In a career that has spanned six decades, Peter Eisenman, FAIA, has been many things—author, critic, designer, gadfly. He’s also been one of the great teachers of our time, which has earned him this year’s AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. ARCHITECT tracked down some of Eisenman’s former students to get their take on his influence, both on their own work and on the field at large.
Daniel Libeskind, AIA: He was one of the seminal teachers at Cooper when I was a student there [in the 1970s], and he had a tremendous impact not only on me but on the school. He had an intellectual rigor and tenacity of mind that showed him to be a kind of an educational genius. When Chomsky first emerged, he was a Chomskian; when Derrida appeared, he embraced Derrida; he always moved ahead with trends but always developed his own thinking as well.
Tod Williams, FAIA: Eisenman and Michael Graves taught the design studio during my sophomore year at Princeton [in the late ’60s]. It was truly a transformative year. Peter had been [an actual] cheerleader at Cornell and is something of a sports addict; with his incredible energy and enthusiasm, he’s always goading his students into friendly rivalries, whether by singing their school songs or tempting them to challenge his own theories and teaching pedagogies. Peter would occasionally attend my football games and track meets and, as with many of us, he could easily get under my skin: “Williams, you gotta choose sports or architecture!” But I always felt this decision was mine and that, either way, Peter would remain supportive and challenging.
Anthony Vidler: It was 1960. I was going up to Cambridge University as a first-year undergrad in architecture school, and Peter arrived as a first-year Ph.D. student. We met in the first-year studio where Peter was an instructor. Britain in the ’60s—with the likes of Colin Rowe, Jim Sterling, and Peter and Alison Smithson—was an extraordinary place, and Peter found a kind of vacuum when he came back to the U.S. That formed the basis of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, where Peter gathered as many architects as he could possibly find in the American firmament who were also thinking and speaking about architecture not just as a professional question, but also as a theoretical, critical, formal, and ethical one. It was a polemical place, but also open, a major instrument in furthering architecture as a cultural practice.
Harrison Fraker, assoc. AIA, 2014 Topaz recipient: I met Peter in 1963, during my senior year at Princeton. He was our studio teacher, and he came bouncing in smoking this little corncob pipe. What was fascinating was the contrast between his tweedy personality and the fact that he was tough as nails. Over his career Peter has been both the conscience of architecture and one of its most bad-boy provocateurs. For me, he’s always represented that you’re not making architecture if you don’t have some generative idea about what’s driving your formal propositions. Many of us admire and respect him for that, but we have also shaped our careers as a critique of many of his ideas. When I got the Topaz last year, I said that my whole career has been about trying to reconcile the very complicated relationship between form and performance, especially environmental performance. That mission emerged both as a result of, and as a reaction, to Peter’s position.
Palmyra Geraki, AIA: The moment I stepped into his first-semester core lecture course [in Yale University’s undergraduate architecture program in the late 2000s], I immediately understood that Peter’s was by far my most interesting course. One day, Peter interrupted class to tell me that my questions were stupid, that I was not to speak again until the end of the semester, and that my drawings should be doing the talking. Several of my classmates came up to me after, surprised that I hadn’t run out of the classroom crying. But I was practically beaming. Peter freaking Eisenman had taken time during a lecture to publicly challenge me. In my memory this is a special moment, not only because Peter took the bait and decided to challenge me back, but also because it changed the way I approached my work. Until then, I had always used words to express my ideas. Staying silent was not easy. Learning to produce work that spoke for itself was harder.
Alan Balfour, 2010 Topaz recipient: Eisenman’s true character became clear very early in my time at Princeton when he wore a large “Goldwater for President” button around the studios in ’64, infuriating all us liberals. It was only later that we realized that was his intention—provocation. He remains the great and perhaps the only true iconoclast in our discipline—unrivaled, unrepentant. And that is his gift to me and to countless others. No other figure in the last half of the 20th century has so brilliantly and intelligently produced a systematic, disciplined critique of the given traditions and values of architecture.