Symmetry. Proportion. Ideal. These are words that usually describe the work of 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio in textbooks and research papers. But Peter Eisenman says those words are wrong. And he wants to add a new one to the mix: "virtual." After 10 years of drawing and redrawing Palladio's forms—to the figure of 700-plus drawings—Eisenman proposes that Palladio's drawings may have been ideal, but his forms were anything but. Eisenman talked to ARCHITECT about how he got started studying Palladio and the results of his research: the 20-model, 120-drawing exhibit "Palladio Virtuel" at the Yale School of Architecture.
How did you decide to study Palladio formally?
I was teaching in Cambridge in the autumn of 1960. During the summers of 1961 and 1962, I traveled to Italy with the professor Colin Rowe, and he took me to see Palladio's works, and it was very exciting. I followed up on that, and I still do take my students back every year. And I look at him through the lens of an architect, not a historian. ... Because he’s very good and he's very serious and he had an important role to play in the history of architecture. His work influenced Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren and Lord Burlington—and all of these guys influenced Thomas Jefferson. So why not take the top guy on.
What was the focus of your research?
His buildings and his writings. What’s interesting about Palladio is that he wrote a book in 1570 called the Four Books of Architecture after he had designed all of the buildings. He redrew all of his buildings as he wanted them built, not as they were built. We used these buildings as a fundamental basis for why he did this, and [to investigate] ... the difference between [those buildings and] the drawings in the books.
And how did your research turn into an exhibition?
In addition to practicing architecture, I teach and write. I’ve been working on research on Palladio for maybe 10 years, and making analytic drawings. I have over 700 analytical drawings that we made. At a certain point, dean Robert Stern asked me to prepare an exhibition, which we did do. And I think it’s a very lovely exhibition, and we’re finally finalizing a book coming out next year.
From your research, how did you find that Palladio’s forms evolved over his career?
The buildings evolve from merely isolated buildings to buildings that reach out into a landscape. The compositions are much more complex and intricate and deal more with the idea of the urban in a pastoral setting. There’s nothing ideal about what he did. The show is called "Palladio Virtuel," so the idea is that the ideal is virtual, but never done.
Do you think your conclusions will change the way architects and architectural historians look at these villas?
It’s bound to. They can't ignore the work we’ve done. They have to look at it and respond to it. There’ll be controversy, surely. But whether they agree or not, they can't ignore it. Ask me in six months what people thought, especially when we get the book out. The exhibiton is really for the public; the book will be for scholars.
How does Palladio inspire your own work?
I can’t answer that. It’s too much a part of my research and my architectural work. I just don’t know.
Where will you take your research from here?
I’ve been working on [researching] the Italian architect Piranesi. I never lack for things to do. I have a couple of books that I’m working on after Palladio.
Are you done with Palladio?
I just got done putting this show up and trying to finish the book. I’m tired of it. I don’t want to even think of it. In the end, it's done. Good or bad.
This interview has been edited and condensed.