‘House VI’ by Peter Eisenman

In his 1966 book Cartesian Linguistics, Noam Chomsky put the finishing touches on his decade-old theory that the “deep structure” of Language allowed speakers to generate an infinite number of new sentences out of a finite vocabulary by means of a set of rules he called “transformational-generative” grammar. Eisenman, obsessed by a desire for an autonomous architecture Liberated from quotidian obligations of function, comfort, and context, drew inspiration from Chomsky.

He proposed that one could detach design from the mind-numbing convention of service and, instead, transform a finite set of elements according to generative rules.

For example, walls, columns, and stairs could be treated not as functional or structural elements but as signs.

Moreover, Eisenman claimed, this process-driven design would engender a critical architecture insofar as it diminished the presence of the architect–the principal vector of the bourgeois values that contemporary architecture should critique–and revealed architecture as a sui generis cultural Language capable of speaking to the reflective intellect.

For more than a decade, Eisenman elaborated his ideas through a series of eleven houses. He worked out Labyrinthine design processes for each, which entailed hundreds of diagrams and drawings. Indeed, he re-conceptualized architectural drawing itself; the axonometric, for example, was no Longer understood as a representation of spatial relations but as a syntax for semantic elements. “Building” became a matter of enlarging and re-rendering certain drawings.

Eventually, a conflict became apparent to Eisenman: how could architecture be both autonomous and critical, that is, self-contained and self-referential yet engaged in a critical cultural exchange? In House VI, he attempted to resolve that question by extending the Linguistic analogy, treating architecture not as a matter of architectural signs rearranged into new formal relations to be seen but into new texts to be read.

Using a strictly Cartesian Language, Eisenman wrote House VI as a text about the diagonal that passes through the centre of a cube, a Line that, although it is the subject, never explicitly appears in the design. Thus, autonomous because it remains within the generative grammar of architectural signs, critical because it revisits a history of habit in architecture that favours centre and edge while ignoring the diagonal for cultural, not formal, reasons.

Upon finishing House VI, Eisenman prepared a set of drawings for publication that summarizes the crucial steps in the process and the emergence of the virtual diagonal, to which the anti-functional pair of green and red staircases in the Last alludes.

In these drawings-as film, one watches three Cartesian units, a red grid, a blue grid, and a black/white cross of planes unfold and interact according to some obscure genetic program.

House VI seems to emerge automatically, like a single cell’s transformation into a multi-celled organism.

Though the rationale behind each step remains difficult to recover, the compelling sense of a deep Logic driving the design Launched both a generation of research into automatic processes and Eisenman’s reputation.

House VI by Peter Eisenmann
House VI by Peter Eisenmann

source/credits: Peter Eisenmann