The 1982 Debate Between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman
An Early Discussion of the “New Sciences” of Organised Complexity in Architecture
Peter Eisenman: I met Christopher Alexander for the first time just two minutes ago, but I feel I have known him for a long time. I suddenly sense that we have been placed in a circus-like atmosphere, where the adversarial relationship which we might have — which already exists — might be blown out of proportion. I do not know who the Christian is and who the lion, but I always get nervous in a situation like this. I guess it is disingenuous on my part to think that with Chris Alexander here something other than a performance would be possible.
Back in 1959, I was working in Cambridge, U.S.A., for Ben Thompson and The Architects Collaborative [Gropius’s firm]. I believe Chris Alexander was at Harvard. I then went to Cambridge, England, again not knowing that he had already been there. He had studied mathematics at Cambridge and turned to architecture. I was there for no particular reason, except that Michael McKinnell told me that I was uninformed and that I should go to England to become more intelligent.
Christopher Alexander: I’m very glad you volunteered that information. It clears things up.
PE: In any case, Sandy [Colin St. John] Wilson, who was then a colleague of mine on the faculty at Cambridge and is now professor at the School of Architecture at Cambridge, gave me a manuscript that he said I should read. It was Alexander’s Ph.D. thesis, which was to become the text of Chris’s first book, “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”. The text so infuriated me, that I was moved to do a Ph.D. thesis myself. It was called “The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture” and was an attempt to dialectically refute the arguments made in his book. He got his book published; my thesis was so primitive that I never even thought of publishing it.
In any case, I thought that today we could deal with some of my problems with his book. But then I listened to the tape of his lecture last night, and again I find myself in a very similar situation. Christopher Alexander, who is not quite as frightening as I thought — he seems a very nice man — again presents an argument which I find the need to contest. Since I have never met him prior to this occasion, it cannot be personal; it must have something to do with his ideas.
Chris, you said we need to change our cosmology, that it is a cosmology that grew out of physics and the sciences in the past and is, in a sense, 300 years old. I probably agree with every word of that. You said that only certain kinds of order can be understood, given that cosmology. You said the order of a Coke machine is available to us because of our causal, mechanistic view of the world. And then you brought up that the order of a Mozart symphony is not available to us. Don’t you think that the activity of the French “Structuralists” is an attempt to find out the order of things as opposed to the order of mechanisms, the ontology of things as opposed to the epistemology of things, i.e., their internal structure? This kind of philosophical inquiry has been part of current French thought for the last 20 years. Don’t you think that it is something like what you’re talking about?
CA: I don’t know the people you are talking about.
PE: I am talking about people like Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida.
CA: What do they say?
PE: They say that there are structures, in things like a Mozart symphony or a piece of literature, and that we can get beyond the function of a symphony or the function of a piece of literature to provide a story of knowledge, that we can get beyond those functions to talk about the innate structure or order of these things. And that this order has little to do with the hierarchical, mechanistic, and deterministic order of the past 300 years. Rather it is based on an alternative to Western values as determined by metaphysics. This order suggests not so much an opposition as an alternative view, which suggests that structures are not dialectical in nature but, rather, that they are made up of differences.
I was very much in sympathy with the things you were saying in your lecture. In fact, I would like to think that for the past 10 or 15 years of my life I have been engaged in the same kind of work. My postfunctionalist essay in Oppositions 6 proposed an other aspect of architecture outside of function.
CA: I am not sure I know what you are driving at. See if this is right? One of the people on our faculty, I think, would probably espouse your point of view in some way. His attitude reflects a whole school of thought that has developed — crudely called Post-Modernism or whatever. Anyway, there is a school of thought, a serious group of theorists who have begun to talk about architecture in a quite new way in the last 10 years. And this faculty member says to me, from time to time, something like this: “Essentially, Chris, they’re saying exactly the same thing you are. Why are you riding your horse as though you are some lone messenger when, in fact, everybody is talking about the same thing.”
But what these Postmodernists and Structuralists are saying is not the same thing as what I said last night at all. Of course, I think there are people who are very serious and want to move the many with the privileged view of architecture that they have in their heads. But words are very, very cheap. And one can participate in intellectual discussions, right, left, and center, and you can go this way or you can go that way. Now then, I look at the buildings which purport to come from a point of view similar to the one I’ve expressed, and the main thing I recognize is, that whatever the words are — the intellectual argument behind that stuff — the actual buildings are totally different. Diametrically opposed. Dealing with entirely different matters.
Actually, I don’t even know what that work is dealing with, but I do know that it is not dealing with feelings. And in that sense those buildings are very similar to the alienated series of constructions that preceded them since 1930. All I see is: number one, new and very fanciful language; and two, vague references to the history of architecture but transformed into cunning feats and quaint mannerisms. So, the games of the Structuralists, and the games of the Post Modernists are in my mind nothing but intellectualisms which have little to do with the core of architecture. This depends, as it always has, on feeling.
PE: Let us just back off for a minute. I wish we had some pictures here. I don’t want to polarize this between the heavy, Eastern intellectual and the California joy boy. You cannot ask people, as you did last night, to believe you because you have done 25 years of intellectual work — which I have followed very carefully and which is very intellectual — and then say “I am California magic”. So I want to get away from these kinds of caricatures because we are not going to get anywhere with them. That is number one.
Number two: for you to plead ignorance of ideas that are in current use, does not make me an intellectual and you not, or vice versa; it means that you are interested in your cosmology, and I am interested in mine. So that is a wash. I did not come here to play “do you know” and get anxious about things. I am very interested in the whole self. In the Jungian cosmology, you may be a feeling type and I may be a thinking type. And I will never be able to have the kind of feeling that you have, and vice versa. We all live with the tyranny of the opposite. So I don’t want to get into that game, because you win all the time. So why not start over.
CA: Let’s have a go. That was a very good first round.
PE: I want to get out of the ring and try again. I came in on the wrong side. I certainly became the lion and you the Christian, and I have always wanted to be a Christian.
CA: I appreciate the very charming way you are bringing this into a slightly nicer state. Actually, with regard to what you said a moment ago, the business of the feeling type and the thinking type does need to be talked about. I know something about Jung’s classifications. That we have different make-ups is probably an undeniable fact. But, somehow, the substantive core of the matter, to me, is the essence of what the debate about architecture must lead to. If you say: “Well, look, you’re a feeling type, and I’m a thinking type, so let’s not discuss that because we are always going to be on different sides”, then it removes from this discussion what I feel to be the absolute heart and soul of the matter when it comes to buildings. Now I don’t want to deny at all what you are saying about personalities. But I really cannot conceive of a properly formed attitude towards buildings, as an artist or a builder, or in any way, if it doesn’t ultimately confront the fact that buildings work in the realm of feeling. So when you say, “Look you’re that type, and I’m this type, and let’s agree not to talk with one another about that fact”, what’s the implication? Is the implication that you think that feeling is not related to buildings? Perhaps you could answer that.
PE: Of course, if you are a feeling type, you would think that feelings are the essence of the matter; and I cannot help thinking, as a thinking type, that ideas are the essence of the matter. It is not something that I can walk away from. We all have a shadow, and my shadow is feeling. I accept that you are that way. I am asking you to accept me the way I am rather than dismissing what I say as not being at the heart of the matter. For you, feeling is the heart of the matter, because it is the only way you can configure the world. I cannot configure the way you do because then I would not be me, and you would not want me to do that.
CA: I’m not so sure about that.
PE: It is not I who is into tyranny. Let’s see if we can discuss substantive issues. All I am saying is: do not put people down who cannot get at ideas through feeling. At least 50% of the people here cannot.
CA: You’re saying to me, on the level of personal decency and person-to-person respect, let each of us recognize that we have our different attitudes towards the world, and let’s not mix them up with the central, substantive matter at hand. That’s what you’re inviting me to do.
PE: That’s what I was hoping.
CA: I will suspend that, if you can deal with that. I fully understand that what you’re saying concerns you, and I’m quite comfortable with the person-to-person respect, given our different attitudes and so forth. The trouble is that we also happen to be dealing with a matter that I believe intellectually is the central issue. Intellectually, not from the point of view of feeling. It’s very, very difficult for me to stay away from this issue because, if I don’t talk about it with you to some extent, I will actually never know what you’re really talking about. So, if you will permit me, I’d like to go into this matter and see where we come to. You see, there is a debate going on here, and there is also a disagreement — I believe of substance. I’m not even sure whether we work in the same way. That’s why I would like to check out a couple of examples, buildings. Now, I will pick a building, let’s take Chartres for example. We probably don’t disagree that it’s a great building.
PE: Well, we do actually, I think it is a boring building. Chartres, for me, is one of the least interesting cathedrals. In fact, I have gone to Chartres a number of times to eat in the restaurant across the street — had a 1934 red Mersault wine, which was exquisite — I never went into the cathedral. The cathedral was done en passant. Once you’ve seen one Gothic cathedral, you have seen them all.
CA: Well, pick a building you like. Pick another.
PE: Let’s pick something that we can agree on — Palladio’s Palazzo Chiericati. For me, one of the things that qualifies it in an incredible way, is precisely because it is more intellectual and less emotional. It makes me feel high in my mind, not in my gut. Things that make me feel high in my gut are very suspicious, because that is my psychological problem. So I keep it in the mind, because I’m happier with that.
You see, the Mies and Chiericati thing was far greater than Moore and Chiericati, because Moore is just a pasticheur. We agree on that. But Mies and Chiericati is a very interesting example, and I find much of what is in Palladio — that is the contamination of wholeness — also in Mies. I also find alternation, as opposed to simple repetition. And you said things which are very close to my heart. I am very interested in the arguments you presented in your lecture. You said something about the significance of spaces between elements being repeated. Not only the element itself being repeated, but the space between. I’m very interested in the space between. That is where we come together. Now the space between is not part of classical unity, wholeness, completeness; it is another typology.
It is not a typology of sameness or wholeness; it’s a typology of differences. It is a typology which transgresses wholeness and contaminates it. If you say A/B A/B, that is an alternation of wholes outside of the classical canon, which tries to take A and B and bring them into symmetry — as in B/A/B/A/B. In other words, there are three B’s with one in the center, and two A’s as minor chords. When you have A/B/A/B/ you have alternating pairs with no center, closure or hierarchy. A/B/A/B/A is complete. A/B/A/B is not. What is interesting about serial structures is the spaces between, not the elements themselves, but the differences between the two. You were talking about that last night when you gave an example of something that was not dealing with wholeness at all in the classical sense. Maybe we would benefit from talking more about this. Or not?
CA: I don’t fully follow what you’re saying. It never occurred to me that someone could so explicitly reject the core experience of something like Chartres. It’s very interesting to have this conversation. If this weren’t a public situation, I’d be tempted to get into this on a psychiatric level. I’m actually quite serious about this. What I’m saying is that I understand how one could be very panicked by these kinds of feelings. Actually, it’s been my impression that a large part of the history of modern architecture has been a kind of panicked withdrawal from these kinds of feelings, which have governed the formation of buildings over the last 2000 years or so.
Why that panicked withdrawal occurred, I’m still trying to find out. It’s not clear to me. But I’ve never heard somebody say, until a few moments ago, someone say explicitly: “Yes, I find that stuff freaky. I don’t like to deal with feelings. I like to deal with ideas.” Then, of course, what follows is very clear. You would like the Palladio building; you would not be particularly happy with Chartres, and so forth. And Mies …
PE: The panicked withdrawal of the alienated self was dealt with in Modernism — which was concerned with the alienation of the self from the collective.