Christopher Alexander, Peter Eisenman, Minimalism

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 90’s, Eisenman (who has taught at Cooper) was a finalist in a competition to build Cooper’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 (can’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 Alexander’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 one’s mind is more important than one’s physical or emotional pleasure. It’s the ascetic urge, I suppose.

But I’ve always thought that good minimalism wasn’t ascetic at all, and that the best minimalists weren’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.

It’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.


6 responses to “Christopher Alexander, Peter Eisenman, Minimalism”

  1. Is it an either/or issue? Alexander seemed to think so whereas Eisenman did not, at least according to the transcript. I’ve heard Eisenman speak and have visited several of his buildings. His architecture may not always be my cup of tea, but more alarming is that something challenging, incongruous and disharmonious be attacked based on feeling alone. It makes me think of Copernicus.

  2. Michael Chui Avatar
    Michael Chui

    I am not an architect, nor a regular reader (found this on 37s SvN Sunspots), but:

    I would opine that Eisenman’s position is completely blind. The idea that the need to agitate is external is wrong. He says that “if you repress the destructive nature, it is going to come out in some way.” And he’s right, but what he’s wrong about is that you should encourage the destructive nature. The destructiveness of a creation should be as natural as its harmoniousness.

  3. Does Eisenman say that the destructive nature should be encouraged?

  4. Michael Chui Avatar
    Michael Chui

    No, I made a mistake, but it doesn’t detract from my intent. I think that the critical paragraph is the one where he begins “I am not preaching disharmony.” and Alexander’s response to it is what the problem with his viewpoint is; Eisenman isn’t preaching disharmony, merely saying that it is a valid end.

    Alexander’s line of thinking is the reconciliation of conflicts by a space into harmony. Eisenman is saying that there are people who don’t want this, and therefore should be built for.

    But Eisenman is wrong in saying that people do not want harmony (or order, as the editor would have it): even thinking types want a harmony in their ideas. He also mistakes the Jungian thinking/feeling to be a dichotomy, rather than a continuum. Opposites, rather than complements.

    The manufacture of disharmony should be restricted to object lessons: textbook questions, avant garde artwork, provocative questions. You do not create disharmony for a home or a workplace or a recreational area, because the function is not to teach. The space is not meant to generate ideas. It is meant to generate feelings.

    Can some spaces be used to generate ideas? Certainly; in this case, Eisenman is right. But these spaces cannot be used for anything else, because they discard what people actually do in them; there isn’t any room left for actual people.

    Sorry that was a bit long. =P I’m long-winded.

  5. Does Eisenman say that people don’t want harmony?

    A workplace or a home is not meant to generate ideas or to teach? How sad.

  6. Seven P Avatar
    Seven P

    HI all,
    Im doing Eisenman for a homework assignment. I really dont think I like the idea of this deconstructivism. I see patterns in architecture pushing further and further away from our natural habitat and that scares me not to mention it is hideous!