Metropolis by Alexander Gorlin Architects

Passion Plays

Studying with Eisenman, Hejduk, Scully, Stern, and Stirling was often an exercise in high drama.

Architecture school is a unique and peculiar institution, a sheltered environment that is perfect for teaching the ideals of architecture yet shields students from the almost impossible realities of achieving these goals in built form. In professional practice, clients, budgets, and builders can stand in the way of the architect’s vision, more often than not resulting in the Grail of Architecture crashing unceremoniously to the floor. As a practicing architect long out of school, I find that my early architecture teachers become ever more important as models of uncompromised integrity, helping me stand firm in the daily battle of realizing my own ideas.

 

My education coincided with the 1970s and the raging debate between the form-oriented “White” architects (Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and Richard Meier) and the socially conscious “Grays” (Robert Venturi and Robert A.M. Stern et al), who attacked the former group for their indifference to a building’s site and users. As an undergraduate at the Cooper Union and a graduate student at Yale University, I was fortunate to study with a series of remarkable professors on both sides of the conflict—all of whom argued powerfully for the art of architecture following Le Corbusier’s maxim, “Passion can create drama out of inert stone.”

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Some of Alexander Gorlin’s teachers: John Hejduk. Courtesy: Kim Resnick, Cooper Union.

Imagine an aspiring architect straight out of Forest Hills High School, in Queens, entering the Cooper Union School of Architecture in 1973—the shock of confronting the likes of Eisenman, Hejduk, Robert Slutzky, and Raimund Abraham. At Cooper teaching was a cult led by chief guru Hejduk, a dominating presence who told you what was important in architecture and what was not. This was not a school where the personal expression of the student really mattered, despite the close chronology of the late 1960s and the 1970 student uprisings. Social relevance was not emphasized; instead the intimate study of form reigned supreme. Cooper was a modern academy that taught a distinct party line. Despite the apparent differences between Eisenman, Hejduk, Slutzky, and Abraham, disagreements were niggling, like the infighting in the Bauhaus or the falling-out between Mondrian and Van Doesburg over the proper use of the diagonal. The teachers were all-powerful, and the student was to fall in line—partly because tuition was free.

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Peter Eisenman (above) and Robert Slutzky (below). Courtesy: Eisenman Architects, Cooper Union.

At the time Eisenman taught only weekly seminars at Cooper, not design studios, because Hejduk apparently wanted him on a short leash. Eisenman represented intelligence as the engine that drove architecture: everything was black and white. Like the Grand Inqui-sitor, he put a building through a series of tests to qualify as “architecture” rather than mere building. Most historical architecture could be discarded: forget the pyramids—too simple, they just sit there; the Parthenon and other Greek temples were nonsense, as Colin Rowe (Eisenman’s mentor) said they are all alike.

 

Architecture, according to Eisenman, was not invented until Palladio, who despite the appearance of simplicity was in fact the master of the shifted and overlapping grid. Just as devout Christians will say that Isaiah predicted the coming of Jesus, Eisenman felt that the best thing about Palladio was his prefiguring the master Le Corbusier, the Christ of Cooper Union. This was before Post-Structuralism and during the time of Eisenman’s self-proclaimed Post-Functionalism. Under Eisenman one learned quickly that although Mies said he did not invent architecture every Monday morning, there was a new philosophy coined at least that often that could be applied to architecture.

 

But for all of Eisenman’s intelligence, he had a dark side that drove him to pick on people in class. Once he pigeonholed you it was impossible to escape. Class was more like a psychiatric session: deep intellectual thought alternated with wild emotional interactions—a psychodrama of the highest order. I recall a class in which Eisenman was interviewing Hejduk when a former pupil, Rod Knox, burst into class hurling profane invectives at Eisenman. It took all of Hejduk’s powers of persuasion to quiet him down, and Knox finally left of his own accord. Architecture and neurosis were closely bonded for Eisenman. Perhaps this explains why in the five years I was at Cooper he was never once invited to participate in a design review. (Or maybe school custom simply differed from Yale, where a circuslike performance of contemporaries characterized final reviews.)

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The architecture studios at Cooper Union, where the intimate study of form reigned supreme. Courtesy: Cooper Union.

In the end Eisenman’s lesson was that architecture required intense and passionate study, and like literature or poetry it was a discipline at the highest cultural level. Architecture demanded the same attention as a Shakespearean text, which is why to this day I am always astounded at the length of movie reviews as opposed to the scant attention paid to works of architecture.

 

John Hejduk—six feet six inches tall and shaggy in ill-fitting suits, with a thick Bronx accent of “dese and dose”—belied the supreme elegance of his work at the time: the Wall House series, a concept that influenced a generation of architects despite its remaining unbuilt until recently. Thus his first unspoken lesson was that life and art are not the same; one did not have to dress or live in the world of one’s architectural creation—something easily forgotten in this time of blurring high fashion and architecture.

 

In contrast to Eisenman, who emphasized analytic intelligence as the criterion for judgment, Hejduk believed sensation and feeling were paramount. Architecture “smelled or tasted” right—it was either alive or dead. Student projects were judged on that basis, and the judgment was final; there was no appeal. I recall that in a class called “Cut-Outs”—“an exploration of spatial concepts in painting and architecture” named after Matisse’s late creations—a student placed a hen’s egg next to the rotund behind of an odalisque by Ingres. This was decreed the most profound idea in the room—which Hejduk abruptly left as everyone stared, mystified, at his exit. During one presentation he said the student’s work reminded him of the penguin pool in the Bronx Zoo, which continually fascinated him. He told us how he had actually jumped inside the enclosure one day; there he was, surrounded by the penguins—“And you know,” Hejduk concluded dramatically, “the experience was flat, dry, and dead, just like your presentation.” Again he made like Elvis and left the building.

 

For Hejduk anything could inspire architecture—painting, literature, poetry, film. We watched the endless enfilades of Last Year at Marienbad and read Alain Robbe Grillet’s The Erasers. Architecture reached out into the world; it was not an isolated, self-contained discipline and certainly not limited to function. Cooper even hired poet John Ashbery to teach thesis students to write poetry. In the fall of 1999, a few months before Hejduk’s death, I taught fifth year with him. Required reading included the entire collection of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and the complete poems of Emily Dickinson.

 

On the down side—since explanations were definitely not served up on a platter and no one catered to the student at Cooper—one was often confused, if not crying, at a review. By fifth year the pressure to achieve “greatness” was so intense that many broke down and simply left—washed out, like in the Marines. On occasion, when a student project so moved him, Hejduk gave out his “greatest project of the twentieth century” award. Needless to say, discussion was not a strong point with Hejduk, who preferred to teach by fiat, Louis Quatorze style—as opposed to Eisenman, who liked to argue endlessly about anything. But the substance behind Hejduk’s unpredictability was the enormous power and inspiration of his own work and the leadership it provided to the school. Even Liz Diller, who was in my class, designed an obligatory Hejdukian “wall house” restaurant in second-year design studio. This was the auspicious year when she met her eventual professional and personal partner, Ric Scofidio, who was our professor (and nearly 20 years our senior). Tall, dark, and handsome—with a Mephistophelean beard and a habit of chain-smoking Gauloises in his Porsche—he cut a striking figure to a class of students recently out of high school.

 

I first encountered Abraham in the middle of my third year. As opposed to Slutzky and Eisenman—high priests of formal analysis who used words like adhesion, aleatory, shear, shift, and granulation—he presented himself as the caveman of architecture, the first man to stand up and view the horizon. Architecture revolved around the motions of man and woman: lying, sitting, and standing in relation to the earth and sky. For the self-professed Dante of the school, heaven and hell figured very big. With his thick Austrian accent, bushy mustache, and cigar, Abraham was a cross between Freud and Boris Badenov. Of course he had not built much, and what little he had he basically disowned. He was the paper architect par excellence, but he was ambitious and had the grandest theory of architecture of them all. It was somewhat like the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001, where the apes rise up and kill one another with bones that transform into spaceships. “Design” was anathema; “Architecture” with a capital A was indeed the “mother of the arts.”

 

Abraham could draw like a fiend and expected as much from his students. One was not to meditate and draw a few lines; massive production and exploration were necessary to discover something new in concept and form. He virtually invented the Cooper style of messy models and drawings, in which the process of making was inscribed in the architectural object or model, and hopefully in the eventual built form. Echoes of Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa infused his teaching, but of course that was never acknowledged at Cooper. History and precedent were fodder for the production of the new, the never imagined. As opposed to the general tone of the school, Abraham allowed that personal expression within the framework of architectonic form was the ultimate goal. The architect was an artist whose mission was to create a new architecture. That people would also inhabit these spaces was often less important than the primacy of the object and its poetic resonance.

 

My own thesis, of which Abraham was critic, was initially based on a reconstruction of Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple in Jerusalem, from the Old Testament text. While I thought this fit into the debate over the ancient and the modern that Abraham implied, he thought the initial project was too “pure” and needed some contrast. So I placed the entire biblical complex in Union Square, on axis with the subway lines along Broadway, contrasting the sacred and profane cities. This met with Abraham’s approval, although at the final jury a young upstart named Daniel Libeskind bemoaned the lack of “objective magic” in the project.

 

After Cooper, why go to Yale? Despite Cooper’s self-proclaimed supremacy as the center of the architectural universe, even Hejduk acknowledged that in American society an Ivy League degree was well worthwhile. One was expected to attend Harvard or Yale as a finishing school before entering the real world. As opposed to the scrappy urban passion of Cooper, the Yale School of Architecture was part of a genteel liberal arts university. Led by Vincent Scully, Robert Stern, and James Stirling, it was humanistic, professional, and open to a thousand flowers blooming. It was a breath of fresh air, although I was always grateful that I went to Cooper first, because Yale did not offer the intense basic preparation in architectonic form.

 

Scully was at the height of his powers when I arrived in 1978—a giant in the midget land of art and architectural history, where one can spend a lifetime caught up in the minutiae of Michelangelo’s business receipts for the Medici Chapel. He was an architect’s architectural historian, interested in the big picture. Fall semester he taught the grand history of architecture—from the pyramids to the beginning of Modernism—to more than 500 students. Then in the spring he covered modern architecture from the late eighteenth century to the present. Initially I signed up to take his class, and then found out that I could be one of his teaching assistants and be paid to take the course! There I discovered that I enjoyed teaching, which I continued to do at Yale and then at Cooper for more than 15 years while developing my practice.

 

As a lecturer Scully was astounding. He commanded the audience, mesmerizing everyone with his language and intonation. He was preacher, magician, and conjurer—the sorcerer’s apprentice summoning luminous images to the screen or perhaps a tribal shaman, especially when he did the buffalo dance of the Pueblo Indians onstage. As Scully beat his long wooden pointer at the slides on the screen, the buildings “gestured,” “thrust,” and “thundered” until one understood that architecture could be a thing of great presence that linked man and nature. Compared to the introverted formal analysis of Eisenman, this was a mind-blowing performance that situated architecture on the far horizons of Mount Olympus and beyond. His book The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods celebrated the same Greek temples and Homeric landscape that Rowe and Eisenman dismissed.

 

Years before, Scully’s tragic-heroic architects had been the “primal form givers” Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Kahn, who brought forth great works to mankind. By the time I was his student, Scully had mellowed, taking Venturi and Aldo Rossi as his heroes. Generally I would have preferred his earlier choices; in my mind the contemporary classical crowd just didn’t measure up to the form givers of the previous generation. For me there was something missing from Venturi’s “touching TV antenna” atop housing for the elderly in Philadelphia. But never mind—I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

 

After each class, Scully’s need for company extended to lunch. He served his teaching assistants a generous meal with wine to prolong the collegiality of class. Here Scully opened up with great stories and comments on politics or films—any topic of the day. His wicked sense of humor and liberal Irish political opinions were always entertaining and stimulating. Scully had been a scholarship student at the snobbish Yale of the 1940s while he waited tables. In part he had dedicated his teaching to the architect’s obligation to not only create new forms but also give back to society.

 

Arriving at Yale, I—like everyone else—planned to take Stirling’s studio, but unfortunately it was full. To my chagrin and horror I faced the option of taking the class of Cooper’s archenemy, Robert Stern: the intriguingly titled studio “South Bronx Suburbia.” The idea was to take a hundred acres of the devastated South Bronx and turn it into a suburban paradise, a proto-New Urbanist project. Thus I encountered firsthand Bob Stern, in bow tie and Gucci tassel shoes, a dandy and a gentleman architect unlike anyone ever seen at downtown Cooper. He was brilliant, witty, and informed, with a profound knowledge of architectural history; it was no surprise years later when he became the architecture dean.

 

Stern became my role model as a practicing architect and teacher, perhaps partly because we were from similar outer-borough backgrounds, proving that one did not have to be a well-born WASP to practice architecture. Nevertheless, he treated me as a target of his Po-Mo sensibilities and swore to reform my extremist Cooper ways. The irony is that although his studio was set in the worst urban slum of its time, the theme was as removed from true social reform as the most formal Cooper gestures. The project was really about the incorporation of historical form into the abstract vocabulary of the International Style, marking the rise of Post-Modernism. Surprisingly, I took to it with a vengeance as it unleashed my repressed historical appetite. I went beyond Stern’s prescribed model, Edward Lutyens, to create a palatial urban apartment complex modeled after Versailles. This framed a site where I used Marie Antoinette’s hameau, or rustic village, as the basis for a development of luxury homes around an artificial lake. It was all a bit much, even for the historically minded architect on the final jury, Jacquelin Robertson, who preferred an earlier, more urbane plan.

 

The next year I was accepted into Stirling’s studio, on the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, after he saw my design for the British Library during a design review. To my delight, he found my project “smashing.” Stirling often gave his studio classes projects that his office was working on at the time. For students it was thrilling, although now it seems somewhat curious that he used the school as an adjunct to his office. Stirling, who for some reason has been virtually forgotten, was the real thing, a true master—the Frank Gehry of his time. He had built great buildings at Leicester, Oxford, and Cambridge, all of which were proclaimed masterpieces when they were completed. In his trademark blue polo shirt, Stirling was a heavyweight literally and figuratively—a sumo match for Zaha Hadid, capable of throwing her out of the ring.

 

Stirling was a great teacher and a model of British civility whose only goal was to make your project better, more interesting, and more in line with your own design. There were no psychodramas at the desk or in the review. After Cooper, what a relief. Numerous times Stirling had suggestions for my project that improved the idea immensely. He even worked his magic as a guest critic for a project I did in Charles Moore’s studio. He always added something unexpected that lifted the mundane into the sublime. It was the methodology of Jasper Johns, who said, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Personally, Stirling was a mystery, at once professional and reserved but with a reputation as a legendary ladies’ man and party animal at a time when such professorial goings-on did not invite harassment suits.

 

Upon graduation, armed with the formal obsessions of Cooper and the professional and social confidence instilled by Yale, I ventured out into the world convinced that I could be an architect. Just as Kahn said that Le Corbusier remained forever an internal judge of his work (he would silently ask, “How am I doing, Corbu?”), so I still consider the imagined critical opinions of my teachers years later. From all of them I learned that one must find one’s own voice but then be judged by all of history. Quite a tall order, but without impossible goals nothing can be achieved in architecture. Luckily, by the time I was a student of Scully, he believed that the era of the primal form givers was over. Perhaps, I thought, there was room for my own contribution. I knew for certain that there was time: architecture is a lifelong pursuit, and architects never retire but die in the saddle. My mind was open and optimistic regarding the myriad possibilities in architecture, though I had no idea of the difficulties that lay ahead. Dante is indeed a good guide for an architect going out into the world; it is either heaven or hell. Abandon all hope or behold the light of Beatrice—often the two are intertwined in a way that is impossible to disentangle.

 


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