Contextualizing the Ineffable
In 1982 two theoreticians engaged in a debate that would prove pivotal to the formation of contemporary architectural theory. These men – Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman – met for a brief battle of wits, pitching their architectural practices and unique theories against each other. At first glance most would see their interaction as a battle of egos; each had a unique approach to design that contrasted with the accepted approach of Modern architecture. So who won?
Even now, three decades since their fateful clash, the impact of the 1982 debate and the consequential shifts it imposed on the architectural profession still rest largely unresolved. Contemporary architectural theory has not elected which of the two men (if either) was worthy to impress their propositions as the only (or best) way of designing. Their built works and published theories illustrate that Eisenman and Alexander both stand exemplary for committed design philosophies and realization of their ideas into constructed projects. Simply put, contemporary design and pedagogical structure has not embraced either theorist’s polemical proposals completely. Nuances in contemporary theory predate and post-date the 1982 lecture, and therefore their debate proves a useful watershed moment (and lens) with which to view previous theory and also to project the future of architectural scholarship and practice.
To more easily understand the consequences of their debate, this paper summarizes the terms of Eisenman and Alexander’s 1982 interaction and, given the path architecture has taken since then, suggests ways in which both participants have been proven correct or incorrect. The strengths and weaknesses of each will be taken into account, as well as points that they share in common. Two post-World War II case studies (Rafael Moneo’s Logrono City Hall and Peter Zumthor’s Steilneset Witch Memorial) will also be considered for how they subscribe to or dissolve the respective theories of Alexander and Eisenman.
For this first section (Summary) in keeping with the polarizing nature of this topic the paper has been structured to heighten and visually illustrate points of connection (or, more often, dissonance) between the two competing points of view. Purple bars underscore potentially shared views and theoretical conceits. Blue bars mark Alexander’s thoughts. Red bars mark Eisenman’s thoughts. “Contemporary” always refers to 1982 unless explicitly stated otherwise.
All text ‘in quotes’ has been extracted from 1982 lecture.
Back to the Present
These summaries should be contrasted with each speaker’s views of actual built projects. As only one of the buildings enumerated in their lecture was built in the post-World War II era (Palazzo Chiericati and Chartres Cathedral are significantly earlier) Let us consider two buildings for comparison: Logrono Town Hall by Rafael Moneo and the Steilneset Memorial by Peter Zumthor.
Case Study I
Rafael Moneo is famous for a modified mode of late modernism. Toeing the line of post-modern, Moneo consistently employs building elements and facades that reference out-of-scale classical themes. His Town Hall at Logrono was cited in the 1982 lecture by Peter Eisenman to call attention to the too-skinny columns of its southern courtyard (appendix: figure 1). These too-thin columns are balanced at the opposite end of the courtyard with a series of columns that are too thick. But is this balance or imbalance? And is one better than the other? The building is undeniably architectural. Eisenman acknowledges that the town hall building steps back from the urban fabric (appendix figure 2), and this distance not only causes the building to fold in in itself, but its column and courtyard scaling causes even the most uneducated Spaniard to ask why? Why this shape? Why this scale? And in this question, Moneo asserts that a building with right-sized (comfortable) units does not cause its users to pause and consider their place in inhabiting the building. Out-of scale elements cause us to question our interaction with the built environment.
Alexander would disagree with this scaling of elements, but he would not disagree with the cosmology it seeks to promote. Our anthropocentric view of the world is comfortable in the Logrono Town Hall. By acknowledging a poche and a void – an other space and a public space, the building seems to beckon its users to consider the unspoken tie between self and others. And although the effects of this milieu may be lost on Eisenman, it would not be lost on Alexander or the inhabitants of Logrono who have lived with the presence of an others/self past for over 400 years. Logrono, of course, was the main seat of the Basque witch trials in the early 16th century. This heritage is bound to the people of this place, and carries an unspoken presence of exclusion – and possibly fear – into even newly-constructed buildings. This preclusion to an others/self worldview is echoed in Richard Sennett’s most recent publication Together in which he compares living in a culture of inclusion/exclusion to the philosophical question of Montaigne’s Cat: in this example, Montaigne famously asks, ‘when I am playing with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me’. Interpreted by Sennett (Sennett Together, 2012), this others/self dichotomy is indicative of an awareness that we all innately have for the phenomenological interaction of space/self. When we inhabit a building, as I am sure both Alexander and Eisenman would agree, how do we know it is not the building inhabiting us?
Case Study II
One building that astutely addresses the harmony and discord of social interaction is the Steilneset Memorial by Peter Zumthor. Completed in 2011, this memorial is composed of two buildings— one, a triangular pavilion of wood, commemorates the 91 lives lost in Norway’s Vardo witch trials of 1662-1663, another, a cube of glass and steel, provides an introspective and build-form awareness for the role we all play in accusation and interaction with those beyond our boundary of comfort.
While the buildings physically occupy a pier of stone in the Norwegian hinterlands, they also semantically stands alone as two of the very few buildings whose entire purpose is to memorialize the lives lost to ideological hatred. To Alexander, this awareness for time and memorial resonates with his beliefs that buildings built in basic form (appendix: figure 3) connect with our primitive perception of meaning in architecture. The triangular structure looks like a traditional roof gable, representative of Spartan Nordic homes of the time period. The cube structure carries a greater Heideggerian trope addressing the ‘question of being’ (Beckman Heidegger and Environmental Ethics, 2000). By situating these two buildings in opposition with one another, it is easy to see their respective impact on their inhabitants. The buildings’ simple platonic forms resonate so deeply with us because they are unencumbered with systems and methods of formation. They simply exist to provide the most ‘perfect physical, emotional, and practical’ representation of the witch trials. In his Timeless Way of Building Alexander asserts that ‘the very methods we invent to free us from our fears… are themselves the chains whose grip on us creates our difficulties’ (Alexander the Timeless Way, 1979). Certainly the Steilneset Monument is beset by a system of methods appropriate for a memorial, but the way in which the elements of both buildings are structured brings out the depth of their purpose and still conveys, in simple terms, the readability of their intent.
In one of his soliloquys at the 1982 lecture, Eisenman maintains that ‘disharmony might be part of the cosmology we exist in’, and that architecture should ‘find a way to deal with that anxiety’. He would undoubtedly find solace in the way with which Zumthor addresses the world’s disharmony and anxiety by maintaining an ordering of elements that is a cosmological inversion of our expectations for a memorial. Steilneset may be one of the few buildings that Alexander and Eisenman would agree pushes modern architecture toward an idealized, ineffable reality. The memorial harmonizes space with an impeccable exactitude while still leaving room for interpretation and allowing visitors to experience the disharmony of a void— questioning why it was done and how it allows us to question the anthropocentric reality of others/self cosmology.
Christopher Alexander had his hands full openly debating Peter Eisenman. Although no sources divulge what the audience or speakers were given as a prompt prior to the debate other than the title “Constrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture”, both participants knew each other very well (both studied at the AA) and both no doubt were aware that their respective interests would converge on the merits, nature, and origin of order, form, and harmony in architectural theory. Considering the gravitas of this discussion, both speakers admirably held their own and were able to make valid, if contestable, claims on their particular ideologies.
Given the prior five-point summary, it now falls to discuss which of the two speakers was most successful in their arguments. Also, given development in the thirty-one years since their debate, which speaker has triumphed in the long run? Eisenman, described by Reyner Banham as “a self-annotating solipsist”, is infamous for providing casual comments on the normalcy of life ‘I always get nervous in a situation like this’, etc. , and then striking quickly to make a point that proves his supremacy in a given argument (pick any of the sentences you have to read three times to fully understand). Alexander on the other hand employs a more Socratic approach – when asked about French Structuralists, ‘What do they say?’— dissolving a problem piecemeal and providing systematic insight (plus his own opinions) against those of his opponent. Taken objectively, Eisenman made claims that were both bold and self-reinforcing. He begins and ends his debate dialogue by referencing specialists in the field (French Structuralists, as well as architect Rafael Moneo) which throw Alexander for a loop. Alexander, for his part, rolls with the punches. Much of Eisenman’s attack is directed at a lecture Alexander gave the night before their interaction, and Alexander disproves many of Eisenman’s attacks (such as his claims that Alexander supports a ‘window is too large’ or ‘too small’) by simply saying that Eisenman misunderstood his lecture the previous day.
While this may be true, and while Eisenman may have made unfounded arguments, his pugilistic tone and caustic remarks place him as the clear aggressor in this debate. And given Alexander’s blanket statements made in self-defense (such as the infamous remark that Moneo and Eisenman are ‘fucking up the world’) Eisenman should be seen as the winner of this particular engagement. However, one lecture is hardly enough to judge a man on his merits. In the 31 years since their debate, both Eisenman and Alexander have stood exemplary for many built works (Eisenman for his successful deconstructivist projects in Ohio, Spain, etc. and Alexander for his work facilitating master-plan developments at the University of Oregon, as well as 200 built projects around the globe). Both men will inevitably be judged by their theory and buildings collectively, and while Eisenman is currently more popular and influential on contemporary fashionable architectural theory than Alexander, I believe Alexander will have the last word. His concepts (especially those in A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building) are more adaptable and will outlast the stylistic preferences so in vogue with Eisenman, Liebskind, Kipnis, Schumacher etc. That is not to say that the theories or Eisenman and Alexander are expanding away from each other (or that their cosmologies are exclusive) – the two could, for instance, be unified in a building or development predicated upon Alexander’s spatial patterns but composed deconstructivist formal arrangements. It is possible to think and feel. To appreciate discord and harmony. Our challenge comes in knowing where to draw the line and articulate boundaries between the comforts of enumerable buildings and the inspired works of ineffable space.
40 Lotus International, Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture: The 1982 Debate Between
Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman. Milan, Italy, 1983, IV, 60-68.
Alexander, Christopher. The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford
University Press, 1979.
Alger, Jonathan. Steilneset Witch Memorial. January 5, 2012.
Architectural Record. Steilneset Memorial. November 8, 2011.
Beckman, Tad. Martin Heidegger and Environmental Ethics. Claremont, CA, Harvey Mudd
College, 2000. http://www2.hmc.edu/~tbeckman/personal/Heidart.html.
Hill, John, A Weekly Dose of Architecture: Five Projects by Rafael Moneo. June 13, 2011.
MacRaild, Matt. Logrono City Hall. February 2008.
Sennett, Richard Sennett. Together. New York, NY: Yale University Press, 2012.