Peter Eisenman, his white hair closely cropped, his red bow tie as bright as a carnation, is staring at his fingers. The architect is sitting next to me at the award dinner for an urban-planning competition sponsored by Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architecture, and he doesn't appear to be paying a bit of attention to the speaker, the CCA's founding director, Phyllis Lambert. She is about to announce the winner of the $100,000 prize for a new vision of Manhattan's far West Side, a neighborhood rising above the MTA's rail yards. Eisenman, one of the finalists, is concentrating on his cuticles.
As it turns out, he doesn't need to listen. He knows. Someone had called him late the previous night, after the all-star cast of jurors -- including architects Frank Gehry, Elizabeth Diller, Arata Isozaki, Philip Johnson, and José Rafael Moneo -- had voted his plan the winner. (Eisenman is on a roll; the previous week, his Holocaust memorial, to be built on land adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, was approved by the Bundestag.)
I was pretty sure I knew as well when, earlier that day, I examined the plans by finalists Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of Amsterdam; Morphosis of Santa Monica; Cedric Price Architects of London; Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto of New York; and Eisenman, also of New York. I noticed that his isn't just an architectural plan; it's a political one. His is the scheme anchored by a sports stadium, presumably an unabashed nod to one of the other jurors, Joseph B. Rose, chairman of the City Planning Commission.
Conspiracy theorists in the architectural community also thought they knew. When the five finalists, culled from a field of 110, were announced in February, rumors began circulating that the competition was a sham, a vehicle for Eisenman. Lambert (née Bronfman -- as a young woman she was instrumental in hiring Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to build her family's Seagram Building) is close to Eisenman, the story went, and had recently spent $1 million buying his architectural drawings. To which Lambert responds: "That's so crazy, I can't bear it." She points out that the CCA, which, after all, is an architecture museum, has been buying Eisenman's work for years. But she's also purchased the drawings of countless others. And she didn't select the finalists, the jury did. Elizabeth Diller, an experimental architect who was the sole woman on the jury, insists the selection process was both unpredictable and fair: "I would be the first to blow the whistle if something bad was going on."
"This is the first time I felt myself to the right of everyone else," Eisenman says in his acceptance speech. "I've always played the bad boy, the lefty." Yet during dinner he tells me that many of his best patrons have been Republicans. For example, there's Leslie Wexner, chairman of the Limited and namesake of Eisenman's award-winning Wexner Center, in Columbus, Ohio. And, for a time in 1997, it appeared that Staten Island's Republican borough president, Guy Molinari, was actually going to build Eisenman's exotic, high-tech conch-shell addition to the Saint George Ferry Terminal. (A more conventional firm has since been selected for the project.)
Not that there's anything overtly Republican about Eisenman's architecture, which is, in stylistic terms, fairly radical. He tends to design buildings that are painstakingly engineered to look as though they're on the brink of collapse. But there is something about Eisenman's go-go attitude, his practiced salesmanship, that people in positions of power -- whatever their party affiliation -- find enthralling.
The West Side design is a case in point, the perfect merger of outlandish and practical. Between a stadium, conventional but for the fact that it's partially submerged in the Hudson River, and a more-or-less-rectilinear office tower on the present site of Madison Square Garden stretches a bizarre man-made terrain, a building four avenue blocks long and five street blocks wide. The idea is that a verdant rooftop park, resembling a geologic model of restless tectonic plates, sits atop a variety of moneymaking concerns, including a new Madison Square Garden, television studios, hotel rooms, and lots of parking spaces. Better still, the developers of the tower at the east end of the complex buy up the air rights from the blocks above the train yards, subsidizing the other-worldly rooftop. And then there's the stadium.