Peter Eisenman at Brown: Power and Architecture

It’s not every day that you get to listen to one of the greatest minds in the current architectural world. Peter Eisenman came to Brown University this Thursday, April 18, and delivered a thought-provoking lecture on the morality of architecture and his own personal projects.

Peter Eisenman is more than an architect. He probes into architecture’s dialogue with philosophy and history—he knows that there is more to architecture than just buildings. That in a myriad of ways, architecture reveals humanity. It takes reflection and experimentation, however, to reveal this true essence.

As Professor Neumann said in the introduction:

“It takes tremendous courage to question the status quo.”

And that is precisely what Eisenman has been doing throughout his career: probing, exploring the tangents of the “trend” architectures, analyzing past and current works, and realizing that they have so much to say.

A quirky character, sitting on his small university chair, sipping his water, he began by saying that he had written out an entire formal talk, but he had now decided:

“I just wanted to talk about what’s on my mind, and what’s [on] architecture’s mind”.

He delved into a few topics that drew my unique attention.

The first: how Architecture with a Capital A should form and reflect “a good society.” Even more interestingly, he talked about how “Modern Architecture” started off in Europe as a movement for equality and opportunities, where its building blocks were the projects for social housing. Modern Architecture was concerned with “a good society.” A movement that started so pure, however, arrived in America as “the good life;” architecture became a reflection of corporate success, well-being for the individual and not progress for society.

And then he succinctly stated:

“Architecture has always worked for power.”

Wherever you start in the historical timeline—Churches, ductums, factories in the Industrial Revolution, or the New Republics of England and France—Architecture has always been tempted and absorbed by power.

He then posed the question: “When will we have an architecture resistant to temptation of power?”

The answer, at some point in time, was complexity in building. This, he said, has been eliminated by the digital world, where complexity is no longer complex due to the way sin which technology has facilitated creation.

So the question changes: where do we find good power? The answer seems to lie in housing.

He then took us through the evolution of his Milan housing project, revealing a building of elegant intricacy in its curved shape. His love for and engagement with the project was palpable. From the care laid in blending the building with the cultural context of the city to the details of outdoor space in a metropolitan area, the intelligent plan for this project addressed the need for building creatively and purposefully.

Peter Eisenman ended the lecture in his effortless way that had us, the audience, believe in architecture with a new faith:

“Is it fun to build? You betcha.”