American architect, theorist, writer and teacher. He graduated from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (BArch 1955), and worked for Percival Goodman in New York (1957–8) and the Architects’ Collaborative in Cambridge, MA (1959). He then went to Columbia University, New York (March 1960), and the University of Cambridge, England, where he completed his PhD in the theory of design (1963) and also taught (1960–63). Back in the USA, he was involved in several unexecuted competition entries and projects (1963–5) with Michael Graves and began to teach (1963–7) at Princeton University, NJ, moving to Cooper Union, New York, in 1967. In that year he became the founding director of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, New York, which became a major centre for exhibition and debate in the architectural profession; he also established and edited its influential journal Oppositions (1973–82), to which he contributed many writings.
Eisenman’s principal role as an architect was mainly that of theorist and agent provocateur and his built works total only a fraction of those produced by such contemporaries as Michael Graves. Although a popular lecturer, he did not court popularity with his buildings, which are linked with the modernist but post-Functionalist avant-garde. He was interested in Italian Rationalist architecture of the 1930s and participated in the New york five exhibition (1969) at MOMA, New York, with some early neo-Rationalist work, the first of a series of numbered houses that began with House I, the Barenholtz House (1967–8), Princeton, House II, the Falk House (1969–70), Hardwick, VT, and House III, the Miller House (1969–70), Lakeville, CT. These were complex, rectilinear geometric compositions; numbered as if they were abstract works of art, they expressed his investigation into the nature and meaning of architectural form. Rejecting functionalism, which he saw as a continuation of the humanist tradition, he increasingly attempted to express a truly ‘modernist sensibility’ in which buildings were seen and experienced as autonomous and self-referential, independent of human context or function. Thus House VI, the Frank House (1972), Cornwall, CT, for example, has a door too narrow to be entered without turning sideways and a staircase that cannot be climbed.
A recurrent feature of Eisenman’s work was the archetypal modernist element, the grid, but twisted, rotated and overlaid to create displacements and new possibilities of form. This is evident in the IBA low-cost housing (1981; partly executed), Berlin, whose undeclared grids appear in colour on the surface without explanation of their meaning, and in the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts (1983–9), Ohio State University, Columbus, which may best be described as a non-building. Here Eisenman overlaid the campus grid with the offset grid of the city, locating his scheme where they intersected and creating a new path into the campus on an east–west axis. Forming the north–south axis is a long circulation spine, a diagrammatic, quasi-Miesian galleria, partly glazed and partly enclosed in ‘scaffolding’ or open, gridded frames whose components do not quite meet; galleries contain the deconstructed elements of the modernist cube projecting from walls, floor and ceiling; stairs lead nowhere and columns are cut off in mid-air. The crossing of the two axes is thus an ‘event’: a circulation route at a critical junction of the campus that is also a centre for the visual arts, whose ‘scaffolding’ negates the traditional image of shelter. Built partly below ground level, it also embodies the symbolism of excavation used in other, unexecuted projects, for example housing on the Cannaregio (1978), Venice, and Parc de la Villette (1988; with Jacques Derrida), Paris.
Eisenman’s compositional techniques, unlike those of Michael Graves, were not figurative or pictorial, although they may have had a narrative or ‘rhetorical’ basis. His exploration of formal syntax centred on the development of a modernist ‘dialectic’ involving fragmentation and the reordering of fragments into a new whole, perhaps revealing suggestions of originals within some new assembly. In this way, for example, the demolished Armory at Ohio State University is recalled in an assembly of fragments of the original tower placed at the entrance to the Wexner Center. Thus Eisenman, within the broad spectrum of Post-modernism, sought to simulate both the known and the unknown. In 1987 he declined the Deanship of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture in order to devote himself to the realization of his theoretical ideas, which were expressed in increasingly convoluted and arcane texts. His work was widely exhibited in the USA and Europe.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press