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Forces of good and evil met again in Venice battling for the soul of architecture

The conflict stirred up by the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and the fact that it ignored curator Aaron Betsky’s theme of pseudo-critical masturbation, was the latest salvo in a battle for the soul of architecture today.

This represents the second coming of a revolt by humanist rebels, the first of which was brutally suppressed by the avant-garde 20 years ago. Put bluntly, the last time anyone stood up to Peter Eisenman in public was Christopher Alexander in 1982. Wearying of Eisenman’s endless, narcissistic verbal and visual diarrhoea, Alexander simply accused him of ‘fucking up architecture’.

Eisenman’s influence is an inheritance of the terrible patronage of the former Dark Lord, the late Philip Johnson. They invited Mark Wigley to write a Museum of Modern Art catalogue essay on Deconstruction in 1990, since he was the only person they knew who knew anything about Jacques Derrida. Wigley was a PhD student of English from New Zealand whose girlfriend was studying architecture in New York. Now he’s dean of Columbia’s graduate school of architecture and married to Beatriz Colomina, a professor at Princeton (alongside Eisenman).

Now, a new generation in the US has taken up arms against this evil empire, led by Robert ‘R E’ Somol and Sarah Whiting. They guest-edited an issue of Log last year, a magazine edited by Eisenman’s wife Cynthia Davidson (which should have made for interesting conversation over breakfast).

Somol and Whiting criticised the ‘optical-conceptual model’ of Eisenman that ‘distanced’ people from experience in order to make them question their responses to architecture. They also targeted ‘the populist plot form’ of Charles Jencks and Robert Venturi, whereby inhabitants become ‘consumed by their own subjectivities’ as twin curses that afflict American architecture. Somol, sounding like he’d be played by George Clooney in the movie, rejects both of these traits in favour of ‘a dialogic architecture résonnante rather than a monologic architecture parlante, an architecture of accomplices rather than audiences’. Their insistence that ‘a return to the plan is the best shot for this kind of projective discipline’, to counter the pointless meanderings of ‘critical architecture’, is refreshing.

But Somol’s naivety is made clear in an interview in Pidgin, Princeton school of architecture’s student magazine, where he discusses his continued faith in the Modernist device of the diagram – rather than what Colin Rowe would call the ‘plan-form’. Eisenman retaliates in the same issue with some psychodrama about the Oedipus complex that sounds like the wheels are about to come of the wheelchair: ‘Everyone wants to kill me. I am considered Daddy. Let them try.’ The same sort of bizarre overreaction by the establishment to criticism occurs in London too, of course, and the reason can only be a guilty conscience.

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