Changes are Coming

June 6, 2011

The City of Culture in Galicia by Peter Eisenman is a controversial project since its inception (budget overruns, oversized scale, lack of program among others). An interesting starting point for a discussion between Vladimir Belogolovsky and its author.


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City of Culture of Galicia volumetric analysis. © Eisenman Architects.

In the mid-1960s, Eisenman was a member of a loose collaborative famously known as the “New York Five,” together with Richard Meier, John Hejduk, Charles Gwathmey, and Michael Graves. Individual projects of this group were based on the theory and aesthetics of Le Corbusier and significantly influenced architects worldwide.

For many years, Eisenman submerged deeply into the field of pure theory. He taught in the most prestigious universities around the world, published the critical magazine Oppositions, and even founded the exploratory Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. In 1980, the architect started his practice with a purpose to build.

Today, his mind-boggling stadiums, office buildings, museums, and convention centers can be seen in America, Europe, and Asia. He has a long list of victories in international competitions and is a recipient of many prestigious awards, including a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture presented in 2004 at IX International Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Eisenman brought ideas of deconstructivism into architectural discourse, which were based on his collaboration with Jack Derrida, the French philosopher and pioneer of this movement. In 1988, Eisenman took part in the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition organized by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Since then, this term has become associated with the architecture of abstract fragmented forms, exploding collage compositions, and dynamic broken lines.

Among other projects, the architect is currently working on the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which is commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. With an area of over one million square feet and a budget of half a billion dollars, the complex is being built based on a design that won an international architectural competition. Eisenman’s project was selected over the proposals of such superstar competitors as Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel, and Dominique Perrault. The complex consists of three pairs of buildings: the Galician History Museum and the Heritage Research Center, the Music Theater and the Administration Center, and the National Library of Galicia and the Galician National Archive. Today these buildings are at various stages of construction and the Galician National Archive is already completed and is in operation.

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Museum. © Eisenman Architects.

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Aerial image of the City of Culture of Galicia from the southeast, 2009. © Eisenman Architects.

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Archive. © Manuel Gonzales Vicente.

VB: Many of your projects are tied to Derrida’s denial of the idea of absolute beginning…

PE: Derrida said, “There is no value of origin.”

VB: He said that “any beginning is preceded by a trace or series of traces. There is no one truth. There is no one absolute beginning. Everything is open to traces of beginnings. Before there was something there was a trace of something.” In Santiago you identified four form-defining local traces: historical downtown street grid, typography of the hill, abstract Cartesian grid, and symbolic sign of the city of Santiago, a scallop shell. You then superimposed these four abstracted traces to create an imaginary site condition, which became a real site for your project.

PE: Yes, the building form came out of that superimposition. The beginning, therefore, is not the actual site, but the traces of the site in the Derridean sense.

VB: Why are these traces important to you?

PE: Well, because if you think that the belief in origin, in presence, in the metaphysical and the transcendental signifier is false and you accept Derrida’s thoughts, then these traces are very important. Because they show that it is possible to develop a project that doesn’t make primary the actual physical site. Freud said that Rome is not what we see today, but it is many layers of history and of place. That is my concept of landscape. In every project we question the idea of the metaphysical character of the actual site. This is what makes our approach different, not better, but different from other architects.

VB: Are these traces important to you to develop a particular geometry or do you think it will be possible for the visitors to decode and identify them?

PE: Yes, I think so. I want people to experience these traces and decode them, absolutely. The people who saw the project tell me they feel the origins of these traces.

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VB: You once said that you don’t want to do a lot of buildings. Instead, you want to do twenty buildings because you have about twenty good ideas. What is the main idea about Santiago and how is it different from your other projects?

PE: First of all, the particular overlay of these local traces is different from any other project. What makes it different is that it produces different effects on the interiors. The materials are different. All materials here are local and the articulation of pavements and facades is all based on abstracted local traditions. There is a whole area of the interior where the mirrored glass is on the floor and the stone is on the wall, which reflects in the glass and makes you believe that you walk on stone. So you don’t know where you are. There are numerous such effects that one experiences throughout the project.

VB: When I asked you about the Santiago project in relation to green and sustainable architecture, you said, “I don’t know anything about ‘green’ or sustainability.”

PE: Because “green” and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture. Some of the worst buildings I have seen are done by sustainable architects.

VB: I would not argue with that statement. But you can’t deny that your Center of Culture is trying to negotiate a dialogue and peaceful deal with the surrounding landscape and nature. Isn’t it an attempt at creating a sustainable project?

PE: I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a sustainable architect. For example, I am using stone in this building and stone buildings last forever. I don’t think it would be difficult to do a sustainable building. To get a LEED certificate, you have to do the bathrooms the right way and all kinds of strange things. Believe me, I could get a certificate if I wanted to, but I didn’t set out to do a sustainable building, although I tried to be as honest as I could.

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Archive looking down stairs. © Eisenman Architects.

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Archive reading room. © Eisenman Architects.

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Archive reading room. © Eisenman Architects.

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Archive upper and lower levels. © Eisenman Architects.

VB: You said that architecture needs to question traditions and be critical and that the great oxymoron of architecture is that it needs to create places, but instead it displaces places. Is it also true for Santiago? What is the displacement there?

PE: Take a look at that glass floor. You begin to displace the ground that you are walking on. The roof of our building is the hillside. You cut the hill, put the building in, put the roof over it, and it looks like the hillside. Now the floor inside is no longer the ground. We put the glass on the floor and it reflects the real ground, which is above your head. So we are producing our own commentaries by questioning such conventions as ground, floor, walls, facades, interior space, etc.

VB: In his book Landscrapers, Aaron Betsky said, “Buildings replace the land. That is architecture’s original sin.” That is because by replacing land, buildings take away space, sunlight, air, and so forth. Is the Santiago project an attempt at redemption for such inherited sins of architecture?

PE: Well, I can’t disagree that you might read it this way, but I can’t claim that I was interested in such redemption.

VB: Wasn’t your purpose to recreate nature and not to take away from nature by building something new in its place?

PE: Not nature, but unnatural nature. Through advanced computation processes, we have the capacity to create unnatural nature. I wanted to create something that would seem like nature, but under closer inspection one would realize that it is not nature. I call it unnatural nature. Our buildings in Santiago look like a hilltop. They don’t look like they have been placed there. They are made to seem and look like they have come out of the ground like giant mountains. In other words, it is like a natural process–something that would take 10 million years has happened in 10 years. So if that is what you mean by redemption, I’ll buy it.

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Hemeroteca foreground, 2008. © Eisenman Architects.

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Heritage research center. © Eisenman Architects.

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Archive and library. © Eisenman Architects.

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Southwest view of the hemeroteca and library, 2009. © Eisenman Architects.

VB: Your architecture is never about representation and now you are trying to represent and replicate nature.

PE: But it doesn’t represent nature. It is an unnatural nature. My architecture never represents anything. It is not representing an unnatural nature. It is an unnatural nature. This is not nature. But it is not against nature. There is man-made, there is natural. I want unnatural. This is the first time that I have done this.

VB: You have done buildings that look like they try to shake things up. They are intended to challenge, reorient, and disturb people. Was that still part of your intention in Santiago?

PE: No, not to disturb and shake things up. The intention here is to make people more aware of the natural environment because most people when they walk in the forest they just see trees and stones. Here people don’t just walk in nature. I want them to believe that they walk in the old city, in history, they walk in time. I want them to feel things, touch things, and to make them more conscious of their environment. Inside all the buildings, the spaces are very different. For example, in the library the book shelves are part of the flow of the space. The books feel like they are part of the ground. All six buildings feel different, but they play as a kind of string sextet.

VB: You said not that long ago, “We are no longer in Modernism, we are no longer in Post-modernism, we are no longer in Deconstructivism, we are no longer anywhere.”

PE: I think we are in lateness. Something is coming.

VB: You don’t think green architecture can claim to be the next new paradigm?

PE: [Laugh] Oh no, never! For sure not.

VB: Why not?

PE: The idea of the environment has always been part of architecture. It is not a theoretical position. It is just one aspect of architecture. The next paradigm shift will be tied to the fact that we are now leaving capitalism and moving into a kind of social economic structure. When General Motors, the symbol of American capitalism, is owned by the government, then we are no longer in capitalism. When the Chinese communists are capitalists, when the Russian communists are capitalists and the American capitalists are socialists, this will lead to changes. This will change architecture as well, I believe.

VB: How will it change architecture?

PE: I don’t know but it will. The next big paradigm shift in architecture will be driven by economics.

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Model section. © Eisenman Architects.

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Model section. © Eisenman Architects.

One can’t disagree with the architect’s statement. Rough economic reality already has shaken the profession by forcing architects to seek new, more economical and sustainable alternatives for their solutions. Eisenman is not being particularly frank when he says, “The idea of the environment has always been part of architecture.” That is simply not so. In the middle of the twentieth century, in days of cheap fuel and belief in infinite availability of an atomic energy, construction was prodigal, environmental contamination–monstrous, development of individual transport–impetuous and suburban sprawl–out of control. Only in the late 1960s the first so-called green projects of singular rebellious architects and artists began to arise. Today such projects are no longer a rarity, and in the midst of the current economic slowdown, their number grows in record rates. Clients are pressed to be more vigilant and more responsible for social and ecological consequences of short-sighted construction. Perhaps the green methods of construction do not qualify for becoming the next paradigm in architecture, but if such a master of pure abstractions as Peter Eisenman reflects on the integration of his architecture into landscape, then no matter what is going to be the future of architecture, its aspiration of harmony with nature is inevitable.