Here's a little story all about how architecture got flipped turned upside down . . . for those of you with the impression that academia is ever any different or more respectable than high-school.

In 1985 the architect Peter Eisenman began a now ill reputed collaboration with Jacques Derrida that was intended to be the definitive meeting of deconstruction and construction. The project was initiated as part of Bernard Tschumi's Parc de la Villette in Paris, and some of the drawings, interviews, correspondences and essays are collected in the book Chora L Works, whose name comes from a passage in Plato's Timaeus wherein he discusses the notion of chora. Derrida introduced this text in the initial meeting as a possible jumping off point. Since the attempt was somewhat unprecedented no one had a clear idea how to approach this kind of inter-disciplinary work.

Some background:

  • Peter Eisenman is related to Richard Meier, the internationally renowned architect of the Getty Museum in LA among many other white ceramic tile buildings. Eisenman's mother is always calling to ask why he isn't as famous as his brother Richard who has worked all over the world while he, Peter, just writes books.

  • Jacques Derrida is the French post-structuralist philosopher responsible for the madness of many a grad student. Of course what is madness . . . More capable noders than myself have done justice to him here on E2.

It is a kind of default comment to say that the best architectural theorists make the worst architects, a common reflection that may have in part to do with the failure of the Chora project. Most architects of any note have read philosophy and some use it to galvanize their own work by appropriating ideas when they need them (they're just really bad about citing). The contention is of course that they misread and abuse philosophy through their interpretations (most notable with the concepts of the diagram, the graph and the fold), but Peter Eisenman understood Derrida as justifying these misreadings. Derrida's concern with the empowered after-effects of representation lead him to claim that every interpretation (in so far as it implies a mediated translation of one kind or another) was necessarily a kind of mis-interpretation. Original meaning is always already lost or never existed since what you thought was "original" was itself a mediated version of something else ad infinitum. Derrida himself has never used this as an excuse not to read texts in an excruciatingly close manner, but Eisenman seemed to feel that since he was never going to get it anyway he didn't have to try.

The legacy of the relationship between architecture and philosophy does not have an origin per se, but if you had to, and Derrida wasn't looking, you could pretend that Heidegger's essay "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" was a good start, forgetting about threaded metaphors of structure, construction and force and the Kantian categories of space and time that would all imply some previous intermingling. (see node:Martin Heidegger on Building, Dwelling, Thinking.) Mark Wigley has written an excellent book that I will soon paraphrase entitled The Architecture of Deconstruction whose impetus was also the Chora project and which treats in some detail the genealogy of the interface between architectural language and philosophy, but not the inverse relationship of philosophical language and architecture. This book was the definitive interpretation of the Chora collaboration as a mistake. Wigley's thesis demonstrates that although architecture and philosophy have had a long and sordid history together, sleeping with deconstruction was inappropriate with respect to Eisenman's goal of producing a work out of the synthesis. However interesting the relationship and however much Chora L works furthered practice by intensifying debate, one can not expect to create a new architectural object that is deconstructionist in its essence. The long and short was that they took flak from both sides. Architects resented the imposition of an indefinable value system, philosophers scoffed at the rigidification of post-structuralist practice and no one else cared. To top it off they had decided to punch square holes all the way through the book after its printing to obstruct people from even reading it, so a few graphic designers probably put their two cents in as well.

I hope its not disappointing to be dragged through all this just to restate something that may be obvious to those familiar with deconstruction, or to say for the first time something that will probably remain unclear to those not familiar as a result of my all too adequate mauling, because all I really wanted to do was tell you how later on Derrida wrote an essay called "Why Peter Eisenman writes such good books." Eisenman again misinterpreted what everyone else took to be a sarcastic statement about why he didn't build good buildings and printed the essay in the Chora L Works. Jacques Derrida has since more carefully attempted to disassociate himself from the project, Mark Wigley is now a well respected theoretician who has no plans of building anything any time soon, and every day at twelve Eisenman's secretary calls out from her desk: "Peter, your mother's on the phone."

Derrida, Jacques and Peter Eissenman. Chora L Works. The Monacelli Press (NY: 1997)

Wigley, Mark. The Architecture of Deconstruction. MIT Press (Cambridge: 1997)