Eisenman discusses Stirling legacy

For architects, building a following can take years.

Famed architect and School of Architecture professor Peter Eisenman participated in a conversation with Anthony Vidler — the Cooper Union School of Architecture dean — before an audience of about 125 people in Rudoloph Hall Thursday night. The talk focused on the legacy of Pritzker Prize-winning architect James Stirling, a former Yale faculty member who is currently the subject of a joint exhibition at the School of Architecture and the Yale Center for British Art. Stirling, whose work has been largely confined to academia since his death in 1992, should be much more popularly acknowledged as one of the most innovative architects of the 20th century, Eisenman and Vilder said.

School of Architecture professor Peter Eisenman talks about the James Stirling exhibition in the School's gallery.
School of Architecture professor Peter Eisenman talks about the James Stirling exhibition in the School's gallery.

“All students read about nowadays are today’s media,” Eisenman said. “There’s just no demand for earlier, but extremely significant, information.”

Eisenman, himself a key figure in the Modernist movement, began by highlighting the relative obscurity of figures like Stirling in contemporary architectural discourse. He said the lack of knowledge is because students in architectural schools are not exposed to the primary resources — from Stirling’s manuscripts to his buildings. Eisenman also noted that many professors today do not put enough emphasis on architecture from Stirling’s era — from the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s.

Eisenman then presented a slideshow of several of Stirling’s most important works: A civic center Sterling built in Derby, England, he said, plays with classical elements but shifts ultimately to something more vernacular. Vilder explained Derby as the careful weaving of a galleria — an indoor public plaza — along the edge of an already existing town center.

“Stirling’s style is the assertion of individual projects and fields within a larger city setting,” Vilder said. “Discrete elements are assembled together in his work.”

Similarly, Stirling’s Bibliotheque de France features a Modernist internal situation where the rotunda space becomes a functional element within the greater whole, Eisenman said. Talking about his own work for a moment, Eisenman spoke of the challenges of constructing buildings in city centers.

“I myself am building a not-very-successful library in Spain,” he joked, referring to his current project near the city of Santiago de Compostela.

At a reception after the talk, four out of nine students interviewed said they had never heard of James Stirling before, but all nine said they were impressed by Eisenman’s knowledge of architecture.

“It was interesting for Eisenman to place Stirling within larger architectural discourse,” Brandon Hall ARC ’13 said. “You begin to see how he was influenced by others and how he continues to influence contemporary architects.”

The James Stirling exhibit, titled “An Architect’s Legacy: James Stirling’s Students at Yale, 1959-1983,” runs through Feb. 11, 2011.

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