Peter Eisenman – Architect of the Field of Stelae

Picture: View over the Field of Stelae

Peter Eisenman about the Memorial

Architecture is about monuments and graves, said the Viennese architect Adolf Loos at the turn of the 20th century. By this he meant that an individual human life could be commemorated by a stone, a slab, a cross, or a star. The simplicity of this idea ended with the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the mechanisms of mass death. Today an individual can no longer be certain to die an individual death, and architecture can no longer remember life as it once did. The markers that were formerly symbols of individual life and death must be changed, and this has a profound effect on the idea of memory and the monument. The enormity and horror of the Holocaust are such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate. The memory of the Holocaust can never be one of nostalgia.

The context of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the enormity of the banal. The project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system, here a rational grid, and its potential for dissolution in time. It suggests that when a supposedly rational and ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose, it in fact loses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances and potential for chaos in all systems of seeming order, the idea that all closed systems of a closed order are bound to fail.

In searching for the instability inherent in an apparently stable system, the design begins from a rigid grid structure composed of some 2,700 concrete pillars, or stelae, each 95 centimeters wide and 2.375 meters long, with heights varying from zero to 4 meters. The pillars are spaced 95 centimeters apart to allow for only individual passage through the grid. In addition, while the difference between the ground plane and the top plane of the pillars may appear to be random and arbitrary, a matter of pure expression, this is not the case. Each plane is determined by the intersections of the voids in the pillar grid and the gridlines of the larger site context of Berlin. In effect, a slippage occurs in the grid structure, causing indeterminate spaces to develop within the seemingly rigid order of the monument. These spaces condense, narrow, and deepen to provide a multilayered experience from any point in the gridded field. The agitation of the field shatters any notions of absolute axiality and instead reveals an omni-directional reality. The illusion of order and security in the internal grid and the frame of the street grid are thus destroyed.

Remaining intact, however, is the idea that the pillars extend between two undulating grids, forming the top plane at eye level. The way these two systems interact describes a zone of instability between them. These instabilities, or irregularities, are superimposed on both the topography of the site and on the top plane of the field of concrete pillars. A perceptual and conceptual divergence between the topography of the ground and the top plane of the stelae is thus created. This divergence denotes a difference in time, between what the philosopher Henri Bergson called chronological, narrative time and time as duration. The monument’s registration of this difference makes for a place of loss and contemplation, elements of memory.

The Ort is subdued in manner, effectively designed to minimize any disturbance to the Memorial’s field of pillars. Its mass, weight, and density seem to perceptibly bear down and close in on individuals. The organization of the space of the Ort extends the stelae of the field into the structure, provoking a continued state of reflection and contemplation once inside. The stelae are manifested in the form of a coffered ceiling with rib spacing that matches the spacing of the field above. The presence of these elements is subverted by the Ort’s walls, which are set on a classical nine-square grid. This grid is rotated against the logic of the field, thereby thwarting any paradigmatic understanding of its formal arrangement. The uncertain frame of reference that results further isolates individuals in what is intended to be an unsettling, personal experience. Juxtaposed against the hard, concrete materiality of the Ort will be a series of exhibitions that will use state-of-the-art technologies to create an ephemeral and visceral dimension appropriate for reflection. The glow of the illuminated images and text is intended to dematerialize the walls of the Ort, allowing the stelae to reveal themselves as a topographical extension of the field.

In a prescient moment in »In Search of Lost Time«, Marcel Proust identifies two different kinds of memory: a nostalgia located in the past, touched with a sentimentality that remembers things not as they were but as we want to remember them, and a living memory, which is active in the present and devoid of nostalgia for a remembered past. The Holocaust cannot be remembered in the first, nostalgic mode, as its horror forever ruptured the link between nostalgia and memory. Remembering the Holocaust can therefore only be a living condition in which the past remains active in the present.

In this context, the monument attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia. We propose that the time of the monument, its duration, is different from the time of human experience and understanding. The traditional monument is understood by its symbolic imagery, by what it represents. It is not understood in time, but in an instant in space; it is seen and understood simultaneously. Even in traditional architectures such as labyrinths and mazes, there is a space-time continuum between experience and knowing; one has a goal to work one’s way in or out.

In this monument there is no goal, no end, no working one’s way in or out. The duration of an individual’s experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding is impossible. The time of the monument, its duration from top surface to ground, is disjoined from the time of experience. In this context, there is no nostalgia, no memory of the past, only the living memory of the individual experience. Here, we can only know the past through its manifestation in the present.

Biography of Peter Eisenman

Peter Eisenman was born in 1932 in Newark, New Jersey. He studied architecture from 1951 to 1955 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and later at Columbia University in New York City, and concluded his academic training in 1963 with a doctoral thesis on design theory.
From 1957/58 he worked in various architects’ offices, including that of Walter Gropius, ‘The Architects Cooperative’. He began teaching architecture in 1960 at several different universities, including Princeton University, Cambridge University and The Cooper Union in New York City, where he taught together with John Hejduk. From 1967 to 1982, he directed the ‘Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies’ in New York. He was professor of architecture at the University of Maryland (1978), Harvard University (1982–85), The Cooper Union and Ohio State University. In the first phase of his career, he worked together with Charles Gwathmay, John Hejduk, Michael Graves and Richard Meier in the architects’ group ‘The New York Five’. Eisenman developed his principles for design theory at this time in a number of key publications.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Eisenman established his own architectural practice in New York, and since that time has created a number of important and diverse structures. His renowned design for the residential and commercial building at the corner of Kochstraße and Friedrichstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg (today the Berlin Wall Museum) dates from this time. It was created within the framework of the International Building Exhibition (IBA) Berlin in 1987. Of special interest is his series of cultural buildings in the United States, including the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts and Fine Arts Library, the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, and the Aronoff Center for Design and Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, built in the 1980s and 1990s. Another project completed in 1990 is the headquarters of the Koizumi Sangyo Corporation in Tokyo.

Since 1999 Eisenman has won several important international competitions. In June 1999 his project for redesigning the waterfront in west Manhattan won a respected architectural prize in the United States. In December 1999 he was awarded first prize in an international competition for his design of a cultural city centre in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), consisting inter alia of a museum, library and opera house. This has been under construction since 1992. Another project now being built is a football stadium that will seat 68,000 visitors in Phoenix, Arizona.

Since his first experience as an editor of the architectural theory journal Oppositions, Peter Eisenman has dealt repeatedly with basic questions of architecture and design theory in his publications and as a teacher. He is Louis Kahn Professor of Architecture at Yale University and guest professor at Princeton University. For his life work, he was awarded the Golden Lion of the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2004. The impressive series of publications and numerous international academic activities, lectures and honors, make him one of the most interesting senior personalities in the field of architecture today. In his writings, Eisenman deals repeatedly with the historical content of the project of modernity. In his focus on philosophical questions and basic positions, his critical confrontation with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida is of special significance. A recurrent topic is his thesis about an architecture of memory, from which he derives the postulate of a place-oriented or ‘textual’ architecture, which affords the observer a unique experience, difficult to express adequately, of space and time. In view of the dichotomy between modernity and fundamentalism and between image and reality that is ever clearer today, Eisenman believes the role of architecture must be rethought anew if it is to prevail in the struggle of symbols and stagings, retaining a prime critical function.