In 1985, the British architectural historian and critic Robin Evans wrote an essay for AA Files, the journal of the Architectural Association in London, called “Not To Be Used for Wrapping Purposes.” Ostensibly it was a review of a show of drawings and models by Peter Eisenman, FAIA, and of an accompanying catalog featuring essays by Nina Hofer and Jeffrey Kipnis. More accurately it could be described as a thoughtful but unrelenting and total dissection of Eisenman’s architecture, his writing, and his working method. Evans, who was 41 when the essay appeared and would die just eight years later, declared that the famously clotted and opaque prose in Eisenman’s many essays, far from explaining, justifying, or complementing his architecture, was in fact “an armored vehicle” protecting the built work from being understood; Eisenman’s ideas, Evans continued, acted not so much as the theoretical basis of his buildings as “bodyguards” keeping them safe from jostling scrutiny.
In addition, Evans argued, Eisenman was hardly the restless innovator he often proclaimed himself to be: “Eisenman is in fact a jealous guardian of the stable and fundamental features of architecture. He is radical in his fundamentalism, not in challenging fundamentals.” Evans called the architect’s work especially notable for its “changelessness”: “There is no question of ossification, since the architecture has never been in serious danger of development.”
There were a few glimmers of praise in the piece: Eisenman was well worth thinking and writing about, Evans assured his readers, as long as they kept in mind that the architect’s “projects are often much more interesting than their justification.” In fact, the critic went on, “Of all that well-established generation of well-known East Coast American architects perhaps he and [John] Hedjuk do not merit the dismissive gesture.”
Perhaps the strangest and most interesting quality of the essay is the fact that—although it reads in its earliest paragraphs like a classic take-down, on the order of Renata Adler’s infamous 1980 New York Review of Books piece on Pauline Kael—sections of it square quite neatly with the way Eisenman himself has described his approach and output over the years. This is particularly true when it comes to the question of how seriously we should be taking his buildings as buildings, as complete and self-sufficient works of architecture, given how much time and effort Eisenman has devoted to writing and public debate.
In fact, Eisenman has often been at pains to convince interviewers and critics that he cares deeply about building. It is “necessary to build,” he assured Iman Ansari in an interview last year. Though he was careful to make a distinction between drawing (“real architecture”) and construction (“real building”), he was straightforward about the value of seeing projects through to final form: “Manfredo Tafuri once said something very important to me. He said, ‘Peter, if you don’t build no one will take your ideas seriously.’ … Architecture involves seeing whether those ideas can withstand the attack of building, of people, of time, of function, etc. Tafuri said history will not be interested in your work if you haven’t built anything. I think that’s absolutely correct. If I had built nothing, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.”
I thought about both that interview and about the Evans essay as I made my way late last summer to see the largest, and most deeply fraught, project of Eisenman’s career: the City of Culture complex in the city of Santiago de Compostela, in green and hilly northwest Spain. My goal, after all, was as wildly naïve as it was straightforward: to take the measure of Eisenman and his current place in architecture entirely on the basis of one of his built projects. And not one of the small houses in New England that helped make his reputation in the 1980s, but instead a huge connected complex of galleries, offices, reading rooms, and plazas that marks by far the biggest and most star-crossed efforts of his long and singular career.
Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s Galicia region, has been known since the Middle Ages as a pilgrimage site; today tens of thousands of Catholics, along with hikers looking for a picturesque route, come on foot across the Galicia region each month. Their destination is the city’s 1,000-year-old and riotously ornamented cathedral, which is said to hold the remains of the apostle St. James, brought to the city from Jerusalem in 44 A.D. Yet as the 20th century neared a close, with Catholic Church membership declining across Western Europe, and Spain’s biggest cities—Barcelona and Madrid in particular—growing at the expense of its smaller ones, Santiago began to feel more and more isolated. After Frank Gehry, FAIA’s branch of the Guggenheim Museum opened to acclaim and giant crowds in Bilbao—less than 400 miles from Santiago—in 1997, the Galicians decided that they, too, needed a jolt of contemporary architecture.
The region’s president, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, who had been minister for tourism under Francisco Franco in the 1960s, decided to build an ambitious collection of cultural facilities, covering 173 acres, atop Mount Gaiás, about 2 miles removed from the cathedral. In 1999, he helped organize a high-wattage architecture competition. The finalists, along with Eisenman, included Steven Holl, FAIA; Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA; Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA; Dominique Perrault, Hon. FAIA; and Daniel Libeskind, AIA; as well as the Spanish architects Ricardo Bofill, Juan Navarro Baldeweg, César Portela, and José Manuel Gallego Jorreto.
In its scale and ambition, in its timing and its inspiration, the project resembled a cross between Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and Richard Meier, FAIA’s Getty Center in Los Angeles (1997). It also owed an obvious debt to Santiago Calatrava, AIA’s, white-on-white City of Sciences in Valencia, which was nearing completion around the time the Galicia campus was being planned. Spain was in the midst of boom-time optimism, producing a burst of new architecture that would be celebrated in the 2006 exhibition “On-Site” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The selection of Eisenman as the winner of the competition was therefore largely seen as the natural extension of Spain’s newfound architectural momentum, as well as a sign that regions around the country weren’t just going to take the Basque triumph at Bilbao sitting down.
That is not, of course, how the City of Culture is viewed today. Plagued by delays, controversy, and shifts in political leadership at various levels of the Spanish government, the project didn’t officially open until January 2011, and even that ribbon-cutting was a partial one. “It was born in the Spain of excess and is opening during an economic collapse, as a sort of monument to the construction bubble,” wrote one Spanish journalist; the British critic Oliver Wainwright called it “a bloated vanity project.”
Eisenman’s original scheme called for eight undulating buildings that seemed to emerge right out of the hilltop. Over time the plan was trimmed to six buildings, two of which—the library and archive—were ready in 2011.
By the time I visited, a large museum and central-services building had opened as well. The four completed Eisenman buildings cover a total of more than 600,000 square feet. The museum alone, opened to the public last year, is more than 220,000 square feet, substantially bigger on its own than Eisenman’s best-known built projects, the Wexner Center for the Arts (1989) in Columbus, Ohio, and the Aronoff Center for Design and Art (1996) at the University of Cincinnati. The largest single building of Eisenman’s career is the University of Phoenix Stadium, which opened in 2006; a collaboration with the firm HOK Sport (now Populous), it is very much an outlier in his body of work. He landed the commission in large part because he is a dedicated football fan, having held New York Giants season tickets since the 1950s.
The City of Culture, then, even as it awaits its final pair of buildings, is very much ripe for analysis as a measure of Eisenman’s achievement as he nears his 82nd birthday later this year. That doesn’t mean it feels anything like a finished product or an architectural whole; the missing buildings, which may never be constructed, keep the ensemble in a state of limbo. When I arrived by taxi one sunny, windy morning—there is no subway or light-rail service to the site—the campus was quiet. A lone jogger in a fluorescent green tracksuit made a loop around the wide, empty parking lot. (The lack of transit connection is one clue about how different this effort is from Gehry’s Guggenheim; in Bilbao, the shiny new museum was just one part of a larger civic revival that included new transit lines, stations, bridges, and other infrastructure.)
Still, the way the buildings were arranged on the hilltop, even as I viewed them from a distance of several hundred feet away, produced a visceral kind of architectural thrill. Like Thom Mayne, FAIA, Eisenman, whatever you think of his philosophical stance or carefully tended persona, produces buildings with an undeniable physical power, even as they seem grandly aloof; the effect is almost paradoxical, a sort of standoffish charm.
My guide that morning was Antonio Maroño, who has been overseeing the project as its resident architect for a full decade. Before touring the buildings we met for a coffee in a café attached to the archives building. Talkative and sardonic at once, he was frank about the challenges that have plagued the City of Culture, and about their effect on Eisenman. “I think maybe he’s afraid of dying before it’s completed,” Maroño told me.
After that chipper introduction, we set out to walk the campus. The City of Culture was conceived by Eisenman as an undulating piece of land art emerging from the hilltop; its heaving silhouette bears a strong resemblance to the architect’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. In classic Eisenman style, its forms are derived by a series of clashing and deformed grids. There is hardly room in this magazine to describe each one of the deformations in detail. Eisenman began with the grid of the historic streets in the old center of Santiago; he combined that with a form meant to echo the scallop shells that Catholic pilgrims still carry with them on their way to the cathedral and then laid the distorted results atop the hillside. Inside the campus itself two more grids are at war. A larger one of 16 by 20 meters is marked by square columns, a smaller one of 8 by 8 meters by round columns. And over all of this Cartesian madness is laid a final filigree of “deformation lines” and “flow lines.”
Eisenman’s plan was to blanket nearly the entire hilltop with new structures. As it stands, the effect is discontinuous: the archive and library huddle together on the south side of the site, while along the edge the two other facilities, the services building and museum, rise and fall like two parts of the same long tail. Because of the gap left in the middle of the complex where the theater is supposed to go, the disconnections that have always been a key element in Eisenman’s formal language are redoubled by the sense of rupture in the construction schedule—and in the larger political culture that birthed the idea of building here, at this scale, in the first place. Façades that were supposed to be tucked into tight spaces, barely visible except in the narrow gaps between one building and the next, are now fully exposed, their mullions hardly robust enough to stand up to a long-distance view.
Each of the buildings, clad in large quartzite panels, seem to writhe and thrash as it attempts to break free of both the hilltop and Eisenman’s confining grids. Both the floors and the walls are scored with lines and channels to mark the various ruling patterns. The effect is most impressive in the courtyards, plazas, and passageways paved with granite that snake between the humpbacked structures. Inside most of the overscaled buildings, it creates an odd combination of banality and disorientation, as if you’d wandered into an airport arrival hall designed by Seussian bureaucrats.
The museum building is the most extreme example of this quality. A massively inflated version of the Wexner, it adds layers of vertical complexity to the familiar Eisenman playbook of chaos and collision in plan. Dramatic as seen from the outside, rising and falling like a huge wave, the museum is fussily overwhelming inside, the product of an architect aiming vainly—in both senses of that word—to prove that he can take on the challenge of shaping large-scale interior space. It is hard to imagine any exhibition that could be seen to impressive effect in its galleries, except perhaps one on the upending power of architecture that is proudly sealed off from workaday concerns about function or natural light.
The campus is quite clearly, as other observers have pointed out, a product of boomtime thinking in Spain, the avant-garde hilltop version of an abandoned suburban subdivision planned for hordes of home buyers who never arrived. Even if it is finished, the complex seems destined to seem a terrifically mannered time capsule from another era.
But what struck me more than anything, as Antonio Maroño and I wrapped up our tour, and as the Robin Evans essay flashed back into my mind, is how painfully exposed the architecture of the whole City of Culture campus seems. Shorn of the protective rhetorical coat that Eisenman’s essays and lectures about it have provided, the City of Culture, with its flesh-colored palette and stray limbs, looks, more than anything, vulnerable. Maroño told me that getting the campus built “has been a learning process for Eisenman and his team. He had to learn how to do a wall, how to do coping.”
That might sound surprising given that Eisenman has been a practicing architect for a half-century. But there has always been something proudly naïve about his work, about its refusal to pay attention to craft and detail because they might stand in the way of architectural ideas in their purest and most powerful form. We tend to think of changelessness—of the kind that Evans discerned in Eisenman’s work—as a sign of maturity, even wisdom, in an architect’s approach. But it can also be a mark of arrested development, a kind of stubbornness. And therefore a kind of innocence. The layers of complexity in Eisenman’s architecture have always marked not sophistication but intellectual bravado. After all, they appeared in his earliest, most developmental work and have never been stripped away.
At the City of Culture, this sense of vulnerability takes over the architectural experience to a degree that becomes almost unbearable. Even accounting for the delays and changes that have been out of Eisenman’s control, this is not the late work of an architectural giant—as I’d expected it to be—but something far purer, more naked, more affecting, and less developed. Even now, incomplete and still politically controversial in Spain, the place is a tender ruin.
For more on Peter Eisenman, his City of Culture, and Santiago de Compostela, including a video flyover and articles on the architect's other projects, click here.