Anything goes As for philosophy, it makes an architect high-minded and not self-assuming, but rather renders him courteous, just, and honest without avariousness. This is very important, for no work can be rightly done without honesty and incorruptibility.
—Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture
With a new series of conferences, books, journals, and T-shirt, the New York architect Peter Eisenman and his colleagues have once again reminded us that the story of the tower of Babel has great pertinence to contemporary intellectual culture. The inaugural publication in his new venture is a three-hundred-odd-page confection from Rizzoli entitled Anyone. Since the perfect-bound paperback costs $45 and is utterly devoid of intellectual merit, we cannot recommend that anyone (if we may use the term) purchase the magazine. But those interested in new developments in pretension and bad taste in the graphic arts may wish to thumb through the volume in their local bookstores. It must be seen to be believed. Grotesquely overdesigned by Massimo Vignelli, Anyone is printed in a bewildering variety of type-sizes on pink paper. The favored ensemble is red ink on pink paper, though there is plenty of black on pink and even reversed type: pink on black. Its pages are strewn with poorly reproduced half-tones and architectural scribbles. Occasionally, text is printed over an image, a particularly unreadable combination. Credits inform us that the text and images were prepared entirely by computer: who could doubt it! The magazine really should come with a ophthamological warning and a bottle of aspirin. The only thing to be said for the design is that it provides a perfect visual analogue for the rebarbative incoherence of the magazine’s contents.
Edited by Cynthia Davidson, Mr. Eisenman’s wife, Anyone is essentially a revised transcript of a large and lavishly publicized “multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural” conference by the same name that was held at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles last May. Participants included such left-wing academic stars as Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, and Rosalind Krauss, a few of their industrious academic epigones, such as Mark C. Taylor and John Rajchman, and a garland of fashionable architects from Frank O. Gehry and Rem Koolhaas to Arata Isozaki and, of course, Mr. Eisenman himself. The “Anyone” conference was the first of a projected eleven such events, each to be held in a different city (the next is scheduled for Tokyo), each to be devoted to a different any word (anyhow, anywhere, anything, etc.), each, God help us, to be followed by a publication similiar to Anyone. The subject of the first installment, we were told, “was defined to include issues of signature, the author, and the individual as they relate to architecture.” Thanks for that. Press material also explained that the Any series (ANY being an acronym for “Architecture New York”) will include a bimonthly magazine called Any, scheduled to start appearing in the fall of 1992, and a line of Any books “on the subject of architecture and its relationships to other discourses.”
“Other discourses?” Oh, yes. Those who have followed Mr. Eisenman’s career know that the New York architect regards architecture more as a verbal than a practical art: like his colleagues, he loves referring to architecture as a “discourse.” And although he has lately begun building in earnest—the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Columbus, Ohio, being only his most publicized recent project—he is clearly more comfortable talking about … well, we were going to say “about architecture,” but Mr. Eisenman really doesn’t talk much about architecture. Nor, come to think of it, is “clearly” the mot juste. The hermetic language that Mr. Eisenman has evolved for himself—a remarkable academic patois that manages to avoid touching reality at any point—is anything but clear. And even “comfortable,” come to think of it, is incorrect, for if there is one thing that Mr. Eisenman successfully eschews, in his buildings as much as in his writing, it is comfort.
Just how bad is it? We have Mr. Eisenman, in his paper on passion in architecture, informing us that “[t]he traditional dialogue in architecture has always been constituted in terms internal to language—between form and content, rather than between the self and language.” We have Derrida beginning his “impromptu remarks” by asking “how can one make a point? As I try to say something on the subject of the point and the point of the subject, I must also ask something of the stranger and the foreigner,” etc., etc. Then there is Fredric Jameson denouncing “the concept of personal identity” and Rosalind Krauss meditating on Georges Bataille’s essay “The Big Toe.” To get the full effect, however, we must sample a somewhat longer passage. Here is a bit from Mark C. Taylor’s contribution, “The Subject of Architecture.” “The polycentricism of postmodern subjectivity,” Professor Taylor tells us,
is intersubjective as well as intrasubjective. The universality of the ontologico-epistemic subject is dispersed in a multiplicity of subjects themselves inwardly fragmented. In this way, polycentricism inverts but does not subvert the monocentricism of the modern subject. It is as though each subject were constituted by a plurality of ontologico-epistemic subjects that have lost their universality.
Perhaps all this points to the ineluctable instability of language; maybe it betokens a crisis of meaning in Western capitalist societies, enslaved as they are to a logocentric rationalism and patriarchy; but just possibly it illustrates the extent to which deconstruction and allied ideologies have corrupted intellectual exchange even outside the academy. Aristophanes, we recall, called it cloud-cuckoo-land. It is certainly not what Vitruvius had in mind.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 5, on page 2
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