Oozing Feeling

Peter Eisenman memorably tussled with the late Christopher Alexander on a Harvard debate stage. He talks to NYRA about that match-up and his aversion to Alexander’s ideas about “comfort” and “harmony.”

In the spring of 1983, the transcript of a debate at Harvard between two up- and-coming architects was making the rounds of the “Xerox circuit.” Christopher Alexander represented what the audience took to be an enigmatic new West Coast approach to design, while Peter Eisenman alternated between playing the charming host, fending off incendiary attacks, and attempting to sustain an intellectual conversation. The debate, which was originally published under the title “Discord Over Harmony in Architecture” (and can now easily be found online), has come to be seen as a defining document of the era. We reached Peter Eisenman via Zoom at his office in New York.

Matthew Allen: You mention at the beginning of the debate that Alexander’s work “so infuriated you that you were moved to do a PhD.” What was it that infuriated you?

Peter Eisenman: I never worried about Chris Alexander. I never lost any sleep over him. In those days, nobody was doing a doctorate in architecture. I arrived at the University of Cambridge in the fall of 1960 after having done very well in the Liverpool Cathedral competition. When I walked in the door, they asked, “Would you like to teach?” I said, “I have no idea.” So they said, “You’re a first-year master,” and I taught for a year. After that, I traveled with Colin Rowe for the summer and learned about architecture— I saw Palladio, Giulio Romano, Mies, Corbu, etc. When I got back, they asked if I wanted to teach, and I said no. They said they wanted me to stay, and they said I could do a dissertation. I had an idea: I wanted to do The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture. That’s when they said, “Here, read Alexander.” He had been at Cambridge a few years previously and had just completed his dissertation at Harvard—Notes on the Synthesis of Form was floating around in a draft copy before it was published as a book. I read his manuscript and it was the opposite of what I was thinking of doing. I thought it was antiform. If I was a formalist, he was an antiformalist. That’s all. So reading his manuscript put me into gear to really want to do a doctorate—I wanted to come out on the other side of Chris Alexander.

Chris was, from what I understand, a strange duck. I became a buddy of his colleague at Berkeley, Sim Van der Ryn, but I had nothing at all to do with that touchy-feely, California-style thinking. I don’t think, when I look back on the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, that Alexander was that much of an influential character. The only time I ever met him was when I invited him to that lunchtime discussion.

I want to put the discussion into context because it wasn’t meant to be a “debate” between Chris Alexander and Peter Eisenman. It was part of a series of lunchtime seminars that I was doing. I invited Richard Serra, Denise Scott Brown—I had any number of people, and Chris was one of them. It turned out to be a classic debate; it became rather heated. And it really gained momentum over the years— it was photocopied and spread around, etc. It was a good part of what I was doing at Harvard. Chris Alexander certainly wasn’t a household figure at the time, and neither was Peter Eisenman.

Nicolas Kemper: In the debate, there are two words that come up a lot: “comfort” and “harmony.” Alexander was trying to argue that he was on the side of comfort and harmony. I’m wondering how you feel about those two terms now.

Eisenman: The first person that talked about harmony was Alberti, and his word was concinnitas, which means the concurrence between parts and wholes. Poststructuralism is all about the fragmentation of wholes, etc. So harmony and comfort are things I’m working on—they come into my discourse in their absence.

I’m interested in the visual experience of comfort, not so much its physical presence. I think a chair is nice to look at, not to sit in. I have a collection of fabulous chairs; they’re not very comfortable to sit in, but they’re great to look at. I like eye comfort better than backside comfort.

Physical comfort is about middle-class functioning. But don’t forget about music—what we hear today is not about harmony. With jazz from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, it became all about dissonance. I don’t think harmony is one of the issues in the art world, either, or the literary world. I’m a big Thomas Pynchon fan, a Serra fan; the guys I’m interested in are not about comfort or harmony.

Allen: I wonder if you see a difference between a feeling of harmony versus thinking about it or appreciating it on an intellectual level.

Eisenman: I went through twenty years of Jungian analysis, and Karl Jung has this idea that there are archetypes in the human personality: thinking as the opposite of feeling, sensation as the opposite of intuition. And I can tell you who my colleagues are and who I want to have dinner with based on that kind of collision of types. I’m a thinking type and you can’t change that—analysis isn’t about changing it; it’s about learning to live with it. Bob Stern is a sensation type—you can’t make him a thinking type. He deals with materiality; he’s a comfort person. There are people who are just oozing feeling. I wouldn’t say that Chris Alexander was one of those, actually, in terms of the Jungian types.

I’m on another planet [than Alexander], and it’s certainly not a feeling planet, and it never can be. That’s probably why I’m not a politician. Trump’s a feeling type. Joe Biden’s a feeling type—really touchy-feely all over the place.

Kemper: One exchange that stands out between you and Alexander is the back-and-forth about pitched roofs. He says he’s not afraid of pitches and gables, and you say you’ve stopped using them.

Eisenman: That’s what’s symbolic of liberalism in the United States; it sets up a bourgeois, middle-class liberal condition. The individual house is one of the real problems that we face in the world. The idea that we should desire our own house—that’s a real question.

Kemper: The main thing people quote from the debate is when Alexander said that you are “really fucking up the whole profession of architecture right now.”

Eisenman: You seem alright, and you were a student of mine—I haven’t screwed you up. Maybe I encouraged you to think and taught you how to think a bit more about what you’re up to. I haven’t built a million buildings; I haven’t written a million books. I’m just doing my work.

I have a book on my desk—La Condizione Manierista [holds up Lina Malfona’s 2021 book]. You see what it’s called. Art has always been about the disturbance of the status quo. That’s what art is. And art is a cultural phenomenon, not an individual phenomenon. It tells you about the culture. I’m interested in that, and in so much as Bob Venturi is interested in that [in Complexity and Contradiction], I really love his book. Insomuch as Chris Alexander has no idea about that, I’m not interested in his book.

I’m working on a book, The Becoming Unmotivated of the Sign, and of course motivated signs are what architecture’s always about. I’ve been a poststructuralist in the sense that, as Derrida said, modern architecture was the location of the metaphysics of presence. I am trying to overcome the metaphysical project. I’m trying to overcome the Hegelian dialectic. I’m trying to work on overcoming presence as an important aspect of discourse. I’ve always been pretty much in the same place, maybe trying to avoid Chris. I don’t see him as a big problem, either today or yesterday.

Peter Eisenman continues to rage against the Hegelian dialectic.

Matthew Allen is an architectural historian and not-particularly-touchy-feely Oregonian.

Nicolas Kemper is the publisher of NYRA and relieved to know he seems alright.