On May 4 at the Urban Center, Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves had a conversation, moderated by David Childs, about their favorite books to inaugurate the exhibition, Unpacking My Library. In the light of the current crisis that the print media is experiencing, listening to these legendarily erudite bibliophiles was a rare privilege. But the evening was not without controversy.
Besides stories of rare books they have encountered and how architecture was taught back in the day, they engaged in a polemic discussion about current trends in architectural education, especially the risk of turning architecture schools into places that only teach computer programs and LEED rules. Both Eisenman and Graves called for a return to traditional Western education and questioned new methods that Eisenman referred as pluralist: “You can’t study the periphery if you don’t know the core,” he told AN.
The discussion reminded me of my first day at architecture school, in which a bunch of us, fresh out of high school, were asked to write what we thought architecture was. Naturally, untainted by the six years of heavy theory and history we had yet to endure, we had no clue how to even begin to address the question. What is architecture? What makes it good or memorable? How can you tell good architecture versus mediocre?
Eisenman reminded us that we know Palladio for his compilation of drawings and manuscripts, that Robert Venturi’s built oeuvre wouldn’t be taken as seriously if it wasn’t for Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, or that LeCorbusier’s white houses wouldn’t be any different from others built all over France in that period if not for Vers une Architecture, and that Koolhaas started to be Koolhaas after Delirious New York. But what about Phidias, Brunelleschi, Wright, or Mies? I believe there are a great number of Masters in the Western tradition (we don’t want to risk being labeled as pluralists by Mr. Eisenman) that have earned their place by their built masterpieces and not by their written work. It is true that good books are a delight to own and a great source of inspiration, but it is altogether different to encounter a building that that makes your heart skip a beat, signaling you are in the space of a Master.