Architect of tenacious theoretical interests, Peter Eisenman was born into a family of European origin, completed his intellectual training in Europe and had as mentors, successively, the British critic Colin Rowe, the Italian historian Manfredo Ta- furi, and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Bridging the young architecture of the East Coast of the United States and the new currents of the Old Continent, his cultural activism through magazines, encounters, and research groups like the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies turned him into a representative of a new professional attitude, expressed also in a series of highly influential domestic proj- ects. After taking part in several European competitions where he explored the dialogue between geometric abstraction and urban topography, he completed his first important works in the the state of Ohio – the Wexner, the Aronoff, and the Columbus Convention centers –, all expressions of the disjointed volumes of the deconstructivist aesthetic. However, his most ambitious and prominent projects would be completed at the turn of the century, and both are in Europe: the Jewish Memorial in Berlin, a tragic and lyrical field of concrete stellae that recalls the Holocaust in the heart of Germany; and the City of Culture of Galicia, a colossal complex of topographically modelled buildings that hasn’t been completed yet.
Peter Eisenman: Things are very different in Spain now. When we won the competition for the City of Culture in Santiago, many really believed that I was Fraga’s pet, and that the project was his mausoleum. Some very negative stories, which to me were unfounded, were published. Fraga had a vision, a really interesting vision for Santiago. He wanted Galicia to become a vibrant place to young people, to keep them from moving to other capitals and large cities every year, and not to have a negative economy. He wanted a place where they could have film, theater, and art festivals. These were all Fraga’s ideas, not mine. I was just fol- lowing what he saw as something really important for Galicia.
The reason why there were so many problems is that in A Coruña they were upset that this investment was going to Santiago, and that is how I got involved with the Deportivo de La Coruña. The then Councillor for Culture of Galicia, Jesús Pérez Varela, who was friends with Lendoiro, the club’s president, commissioned a new stadium project. We signed a contract of some 100,000 euros, that were never paid, and produced two or three very interesting proposals. We made a nice model, a beautiful scheme that brought the watefront up to the edge of the stadium, so that you could be on the beach watching a soccer game at the same time. I think it was a really nice project, but it never went ahead.
Cynthia Davidson: The scheme was very nice, and doing architecture with a football stadium is not easy. For us it has always been football, it has always been our favorite sport, but what we really like is American football. We have the drawing you did in 1942 with an airplane flying over the stadium… and when you were in the competition for the stadium of the Arizona Cardinals we thought that was the ultimate commission for a football fan. And yet you have never wanted to do one since.
CD: The architecture becomes the facade. In Arizona you did those strange interstitial spaces that emerged when you wrapped the stadium with those elements that put the vertical circulations outside the facade. But Santiago and Berlin are your most signifi- cant works, maybe also the Wexner Center for the Arts, from the early mid-eighties. Santiago breaks my heart. To be there and see the activity that I saw, and the people who are working there, and the number of cars in the parking lot, and to be shown the statistic that 50,000 people a month are visiting the museum alone, just the museum, is very exciting. But to think that those signs are not enough to push the project back on track in some way… Not that it has to go back on track this year or the next year, but there should be that kind of thinking of “we are going to finish this,” because it would be really important for this place and this people. For me what has happened is the result of a typical political attitude.
Berlin is something else altogether, but it also faces risks. There was a politician recently who ran a campaign that promised to demolish the memorial, because there are Germans who hate the project because it is valuable real estate. At the same time, we got respective e-mails, from a Chinese student and a young architect from Bahrein, who had just been to the memorial and thought it was the most incredible thing they had ever seen or experienced. This is what is very interesting of your work, you don’t build for experience, you build for the concept and hope your works will make people think about it. At the memorial both things come together in a very interesting way.
PE: One of the things that I like about that project which is not phenomenological – because this building is clearly a phenomenological work, even though I don’t really do projects like that, but it was a different kind of client, this was for dead people – is that I have always been interested in the possibility of feeling lost in the space.
And it happens all the time in the memorial. If a mother is with a young child, and the child runs away and she starts looking for the child there is a moment when the child is totally lost, because even if there is screaming, if both people are moving you can never get together. For example, I can never remember, everytime I go, where my favorite spot is, because you do sometimes feel lost in space. Phenomenologically you can’t get lost, but psychologically you can. And this is the whole concept of the idea: that woman in New Jersey who was sepa- rated from her mother at one of the Ausch- witz camps, and she survived but never saw her mother again.