Eisenman talks architecture as politics

On Thursday, architect Peter Eisenman will lead a panel discussion of his exhibit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library titled “Architecture in Dialogue.” The exhibit, which will be on display until Dec. 14, features Eisenman’s collection of books, periodicals, posters and other print media from Europe’s interwar period that convey the impact architecture had on social agendas and the rise of political regimes. The News interviewed Eisenman to learn more about the connection between architecture and political thought.

Q: The basis of your new exhibit is the concept that architecture interacts with many other aspects of society across disciplines. How did you begin collecting materials that support that theory?

A: I’m both a practicing architect, a teacher and someone who writes about architecture. I started this collection when I started teaching at the University of Cambridge [in the 1960s]. I was interested in the difference between how architecture was perceived in Europe versus America. In Europe it was always seen as something that shapes politics, which it really wasn’t in America in the 1960s. I decided that the best way to understand that difference was to analyze primary sources, so over a period of ten years I began to search for all of the publications you’ll see on display now at the Beinecke. I found these publications in small bookshops — in the basements of small bookshops. No one knew about these things. I was able to put together this collection of media that influenced me. That research goes hand in hand with the way I practice, the way I teach [and] the way I am.

Q: You said that architecture is a form of politics. How so?

A: If you look at the basis of the collection it has all of these works that were in communities where fascism started. All of the early Soviet propaganda led to the same thing in Russia. Beliefs in Nazi Germany had much to do with architecture in that regime. Germany and Russia in the 1920s are fantastic examples of how regimes use architecture and the arts as propaganda.

Q: You said that America did not use architecture in a political way in the 1960s. Is this still true today? Does contemporary America treat architecture as a political force?

A: Things are absolutely still the same. Public space is a form of politics in Europe that just isn’t present in the United States. The idea of architecture as journalism in Italy, for instance, just doesn’t happen in the United States. In fact, the very concept of what constitutes public space is different in Europe. Public space is used in a more powerful way.

Q: Do you hope you or your architecture students at Yale will change that?

A: You’d have to ask my students what I think about what they will do and could do. I wouldn’t believe anything I had to say.

Q: Your exhibit focuses on the power of print media. How do you feel about students’ reliance on information technology? Do you allow your students to research entirely on the computer?

A: Well I can’t read a book on Kindle. I have to have a book in my hand, take notes [or] dog-ear a page. I need to go back and find something when I do research. I have to do research on actual paper. I may type something on a computer, but I need to print it out in order to correct it. To me, the original print sources are really important. For example, in this collection there are actual magazines with notes from a very famous architect written on the pages. Those kinds of sources are something really important for architects. They are also an invaluable resource for architecture students.

Q: Your collection at the Beinecke focuses on how architecture shaped radical political thinking. Do you encourage your students to use architecture to challenge social norms?

A: Isn’t that what a university is all about? Professors have to challenge students’ perceptions of what they constitute as their disciplines. That’s especially what a university like Yale is about — challenging the status quo. That’s why I teach at Yale. The students also challenge me, and my work is also about that same kind of challenge.

Q: What sorts of responses do you get to your work that challenges the status quo?

A: One of my major works was a Holocaust memorial in Berlin that had an enormous socio-political impact on the whole city and the culture of remembrance. I’ve gotten personal letters from the president of Germany, from major figures in Berlin [and] from [Chancellor of Germany] Angela Merkel about the impact the memorial had on the city. There have been many newspapers articles published about how that memorial shaped the culture of Germany.

Q: In the past, how have you used print media in research for your architectural projects?

A: It’s not that I do print research for each individual project, it’s a continual process of cross-fertilization between books, paintings [and] actual buildings. It’s something that builds up overtime. You build up a way of thinking about architecture from all of the reading that you do [and] the buildings you see. Every year we take Yale students to Europe to look at famous works. Students look at print material, especially in the Beinecke. It’s a resource we try to get students to understand as they’re building their careers.