Fred A. Bernstein

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Peter Eisenman in Verona

A review of the architect's 2004 Castelvecchio installation

Published in Architectural Record, December 6, 2004

Peter Eisenman, who has been a part of all nine Venice Architecture Biennales, was represented in 2004 not only by photos and models of his projects, in several venues, but by his room-size installation in the Italian Pavilion. That plywood-and-steel-pipe construction, Eisenman says, was intended to embody 500 years of architectural history--from Palladio to Peter. But it was, at best, a trifle compared to the architect's tour de force 90 miles away, in Verona, an installation also curated by Biennale director Kurt Forster.

The setting was the Castelvecchio, a 14th-century fortress, rebuilt after World War II, on the Adige River. Between 1958 and 1964, Carlo Scarpa turned the decrepit castle into a museum of antiquity, and he did so with a skill that is difficult to appreciate from photos. Scarpa began by carving a cavernous space into an enfillade of five square rooms. To separate foreground and background, Scarpa left a 10-inch gap between his new concrete floors and the building's ancient walls--the floors thus read as discrete platforms. On these platforms, Scarpa installed the museum's collection on a series of steel pedestals and shelves. His sensibility, which deals in puzzle-piece asymmetry and doubled lines, is so distinctive that it is possible, walking around the museum, to identify his contributions down to the last bracket or hinge. To Eisenman, Scarpa's architecture is all about connections, about "how the pieces fit together. He's small-scale," Eisenman says, adding, "I'm large-scale."

Invited to install a show in the museum, Eisenman visited it for the first time in more than 30 years, and decided "you can't compete with Scarpa." Instead, he asked permission to build on the lawn outside the museum, but inside the castle walls. And he began with the five platforms--because, despite Scarpa's focus on details, Eisenman said, "The structures have an overall idea about them--so they're the mediating device between my work and his."

Reprising Scarpa's plan precisely, Eisenman placed his concrete, stone and steel platforms in front of the museum. Then he created another grid, shifted about 12 degrees from Scarpa's, which shoots through the courtyard like a river that has unexpectedly changed course. The tension between the grids (no less the two philosophies) created fissures; within them, Eisenman located an archaeological survey of his own career. Among the motifs: red steel I-beams, from his IBA Social Housing in Berlin; contoured topography from his City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and square holes from his Cannaregio Town Square project for Venice. The builders did an extraordinary job of capturing architecture seemingly in motion; for those who can't make it to Verona, the handsome catalog by Cynthia Davidson (Eisenman's wife) includes working drawings. Eisenman said the installation cost about $300,000.

Eisenman didn't entirely shun the museum interior; he installed a series of architectural fragments in the trenches around Scarpa's platforms, as if inhabiting the gap between the ancient and the modern. Eisenman says his intent was "to confound the relationship of time to place by questioning which was the original project: the castle, Scarpa, or Eisenman?"

Of course you know the answer, but the Eisenman-Scarpa interaction is like a Charles Ives piece in which two orchestras merge, then attempt to separate. Eisenman's own allusions are more often literary: His catalog essay includes references to Proust, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges, and there are the usual puns (Scarpa means foot, one of the reasons, he said, that he called the installation The Garden of Lost Footsteps.)

Forster, for his part, describes the installation as both lucid and ludic--wordplay being de rigueur when architecture is treated as "text." But Eisenman insists it isn't necessary to understand the intellectual underpinnings to appreciate the result. "We have photos of children rolling on the lawn," he says. "They love it." Besides, if Eisenman's installation does nothing more than get a new generation of architects to take a close look Scarpa's work, it will have been a success.