RE: RE: Architecture or Design: Wither the Discipline?

Peter Eisenman

is a Cornell graduate, an internationally recognized architect and the Charles Gwathmey Professor of Architecture at Yale. His award-winning projects include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts at the Ohio State University, and the Koizumi Sangyo Corporation headquarters in Tokyo.

Author’s Note: This text was written for the Cornell Journal of Architecture. It derives from a lecture of the same title given at Cornell in March of 2010. It was originally intended to suggest why the term architecture should remain central in the name of the College, rather than, as has been suggested, changing the name of the school to the College of Design. This text is written as a resistance to not only the culture of commodification, but also the entrance of that culture into the university in a not too surreptitious manner.
Today, design is a goal-oriented practice which through aesthetic and economic means attempts to seduce mass culture into ever increasing consumption (one example: the iPhone). In this sense, design has become a unique, omnipresent, synthetic activity; it encompasses everything. This was not always the case. Sometime in the 16th century the Italian terms disegno and colore came to signify a dialectical pair used to describe the typological differences between Florentine (disegno) and Venetian (colore) painting. But disegno was also, and importantly, dialectical. Disegno was thought to be work that began with the drawing of an outline or the form of a figure, while colore was meant to suggest the importance of color, which took whatever form it needed without any a priori formal content or contour. Disegno, from the very beginning, was seen to be more rational and conceptual, while colore was seen as more emotional and expressionistic. The activity of disegno always had an a priori objective; that is, the maintenance in the work of the original formal outline, the prepainting or cartoon to which the final aspired. In its most generic sense, disegno was the proper relationship of parts to a whole.

Thus, disegno was not painting itself but a subset or tendency of painting. It was only later in the 16th century, with Vasari’s idea of Arti del Disegno (literally, the arts of design), that design became a comprehensive discipline, and painting a function of it. That is, the idea of design shifted from a dialectical and analytic category to a synthetic one, to a totalizing attitude, one which contained the seeds of the design activity that is ubiquitous in the present.

At the same time that disegno became an operative term, so too did architecture. Architecture as a named discipline did not exist before the 16th century. Prior to that, it was seen simply as building and construction mediated by a transcendental will. This all changed with Brunelleschi and Alberti and their work with perspective, which established the human subject and the eye of that subject as the mediator between the architectural object and the subject. This mediation shifted the notion of a transcendent mediation or metaphysic to an immanent one. It was now no longer sufficient to assume that the Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness, and delight constituted architecture; rather, as Alberti writes in De Re Aedificatoria, a structure no longer merely held something up, it must also look like it holds something up. This “looking like,” along with an idea of a history of building (or architecture) and a series of articulated formal rules, became what can be called architecture’s “immanent metaphysic,” its disciplinary core as well as its basic autonomy. Alberti’s discourse was the first conscious human mediation to differentiate architecture from building, to see architecture as the sign of something as opposed to merely something.

This sign function, which distinguishes architecture from building, is central to the argument mandating a distinction between architecture and design. Pier Vittorio Aureli has argued that Alberti’s discourse on architectural principles was a “way to establish architecture as a rational logical procedure irreducible to building.” In these terms, architecture is something other than building, thus if building is the result of a “design” satisfying certain requirements for shelter, comfort, image, and meaning, then architecture is something other than design. This is not to say that there is no design in architecture, but rather that their objectives, and thus their resultant object, may be different. It is to the nature of that difference that the remainder of this essay will turn.

As design changed over time, so did architecture, specifically after the French Revolution, when the nature of both the subject and object change. The subject becomes a mass subject and the object is no longer a representation of divine power (will, intervention), or an individual secular or clerical ruler, but rather of the political and social will of the people. Thus, the principles that governed the idea of design would of necessity have to reflect this change. This is when design becomes something more than an aspect of painting.

With the new functions and new collective subject that were brought about after the French Revolution, the idea of design expanded. The idea of architecture set down by Alberti in the sixteenth century also was no longer adequate, hence the outpouring of French treatises in the early nineteenth century, in part to meet these new programmatic requirements. Thus, design and architecture could be said to be quite similar until the early part of the nineteenth century, when productivity linked to the mechanical revolution produced an expansion of capital, and with it, an excess of goods, the supply of which was greater than the demand. This created competition for new product, which nurtured the expansion of design into the production of objects and services that had not previously existed.

After World War II, as capital expanded and was invested in more aspects of consumer activity, design became increasingly more important. To grow the market required a continuous elaboration of new product to produce new markets. Media fueled the expansion of design through advertising. By now, architecture and design are no longer the same. Architecture is still an excess; it is not necessary, and therefore cannot be consumed as readily. Moreover, because it is an excess, it can already be critical; that is, it does not necessarily fulfill an objective but rather proposes alternatives. Thus, where today design has become unwittingly an agent of commodification, architecture has not.

Now, in 2010, in an age of shrinking economies in Western markets, seemingly two similar strategies for design and architecture are being followed. One is the pursuit of new, if not expanded, markets in Asia and other developing economies. The other is to suggest new products and new systems. Sustainability and the environment are two such tactics, but they merely increase the scope of the market. Architecture today is no more and no less necessary. It has always been sustainable, and importantly, through that sustainability, has contributed to the production of cultural artefacts. These cultural artefacts have traditionally resided in the world of symbols and icons; design artefacts, on the other hand, reside in the brand and are mostly devoid of such cultural iconicity.

This difference is sustained theoretically through the attitude of each discourse toward the hegemony of the metaphysical project. The basis for all metaphysics has been the possibility of meaning, whether in icons or symbols. While it can be argued that architecture will always mean, it is in no way a strong sign system. In fact, until recently, it was thought that architecture could be symbolic, rather than function as a sign, even though linguistic analogues, “architecture parlante,” et cetera, have occupied much of architecture’s theoretical expansion since the French Revolution.

Recent developments in post-structuralist thought have suggested the possibility that the sign/signified relationship once thought to be immutable could be broken apart. And since signs in architecture were in most cases the signified itself, that is, the column was also the sign of the column, architecture could now be thought to be moving from symbols to signs, and thence to the “becoming unmotivated of the sign.” This leads to what Derrida calls the undecidability of the sign. It is here that the breach between design and architecture becomes a true rupture. While design is the creation of symbols and icons for clarity of meaning and, ultimately, for maintenance of the metaphysical project, for architecture today, it is the questioning of that very project that is at the core of its activity. This questioning ultimately leads to what can be called “disciplinary exceptions” revealed in the process. These exceptions become the self-critical matrix of differences that mark architecture. Design, in its drive for the normative or the standard, can never be that. The very term architecture carries the energy of that difference.

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