Peter Eisenman’s Palladio Virtuel, the most recent of his exquisitely crafted books, promises a new take on Palladio as a designer of villas. The book reprises material presented in an exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture in 2012, which received high praise. Among other enthusiasts, Anthony Vidler felt the show was of crucial importance primarily because Eisenman’s method of analysis successfully overturns accepted interpretations that had long held sway.
Acknowledging the superabundance of volumes on Palladio and his legacy, Eisenman asserts that as a practicing architect, he can discern “unseen” aspects in the buildings, and promises to rescue previously undetected yet significant qualities from oblivion. While respectfully citing Colin Rowe’s brilliant essay “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa,” Eisenman challenges the ideas espoused by Rowe and inherited from Rudolph Wittkower. Implicit throughout his discussion is the affinity between Palladio’s method of generating architecture and his own. By uncovering the hidden evolution in Palladio’s production of country home, it seems that Eisenman hopes to reveal aspects of his own creative process as well as others of his persuasion.
One might ask: Why Palladio now? He claims that he intends to “awaken” similarities with a historical period that he believes shares much with the present. He has uncovered a shift within Palladio’s oeuvre from the “ideal” toward the “virtual”—a term that describes states of “disarticulation disjunction, or disaggregation.” Eisenman notes how the villas refuse to be read as a single homogenous space and writes: “Such a structure inscribes its own internal strategies with references that are no longer to the body, to Christ, or to God but to the decomposition of what were then thought to be traditional typological structures.”
Eisenman believes Palladio’s revisiting of his villas in the post facto drawings offers a key into understanding the complex strategies in his design process. To examine the scope or purpose of these drawings, Eisenman establishes a relational process in which he deploys three modes of analysis, presenting in turn the drawings, models, and texts. He feels that by compounding the ways of reading the villas, new meanings will emerge as he charts the process from “ideal” to “virtual.” For clarity he divides the villas into three periods: the first being Villas without Gardens, then those with garden walls but no bargesse (farmhouse), and finally those that dissolve the body of the villa into mere remnants of the villa as type. His commentary reiterates his claim to have discovered the profound source of Palladio’s spatial syntax in the country homes, one that expands the idea of heterogeneity through disarticulation and decomposition. Again, might we detect a mirror of Eisenman’s own thinking?
Finally then, is this book really about Palladio? This question need not imply critique, for a contemplation of one’s own life’s work would be commendable in itself. Beyond the self-referential aspect, Eisenman seems compelled by an overarching desire to fully grasp how creative leaps happen in an architect’s (or artist’s or writer’s) career. To this end, Eisenman whittles down the variables and restricts his field of vision, eschewing historical, social, political, and aesthetic considerations of taste as encumbrances to his process. Most studies begin with a search for sources and influences as they trace the way an architect’s vision is formed and then move on to describe the new forms that resulted. Eisenman begins with the work itself. Close examination or textual reading has become a rare if not extinct practice today, and one must commend Eisenman for his precision of focus and in-depth scrutiny that one finds only in the work of a few writers like the late Leo Steinberg. But the brilliance of writers such as Steinberg is the way they manage to ground their looking in a re-examination of historical context, question prior scholarship, and re-propose the questions. For example, need Eisenman’s method necessarily preclude considerations of the demands of the clients? In The Perfect House, Witold Rybczynski recounts his experience of the villas and weaves historical material into his stories so we begin to understand them as “homes,” since that is what they were. Under Rybczynski’s guidance, the proclivities and requisites of the owners begin to emerge, and in process, we begin to understand how those exigencies were subsumed by Palladio’s larger vision. Who were these clients, what were their needs, what image did they project in this new kind of home? For Eisenman’s system to prove an appropriate or useful one, it would be useful to fathom how or if he has taken these aspects into consideration.
In a similarly reductive manner, Eisenman surgically removes any conversation between building and locus from his discussion. Palladio had strong ideas about the sites for which his villas were intended. He was concerned about the qualities, light, and the orientation of the villas. That Palladio’s villas were designed in relation to nearby small urban centers must per force exert a deep effect on the nature of their design. It would be a difficult task to integrate these considerations into Eisenman’s project, and perhaps would require another book entirely.
Despite what might be considered defects, in proposing a new approach to the study of Palladio, Eisenman’s book, an elegant object in itself, offers delight.