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Stanford Report, March 11, 1998

Architect Eisenman speaks at Stanford: 3/98

Eisenman decries media-mediated culture


Before launching into a 30-minute discussion about the media's influence on architecture, Peter Eisenman struck a bargain with his audience: "I promise I won't read my talk if you don't take notes," he told about 300 people who had gathered at Kresge Auditorium on the evening of March 9 to hear his scheduled talk on "Interiority."

Sure enough, he kept up his end of the bargain, straying considerably from the prepared text, which did not include a single mention of the relationship between media and architecture. His lecture was followed by a slide show presentation of his work.

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Eisenman is the second speaker in the new Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and the Arts. Last week, artistic partners Christo and Jeanne-Claude visited the campus.

An architect and professor of architecture at Cooper Union in New York City, Eisenman is considered an innovator in large-scale housing and urban design projects. As a theorist, he has drawn on the disciplines of philosophy and linguistics, most notably the works of Nietzsche, Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derida.

"I want to speak to what seems to be running through my mind today," said Eisenman, who encouraged his audience to sit back and enjoy the lecture as it unfolded.

In today's media-mediated society, he argued, people have forgotten how to experience and appreciate the present. Take CBS' coverage of the Olympics, which Eisenman likened to a three-hour nightly special dedicated to international culture, international relations and short biographies of athletes.

"The interruptions of commercials and the background information was so problematic and so intrusive that one completely lost the sense that one was watching the Olympics," he said. "The notion of sport was completely missing."

The packaging of sports has begun to take precedence over the actual event, said Eisenman, who is currently working on a stadium for the Arizona Cardinals. The location of the instant replay screens and the view from the blimp, for example, are among the top concerns that must be taken into account when designing a football stadium today.

"It's not so much about playing football anymore as it is about mediating the experience," he said. "Most people in stadiums today don't cheer until they watch the instant replay. People don't know how to respond to the moment."

One of the largest museums of Native American culture in Alaska is in jeopardy of going out of business because two cruise liners each have developed their own Klondike theme parks, Eisenman said.

Previously, the passengers on the tour liners accounted for 70,000 of the 100,000 annual visitors to the museum. The museum's response to the decline in tourism has been to follow in the successful steps of Bilbao, a small city in the Basque region of Spain. The town has become a pilgrimage site for tourists all over the world who travel there to see the new Guggenheim museum, a shimmering, post-industrialist building designed by architect Frank Gehry.

"Bilbao has become a media event," Eisenman said, noting that a picture of the museum appeared on the front page of USA Today. "That's an architectural first," he said.

After reading about Bilbao, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani decided that he, too, wanted a signature architect to design a building to house traveling exhibits at the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Eisenman is designing the building in New York and is currently in competition to design the new museum in Fairbanks.

The "Bilbao effect" has reminded people that architecture has the potential to elicit unchoreographed responses that reconnect the mind, the body and the eye, Eisenman said.

"That is the role architecture traditionally played," he said. "But it has lost that capacity in a sense precisely because of this mediated condition."

Eisenman contends that architects should aim to capture the "energy of the moment" in their designs. It's not the style of a building or the place where it's located that matters, he said.

"What matters is that there are moments in time which can live in the present, carried through literature, through art, through film and also through architecture."

Eisenman's proposal for a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is a powerful example of this attempt to create spatial experiences that transcend time. The design shows 4,000 concrete pillars of varying heights from 50 centimeters to 5 meters. The pillars are spaced 93 centimeters apart, just enough room to allow for wheelchair access.

Because the Nazi movement began in the streets, Eisenman said, the smallest pillars are located on the edges. As one moves toward the center, the ground sinks and the pillars grow larger. There are no signs as one walks through the site and nothing new is learned, Eisenman said.

"I believe that 50 years from now, when people ask what the Holocaust was, that spatial experience would be a reminder." SR