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.
Like a pitchman on late-night TV, Eisenman keeps offering more. His proposal includes an extension of the No. 7 subway line – something the city has been pushing as part of Mayor Giuliani’s stadium crusade – down Eighth Avenue, along 33rd Street, connecting to another line linking it with the Meadowlands sports complex – “from Shea Stadium to Secaucus,” the designer boasts.
And here’s the twisted genius of Eisenman’s plan: Embedded in it is the presumption that New York will host the 2012 Olympics. Not only is this a romantic conceit designed to appeal to boosters on both sides of the Hudson, but the Olympics, Eisenman claims, provides a loophole in environmental laws that would otherwise prevent the construction of a stadium in the Hudson River.
Well, maybe Eisenman has moved to the right of center.
He didn’t come up with this all by himself. He brought in high-powered collaborators, notably Marilyn Taylor and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architects of the proposed new Penn Station. But this project has a monolithic, master-builder quality reminiscent of the bad old days of urban renewal. The design may be breathtakingly au courant, full of complex and irregular forms inspired and facilitated by the computer, but the plan itself is retrograde, promising to impose a unified vision on 100 acres of New York City. “Megalomaniacal,” asserts a juror who says he preferred the Morphosis plan, which clearly invited the participation of many architects, as did some of the other proposals.
Eisenman’s scheme is a lesson in why urban renewal was once so seductive for policy-makers. It’s a security blanket, with the architect providing all the answers for a slice of Manhattan that is, at the moment, nothing but questions: Can the Javits Center expand? Does Madison Square Garden stay where it is or move yet again? And how do we get to this part of town, anyway?
Eisenman leaves nothing to chance; at least that’s the impression given by his presentation. In actuality, the urban topology of his models, disorienting and thrilling, diverts attention from annoying little details like how this thing will actually work. It’s hard to figure out, looking at the computer-generated renderings, just how a Madison Square Garden would fit between the rail yards below and the warped terrain of the rooftop park above. Nor is it clear how this horizontal super-duper block would appear to a street-level pedestrian standing on the corner of 34th and Ninth. Would it be a shining example of twenty-first century urbanity, a bigger, better version of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, or a nightmarish adventure in gigantism? Maybe it’s unfair to ask those questions of something so raw, so new. But, as pie-in-the-sky as the project appears to be, the architect is completely in earnest. “We have a real scheme,” Eisenman insists.
Like many architectural competitions, the CCA’s was staged primarily as a catalyst for public discussion. The finalists’ submissions will be on display in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall in October, and there will be a daylong symposium at the Cooper Union on October 8. But the CCA’s competition also holds out the tantalizing promise that the participating architects will influence what is eventually built. Why else would Lambert have included both Rose and Empire State Development Corporation chairman Charles Gargano as jury members? And why else would she select a parcel of land over which the city, the state, and every private developer are salivating?
Gargano, incidentally, did not make it to the daylong judging of the projects. Nor was he in attendance at the dinner. While he was, according to competition organizers, very involved, his failure to show up for the actual judging adds to the perception that Manhattan’s West Side, no matter what the CCA’s visionary architects propose, will continue to be a battlefield for the political war between city and state governments. Regardless of what, if anything, is eventually built there, Eisenman has done something that will likely attract more powerful clients. He has given an otherwise dim-witted scheme – Giuliani’s West Side stadium plan – a veneer of intellectual credibility and an avant-garde sheen.