Derrida & Eisenman: Laugh(ing) of(f) the lyre

By André Patrão

Jacques Derrida, Photocopy of a draft letter to Peter Eisenman with drawing for the chora, Project for a Garden, Parc de la Villette, Paris (Chora L Works), 1986. Reprographic copy on paper, 28 × 22 mm. Peter Eisenman fonds Canadian Centre for Architecture © Estate of Jacques Derrida.

‘I think I understand, at least in principle.’ [1]

Jacques Derrida tries to keep track of Peter Eisenman’s elaborate explanation. It is the 21st of April 1986, and in New Haven, Connecticut, philosopher and architect conduct the fifth of six meetings for their design of a garden in Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette. They call their collaboration the ‘Choral Works’, like a choir’s different voices intertwining to form one common composition. Originally though, the name alludes to a quizzical, ungraspable, disturbingly disruptive Platonic concept that Derrida smuggled into their very first meeting: khôra – untenable by reason, unimaginable as a thing, irreconcilable with the metaphysics at its source, a headache for generations of philosophers presented as an excitingly impossible challenge for architecture.

By now little more than wordplay remains from those brief pages of the Timaeus, or of Derrida’s intentions in bringing them up over half a year ago. As the design process progressed, khôra’s radically subversive nature found itself gradually subdued into a manageable conceptual referential, a fruitful source of inspiration, a stimulus for unrelated thoughts, or, as it would later be translated, chora. But its threatening restlessness is about to strike back.

‘My question’, Derrida subtly remarks, ‘is this: since people will have to reconstruct the whole themselves, will there be something which prevents them from closing the circle […]?’ [2]

Sitting alongside them is Eisenman’s lead designer, Thomas Leeser, to whom the project had effectively been handed down for the past few months. Leeser proves as faithful to the office’s idiosyncratic modus operandi as unfamiliar with the philosopher’s own. He proudly put forth a complicated narrative embodied in a tightly assembled scheme, an absolute self-enclosed totality supported by an all-encompassing origin, which a visitor could not but reconstitute to reach a single pre-defined narrative. In other words, he unwittingly built a bastion for the metaphysical precepts that Derrida’s thinking thrives in and lives off, by bringing them apart.

‘What do you think it should be?’, Eisenman asks, intrigued.

‘I think something should either be missing or… […] [s]omething which should not only prevent you from totalizing but also motivate an infinite desire to start again.’

‘Start again. To see if you can reconstruct in a different way?’

‘[Yes.] So that under no circumstances can you have the total picture in your mind.’ [3]

Like leftover pieces of a seemingly complete assembly, something should be in compromising excess to the whole, added yet not belonging, dissonant, unsettling, unnerving, menacing, dangerous – like the very idea itself. Leeser grows anxious.

‘But how’, he protests, ‘do we go about it without, you know, just throwing stuff in?’

‘Without being gratuitous?’, Eisenman inquisitively ping-pongs the conversation.

‘No, no. At the moment there is nothing gratuitous. Leave something, a fortuitous event.’ [4]

As they all very well know though, this seemingly simple and arbitrary gesture critically undermines the design’s foundational principles and fundamentally transforms its argument: the self-standing pretense to absoluteness becomes disenchanted, denounced as an illusion. In the totalitarian regime of certainty and under the control of its normativity, chance and singularity are a rebellion, irreducible, intractable, indomitably other to its rules. Yet this ill-fitting some-thing does not mean to destroy altogether. Parasitically, it needs the host to remain alive, in irremediable suspense, since the claim against that absolute only appears as such insofar as the illusion is there to be defied. The event stands against repetition, its fortuitousness against routine, heterogeneity against homogeneity only fully manifest vis-à-vis one another.

Eisenman is convinced:

‘That is interesting – I think we could do it’.

‘I don’t know how’, Leeser pouts.

‘Without disturbing this?’ Derrida asks, hinting at a provocation which his counterpart eventually endorses:

‘Perhaps you would disturb it […]’ [5]

An exciting discussion ignites between the two protagonists, who exchange ideas about the character of the thing, its materials, scale, location, references, conceptual properties, narrative value. Even Leeser quickly gets drawn in. How might this powerful yet delicate tension translate into an architectural gesture?

‘I’ll tell you what we could do’, Eisenman interjects, ‘we could have Jacques put what feels right to him. Then it would be totally heterogeneous. […] It will be terrific.’ [6]

The collaboration reaches its most extreme and experimental moment: the philosopher shall design. While on the one hand the suggestion unintentionally lets slip how far removed Derrida had been from the actual project – after all, his action was deemed heterogonous to it – on the other hand, suddenly and surprisingly, Eisenman simultaneously yanks him right into the thick of it, by cleverly returning the philosopher’s burning challenge right back at him.

‘At least I’ll make a suggestion, okay. […] Now, what is the approximate dimension of such a thing?’

‘You will have to feel it, and decide […]’.

‘The choice of dimensions, and the shape?’

‘Yes, the shape, the size, the material. [W]e won’t say anything.’

‘No, no. You [have to]. It will only be a proposal.’

‘No. […] M. le Philosophe draws the piece. I think it is perfect. It gives us no responsibility.’ [7]

Derrida panics. Even before the two had met and ever since, he quite self-consciously confessed to an inhibiting complete lack of technical expertise in architecture. This does not just feel uncomfortable, it corners him in a nightmare. And yet, within his own conceptual framework, his insufficiency emerges as an unrivaled virtue: an inexperienced non-architect’s architectural proposal for an architectural project cannot but be heterogeneous. Neither Eisenman nor Leeser, only he can perform the task, bound to succeed regardless of the proposition’s shortcomings – in fact, very much because of them.

After the meeting, while still at the airport and then after boarding the plane to Paris, Derrida takes out a few sheets of paper from the Yale Department of Comparative Literature and writes down his idea on a three-page letter (mostly) in French. Upon arrival he typewrites and, in a mix of apprehension and exhilaration revealed in his words, sends the letter to the architects. Both versions contain an identical drawing.

Tucked in-between paragraphs is a peculiar trapezoid-like figure with thick striated borders framing an orthogonal grid. Its lowest vertex just touches its tip upon a long straight horizontal line. On the one hand, it resembles a sieve, insinuating one of the images Plato employs to describe khôra, that ambiguous awkward entity that is neither a Form nor a shadow but where the latter is filtered, thus ordered, and so comes into particular being. Recalling another Platonic metaphor for khôra, its outline is made of gold, a material of malleable quality. The sieve’s net though refers to an architectural formal element, the grid, paramount for Tschumi in la Villette and Eisenman in this and previous designs – which, in fact, also used gold in their representations. On the other hand, although the depiction looks like a piano seen from above, its top half actually means to resemble another instrument, the stereotypical Ancient Greek lyre. The Choral Works are sung at the tune of lyre’s chords.

Line after ecstatically hand-written tilted line, Derrida intricately and brilliantly weaves together khôra and choral even further, through a succession of references, associations, comparisons, and juxtapositions fascinatingly evermore rich, deep, and dense. Tentatively, daringly, hesitantly but adventurously, their hand-drawn figuration produced a starkly contrasting, off-putting, underwhelming form. Derrida’s best amateurish efforts, painfully evident as such, at making use of what this collaboration taught him about architectural design, comes nowhere near pretending he belongs. The drawing lacks the architect’s knowledge, the habits of its practice, the processes, the moves, the intention, the execution, and ultimately of the recognizable kind of outcome expected of someone in the field. In other words, a resounding heterogeneous success.

How successful – meaning both to what extent and in what way – would come up in their next and last work meeting while looking back at the achievements and frustrations of their Choral Works ensemble. Turning towards Leeser and Jeffrey Kipnis, serving as an uninhibited commentator of both men’s work, Eisenman chuckles:

‘Do you remember, Thomas, when I first told you we were going to put this lyre thing in, you [went] out of your mind? He went crazy, Jeff. He said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I remember, Thomas came back from a meeting with Jacques and said, ‘I got this thing from Derrida, you’re not going to put this in!’’ [8]

Eisenman may have genuinely raved before the disruptive threat on a conceptual plane, but instinctively defeated it upon the architectural plan: there, heterogeneity was only welcome insofar as the exception fit within a regulation, a deviation expected by the scheme, controlled by an unrepentant status quo, ultimately keeping and reinforcing it rather than revolutionizing from within. The event is absorbed, its fortuitousness predicted, and the crisis adverted.

‘You know, I could anticipate this reaction. Not only from him but from you.’ Derrida embarrassedly admits, brought back to his senses after that brief moment of illusion. It all seems so foolish now. He thought he understood… but only in principle.

‘I said we were going to put it in,’ Eisenman defends himself, ‘I never said we weren’t.’ [9]

But like the philosophical concept became a receptacle, for intellectual stimulus and conceptual wordplay, so the thing became the object of brilliant yet ultimately inconsequential discourse for the project. As khôra dissolved into chora, so the lyre was, in truth, consumed.

‘I asked you what you were going to do.’ Kipnis intervened provocatively to blow Eisenman’s cover, ‘You said ‘Well, I am going to find a part of the project as it stands, and call it a lyre.’’

‘Well, I did. The thing about the lyre is that there is a double meaning, the homophone – liar [laughter].’ [10]

André Patrão is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the lab of Architecture, Criticism, History, and Theory at the EPFL in Switzerland.

This text was entered into the 2020 Drawing Matter Writing Prize. Click here to read the winning texts and more writing that was particularly enjoyed by the prize judges.

  1. Jacques Derrida, Peter Eisenman, e Thomas Leeser, «Transcript Five» (1986), em Chora L Works: Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman, ed. Jeffrey Kipnis e Thomas Leeser (New York: Monacelli Press, 1997), p.78.
  2. Ibid., p.79.
  3. Ibid., p.79.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p.80
  7. Ibid., p.80
  8. Jacques Derrida et al., «Transcript Six» (1987), em Chora L Works: Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman, ed. Jeffrey Kipnis e Thomas Leeser (New York: Monacelli Press, 1997), p.93.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.