U nlike Frank Lloyd Wright, architect Peter Eisenman is not a household name. But within the profession, he is a global celebrity who has written or co-authored more than 20 books and appears on lists of the world’s top 10 living architects. His career spans more than five decades, and his provocative work is widely acclaimed for the ways it challenges conventional ideas about what buildings should look like, how they should function, and how we experience them. A professor of architecture at Yale, he has a doctorate in architectural history and is well-known as an architectural theorist.
As a young architect, Eisenman worked on houses, but in the past 20 years, he has focused on large-scale public works. After designing the Wexler Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, he has gone on to produce the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; and the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Eisenman has also continued to pursue his relationship with houses, and how that has evolved is one of the more fascinating chapters in this architectural icon’s career. In a recent interview, he spoke about the difference between houses and homes, and there’s a lesson there for every homeowner.
“Architects design houses,” Eisenman said. “I live in a home.”
Presumably, this distinction helps to explain Eisenman’s living arrangements. Most architects of his stature live in houses that they have designed and whose designs are published widely, but he divides his time between two homes, neither of which he designed and neither of which has been published.
Eisenman characterized one home as “a dumb little apartment” in New York City with “a kitchen that’s not comfortable for two people to be in at the same time.” He characterized the other as a “wonderful old New England house, made of stone, brick and tile,” which was an 18th-century mill and is built over a waterfall. “No architect has ever worked on it,” he said. “You couldn’t design like this. It happens over time,” as successive owners altered it to meet their needs.
Offering an explanation for his housing choices, Eisenman said, “I am immersed in architecture all day, working in my office or teaching.” Afterwards, “I want to go back to my home, where it’s cozy.”
Eisenman has made both spaces his own with an eclectic mix of furniture that spans more than 150 years of chair and sofa design — overstuffed, black Chesterfield-style couches, Bauhaus chairs and Bentwood Thonet chairs. He collects drawings by Piranesi, an 18th-century Italian architect and artist. Eisenman’s favorite hangs near the foot of one of his beds, he said, “because it’s great to wake up with a piece of paper that is older than the U.S.”
An astute observer would note that the furnishings in the two Eisenman households reflect a mutual respect for two different tastes, that of Eisenman and his wife, Cynthia Davidson. As he put it, “My wife has her stuff and her taste, and I have my stuff and my taste.” Now 78, Eisenman said: “I wouldn’t have been this way 50 years ago. As you get older, you get wiser.”
Indeed these two cozy, comforting nests could not be more different than the series of modernist-styled houses that put Eisenman on the architecture map 45 years ago. The 10 structures, each designated by a Roman numeral, were shocking even to architects. Their complex forms did not evolve from the three basics most designers consider essential — function, site and climate. Instead, the plans and room arrangements were generated by a rigorous application of architectural theory.
Today, most observers would find the resulting houses, all white with flat roofs, a perplexing, brow-furrowing jumble of walls and columns. Eisenman’s written explanations do not clarify things. For example, his description of House II in “Five Architects: Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey, Hejduk, Meier,” a seminal work published in 1975, includes a series of 24 diagrams showing the design evolving from two rectangular volumes into a complex matrix with multiple grids and planes. Even a trained architect can’t follow it easily.
Of the 10 houses Eisenman designed, only four were built. The owners complained that they were hard to live in and poorly detailed; leaks were commonplace. Many journalists have alluded to the odd details that Eisenman’s theories produced: large holes in the floors, stairs that go nowhere and a bedroom with a column in the middle.
Of that era in his professional life, Eisenman said, “I was a cerebral cat.” But his work and life changed drastically in 1976 when he was working on House X, the biggest and most complex in the series. After Eisenman spent the summer participating in the Venice Biennale instead of meeting the deadline for construction drawings, the client fired him. In ending the job, Eisenman recalled: “The client said, ‘You are not interested in my house. You are interested in designing a house and not building a house.’ I was crushed. I realized something’s very wrong with my life. I was up in the clouds and I needed to change. I was in Jungian analysis for 20 years,” 1976 to 1996.
This experience, Eisenman said, made him more aware and more direct and changed his work. Now more than 20 years into a second marriage, he said: “I am very different as a parent to new kids. My work changed from being rooted in the sky to being rooted in the earth.” Eisenman’s buildings are more direct and often highly visceral. He still incorporates theories, but that is not how most people experience his buildings.
How Eisenman sees his role as an architect has also changed. Early in his career, he challenged everything about living in a house. Today, he said, “I don’t want to intrude on your life. I want to do public icons that move you, that you go from your home to see and say, ‘It’s great.’ But at the end of the day, you go home to your cozy place just like I do.”
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Michigan.