A Crazy Building in Columbus

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – November 20, 1989

A Crazy Building in Columbus

Peter Eisenman, architecture’s bad boy, finally hits his stride

Peter Eisenman spent his 30s and 40s being the angriest, most intellectually convoluted, infuriating major architect in America, a really terrible enfant terrible. Both his innumerable theoretical essays and his few buildings (four houses in two decades) seemed pretentious and willfully opaque, caricatures of neomodernism. One Eisenman house had a column in the bedroom that precluded a bed, another a hole in the floor and a stairway that ran from the ceiling halfway down a wall. The architect used to say he would not dream of living in one of his houses (“Art and life are two different things”).

But all that has changed. “I was a killer, a trained killer, and you can’t keep that up,” Eisenman, 57, says today. “Peter Eisenman is ultimately a friendlier person — kinder, gentler. People are going to like my buildings more.” In fact, he suddenly has lots of plum commissions — an office building in Tokyo, a research complex at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, the Columbus convention center. Meanwhile, he will bask this week in the celebrations surrounding the dedication of his first major building, the $43 million Wexner Center for the Visual Arts at the Ohio State University in Columbus.

 For Wexner, Eisenman teamed up with the far more conventional Columbus architect Richard Trott (“I went in for the touchdown, and Dick was the blocking back who knocked guys over”). The building is certainly the best work of his career, an intense, almost out-of-control collage of materials and forms. “There’s no question that this is my most completely realized building,” he says. “In a sense it’s my first building.” He still would not want to live in any of the houses he’s designed (his home is an 18th century cottage in Princeton, N.J.), but the new building in Columbus is another matter. “I’d love to work in Wexner,” Eisenman says.

 As would anyone who does not mind being tricked and teased by the architecture at almost every turn. The new building (paid for mainly by O.S.U. alumnus and Columbus-based retailer Leslie Wexner) may have been the perfect project for this hyperintellectualizing bad boy to prove himself on: it was conceived by the university as both a museum and a seedbed for avant-garde art, from Anselm Kiefer paintings to Pina Bausch performances to a new video installation that displays images from the building’s surveillance cameras. Did the university want a fin-de-siecle monument to erudite monomania, inspired nervousness, the intriguing lunatic gesture? Eisenman was the man for the job. “I get weepy that O.S.U. took this risk,” he says. “It wasn’t Harvard or Yale or Princeton. It’s a great thing about America that people in Columbus, Ohio, are building this crazy building.”

 The Wexner Center is, appropriately, both grand and zany, yet unlike earlier Eisenman designs, it does not seem meanspirited. And it works. The site, shrewdly chosen by the architects, is the 48-ft.-wide space between a tidy 1979 concrete cube of a recital hall and a huge, Albert Speerish auditorium built in 1956. The new construction knits these clunky boxes into a tightly woven, slightly mad-looking but altogether sensible complex. The four soaring exhibition galleries, with a gridded glass ceiling and gridded glass wall, are deluged in natural light.

 But that does not mean the building is easy to understand or like. Running its whole, three-city-blocks length is a permanent, jungle gym-like white steel scaffolding. The faux scaffold is inspired: it defines a long outdoor walkway, it plays tricks with perspective (Does the thing tilt up? Down? Are its beams parallel?), and its evocation of construction in progress makes the Wexner Center seem perpetually unfinished, excitingly open-ended.

 Like all of Eisenman’s work, the Wexner Center is an obsessive meditation on the grid, modernism’s elemental unit. For starters, Eisenman has lined up the building with the Columbus city grid rather than the campus grid — an off- kilter tilt of 12 1/4 degrees. Within the complex, he has laid down still more grids to play with: the 12-ft. modules of white steel scaffolding, structural columns set 24 ft. apart, decorative columns 48 ft. apart. He lets these various grids overlap and collide, creating quirky niches and three- dimensional geometric cat’s cradles everywhere. Inside, the experience of architectural structure is nearly kinetic: as you enter, a fake beam shoots past at eye level and simply stops in midair, cleanly cut off, while a fake column stops 10 ft. short of the floor, stalactite-like. Eisenman is relentless. His precisely orchestrated riot of pattern and angles continues even with the placement of fluorescent light fixtures in the basement, even in the arrangement of gravel on the roof.

 What is the point of all this highly wrought architectural scribbling and juxtapositioning? Why, in a single glimpse, is there brick, tinted glass, clear glass, white glass, white metal panels, white steel, white stone, concrete and red stone? Because to pull off such an improbable collage is a virtuoso feat — Eisenman is like a chess master playing several games at once while standing on his head. Because the dense, dense eclecticism of material and form prevents the place from seeming too slick and self-serious. And – because Eisenman remains rather perverse. The four painting and sculpture galleries, for instance, amorphous and oddly shaped, could tend to confound picture hanging. “I don’t want to say they’re not problematic,” admits Robert Stearns, the Wexner Center’s very game director.

Now that postmodernism has abandoned its original sense of humor in favor of just-so classicism, it is Eisenman who is left to build in the architectural jokes: the disintegrating ersatz archway and cartoony castellated brick towers around the perimeter of Wexner (alluding to an old armory on the site that was razed in 1958); the curious floor-to-chest-height windows in the top-floor offices; the short, folly stairway that goes nowhere; or the boatlike carbuncle on top of the building with no practical function whatsoever.

And Eisenman has finally allowed himself to learn the most enduring lesson of his old postmodern nemeses: the necessity of fitting in with nearby buildings, even the motley, uninspiring ones. Wexner, tucked between off-white masonry buildings, is clad partly in white limestone, and for all its coming- apart-at-the-seams wildness, the building is actually rather low-key, never overwhelming its campus. “We’re on the short list for a new building at Yale,” says Eisenman, the contextualist-come-lately. The location, he says nonchalantly, as if he had not spent the past 20 years ranting against any hint of historical style, “seems to call for a neo-Georgian classical box or something.” Kinder and gentler, indeed.