Thursday, November 6, 2008

Two Heads Are Better Than One

The talk with Peter Eisenman and Greg Lynn at the 92nd Street Y two Thursdays ago was really fascinating.  I'm so glad I found out about it and could attend.  These are easily two of the greatest minds in the world of Architectural Theory, and here they were, both on the same stage.

--Photos courtesy Essential Architecture and  Vitra.

What just occurs to me now is what a strange time we live in.  Strange because I only just now, some days later, registered the fact that there was a metal detector and a bag check to get into the building.  I didn't even notice it at the time.  Strange to live in a time where our metal belongings must be checked for safety in the most unlikely places and we barely even notice doing it anymore.

The two came out, but first Kurt Forster, the moderator, introduced the three of them and gave a bit of a speech, explaining what contributions Eisenman and Lynn had made over the years.  He also explained that all three of them have been visiting professors at Yale, and that Lynn worked for Eisenman for a while.

Eisenman was set to go first, but the first slide presentation to come up happened to be Lynn's.  Eisenman said there was no reason in particular that he needed to go first, and tossed the controller to Lynn.

Lynn talked about quite a few of the things in his new book, Form, which had just been released.  Mostly it was his interest in "primaries," uniform design modules out of which distinct and unique designs can grow or be assembled.  I thought the best example really was his flatware for Alessi.  

--Image courtesy Archipel.
Alessi told him to design the spoon, and that they'd just extrapolate all the other pieces from there.  That's how they always do it.  But Lynn wasn't quite satisfied with that, so instead he created a "primary," which isn't spoon, knife, or fork.  It's simply a design direction for the flatware line, from which can grow an infinite number of different spoons, knives, and forks of any size and for any use.

Another thing Alessi told him--complained about--is that whenever they have architects design a teapot, they never want to put handles on it, so the user is always at risk of burning his or her hands.  

Lynn didn't either, but he made his pieces out of double-walled titanium, so they wouldn't be hot to the touch.  In other words, he made the entire piece a handle.

The other thing I think was so well illuminated by this discussion is that Lynn's work is not Organic, at all; it's fully Biological.  The form his work takes is derived from the very process of growth by which it comes into existence.  What's more, it's embedded fully into the digital "soil" of the latest computer technology.  He doesn't just envision something sculptural and use the computer to model it because it's too geometrically complicated.  Rather, the very nature of his work is codependent with its digital origins.  Eisenman later made the analogy with the composition of music as opposed to its performance.  Music can be performed on electronic instruments or not, Composition is the real art.  Here's Lynn's entry for the Biennale Park Pavilion No. 3:

--Image courtesy UC Berkeley.
There are plenty more brilliant and mind-blowing things to say about Greg Lynn, but I haven't had a chance to read the book, yet.  I'll come back to him when I have.

Then Eisenman took over.  Quite surprisingly, as brilliant as the man is, and the thousands of times he's no doubt lectured to all sorts of different audiences, he seemed to not have his thoughts together all that well.  What was even more surprising, though, is that after several times he paused a sentence to say "uuuuummmmmmm," someone behind me in the audience would mock him.  I suppose it could have been an echo in the room, but I seriously don't think so.  So Eisenman would say "uuummm," and from behind me I'd hear "uuummm."

The only possibly acceptable excuses I could come up with for this is that it was a very, very, very close friend of Eisenman's whose nasty sense of humor he loves, or someone to whom he'd said "if I accidentally start to do that, please call my attention to it."  Something tells me it was neither.  The "ums" were a bit distracting, but I just cannot believe the utterly appalling nerve it would require to so blatantly disrespect someone like Peter Eisenman.  After a while, I was paying more attention to this going on than I was to what he was saying, and I resent that.  I don't care what you think of his theories, how much you might disagree with them, or even if you think he's a phony or a hack.  I don't happen to think he is, but that's beside the point.  That kind of behavior is just absolutely unacceptable.  To whoever that was, I would like to say please don't ever show your despicable face at any architectural event where I am.  As nauseatingly pacifist as I may be, I might have a hard time not kicking the person in the neck.

At any rate, Eisenman spent the majority of the time discussing his ongoing project, the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which absolutely deserved the full duration of his presentation.

He explained how the form of it is derived from a simple grid at various scales, contoured and distorted by the paths of pilgrimage through the site and the topology of the site.  He then borrowed stylistic cues from the surrounding town itself, a vaguely historical maneuver that surprised me a bit.  It's much further along than this now, in fact, many of the six building's shells, at least, are in place, but you can see the site being prepped here:

--Image courtesy Columbia.

Here are a few models:

--Images courtesy pushpullbar.
According to ArcSpace, the six buildings are conceived in three pairs: the Museum of Galician History and the New Technologies Center, the Music Theater (which he referred to as an "opera house") and Central Services Building, and the Galician Library and Periodicals Library.  The Hemeroteca (Periodicals) was the building I'd say he showed most, likely because it's the most completed of the group.  This facade is actually based on nearby Galician buildings that have windows jutting peculiarly out of them to manage sunlight:

Renderings of the Hemeroteca:

--Renderings courtesy Fundación Cidade da Cultura.

Here's the museum:

New Technologies:

And the theater:

It's slated for completion in 2012.  Truly, my hat goes off to the country of Spain for choosing such a daring and extraordinary design for a project so enormous and so deeply important to so many people.  It's the kind of project that in the U.S., unfortunately, would likely lead to the choice of something terribly conservative, safe, and ultimately mediocre--a state of affairs I hope we can change.

They finished off by sort of talking back and forth amongst the three of them, posing questions to one another and elaborating on what'd already been said, then taking questions from the audience.  It was a wholly inspiring presentation.

After the talk was over there was the book signing.  I knew there would be a long line, so I stepped outside for a moment.  When I returned and got on line, I made it right up to the front of the two men at their two desks.  I was asked with which of them I was interested in speaking.  What a question!  I should've said "both," but I didn't want to be greedy.  I said "Mr. Lynn."  To Lynn I had something very quick and easy I wanted to say that would satisfy for such a quick meeting.  With Eisenman, I have entire long, complicated conversations that would need to be had, near impossible to abridge.

Lynn evidently suspected that everyone wanted only to talk to Eisenman, and I suppose didn't want to be sitting there twiddling his thumbs, so before I even reached the front of the line, he'd already gotten up and left.  Finally the man in charge of the line said he didn't think Lynn was coming back.  So I went to talk to him out in the lobby area, where he was signing a few more copies of his book.

He was done.  I thought I might even be able to have a better conversation with him there, more casual, but it just never happened.  I told him how upset I was that his book was sitting at home on my desk, since I hadn't known there'd be a book-signing.  He said "how did you get a copy?"  I said "review copy...why, has it not been released yet?"  Evidently it'd only officially gone on sale in some parts of Europe.  I told him Rizzoli really did do a beautiful job with it, and he should tell them that.  He said "you can tell them yourself, they're right there."  There were a couple of representatives from Rizzoli standing right on the other side of me.  I told them "it's a beautiful publication."  That wasn't butt-kissing; it really is a very high-quality design and binding.

I told him his ideas had been so very influential to my thinking and thanked him for that.  I said I lived about three blocks from his Presbyterian Church, which had been mentioned early on in the talk.  He said "really? Where do you live?" and I told him.  It was around then I noticed how extremely TALL he is.  The guy has to be about 6'6" if he's an inch.  He said it's a great neighborhood and I agreed, and then he got distracted talking to someone else.  At that point, I realized, disappointingly, that he probably just wanted to get out of there already and go home.  I said thank you again and shook his hand.

Regardless, probably it will be more conducive if I bump into him at a cocktail party or something, than the trail end of a whirlwind talk and book-signing.  I can only hope.  Very, very likely, there will be more 92Y events to come worthy of discussion here.  Stay tuned.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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