In response to a recent post by Ryan Singer at 37signals, I learned a lot about the architect Christopher Alexander. I explored this site about his work and his legacy quite a bit, and was particularly interested in his 1982 debate with Peter Eisenman. The debate repeatedly seemed to boil down to a debate between architecture for disembodied brains and architecture for human beings (i.e., intellectual versus emotional architecture).
Peter Eisenman is a fascinating figure for me. His buildings are interesting to look at on paper, but preposterous to even conceive of building (his World Trade Center site proposal was, to me, an insult). When I was a student at Cooper Union in the early 90â€™s, Eisenman (who has taught at Cooper) was a finalist in a competition to build Cooperâ€™s first dorm building. The model was fascination, but everyone who looked at it agreed: I would not want to live there. The tiny rooms had acute angles (canâ€™t put furniture in corners!), tiny windows flush with the floors (no light!), and other inconvenient conceptual details that stood in opposition to comfortable human habitation.
I do find the images of Alexanderâ€™s architecture fairly sentimental, but is that a bad thing? As I get older and further removed from the academic world of art and design, I find myself increasingly impatient with the coldness and over-intellectualness of design from the position Eisenman exemplifies. I think many designers want to like minimalism because it is flattering to beleive that the stimulation of oneâ€™s mind is more important than oneâ€™s physical or emotional pleasure. Itâ€™s the ascetic urge, I suppose.
But Iâ€™ve always thought that good minimalism wasnâ€™t ascetic at all, and that the best minimalists werenâ€™t minimal at all. Peter Halley once argued that minimalist art is actually as chock-full of meaning and metaphor as any figurative painting, insofar as it almost always stands as a commentary on modern industrial production and the new machine-made physical forms that surround us.
Itâ€™s also always been striking to me that so many designers say they love the so-called minimalism of the Eameses without realizing just how baroque their home was and how downright sensuous their designs really are. I think the Eameses would find the idea of living in a home with steel-and-concrete minimalist interior decor about as appealing as the idea of living in a slaughterhouse. I think Christopher Alexander would agree.