Peter Eisenman and Peter Zumthor are among the titans of architecture, both known for their iconic work and their distinctive personalities. Eisenman, of course, has the longer track record, having emerged into notoriety as early as the 1960s with his strong interest in architecture theory, his personal ties to such influential figures as Colin Rowe and Philip Johnson, and his series of deconstructivist houses. Zumthor, on the other hand, has pursued a quieter track to fame; his office is based in a small Swiss village, and he only rose to prominence in the late 1990s, with his Thermal Baths in Vals. Today, these two figures are perhaps best positioned to make a lasting impact on the course of the profession’s development in academia and practice.
However, though these two Peters have garnered the respect of many—from within the architecture world as well as beyond it—they won’t necessarily be working together any time soon. Or ever—if their history of slinging sly disdain at each other is anything to go by. In their high-profile disses, both work and methodology are fair game.
What do they say about each other exactly? Well, in an interview with Iman Ansari earlier this year, Eisenman stated, “I’m not interested in Peter Zumthor’s work or people who spend their time worrying about the details or the the grain of wood on one side or the color of the material on the surface, etc. I couldn’t care less.”
Alright, so Eisenman is not impressed by Zumthor’s architecture; what does Zumthor think of Eisenman’s? In an interview with Icon Magazine, he talks about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin: “When I look at Eisenman’s monument it makes me so angry. It’s still a block without a general, obstacles which could cause other aggressions.”
As far as feuds go, this one seems fairly mild so far. This is because Peter and Peter speak a sort of theoretical code, attacking each other’s interests, design processes, and philosophies, without leveling personal accusations. They disagree fundamentally on the purpose of architecture and how best to realize it, a disagreement stemming from a conflict deeply imbedded in the contemporary practice of architecture itself. What can seem personal is in fact the result of a major clash of ideologies in the discipline, a clash in which Eisenman and Zumthor are team captains rather than completely self-contained antagonists.
What is this architectural identity crisis? It is the battle between phenomenology and autonomy, emotion and rationality, between materiality and concept, between being in the world and transcending it.
Though the distinction between the two approaches goes back to Kant and the 18th century, the battle came into architectural discourse at the twilight of High Modernism and the beginning of the postmodern era. Thinkers such as Christian Norberg-Schulz began to apply the phenomenological ideas of Husserl and Heidegger to architecture as a reaction against the perceived failures of the Positivist and Structuralist models guiding Modernism. The counter-reaction was the emergence of an architecture firmly based in conceptuality and Post-structuralist theories led by none other than Peter Eisenman.
These camps deserve further untangling in order to understand why the two Peters would delve into the world of the diss. According to Kant’s philosophy, things have two modes of existing: the phenomenal thing is that which is experienced by our senses, while the noumenal thing is that which exists outside of our experience (what the thing truly is by itself); the side effect of this is that humans can only know the phenomenal world because we can only experience things with our senses. Most 20th century philosophers attempt to get at the noumenal world, using linguistics and rational thought as a means to access some sort of truth (logic and language do not necessarily depend on the senses to function). Philosophers such as Husserl, however, decided that the phenomenal world would suffice as a realm of investigation.
In architecture, the conceptual model sees architecture as a practice to be undertaken for its own sake whether as drawings or built work, whereas many phenomenologists, Zumthor included, see buildings as things that interact with and participate in human sensory experience. In the aforementioned interview, Eisenman states, “If there is a debate in architecture today, the lasting debate is between architecture as a conceptual, cultural, and intellectual enterprise and architecture as a phenomenological enterprise–that is, the experience of the subject in architecture, the experience of materiality, of light, of color, of space, and etc. I have always been on the side opposed to phenomenology.”
Zumthor, for his part, is equally dismissive of conceptual architecture. “Architecture is something for living, not a language. My mother wants a house for living, not a language. It isn’t possible to live in a language,” he writes in an interview with Marco Masetti. “In Italy, but also in the United States, there are academic architects who remain out of the market. Professors that maybe haven’t built more than a garage, but they talk very well.”
Even their drawings participate in the argument: Eisenman never uses perspective, preferring the axonometric projection for its ostensible objectivity. To him, the perspective is compromised by its subjectivity; it shows a single point of view that will be experienced differently for every viewer. The perspective cannot be talked about because it is from a vantage point that can never be held in common. Zumthor, on the other hand, attempts to evoke these same subjective qualities in his drawing, getting the viewer to intuit the quality of the spaces.
The results of this debate? Perhaps not much: most in academia have taken sides, while most outside don’t know the debate exists. Both positions, and both Peters, produce valuable work in the form of buildings, drawings, essays, and ideas. But insofar as architecture can have any impact on humanity’s search for truth and meaning, these discussions remain of paramount importance, perhaps removed from day-to-day practice, but certainly revisited in the quiet hours of the night. To conclude with Eisenman, “The ‘real architecture’ only exists in the drawings. The ‘real building’ exists outside the drawings. The difference here is that ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ are not the same.”