Sometimes, very rarely, a single building is enough to go down in the history books as an architect. Peter Eisenman is one of them. He designed the Holocaust memorial, the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, in the center of Berlin.
It was inaugurated in May 2005, and a year-long, sometimes heated debate about the content and form of such a monument came to an abrupt end. It never flared up again, a dead giveaway that Eisenman’s design was, and always will be, spot on.
An architect who happens to be Jewish
At the time, it was often said that Eisenman was commissioned to build the Holocaust memorial because he was Jewish. Aside from the fact that the design was chosen from hundreds of submissions in an anonymous competition, Eisenman has always dismissed such a connection.
He was “an American architect who happens to be Jewish,” he would say.
Born and raised in New Jersey in 1932 across from New York, he studied at the most renowned universities and founded his own “Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies” in 1967. Decades of teaching, again at top addresses, followed.
For a long time, Eisenman built almost nothing, instead influencing a whole generation of architects with his lectures and his philosophical exchange with greats like Jacques Derrida. His analyzes of existing buildings, for example by Terragni or Palladio, became exercises in poststructuralism; and although Eisenman, like his early collaborators Richard Meier or Charles Gwathmey, revered the modernist co-founder Le Corbusier – albeit perhaps more out of opposition to US architecture of the time – he turned his back on any functionalism. Buildings had no function, but were signs within complex systems. If you wanted to study with Eisenman, you had to be able to draw lines and grids.
In Berlin’s Kochstraße he built postmodern
It was not until the 1980s that the Berlin IBA offered him the opportunity to build a multi-storey apartment building at the intersection of Kochstrasse and Friedrichstrasse. Eisenman also provided a complicated explanation for the slightly shifted building axes, which delighted those responsible for the IBA and which passers-by have not noticed to this day. At the same time, buildings were erected in the USA that belong to the postmodern era and have a more sculptural character. Eisenman had his moment of genius with the design for the Holocaust memorial.
Ironically, the theorist of the deeper meaning denied any verbal content to be expressed and emphasized that his monument should simply “be silent” within the noise of the city. No engraved victims’ names, as loudly demanded, no text panels, just stones on a slightly sloping ground. A sea of stones in which the visitor disappears.
A sea of stones in which people disappear
On the day of the monument’s dedication, Eisenman explained that he “wanted to make people feel like they were in the present day and have an experience they’ve never had before.” (…) The world is overflowing with information, and here is a place without information.”
Yes, Eisenman was against the subterranean information center that was subsequently pushed through, but “as an architect you win in some areas and lose in others,” was his laconic comment. In general, he remained reserved when it came to the commemoration politicians’ obsession with interpretation.
In Santiago de Compostela the scale got too big
At that time, his largest building complex was already in the making, the “City of Galician Culture” above Santiago de Compostela. The place of pilgrimage was not really happy with it, the scale was too big.
In 1992, Eisenman had previously envisioned a building in Berlin in the shape of the seemingly endless Möbius strip that would spiral upwards on the site of the former Great Playhouse. It was the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when many things seemed possible but were not dared.
After all, the Holocaust memorial was realized. This Thursday, its creator Peter Eisenman celebrates his 90th birthday. His most recent design, created just this year, is that of a Holocaust museum for Montreal.