The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 14 November 2005

Peter Eisenman's House VI

The Client's Response

by Suzanne Frank

It is enough of a truism that all great architecture leaks that it has become the stereotype of great architecture. Much of that great architecture is practically unlivable, too. Too often, architects -- like most artists, somewhat self-absorbed -- pay little attention to the true function of a structure: that it be ultimately livable. In this, they even forget that when Form Follows Function, function should include keeping the clients dry. This requirement should not be an impediment to great architecture. Often enough, architects choose to ignore it (while complaining that contractors can't build to their demanding standards). In Peter Eisenman's House VI, the architect set out to illustrate, in wood and glass, his personal theory of house construction that totally explodes the cultural and historical idea of house. This was his intent, and it included abandoning the idea of "function" in any traditional sense. Can it be any surprise then that, even for a tolerant and sympathetic client, the result would be difficult to inhabit?

Architects famously fail to follow up on the success or failure of their work when it is complete. Once those beautiful, and unoccupied, buildings appear in Architectural Record, the job is done. There seem to be few studies of how architecture evolves under habitation. Critics who question the costs of occupancy are often considered cranks and obstructions to Great Architecture. And so, into this landscape falls Suzanne Frank's book on Peter Eisenman's House VI.

Frank and her husband contracted with Eisenman to build a small country house in Connecticut. So sympathetic and undemanding a client would be a godsend to a visionary like Eisenman. Frank was an art and architecture historian who worked with Eisenman in the early 1970s. So, she was deeply sympathetic to his vision. The end product, completed in 1975, is, indeed, a work of high art. Frank enjoys living in the space, with all its quirks, curiosities, and fabulous light. The house was poorly constructed, however, and within a few years, the author found herself reconstructing it almost from scratch. In this, she had precious little assistance from the architect. To him, the design was pure, its failings irrelevant, and the owner's changes to the house tantamount to architectural vandalism. This is the experience Frank describes in this book. After the reconstruction, the failings in House VI remain the result of the architect's vision as well as his arrogance. The house is livable, but it sounds a little annoying. Can one live inside a work of art? Frank manages to do so, and even in a book in which she gets her opinion finally heard, she includes several essays of high praise for the work, and even a two-page afterword by the architect himself. Eisenman, who went on to design the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, says that he abhors the idea of freezing architecture in time, as long as nobody tampers with his own design of House VI. Go figure.

(For an entertaining insurgent study of how buildings change with their inhabitants, see also How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.)

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