Interview with Peter Eisenman

[This is an excerpt of an interview I conducted with Peter Eisenman in Santiago de Compostela in May 2010. The full interview is published in KLAT magazine #4, which can be ordered here]

Rafael Gómez-Moriana: I can’t help noticing that you give a lot of interviews.

Peter Eisenman: They are all on different subjects. In addition to my work as an architect I write, I lecture, I teach, so I end up giving interviews about everything from football to theory. Perhaps the least interesting topic for me is architecture. Architecture is basically boring as an interview subject.

RGM: Indeed, you’ve been interviewed quite a bit on the subject of politics.

PE: That’s because many of my clients are to the right-of-center politically, so interviewers occasionally try to get me to say right-oriented things.

RGM: Well, I hate to disappoint you, but most of my questions have to do with architecture; specifically the City of Culture of Galicia. Is this the most important project of your career?

PE: Now, the City of Culture is not boring, I am very excited by the buildings. It is certainly one of my most important projects.

RGM: It’s currently the largest construction site in Spain, if I’m not mistaken, and probably one of the largest in Europe.

PE: It’s a million and a half square feet under cover,  which makes it larger than the Getty Center. So yes, it’s a very large project.

RGM: Does building in Spain differ very much from building in the USA or Germany? Some like to say that Spain is different.

PE: All countries have different aspects. Take Europe and America. There is much more concern in Europe for public space than there is in the United States. In the USA, public space is mainly controlled by developers. You could not do a public project of this scale on public land in the United States; it would be taken up by developers. In Germany, the Holocaust Memorial sits on a prime piece of real estate in the center of Berlin. This would be impossible in New York because of real estate speculation. Europeans’ concern for public space manifests itself in the media. Every time I visit Spain, Germany or Italy there are requests for interviews with the press and television. Architecture is good media in Europe because cities are an important part of European culture. Galicia is different, though, because there is a certain longing for a return to the regional language and customs…there’s a certain “not wanting to be in the world”. Manuel Fraga is a very cultured and sophisticated man who, when he was president of Galicia, really wanted to do something good for Galicia. He didn’t want to do what Franco did at el Valle de los Caídos. He wanted to contribute to the culture of this place, or create a culture of this place. When he was Spain’s Minister of Information and Tourism he created the Paradores, and as Galicia’s president he had the idea for the City of Culture architectural competition. When we won, Fraga was insistent the project was going to be built, and built well. He worked very hard to do it. In Germany it was also a struggle to build the Holocaust Memorial, but there was general agreement that it should be built. Nobody questioned that. The disagreements were regarding what it should mean, how it should look, etc. There was more of a political consensus in the German parliament. Spain’s politics are more polarized. The politics in Spain are different, and you feel that when you’re doing architecture here. Nobody has ever built a project of mine as well as these buildings are being built in Galicia. Yet we still find ourselves having to educate the people of Galicia about this project.

RGM: But isn’t that somewhat ironic, since there’s a strong landscape metaphor in the City of Culture? Landscape is something the regional culture here values very dearly, I would think. I wonder if you could comment about landscape in architecture, because lately we’re seeing a lot of architects likening their projects to mountains, rivers, glaciers and crystals rather than to architecture per se.

PE: Nature is never used as a metaphor in my work. Rather, the work is concerned with a very fundamental architectonic project. The philosophical background to the work is the metaphysical dialectic: the relationship between ground and object. That has been a dominant discourse of current thought, specifically poststructuralist French thought, which has argued that there is a problem in the hegemony of vision. It manifests itself in the figure in the frame in painting. In architecture this discourse is largely a visual one. Since 1978 my work has attempted to confound the relationship between ground and figure, so that figure becomes ground and ground becomes figure. That’s why it is so difficult to photograph these buildings: they’re not objects. They’re not “image buildings”. They are experiential buildings; actual buildings for people, not metaphors. The innate idea in the City of Culture is that it is a hillside that has erupted and heaved up from the Monte Gaiás, that it is a pre-existing object. 

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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