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Out of the ordinary

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review - Eisenman Inside Out: Selected Writings 1963-1988 By Peter Eisenman. Yale University Press, 2004. 248pp. £22.50

Peter Eisenman's writings are like his designs: ordered and logical, but hard to understand and referring to very little beyond themselves. You won't find any ordinary things like clients or money or building regulations mentioned in these essays. For Eisenman, architecture is a game. Its object is not to produce useful things, but almost the opposite: to avoid all common concepts such as usefulness. It is not about people or cities or even buildings; it is about itself, its 'interiority' (nothing to do with real interiors).

As early as 1971, in 'Notes on a Conceptual Architecture', we find Eisenman claiming allegiance with artists like Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, and imagining an architecture of 'formal universals', which, though meaningless in any ordinary, symbolic sense, might nevertheless 'provide references which are understood in the mind'. They would have to be manipulated, he says, by 'some form of transformational method', but the aim would always be 'to produce a structure for new meaning, without developing a new sign system'. This is the programme he has pursued more or less consistently ever since, and this book is the record of his progress up to 1988. (Why it ends in 1988 is not explained.

Perhaps a second volume is envisaged. ) Dry and abstract it may be, but Eisenman's method has its attractions. By excluding the normal subject matter of architecture, he is free to concentrate on pure architectural form, penetrating its mysteries by subjecting it to every imaginable mode of transformation - division, duplication, subtraction, rotation, extension, etc. This procedure will sometimes refer to an arbitrary narrative or pattern, such as the processes of DNA or the plot of Romeo and Juliet, but it will never refer to function or type or any of the other things that architecture is normally thought to be 'about'.

Eisenman goes to a lot of trouble to explain how these processes operate in his own designs, but he also uses them as a tool to analyse the designs of others, from Alberti and Palladio to Le Corbusier and Mies. The verbal analyses are unreadably long and tedious, but the diagrams (here reproduced too small) are fascinating. In 'The Futility of Objects', for example, the front elevation of Terragni's Giuliani Frigerio apartment block is subjected to a 15-stage transformation that reveals 'an original condition as inconsistent and shifting as quicksand'. This supposedly represents a new kind of composition, more like 'decomposition', echoing the rupture of history in the modern world.

History takes a peculiar form in Eisenman.

It is never very detailed, and few examples are furnished, but it has a definite shape and a slightly unreal clarity. It has been revised and refined over the years and various versions of it appear in this book. The basic idea is that a fundamental change occurred in the Renaissance, when architecture ceased to be just itself - architecture 'as is' - and started representing other things, mainly buildings from the past. The 20th-century Modern Movement set out to sweep away this old paradigm, but in fact merely continued it by substituting myths like function and zeitgeist for the myth of antiquity.

What is needed now, according to Eisenman, is an architecture that does without representation altogether, not as a revival of architecture 'as is', but as a reflection of the post-Holocaust condition of humanity. The influence of Jacques Derrida can be felt in the later versions of this history, which try to claim that architecture can be textual, like language. The argument is somewhat tortured, especially since in earlier essays Eisenman has convincingly demonstrated that architecture can never be a true language because it embodies what it represents.

But Eisenman's arguments are not always tortured. Occasionally they achieve a satisfying clarity and succinctness. Several of these essays begin with a kind of theoretical 'story so far', skilfully summing up a difficult concept in a couple of pages. 'In my Father's House' of 1980, for example, convincingly answers the old question 'what is architecture?' in just four short paragraphs.

Unfortunately, it then launches into a long, obsessively detailed and boringly abstract analysis of seven houses by John Hejduk, without ever coming close to answering the burning question: what would they be like to live in?

Colin Davies is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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