In Dialogue: Eisenman + Wigley VIII = a critique

I went to Columbia earlier today to listen to a public dialogue between Peter Eisenman and Mark Wigley. The introduction sounded great, a recap of the history of architecture pulling out eight to ten momentous points in history where new ideologies and theory shaped the architectural profession and thus civilization as we know it. Then, somehow, they discussed, in nauseating depth, the topic of the “project” and the “practice” architects. I must admit I was not really enthralled with the conversation although several good points where made, it seemed all a bit to esoteric to me (yes ME the one who managed to get a minor in philosophy during undergrad!). I guess that’s why I’m not a Columbia student (or even an aspiring one). To sit within the walls of academia, especially the private institution of Columbia’s GSAPP program and wax poetic about the difference between the “project” architect and the “practice” architect but to very pointedly avoid pitting the two against one another or vocalizing value judgements seemed a bit odd to me. Especially an hour long circular conversation on this (evident side-topic)  with no direction or end point other than to flesh it out before getting to the meat of the conversation (but then never getting on with it) in front of an auditorium full of students and genuinely interested public for an hour and a half… I dunno, maybe they shoulda had a beer last night and fleshed all that out before-hand, or maybe I shoulda smoked a doobie before heading up to campus. //sarcasm// But really…

One of the interesting points that seemed to keep popping up is the fact that Columbia, being the private institution it is, has a certain mandate to encourage and amass “project” architects in it’s faculty if not it’s student body. This is in contrast to the state school which has an obligation to the public, whom funds the institution, to produce “practice” architects.

*Full disclosure: I am a graduate of Mississippi State University (not in architecture though, mind you) and now I teach at the City University of New York, both state schools. so I am biased and probably not fit to even comment on this dialogue.

So let me briefly try to define the concepts of “project” and “practice” architects, even though the ideas where never agreed upon by the two speakers. Here is MY interpretation. Architects with a “project’ are the big thinkers, the fact that clients and commissions chase them is predicated by the fact that they are defining architecture and “projecting” their ideals into the world. Their reality shapes the world it is projected into, our reality. Maybe reference to “the architect’s architect” is relevant here. Specific project architects mentioned where Vetruvius, Le Corbousier and Koolhaas. Conversely (and these where spoken of as if they where two opposites with little or no grey areas between) the architect with a “practice” is one who’s work is defined by the world it inhabits, shaped by the clients needs and program. Although they may reach stArchitect status and gain praise and commissions, this is predicated by their popularity and attention from the media and the masses not necessarily their importance to Architecture itself. The peoples architect if you will. Appropriately so, I can’t really recall any of the names mentioned who define this category although I believe Phillip Johnson was one.

I don’t feel I can sum up what was discussed. I doubt either of the speakers could sum up what was discussed! In fact, as far as I could tell, there was no conclusion and I get the feeling they actually talked at length about something besides the point they meant to elaborate on to begin with. It’s a good thing the conversation will continue next year but I also get the feeling I’ve already missed seven years of the conversation, so jumping in now is apparently pointless. I kinda feel bad for my girlfriend who pulled an all nighter at the GSAPP studio working with her group on their final project then excitedly got up this morning and dutiful attended the much anticipated meeting of the minds. I haven’t had the chance to talk to her about her impressions of this discourse because she had to get right back to studio. But I look forward to talking to her again as soon as the semester is over! Anyway, I kinda like these blog posts being internal dialogues of my own for now.

The one high point in my mind, came during the Q&A session, this always seems to be the case at these things. Oddly enough though, this time it wasn’t a response to anyone’s question but a off handed remark by Wigley about city making and our collective unpreparedness as a society for the future. He mentioned how no recently proposed vision for a future city scenario by the architectural profession as a who illicit any spark of excitement or even a vague feeling of hope for the future of our urbanized areas. It is all re-warmed, rearranged concoctions of past theories and ideas. I tend to agree and so did Eisenman. In fact (and thankfully, instead of answering the final question from the audience) Eisenman took this side-note and turned it into the thrust of the conversation conclusion, although it had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the topics discussed. I would have loved to hear more thoughts on this issue, maybe the whole discourse, but as Eisenman stated, he would never teach or lecture on the topic of future city building because he has no clue when it comes to this endeavor. I love when a person can admit complete ignorance. This was one thing that Eisenman spoke about, he said that after receiving an education one should be able to leave their institution of higher learning with full confidence that they know nothing. This is kinda deep and esoteric just like much of the rest off the conversation but I think it is applicable and worth sitting in front of an auditorium full of students and saying, and thus repeating here. Although it is somewhat off-putting that such an imminent voice in the field would write off trying to teach a course in future city building, he is a older fellow and maybe this is to be left to the next generation with their eyes full of hope and dreams. Eisenman then circled back and lamented the fact there are no “project” architects doing future cities.

I don’t really think this is what Eisenman was saying, but what I heard in my ear was this. Neither the project or practice of architecture has fully evolved to encompass the entire city as it must be re-imagined for the 21st century. While Wigley emphasized the point that humanity is at a critical point in history with his antidote about how Columbia University was founded during a time of rapid urbanization in New York and at that time made a conscious (and obvious) decision to nurture “project” architects within it’s halls of academia, we are again at a point of rapid urbanization, this time on a global scale, and we urgently need the next big idea, we need to push and prod and encourage our project architect thinkers to devise the solutions at which time the practice architects will fall, lockstep, in line.

I really do lament the fact that the speakers lingered, debated, refined and never really defined or agreed upon what “project” and “practice” means for so long. Future city building is orders of magnitude more interesting and important. I have lots of my own thoughts on the topic of future city building but in order to organize and present them here would take at least until dawn if not the next five to seven years so I’ll just say this. I think it is important that future city building is an inclusive, inter-profession spanning endeavor that is not hijacked by another utopian scheme dreamed up by some ethic-less (by definition apparently) “project” architect. After all we are where we are now because of past “project” architects big ideas. I would love to elaborate on this, and surely will in the future, but I’m sure I’ve already said too much and, if I have any architect readers, I’m probably about to be put in the hot seat as it is. So I’ll leave it at that…

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