Eisenman’s Service

Eisenman’s Service: discourse or distraction?

David Ross Scheer

© 2016 David Ross Scheer

“[Eisenman] was then and remains the great iconoclast—unrivaled, unrepentant—who has spent a lifetime breaking past certainties and images of architecture, to allow the emergence of the new.”

Alan Balfour[1]

“The divorce of architecture from the contamination of the real world has been a constant in Eisenman’s work, the precondition for his self-creation as a cultural figure of international repute.”

Diane Ghirardo[2]

“A servant of uncompromising investigations into the very idea of architecture, he ignites by his teaching, writing, books, and the arguments of his own design work, a fire within rising generations of young students, both here and abroad, to dare to pursue a life-long habit of probing discourse and debate. The rigor of his investigations into the past, present, and imagined future of design has sparked a quality of discourse in classrooms around the word that has elevated the intellectual credibility of education so necessary to the vitality of an architecture that speaks to and of its time.”

from the 2015 Topaz Medallion citation[3]


A peculiar award

The Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, conferred jointly by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), is one of the most prestigious honors an architectural educator can receive. In 2015 it was awarded to Peter Eisenman. At first blush, this seems a peculiar choice, not because there is any doubt as to Eisenman’s importance and influence as an educator, but because the award is also a token of the AIA’s high favor. It is not at all clear why the AIA would want to honor him in any fashion. Among much of its rank and file, Eisenman is viewed with suspicion if not hostility. His devotion to abstract theories and his use of his buildings (read: his clients’ money) to exemplify them offends the ingrained pragmatism of many American architects.[4] For many, he is a poseur who has, through self-promotion and political maneuvering, usurped a role as one of the world’s most famous and influential architects. As if that were not enough, his publications and projects document a categorical rejection of the very basis of contemporary American architectural practice.

In all likelihood, there was some sentiment within the AIA to recognize Eisenman in some way. Along with his many passionate detractors, he has a substantial contingent of admirers that includes many prominent architects[5] as well as a large group of younger architects whom the AIA is eager to court. Satisfying this constituency without alienating the majority would have been a challenge to say the least. Given his small but prominent body of built work, Eisenman might have been a strong candidate for the Gold Medal, the AIA’s recognition of outstanding contributions in design.[6] That would undoubtedly have ignited a firestorm of protest among the membership for the reasons given above. Giving him an award for education instead solved this dilemma, but not without certain stretching of the customary criteria. Eisenman’s contributions as a teacher are inarguable, but in the past the Topaz Medallion has been reserved for someone who had spent a substantial portion of his or her career as a professional educator.[7] While he has taught in one context or another almost continually, Eisenman makes a point of distancing himself from career academics: “I mean, a lot of people say, you teach at Princeton, you teach at Yale, but I never had tenure at those institutions. I never wanted tenure at those institutions.”[8]

A close reading of the AIA’s Topaz citation of Eisenman (see above) sheds considerable light on the issues at stake. The ghost of Eisenman’s building practice haunts the text as it carefully negotiates the relationship between teaching, theory and practice. Eisenman’s professional activity is referred to as “design work” which carries “arguments,” emphasizing its intellectual as opposed to professional nature (those AIA members who accept these buildings at all will do so only if they are seen as experiments, not as viable models for the profession). The word “discourse” (taken from Eisenman’s own vocabulary) appears twice, first as a laudable and challenging “habit” for architects, portraying the professional architect as critically engaged with his or her work. As we shall see, this is a central aspect of liberal professionalism. Its second mention backtracks on this idea, however: discourse takes place not in practice but in classrooms, and elevates “the intellectual credibility of education” rather than that of the profession itself. This is both a jab at academics (their credibility is implicitly questioned) and an attempt to elide the persistent turmoil in the relationship between education and the profession. The phrase “necessary to the vitality of an architecture that speaks to and of its time” is a skillful bit of code that sounds very different to different audiences. It avoids saying that education as presently constituted is vital for architecture in general, a nod to the many professionals who would like schools to address the demands of practice more directly. For others, the qualification “to and of its time” is likely to sound like an endorsement of the idea that this is the proper role of architecture. To those familiar with Eisenman’s ideas, it may sound like an endorsement, if not of the ideas themselves, then of their broad goal.

A key phrase appears at the beginning: the evocation of “the very idea of architecture.” What is interesting about this phrase is that it can be asserted as uncontroversial. This demonstrates the profession’s consensus that architecture exists outside of any particular practice and implies that there exists an “idea” of architecture that is fundamental and singular. It is remarkable that architects continue to believe that such an idea exists when there is very little agreement among them as to its nature and content. This question is particularly urgent today, as there is increasing pressure in the building industry to adopt measurable performance as the first criterion of design. This is a value more associated with engineering than architecture and architects have varying degrees of difficulty adapting themselves to it. At one extreme are architects who embrace this redefinition of their role, not recognizing the danger it poses to the profession.[9] At the other extreme are architects like Eisenman who re-examine architecture’s ontological and epistemological grounds in their search for this idea. Apart from the specifics of his work, then, Eisenman is a stalking horse for this identity crisis within American architecture. We will see that the notion of service is at its core.

The profession and the discipline

Architects, and the AIA as their professional voice, must face the dual nature of modern liberal professionalism. This model of professionalism arose under industrial capitalism, responding to the dramatic expansion of specialized domains of knowledge and society’s need for such knowledge in its projects. Due to the highly specialized nature of this knowledge, only experts in the field could establish appropriate standards for its application to social needs. The prerogatives of social status and financial reward that attend the recognition of a profession flow from an implicit contract between the profession and society: in return for society’s granting it these prerogatives, a profession provides a socially necessary service and ensures that this is done in accordance with the highest standards. This creates a duty on the part of a profession to continually develop its knowledge and revisit its own standards. Professionals must therefore engage in disciplinary discourse, the purpose of which is to elucidate principles by which knowledge in that discipline is to be sought, verified and applied and to provide for rigorous self-examination. Such discourse by definition precedes practice in the sense that it is presumed to govern practice.

As constituted in liberal capitalist societies, a profession serves two masters: society, via the service it provides, and the discipline whose principles it obeys. The fundamental principle of a profession – its raison d’être– is service; that of a discipline is discourse. A discipline deals in ideas whereas a profession contends with pragmatic realities. These disparate principles can lead to criteria, methods and conclusions that may diverge or even contradict each other. It is no surprise, then, that the demands of a discipline and the realities of its cognate profession are frequently at odds.

Such conflicts can be productive for both the discipline and the profession. The internal discourse of the discipline grounds the profession in ideals and principles and oversees the production and application of new knowledge. Practice can invigorate the discipline, providing social contexts which prioritize its knowledge and research, and inform the limits of its application. But the fact remains that discipline and profession embody different principles. While their relationship is socially mandated, there is no guarantee that it will be amicable.

Thus, the architectural profession must recognize a discipline of architecture distinct from its practice.. When the AIA’s Topaz Medallion citation refers to the “intellectual credibility” of architectural education, it is actually speaking to the disciplinary bona fides of its practitioners. The question, then, is how and by whom the discipline is defined. The definition of any discipline draws upon its own history, but this history is of course open to interpretation. This interpretation is the domain of what may be called disciplinary practitioners. medium may be writing, drawing, computation, building or a combination of these. There are many types of architectural theorists including historians, philosophers and sociologists among others. However, it is the theorist-practitioner who has most immediate influence on the profession. These are architects who illustrate their theoretical ideas in drawn and/or built projects as well as in writings.

Eisenman is pre-eminent among such theorists. His intellectual credentials are impressive: a Ph.D. in architecture from Cambridge, a series of teaching appointments at the world’s most prestigious architecture schools, and a large body of erudite writings that draw upon the ideas of a several respected academics in other fields. His numerous drawn projects have been extensively reproduced in books and periodicals. His built oeuvre, although comparatively small, includes several projects awarded via design competitions with other renowned architects. What buildings he has realized have received a great deal of attention in both professional and popular publications. Further enhancing his appeal to the profession, Eisenman has actively cultivated his relationship with it. He became a Fellow of the AIA in 1981.[10] He has been a frequent contributor to professional publications since 1963, including Architectural Forum, Architectural Design, Casabella, A+U and Progressive Architecture. When he was attacked in the pages of Progressive Architecture in 1994[11] he went to great lengths to defend his ideas before the professional readership of that magazine.[12]

On these grounds, Eisenman appears to be a good candidate for recognition as a disciplinary authority by the profession. His ideas, however, preclude anything like the current model of professional practice. He criticizes current design practice for its failure to embody an authentically (as opposed to stylistically) modernist sensibility whose essential feature he says is “the fundamental displacement of man […] away from the center of his world”.[13] One consequence of this is that “[o]bjects are seen as ideas independent of man”,[14] implying that architecture should not respond to felt human needs. Eisenman conceives of architecture as a self-existing discipline whose principles originate within itself. Specifically, he contends that function as usually understood has no role in architecture.[15] A productive relationship cannot be built between such a notion of the discipline and a profession that must serve socially-defined needs. Eisenman would make the discipline of architecture incompatible with the service society looks to architecture to provide.

Eisenman is not the only architect to adopt principles incompatible with practice. Leon Krier’s famous dictum, “I don’t build because I am an architect. I can make true architecture because I do not build,”[16] called attention to the incompatibility between the services society demanded of architecture and principles of the discipline, as though doctors were suddenly required to perform euthanasia. Eisenman’s position is different: he believes that his work reflects society’s true condition, although some of its members may not realize or be willing to acknowledge it. Running through Eisenman’s writings is a sense that his understanding of modern life is more authentic than others’, and therefore a more correct basis for architecture.[17] From the point of view of an architect working with today’s typical client, however, such a position amounts to an

Paradoxically, the very radicalism of Eisenman’s ideas helps the profession embrace him. Since it would be impossible for architects to put his ideas into practice in the current state of affairs, the ideas have no real consequences for them. At most, they can be entertained as intriguing thought experiments that have no effect in the real world. In any event, the substance of the ideas matters little as far as the profession is concerned. Very few architects have more than a superficial familiarity with them. What does matter is that Eisenman provides the profession with disciplinary credibility. Embracing Eisenman provides evidence that architecture sustains a vigorous disciplinary discourse. He thus performs a service for the profession; he provides disciplinary credibility, which, as we have seen, is essential to maintaining its status.

The profession and the academy

In most domains, professional schools have a clear relationship to the corresponding profession. In addition to training future professionals, academics perform research that provides ideas and concrete knowledge that assist professionals in their work. Medical academics conduct research that may result in new drugs and clinical procedures. Legal scholars develop ideas that can be applied in litigation and legislation. Both take certain features of practice as given. Physiology works the same way in the lab and the hospital. Legal procedure, while subject to long-term changes, is fixed at any moment, the context in which legal theories must work.[18]

To be sure, many architectural academics carry out research that can be applied in practice, in such fields as building performance, new materials, digital fabrication and design technology. But a large number do not feel bound to accept the conditions of practice as realities to be contended with. There is a strong sense among them that these are contingent, not essential to architecture per se. This frees them to explore ideas that have no application in practice, that may even be in direct contravention of some of its essential aspects. Such exploration can benefit the profession by providing some of the self-criticism that it needs to sustain its credibility. However, the magnitude of the present disparity between the interests of the academy and current conditions of practice is dangerous.

Given its need for a disciplinary grounding, the alienation of the profession from the academy threatens its credibility, and therefore its viability. This situation is dangerous for the academy as well. From a social standpoint, the academy serves two purposes: to train future professionals and to provide disciplinary discourse necessary to the credibility of the profession. From a broader cultural perspective, however, these are secondary to its true purpose, which is to sustain and advance the discipline itself. In contemporary American society, much cultural work must justify itself economically. Service to the profession and, by extension, to society provides this justification for architectural academia. Such a great distance between academia and the profession threatens the former’s existence.

This alienation is another aspect of the strategy of awarding Eisenman the Topaz Medallion. As the preceding analysis shows, the award was an attempt by the profession to place Eisenman within the confines of academia. Doing so, in the minds of many architects, relegates him to a world that has little or no connection to their own work.

In the meantime, society continues to demand buildings and architects are confused as never before as to what they should be doing. Fulfilling demands for better performance fills much of the void. What remains is often given over to formulaic repetition or displays of technical virtuosity for its own sake.

The profession and politics

The role of liberal professions in society’s political life of is complex. Professionals are often called upon to provide expert opinion on social policies that lie within their competence. Professional organizations like the AIA typically employ lobbyists to influence political decisions for their members’ benefit. More positively, a profession’s disciplinary principles may contribute to an evolution of social norms, as happened when the architectural profession began advocating sustainable building practices. However, a profession can influence social policy only if it speaks with one voice. Since its membership usually reflects a diversity of political opinions, this is not often the case. With rare exceptions, therefore, professional organizations must remain scrupulously neutral on political issues.

From the profession’s point of view, a great virtue of Eisenman’s ideas is that they are (or claim to be) resolutely apolitical in the usual sense. His style of argument is to make statements that purport to be either universal truths about architecture (e.g. “What defines architecture is the continuous dislocation of dwelling, to dislocate what it in fact locates.”[19]), or objective descriptions of our current cultural condition (e.g. “the only constant truth now about the idea of a thing is that it is not the thing itself, and therefore contains the presence of the absence of the thing.”[20])

From the outset, Eisenman has pursued a notion of architecture as a discipline with its own immanent nature, which he calls architecture’s “interiority”. It does not depend on external factors arising from social, functional or material forces. He insists upon architecture as an autonomous discourse that has its own specific ways of relating to culture. Any analysis of the relationship of a particular building to a cultural configuration is for him a case study in that disciplinary specificity. Values attaching to a cultural configuration do not attach to its architecture:

“[M]y work basically says that while I may have my own personal political leanings, or I may have affinities to conservative politics, when it comes to architecture, ultimately its politics is autonomy. That’s why I can look as Leon Krier does at Albert Speer […] I believe that the architecture that the fascist regime was doing was a very important moment in time.”


In the same vein, he published an intensive study of the work of Giuseppe Terragni,[22] who for a time worked for and supported the Fascist regime in Italy, without reference to its political context, which he considered irrelevant to the architecture.

Eisenman claims to reveal our true current condition in order to understand the conditions under which architecture is created at the present time. From his perspective, the human condition is historically determined and thus cannot be altered by human decisions. Neither architecture nor anything else can affect it in the near term.  His ideas are apolitical in the sense that they refuse any socially determinative role for architecture. This position has attracted a great deal of criticism from those who see a political stance in the very denial of architecture’s political significance.[23]

Thus Eisenman’s ideas, while controversial, are devoid of any political agenda that would affect architectural practice, making them well-suited for the disciplinary discourse of a profession that must remain politically neutral. Diane Ghirardo perceptively noted the importance of this to Eisenman’s prominence, writing that his “emphasis on formal autonomy to guarantee that though his work may offend visually, aesthetically, or experientially, it will never offend politically.”[24]


The profession and the future

The foregoing is an attempt to understand an apparent conundrum: that the American architectural profession chose to honor an architect who rejects its most fundamental values. The profession, perhaps feeling its current lack of direction, sought to embrace a man whose name is synonymous with architectural discourse, thereby reassuring itself and (it hoped) its public that this discourse is alive and well. Peter Eisenman’s unique qualifications as an intellectual as well as a building architect made this recognition palatable, even to his detractors, with the caveat that it be in the realm of education rather than architecture itself. Thus, the conundrum is resolved: the award was a logical response to the profession’s need for disciplinary legitimacy.

Of course, honoring Eisenman does not address the underlying problem. There is a crying need in architecture for a disciplinary discourse that speaks to practice, that addresses the array of changes that face both profession and discipline, that will empower architects to become more effective in social and political debates. That he does not provide such a discourse is not a criticism of Eisenman himself; this was never his intention. The profession, represented by the AIA, has managed to appropriate his work so that it gives the appearance of providing disciplinary legitimacy while leaving the profession’s existing value structure intact. By doing this, it can claim to address the issue while not disturbing its members’ practices.

But if it is to survive as a profession, architecture needs real disciplinary legitimacy- real disciplinary discourse- not its mere appearance. Its lack is tangible. Practicing architects today constantly bemoan challenges to their customary role. Holistic design, the traditional province of architects and their greatest service to society, is being eroded by a growing number of specialized experts who lay claim to some portion of building design. Their claims are based on their supposed ability to enhance the technical or financial performance of a particular process, system or component. Some architects try to compete on their terms. This strategy will not preserve holistic design: by definition, no one can be an expert at everything. The great challenge facing disciplinary discourse in architecture today is to enunciate a basis for the value of holistic design in the face of pervasive social demands for better performance. By anointing Eisenman, the AIA has only distracted the profession from the need for such a discourse in American architecture.


[1] Alan Balfour, “Letter in support of Topaz Medallion nomination of Peter Eisenman”, quoted in “Peter Eisenman, FAIA Notes of Interest”, Zach Mortice, in AIArchitect December 10, 2014, http://www.aia.org/practicing/awards/2015/topaz-medallion/. Accessed August 13, 2015.

[2] Diane Ghirardo , “Eisenman’s Bogus Avant-Garde,” Progressive Architecture 75 (11) (November, 1994): 70.

[3] “2015 Topaz Medallion Peter Eisenman FAIA,” May 15, 2015. The American Institute of Architects Archive, Washington, D.C.

[4] As S. Stephens writes, “[t]he American mainstream professional, nei­ther fan nor convert, tends to view this emergence [of polemicist-theorists] with suspicion or hostility.” S. Stephens, “Role-models; Polemicist-theorist,” Progressive Architecture 58 (May, 1977): 68.

[5] Among those who wrote letters supporting Eisenman’s nomination were: Henry Cobb, former Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and partner of I.M. Pei; George Baird, Dean of architecture at the University of Toronto; Alan Balfour, who has served as Dean of architecture at Rice University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Georgia Tech as well as chairman of the Architectural Association in London; Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of of Design at the University of Minnesota; and Marlon Blackwell, Chair and Distinguished Professor at the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture.

[6] Past recipients of the Gold Medal include fellow New York Five members Michael Graves and Richard Meier, as well as “iconoclasts” such as Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry.

[7] Some recipients have had distinguished careers as practitioners in addition to their roles in education, but they have at some point devoted themselves to education, typically by occupying a prominent post at a major architecture school.

[8] Robert Locke, “Peter Eisenman: ‘Liberal Views Have Never Built Anything of Value,’” Archinect, July 27, 2004, http://archinect.com/features/article/4618. Accessed August 13, 2015.

[9] David Ross Scheer, The Death of Drawing: Architecture in the Age of Simulation (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2014), 167- 171.

[10]The 1981 citation for Eisenman’s elevation to Fellowship reads: “As designer; as founder and director of The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies; as writer, teacher and lecturer, he has con­tributed as few others have done to the under­standing and appreciation of the art of architecture.” The American Institute of Architects, “FAIA_1981_EisenmannPeter_text_PR”. The American Institute of Architects Archive, Washington, D.C.

[11] Ghirardo, “Eisenman’s Bogus Avant-Garde,” 72.

[12] Peter Eisenman et al., “Eisenman (and company) Respond,” Progressive Architecture 75 (11) (November 1994): 88-91 .

[13] Peter Eisenman, “Post-Functionalism,” Oppositions 6, Fall 1976.

[14] Peter Eisenman, “Post-Functionalism.”

[15] Peter Eisenman, “Post-Functionalism.”

[16] Ian Latham, “Leon Krier: A Profile,” Architectural Design 57 (1/2) (1987): 37.

[17] “Alternative views of the world might suggest that it is not wholeness that will evoke our truest feelings and that it is precisely the wholeness of the anthropocentric world that it might be the presence of absence, that is, the nonwhole, the fragment which might produce a condition that would more closely approximate our innate feelings today.”

Peter Eisenman and Christopher Alexander, “Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture”, first published in Lotus International 40 (1983), 60-68. Reprinted in Studio Works 7 (Princeton: The Princeton Architectural Press, 2000): 50-57.

[18] In general; apparently, however, there is a school of thought that separates legal scholarship from the practice of law. See Meir Dan-Cohen, “Listeners and Eavesdroppers: The Audience for Substantive Legal Theory”, University of Colorado Law Review 63 (1992): 569.

[19] Peter Eisenman, “Architecture and the problem of the rhetorical figure” in Eisenman Inside Out: Selected Writings 1963-1988, ed. Peter Eisenman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 203.

[20] Peter Eisenman, “Architecture and the problem of the rhetorical figure,” 207.

[21] Robert Locke, “Peter Eisenman: ‘Liberal Views Have Never Built Anything of Value.’”

[22] Peter Eisenman, Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques, New York: The Monacelli Press, 2003.

[23] As Jennifer Bloomer remarked, “How, I wonder, can architectural formalism, even and especially the avowed apolitical, not be political?”

Eisenman et al., “Eisenman (and company) Respond,” 88.

[24] Ghirardo, “Eisenman’s Bogus Avant-Garde,” 72. Ghirardo sees Eisenman’s formalism as a deliberate strategy to appear radical while remaining palatable to prospective clients.

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