Eisenman: House VI (1985)

By Kathleen Enz Finken

Peter Eisenman (1932), House VI: colour axonometric, 1972. Black ink, coloured ink, and adhesive vinyl on mylar, 609 × 609 mm. DMC 1280.

The design of House VI was partly the result of Eisenman’s attempt to reconcile linguistic theories with architectural design. His interest in the work of Noam Chomsky, especially his theories of syntax, led to the investigation of possible analogies between language and architecture, and particularly the syntactic aspects of architectural form. [1] As might be expected, the result has generated significant controversy on precisely this point.

Charles Jencks wrote that Peter Eisenman ‘produces beautiful syntactic knots which dazzle the eye, confuse the mind, and ultimately signify for him the process that generated them.’ [2] Jencks was referring to Eisenman’s expressed interest in a deep structure which proposes the existence of an underlying ordering device that is the natural and logical generator of a design. [3] Eisenman stated in his text on House VI in Progressive Architecture of June 1977 that the house was not to be seen as ‘an object in the traditional sense – that is the end result of a process’ but rather as the ‘record of a process.’ [4] The step-by-step process is also documented in a set of formal axonometric diagrams that accompany the house in many publications. The house, according to Eisenman, is the three-dimensional embodiment of this transformational series. But for Charles Jencks, the built form of House VI does not successfully convey Eisenman’s all-important process of design.

As early as October of 1976, Richard Pommer had discussed this aspect of the house in his Artforum article ‘The New Architectural Supremacists.’ [5] He wrote that House VI could not be understood ‘by looking at it, walking around or through it, or even … by living in it.’ Pommer continued,

Theoretically, the observer can emerge from his experiential confusion and make the leap to the generating conception by means of such clues as the false upside-down stairs at right angles and in complementary colours to the real stairs. If not, then some words from Eisenman and a study of the axonometric drawing looking down on the axis would no doubt be of help… But Eisenman’s new house is of necessity awkward and confusing. His work remains in the realm of invention and diagram. [6]

In the critical literature, repeated reference is made to this dependence of the house on the transformational diagrams. [7] Often these remarks appear slightly sarcastic in tone and convey the critics’ skepticism regarding Eisenman’s ability to illustrate his concepts in the physical form of House VI. While an acknowledged relationship exists at some level between the house and the axonometric diagrams, it is assumed, at least by those critics writing on the subject, that the house should be made to stand critically on its own without reference to published explanation. With the publication of Eisenman’s 1977 article on the house, however, this assumption could no longer be taken for granted. Eisenman wrote (in what seems to be a direct response to Pommer’s observations) that the conceptual structure of House VI could not be understood through any physical or perceptual experience, but that it was revealed to the viewer only from a reference point outside the house. [8] This point of reference evidently required a study of the axonometric diagrams of the house, diagrams that, as Eisenman stated in 1977, were ‘symbolic with its reality’. The use of the term ‘symbiotic’ would suggest that Eisenman intended the house and the diagrams to rely on one another to the extent that each would lack essential meaning without the other. Is it then valid to judge the success of the house alone on its ability to convey Eisenman’s design concepts to the viewer? Despite Eisenman’s attempts to the contrary, his work did continue to be judged in this manner. In the long review of Five Architects published in 1979, Rosemarie Haag Bletter pointed out that Eisenman’s architectural proposals had a ‘curiously and specifically graphic dimension’, and concluded that the built result lacked force: ‘we can follow his proposals in an axonometric projection, but the argument loses some of its force when transferred to a three-dimensional structure.’ [9]

One possible explanation for this apparent lack of clarity in the final form of House VI is that there are numerous discrepancies between the original design concept and the building as it stands. This fact is alluded to in discussions of the relationship of the drawings to the house, but it is rarely directly noted and never discussed at length. [10] Such a major feature as the division of the originally proposed two-story living area into seperate floors to allow for more reasonable proportions in the second-story rooms necessarily meant a change in the perception of the entire structure. Martin Filler made a point of this issue and summed up by remarking upon ‘a certain poignance in Eisenman’s inability to reconcile what he can imagine with what he can build.’ [11]

Another issue related to Eisenman’s process of design is the exclusion of cultural references in architecture, which he conceived as an attempt to free the architecture from associative connotations. The theory, according to Eisenman, is that a structure void of any conventional signs and signals will allow the viewer to be more receptive to an untapped level of communication ideally latent in pure architectural form. [12] In this respect, Eisenman said, the pragmatic and functional aspects of architecture – doors, stairs, walls – must be placed in their position within a conceptual structure. [13]

This approach raises two important questions. First, as Paul Goldberger asked, is it really possible that all cultural references can be separated from ‘what is still, in the end, a house?’ [14] And, second, can the resulting structure successfully fulfill its programmatic requirements?

In discussing the first point, Goldberger pointed out that our perception of every element of House VI, despite Eisenman’s altered use of form, is partly a result of our own cultural experiences. Goldberger maintained that the forms of House VI are as suggestive of an association with modern architecture and its traditions as they are of any purely formal association Eisenman might propose. In this respect, House VI has frequently been compared to the architecture of the De Stijl group in early twentieth-century Holland. Eisenman had already disputed this comparison as inappropriate in the 1977 Progressive Architecture article where he stated that House VI was actually an ‘inversion of many De Stijl ideas.’ [15] Apparently, Eisenman’s attempt to refute this association was unsuccessful, for in November 1980, Martin Filler again referred to an influence of De Stijl architecture on House VI.[16] Filler quoted John Hejduk’s original reference to House VI as ‘the second canonical De Stijl house.’ [17] (It was this reference, of course, that Eisenman had taken as the point of departure for the comment in his earlier article.)

There were some critics, on the other hand, who found Eisenman’s attempt to remove all cultural references quite successful, undesirable, and even dangerous. Many viewed Eisenman’s approach as irresponsible for a professional architect, while others saw his work as nothing less than a negation of life itself. One outraged commentator proclaimed that Eisenman had indeed ‘successfully eradicated … all allies and metaphors of habitation from House VI.’[18] The same critics stated that ‘the stone step, placed by the clients at the front (?) door, is the only clue that life as we know it exists in House VI.’ This point of view induced some critics to label House VI as ‘nihilistic.’ [19] Charles Jencks stated that ‘House VI … conveys, if we can attach any meaning to it, a fundamental nihilism. It is of course a sensual and dignified cancellation of all positive belief.’ [20] For some critics then, Eisenman’s success in removing cultural references spelled architectural failure on precisely this account.

Excerpted from The Critical Edge: Controversy in Recent American Architecture (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1985)

Notes

  1. A lengthy discussion of Eisenman’s researches into the application of linguistic models to architectural design, in particular to his own work, is found in Rosalind Krauss, ‘Death of a Hermeneutic Phantom: Materialisation of the Sign in the Work of Peter Eisenman’, Architecture and Urbanism (A + U), 112, 1980, 188-220. House VI is discussed in some detail on page 207. See also Mario Gandelsonas, ‘From Structure to Subject: The Formation of an Architectural Language,’ Oppositions, 17, Summer 1979, 11-29. For Eisenman’s thoughts on the subject, see Eisenman, ‘From Object to Relationship II: Giuseppe Terragni: Casa Giuliani Frigerio,’ Perspecta, 13-14, 1971, 36-61. In this article Eisenman described his initial interest in these studies and their meanings and application in art and architecture in general and specifically in the work of Giuseppe Terragni (1904-1943), an Italian architect.
  2. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, New York, 1977, 73.
  3. Peter D. Eisenman, ‘Notes on Conceptual Architecture: Towards a Definition,’ Casabella, 359, December 1971, 51. Mario Gandelsonas analysed Eisenman’s interpretation of Chomsky’s theory in ‘On Reading Architecture. Peter Eisenman: The Syntactic Dimension,’ Progressive Architecture, 53, March 1972, 85. Others who referred to Eisenman’s use of the term ‘deep structure’ included Rosemarie Haag Bletter, Five Architects and ‘Five on Five,’ 205-207, and Robert Stern and Jaquelin Robertson in ‘Five on Fove,’ 47, 50. Stern proclaimed himself a non-believer: ‘I do not believe that structure, no matter how ‘deep’, is a particularly expressive tool in architecture.’
  4. Peter D. Eisenman, ‘House VI,’ Progressive Architecture, 58, June 1977, 59.
  5. Richard Pommer, ‘The New Architectural Supremacists,’ Artforum, 15, October 1976, 38-43. The article is a review of the symposium entitled ‘Positions in Architecture’ held at the Rhode Island School of Design in the spring of 1976, which involved the discussion of ‘Modernism’ in architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Among those who feature prominently in the article are Peter Eisenman and the critic Colin Rowe.
  6. Pommer, ‘Architectural Supremacists,’ 39-40.
  7. For example, see Gandelsonas, ‘On Reading Architecture,’ 82; Bletter, Five Architects and ‘Five on Five,’ 206; and Pommer, ‘Architectural Supremacists,’ 39-40. The current interest in Eisenman’s diagrams and drawings as art objects should also be noted. In addition to the many photographs in art and architectural journals (e.g. ‘Transformations, Decompositions, and Critiques,’ Artforum,19, March 1981, 48-51), examples of his work have been included in books on architectural drawings (e.g., David Gebhard and Deborah Nevins, 200 Years of American Architectural Drawings, New York, 1977), as well as in exhibits (see Ada Louise Huxtable’s review, ‘Poetic Visions of Design for the Future,’ New York Times Magazine, April 27, 1979, 32).
  8. Eisenman, ‘House VI,’ 59.
  9. Bletter, Five Architects and ‘Five on Five,’ 206.
  10. Paul Goldberger mentioned some changes in the proposed kitchen arrangement and the adjustment of the upside-down staircase in ‘The House as Sculptural Object,’ New York Magazine, March 20, 1977, 74ff. The earliest published plans for the house appeared in Casabella, 386, 1974, 27. These differed markedly from those found in later publications as, for example, in L’Architecture d’aujourd’ hui, 186, August/September 1976, 63. To our knowledge , there are no publications that include plans of House VI exactly as it was built.
  11. Martin Filler, ‘Peter Eisenman: Polemical Houses,’ Art in America, 68, November 1980, 129. Filler commented that, along with a written text on the formal development of his buildings, Eisenman’s works are ‘accompanied by numerous drawings of the structures in their various stages leading to the rational and comprehensible at every step along the way … Yet the disparities between what Eisenman says and how the architectural artifacts finally appear indicate that, as much as Eisenman would like to be seen as the successful fabricator of intriguingly visual and profoundly intellectual puzzles, not all the pieces always fit.’
  12. Peter D. Eisenman, ‘Conceptual Architecture,’Casabella, 386, 1974, 25: ‘It is my belief that in every building we make as architects, no matter what meaning we may give to it – functional, social, or symbolic – there is a potential level of communication which may exist merely because of our capacity to understand that nature, because of the way we see and the way we think. My work is an attempt to raise our level of consciousness about this potential communication to the point, where as designers and users, our architecture may have a more precise mode of communication, and thus hopefully a more enriched meaning. My premise for undertaking this work is based on my belief that architectural form is not merely geometric abstraction or a repertory of conventional signs, but in essence, a set of archetypal relationships which affect our most basic sensibilities about our environment.’
  13. Eisenman, ‘Notes,’ 51: ‘To make something conceptual in architecture would require taking the pragmatic and functional aspects and placing them in a conceptual matrix, where their primary existence is no longer interpreted from the physical fact of being a bathroom or closet, but rather the functional aspect bathroom or closet becomes secondary to some primary reading as a notation in a conceptual context.’
  14. Goldberger, ‘House as Sculptural Object,’ 84.
  15. Eisenman ‘House VI,’ 59: ‘John Hejduk has said that House VI is the ‘second canonical De Stijl house,’ but for me this perception tends to overlook or obscure the basic intentions of the house.’ Eisenman began his essay with this statement and went on to compare at some length both De Stijl architecture and the architecture of Le Corbusier to House VI on points of spatial disposition (spatial strategies,’ as Eisenman called it) and the conception and perception of the architecture. He concluded on each point that House VI is actually very different from both the work of Le Corbusier and that of the De Stijl architects.
  16. Filler, ‘Polemical Houses,’ 130.
  17. Eisenman, ‘House VI,’ 57.
  18. Greenspan, ‘Views: Letters from Readers,’ 8.
  19. Greenspan, ‘Views: Letters from Readers,’ 8: ‘That Eisenman has succeeded in constructing a full-scale house of cards cannot be questioned is why an architect as brilliant and erudite as Dr. Eisenman chooses to widen the credibility gap between architects and their clients, and, more fundamentally, why he is so obsessed with the architecture of nihilism.’ In his 1971 article ‘Notes on Conceptual Architecture,’ Eisenman had discussed nihilism as one of ‘three basic attitudes in conceptual art with respect to the object’ (Eisenman, ‘Notes,’ 48).
  20. Jencks, Late Modern Architecture, 178. He further states that House VI ‘foreshadows Eisenman’s explicit nihilism of 1977 and his House X.’