From the Heights of Parnassus

There comes a loud, thudding crash.

In the future, an intrepid scholar with unparalleled access to archives and a nose for controversy may look at our current moment with some amount of scorn. Blame it on the state of theory and the discipline’s lackluster role in addressing the relationship between buildings, cities, and publics. These were the days when theory carried the unenviable burden of explaining the relations between architecture and other big-ticket, capital-letter items like Capital, Social Justice, Racial Inequality, the list goes on. Form for form’s sake—now that was an enviable endeavor, and fun, too, because it meant that scholars and critics could just let buildings be buildings, nothing more, nothing less. And yet there was something deeply unsatisfying about all of this. This scholar will read transcripts, cached websites, even tattered physical copies of journals of record. And in these artifacts, a breadcrumb trail of sorts reveals how a mode of thinking about the world emerged in texts, was whispered furtively in gallery conversations, became the subject of countless seminars and panels discussions, was declared dead, and zombie-like, resuscitated only to become harder and harder to kill. Because after the dust settled, and when those handful of intellectuals celebrated as the models for critical engagement with architecture are forgotten for only a moment, all that remains is a sense of loss. Architecture has not failed us. Criticism has.

And yet behind every instance of failed criticism, there is a building. And with every building, there is a heady sense of indecision about how to review it. Consider, for example, Engine Company 233 and Ladder Company 176, on the corner of Rockaway Avenue and Chauncey Street in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill neighborhood. There is nothing architecturally remarkable about this part of Brooklyn, at least not at first blush. These are lowlands, a relentless stretch of low-slung buildings that extends in an easterly swath between Atlantic and Broadway Avenues towards East New York and JFK Airport. On a drive along this route, the alternating bright signage of car washes, tire detailing shops, and CubeSmart franchises create a polychromic blur. There are also tall buildings. Or, rather, buildings that are surprisingly tall. And in the middle of all of this is Engine Company 233 and Ladder Company 176. It’s an Eisenman Robertson building from 1985, an artifact of a short-lived partnership between Peter Eisenman and Jaquelin Robertson, who was then the dean at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

Eisenman’s work inaugurated an overly intellectualized, even fanciful agenda that equated theory with a kind of formalist critique. Architectural criticism, at least the kind that we associate with a group of critics and designers on the East Coast (plus a smattering in Chicago and perhaps Houston), supposedly rose to the challenge. The trick, then, was to engage architecture on something like Eisenman’s terms, which means to speak of the primacy of architectural form using a heady mélange of history, philosophy, and linguistics. But it’s far from being critical. Nor is it “critical architecture,” to use K. Michael Hays’s argot, which is to say architecture that is answerable to the highest degrees of intellection while addressing “Culture.” Culture is not context but con-text, a setting that is to be interpreted much like a book. And it all amounts to a kind of performance, for the act of identifying and interpreting architecture in this manner supposedly elevates both architect and critic.

In Eisenman’s hands, context is not geometry, but geomancy, a desire to conjure a building from mathematical and abstract wish-fulfillment.

One would be hard pressed to talk about a work of Peter Eisenman’s like Engine Company 233 and Ladder Company 176 in its actual physical context. In Ocean Hill, the majority of the population is African-American and Latino, with 23 percent of Children under 18 and 22 percent of Seniors over 65 living below the poverty line. Engine Company 233 and Ladder Company 176 also sits on a lopsided triangular site bounded by Broadway Avenue on the north, Chauncey Street on the south, and Rockaway Avenue on the west—hardly the smooth, isotropic space seen in Eisenman’s famous axonometric drawings. The site’s triangular shape is an artifact of circumstance, a moment where a series of irregular grids abut one another. It’s messy, for sure. And far from boring. Most of the site is occupied by Wayside Baptist Church, a large building that began life as the Colonial Theater and Airdrome, an eighteen-hundred seat movie house with interior atmospheric effects that made it a popular destination during the 1930s and ’40s. Wayside Baptist Church also occupies another building on the site that shares the frontage along Broadway Avenue. It is a three-story building with a large cornice that hangs over a series of arched windows, an interrupted frieze with some pilasters, all atop what used to be a series of storefronts, now covered by infill. Engine Company 233 and Ladder 176 is the third building on the site. It is also the most conventional, which is a hard truth to acknowledge given that this building was intended to be a supremely formal gesture that reconciled the conflicting grid systems. This is not immediately discernible, even though the facade along Chauncey Street, with its alternating rhythm of square bricks and windows, hints at a kind of obsessive regularity. Each pier joins a set of grappler-like appendages that seem to pull the building up and rotate it by forty-five degrees—the first indication that, sure, there’s something different going on. Turning along Rockaway Avenue, the building’s most familiar facade reveals itself. Three garage bays with bright red doors and the words LADDER COMPANY 176 ENGINE COMPANY 233 FIELD COMM emblazoned across the top in generic sans-serif confront passersby. And here is the moment where criticism’s gambit emerges, literally, as a central bay erupts from the center as a prismatic square aligned with grappler-like structure on top. This sawtoothed element breaks the continuity of the facade, a vestige of the grid system that forms the upper story and becomes a literal interruption, a moment where nothing is reconciled and all that is left is an incomplete thought, or at least an unwillingness to resolve the grid systems.

What is this building if not a device that adapts to the two-grid systems, a fulcrum that transitions energy from the hypotenuse of Broadway Avenue down along the equilateral sides? What if the true Pythagorean operation is not geometric function, but rather an attempt to rationalize and order the world, or even to rectify a triangular site bounded by Rockaway Avenue, Chauncey Street, and Broadway Avenue through the imposition of form, giving Eisenman no choice but to leave the upper story alone as a series of interlocking voids framed by trusses that cut through the biting autumn air? In either case, the building sits there unresolved, age-weathered, and a reminder of what happens when a formalist gesture comes down from the heights of Parnassus to a hard landing in real space and real time.

For our future intrepid scholar, then, Engine Company 233 and Ladder Company 176 falls short of its formalist agenda. It points to a larger issue about how any attempt to reconcile form and site, especially when working with plans and grids, only results in a kind of cognitive dissonance. And moreover, there is the failure to address the very thing that the building is supposed to address—context, which, in Eisenman’s hands, has nothing to do with the history of the site or of the New York Fire Department, or the people who lived in this area, or other buildings, for that matter. Context is not geometry, but geomancy, a desire to conjure a building from mathematical and abstract wish-fulfillment. Engine Company 233 and Ladder Company 176 has little to say. And finally, when it comes to acknowledging these multiple failures, critics have been silent. It is not a deafening silence, however. That sound you hear is only the sound of whimpering, sotto voce, into a void.

Enrique Ramirez is a writer, historian, and visiting associate professor at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture. This was his first time visiting a Peter Eisenman building, and he has no plans to fly to Phoenix to see State Farm Stadium.