appropriated from linguistics, moving from his process-focused and context-less early house designs to newer projects that consider the layers of physical and cultural archaeologies of each site, not just the obvious contexts and programs of a building.(4) In its reach, though, Eisenman’s work remains limited when compared to Alexander’s ambitions. The irony is that Eisenman has now designed more buildings of greater influence and significance than Alexander, including such recent projects as the City of Culture of Galicia and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

One measure of wisdom I acquired early on as a student was to be open to varied points of view. There is plenty to be learned from all of the important architectural theorists, past and present. While I tend to favor the belief that we are best served by buildings that are aspiring and life-affirming, I am wary of the moral absolutism espoused by Christopher Alexander. Architects like Peter Eisenman are necessary to move the art of architecture forward, to comment critically about the subject of architecture and its relationship to society.(5)

Both Alexander and Eisenman have a place in my architectural canon. Regardless, I take everything I have learned from their work, and the work of others, with a grain of salt.

(1) Despite his Oregon connections, I never have encountered Alexander or seen him speak in person. I did see Eisenman lecture in Vancouver many years ago, sometime in the late seventies or early eighties (I can’t remember exactly when, but I do remember his affectation of insouciance, reclining with microphone in hand, on the edge of the auditorium stage).

(2) The 18th & Agate Family Housing project constructed at the southeast edge of the University of Oregon campus right here in Eugene was designed collaboratively by Alexander’s Berkeley-based Center for Environmental Structure and Thallon & Edrington Architects of Eugene. It was not completed without controversy. Alexander applied for a reciprocal license that would allow him to practice in Oregon but refused to take an examination required by the State Board of Architect Examiners. It was the authorship of the drawings for the project that would be questioned by the Board given that Alexander would not secure his Oregon licensure.

(3) The transcript of the entire debate and an accompanying critical analysis was published online in 2004 by KATARXIS, a webzine dedicated to a “New Traditional Architecture and Urbanism.” The editors of KATARXIS – Lucien Steil, Brian Hanson, Michael Mehaffy, and Nikos Salingaros – shared a common interest in the science of complexity as it applies to architecture and urban design.

(4) I discovered an insightful essay written by Andri Gerber that provides a chronology of Eisenman’s theories about architecture. Gerber is an architect and an assistant Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zurich.

(5) In this regard, Eisenman may not be the most likely candidate for flag-bearer of a critical architecture. Rem Koolhaas may be a better nominee, although his work is now being categorized as “projective” in that it addresses issues such as mass consumerism through an architecture of new forms rather than through critical analysis.


House Architect said...

Hey Dude,
Really your thought will be a great mainstream for those who are looking for House Architect. As it sounds very good though i would like to light it at the wall of my facebook.

House Design London

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

Uh . . . thanks, I think.

Anonymous said...

i thought CA built like 200 buildings.

Anonymous said...

yup, alexander built many buildings! the difference is that alexander is not a 'stararchitect', he is not interested in promoting his work

Anonymous said...

I think you want to do something impossible by defending both arguments. They're opposite approaches. Choose one or the other, man.

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

Sure, their approaches may be diametrically opposed. However, I don't see architecture as necessarily an "either-or" proposition. I suppose I'm more of a "both-and" architect, to borrow from Robert Venturi. Keep in mind that I'm simply recounting my personal influences, and both Alexander and Eisenman occupy my architectural universe.

ask* said...

"Grass grows from the middle" (Deleuze) and not from the bottom-up or the top-down. The importance for architecture is the responsibility to manage all kinds of information to select the best within the provided context.
Randy, thanks for putting it online!

Rick said...

Great blog! I can clearly remember this tug of war with the various disciplined approaches you were having over 30 years ago... Brought back great memories.