Longing for the Impossible

Peter Eisenman, the deconstructivist architect who designed the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, says the kind of yearning found in Zionism can be found in every architect

"I didn't know I was Jewish until I encountered anti-Semitism at the age of 10, when my best friend told me I couldn't come to their house because I was a Jew. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in the U.S. during World War II," says Peter Eisenman. He was speaking in a telephone interview from New York last week. Even though he grew up in a non-Zionist and assimilated family where his father held radical leftist views, the Jewish American architect remembers the anti-Semitism of those days well.

"I remember there was a dance school in my hometown, and on one Saturday night the Jews danced there, and the Saturday after - the non-Jews. Jews were not allowed to dance with non-Jews. Anti-Semitism was quite manifested among the upper middle class that surrounded us," he recalls.

The 78-year-old Eisenman is one of the most intriguing and innovative architects of the past half century, starting with his doctorate at the University of Cambridge in England in 1963. In his thesis, he challenged the modernist architects who sanctified functionalism, and he has never stopped being innovative. In recent years he has developed a discourse on the significance of form in architecture since the advent of digital media. He introduced an alternative to the debate in recent years about the political dimension of architecture.

In Eisenman's eyes, architecture is always political. "It was political for the Nazis, for Mussolini and for Stalin. Architecture is definitely a political act," he says.

But he believes that seeing architecture in that light alone makes it artificial. Architecture has a poetic side; it is creative and formative, it releases you and widens your horizons, and that's something we can't ignore, he says.

Eisenman developed his ideas in many ways. At the end of the 1970s he set up the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. He has taken part in many individual and group exhibitions around the world including the 1998 exhibition on deconstructivist architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That project was curated by Philip Johnson and the architectural theoretician Mark Wigley.

Eisenman has published many articles that have influenced architectural thought; he even wrote a book with French philosopher Jacques Derrida and has been present at almost every important phase of experimental architecture in recent years.

Eisenman, who visits Israel frequently, will come here this week to receive the Wolf Prize for architecture together with the British architect Sir David Chipperfield. The members of the committee that selected Eisenman for the prize noted the way he reflects destruction and ruin in Berlin's controversial Holocaust memorial, which he designed.

The Berlin memorial, which was dedicated in 2005, raised questions about how to commemorate the Holocaust. Eisenman plans to discuss some of these issues at a lecture at the Azrieli School of Architecture at Tel Aviv University. He has called his talk "Sehnsucht" - German for longing or yearning.

"Sehnsucht is a very interesting concept. Its origins are found in Kafka, Heine and Wagner," he says. "Kafka said that Zionism is based upon the concept of Sehnsucht, which means longing for the impossible. And I believe there is a longing for the impossible in every architect, and there is a longing, too, for the unattainable in Peter Eisenman. To come to terms with life in exile."

Eisenman at first hesitated when he was asked to take part in the competition for planning the Holocaust memorial. "When I started the project, along with Richard Serra, I wasn't sure I wanted to participate, not even in the competition. I did not lose my family in the Holocaust; growing up I wasn't dealing seriously with the memory of the Holocaust. My family came to the U.S. from eastern Germany and from Poland in the 19th century. I hated the commemoration industry. And I hated the idea of the self-explanatory memory. I didn't like [the film] 'Schindler's List' - I thought it was banal. And yet, we accepted the challenge," he says.

"Our monument is not for the Jews, it is for the Germans. I saw the German series 'Heimat,' which basically defies the way they tell Germans how to remember or how to behave. The Germans were very clear: They didn't want an Israeli to design the monument. They wanted to make this monument for the German people. And we wanted to take the Holocaust out of the unnatural relationships between Germans and Jews," he says.

"I met German people, and when I introduced myself they immediately told me that their grandparents had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They were trying not to hurt your feelings when they heard you were Jewish. They behaved differently, and by that, they hurt your feelings. We wanted to avoid that situation. We wanted the monument to become a part of everyday life and a part of Germany. Not a part of the U.S. or Israel or the Jews. But a part of German conscience and subconscious."

To that end, Eisenman developed a different concept of memory that is based on patterns of behavior from daily life. "We're talking here about a different memory, not my memory, or your memory, or the Israeli memory. We're talking about the memory of the German people, the people who were part of it, not in order to erase that memory, but to create another," he says.

"When you go there today, you see children coming out of buses, running into the monument and playing catch-me. You see people eating their lunch there, doing all sorts of everyday activities. And these children return to their homes and say they had a wonderful day. And when asked where they've been, they say: In the Holocaust monument. Some make it their rendezvous point, so the Holocaust Monument experience becomes an everyday experience. It is a totally different memory."

Various groups in Germany criticized the memorial for concentrating on the Holocaust of the Jews and not mentioning other groups like other groups like the Roma and homosexuals who were also persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.

"At first we asked ourselves: Why not commemorate the Roma people, the homosexuals; why not make a monument for them? And then I realized that this monument should only be for the Jews. And that it shouldn't be a monument for the Jews who were murdered, but for the Jews who were exterminated, since the Jews were the only ones that they tried to exterminate, not only murder," he says.

"Murderers you can catch, you can catch Heydrich and Himmler and Goebbels and others. But the exterminators were the people, they did the extermination, and you can't catch them. That's why we felt very strongly that we needed to make a monument to the extermination, rather than the murder, of the people."

Since the memorial was dedicated, another monument to the homosexuals was set up nearby in 2008. And the artist Dani Karavan is building a third monument in the city, to the Roma (gypsies ).

Restoration destroys the present

Even after so many years in the field, Eisenman is one of the most innovative architects today, but he is critical of contemporary architecture. "I think architecture is at a very problematic situation today. We don't have any new paradigms, new social ideas, political ideas. And I think digital architecture, as well as sustainable architecture, is to blame for that," he says.

"I think ... architecture is used for creating new markets and supposedly new ideas. I think that the work being done in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is exaggerated and is not producing anything interesting. This reflects the culture in which this architecture is being made.

"I am not against using digital tools. I was one of the first ones to use them. Before digital became digital we were doing computer work. The problem with digital architecture is that an algorithm can produce endless variations, so an architect has many choices," he says.

"And I ask: How does one choose? What are the values to choose from? And what makes one choice better than the other? Frank Gehry showed me slides of 30 buildings lately, and I asked: Which one of them is better and how can you tell? I believe that architecture, like any other form of art, should have that critical mechanism within it, which allows us to judge."

In this respect, Eisenman refers to the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, designed by Preston Scott Cohen. "I like Scott Cohen's building in Israel. He has an agenda, which attempts to bring the past and the present into the future. I think this is one of the better buildings of our time."

But Eisenman also sees the obsession of architectural conservation as a problem. "Conservation destroys the present. If we are only busy preserving the past, we are not living in the present and unable to look forward. I am against conservation. We should let young people move forward, whether we agree with them or not. We should let new things happen."

The writer is an architect and senior lecturer in the history and theory of architecture and design at Tel Aviv University.