Book Review: Ten Canonical Buildings 1950-2000

Ten Canonical Buildings 1950-2000 by Peter Eisenman, edited by Ariane Lourie
Rizzoli, 2008

Architects that take the time and effort in exploring and sharing their thoughts on other architects, their contemporaries, is a rarity. More often architects partake in self-promotion, even if their debts to fellow architects are clear in their designs. Rafael Moneo's book Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects is a good example of a respected architect exhibiting his appreciation for his contemporaries, particularly in the realm of ideas. Another one is this recent book by Peter Eisenman on ten built and unbuilt projects spanning the last half of the 20th century. Featuring some obvious (Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, Vanna Venturi House by Robert Venturi, the Jewish Museum Berlin by Daniel Libeskind) and not-so-obvious (Luigi Moretti's Casa "Il Girasole", Rem Koolhaas's Jussieu Libraries, Frank O. Gehry's Peter B. Lewis Building) selections, the architect/author gives the reader a "close reading" of the projects.

For Eisenman, a close reading aims at discovering the ideas implied by a building's formal and physical presence. While he roots this technique in the brilliant but occasionally difficult to decipher Colin Rowe, and he cites the more difficult -- and perennial Eisenman favorite -- philosopher Jacques Derrida far too many times, the book offers numerous delights for the reader open to Eisenman's unique takes on a varied assemblage of buildings. Each building is featured in a consistent format: Eisenman's text of the close reading is accompanied by photographs, sketches, drawings, after which a series of primarily axonometric black and white and red, hard-line drawings (a la the cover, above) illustrates the building's form, structure, circulation, layering, and other characteristics relevant to his reading. Just as Eisenman's approach to architectural analysis is rooted in Colin Rowe's teaching, his drawings appear to be rooted in John Hedjuk's axonometric investigations*.

This flashback to the sixties and seventies, particularly in the b/w/r drawings, makes one wonder if the techniques are appropriate for the projects analyzed. The axons are illuminating for the early works, especially Casa "Il Girasole", but Frank Gehry's architecture dissolves into chaos in some of the drawings. Plans and sections are also used, but Eisenman relies on the axon to convey the most information about the building itself. Ironically, plan diagrams that compare Gehry's building to Schinkel's Altes Museum prove more rewarding than the axons. Basically, instead of finding the appropriate means of illustrating the discoveries of his close reading, Eisenman limits himself to certain architectural conventions. They make the book highly consistent, but they also make what should have been the most rewarding part of the book the most disappointing. His readings of the building forms, while focused on fairly abstract ideas like index and code and therefore a bit esoteric at times, offer unique insights that make up for the shortcomings of the drawings.

*The debt that Eisenman owes to Hejduk, while not articulated in this book in regard to the drawings, is apparent in Eisenman's posthumous erection of Hejduk's 1992 design for two towers as part of Eisenman's competition-winning City of Culture of Galicia (this week's dose) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.