Berlin Holocaust Memorial architect Peter Eisenman turns 85

Deconstructing structures: the architecture of Peter Eisenman

Holocaust Memorial

Eisenman's stone slab field lies between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in 2005. "I think it's a bit too aesthetic. I wanted something ordinary, something banal," the architect remarked when it was finished. Out of hundreds of proposals, his idea was chosen in 1999. Its visitors meanwhile number on the millions.

Deconstructing structures: the architecture of Peter Eisenman

Wexner Center for the Visual Arts

It was the first major public facility designed by Peter Eisenman; before 1983, when he was awarded the commission by the University of Ohio, he had been active mainly as an instructor and writer on architectural theory. The large white metal scaffolding gives the building an unfinished look - and points to Eisenman's deconstructivist approach.

Deconstructing structures: the architecture of Peter Eisenman

House at Checkpoint Charlie

Built as low-income housing in Berlin, it was one of the central works of the International Building Exhibition in 1987. Eisenman's design exploits the interplay of differing quadratic frameworks. His original plans also called for a garden facility.

Deconstructing structures: the architecture of Peter Eisenman

Honorary Lion at the Ninth Architecture Biennial in Venice

Peter Eisenman took the Honorary Lion in 2004 for his design of the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela. The Biennale's theme that year was "Metamorphous," highlighting architecture's transformative capacity. Eisenman's work demonstrated the metamorphosis of architectural forms, materials and their manner of presentation.

Deconstructing structures: the architecture of Peter Eisenman

City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela

Near the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on Mount Gaiás in Spain stands Peter Eisenman's huge cultural center, a mix of architecture and landscape art. Art lovers have flocked to the location in northwestern Galizia since 2010. Tucked away in the landscape are a library, an archive, an administrative building, two museums and a theater seating 1,500.

Deconstructing structures: the architecture of Peter Eisenman

Model of the Leipzig Olympic Park

Leipzig had an Olympic dream in 2003 when it applied for the 2012 Summer Games. Tossing his hat in the ring, Eisenman came up with a futuristic model that was displayed in the exhibition "Olympic Visions on the Path to Reality" in March 2003. On the right is a design by Dresden architect Peter Kulka. The city's application was unsuccessful and the 2012 Olympics went to London.

Deconstructing structures: the architecture of Peter Eisenman

University of Phoenix Stadium

When Berlin's Holocaust Memorial was dedicated in 2005, Eisenman said, "To be honest, I don't think about memorials all that much. I'm much more interested in sports." He may have also been thinking of his stadium built from 2003 until 2006 in Phoenix for the NFL football team Arizona Cardinals.

US architect Peter Eisenman is best known for designing Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, but he is also a respected writer and teacher - and his ideas have inspired generations of architects.

Moving amidst the concrete slabs, you perceive a maze of possibilities. Every decision made - whether to proceed ahead or to turn one way or the other - seemingly leads nowhere. At a higher position on the sloped grounds, you can see another person's head bob up above a slab before it abruptly disappears in a mass of gray. A feeling of disorientation - or of numbness - ensues.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near Potsdamer Platz in the center of Berlin has often been criticized for providing no educational value. Never at a loss for words, its architect Peter Eisenman explained, with reference to the Holocaust, "We cannot comprehend what happened. It makes us helpless. And the monument lets one experience something of that helplessness."

Located on land once occupied by the gardens of the Reich Chancellory, the 19,000-square-meter (4.7-acre) site opened to the public in May 2005. Eisenman had been chosen out of hundreds of applicants to design the site in the late 1990s. In it, he implemented computer-aided design, adding a random element as an organizing principle to the 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights arranged in a grid.

Read more: Kate and William visit Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

Later, he volunteered some self-criticism of the results, saying, "I think it's a bit too aesthetic. I wanted something ordinary, something banal."

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin peaceful, yet disconcerting:

Not to be liked, but to educate

Born on August 11, 1932 in Newark, New Jersey, as the son of Jewish parents, Peter Eisenman studied at Cornell, Columbia and Cambridge Universities. His connection to academia has continued through a lifetime of teaching at Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, Ohio State and The Cooper Union - and currently at Yale University.

It is his educational activities, in fact, that stood out most to Mark Wigley, former dean of Columbia University, who in 2011 said, "Peter symbolized the capacity to change the game. Some might say he's a teacher to two, three or four generations. His mission in life is not to be liked, but to educate."

Eisenman worked in 1957 and 1958 in The Architects Collaborative, founded by the Berlin-born American architect Walther Gropius. After teaching at Princeton, he founded the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in 1967, serving as its executive director until 1981.

In his buildings, teachings and theoretical writings, Peter Eisenman became associated with deconstructivism, a movement in architecture which had to do with freeing buildings from the strictures of tradition, confounding expectations, fragmenting forms and rejecting symmetry. Confronting architectural history, the movement sought to "disassemble" architecture.

Read more: Yolocaust art project challenges how the Holocaust is remembered

Related Subjects

Eisenman's tendency to go against the grain is also reflected in his personality, said the late American architect Charles Gwathmey: "He's a conscience, and he forces you to confront the questions you try to avoid. I think his passion and his risk-taking in life have always been a model for all of us who know him well, who are both intimidated, provoked and stimulated by him."

The City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela comprises six buildings

Major works - and some controversy

The deconstructivist aspect of Eisenman's work has not been without concrete - and costly - drawbacks. The Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Columbus, Ohio - hailed at its completion in 1989 as the first major deconstructivist public building - has interior planes that collide to the effect of making some visitors physically ill. Due to basic design flaws, the structure has required expensive corrections.

Ever-resistant to being pidgeonholed, Eisenman once said, "I don't want to be either good or bad, right or wrong, left or right. Nor am I a modernist." And in an interview for the periodical Architect in 2004, he added, "If the world were all deconstructionist buildings, I'd go nuts."

Eisenman's work includes large-scale housing and urban design projects, the Koizumi Sangyo Building in Tokyo, a stadium finished in 2006 at the University of Phoenix in Arizona, and the six-building City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain in 1999. The author of several books, he has won a number of international awards.

In 2011, the architect Rafael Vinoly put Eisenman into a historical context: "I think he's promoted and made out of the whole discipline a body of knowledge that is by far larger than it was when he started. He's the greatest polemicist in the world, an incredibly talented man, fun to be with and a fair player. I think he's very rare nowadays in our trade."

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

An unusual monument

Usually, monuments commemorate the heroes of a nation. Berlin's Holocaust Memorial is the exact opposite. In a newspaper interview published in 2011, renowned German writer Martin Walser called it "the first monument erected by a nation in memory of its crimes." Thousands of people visit every day. It is open to the public and can be accessed around the clock.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

An impressive work of art

During World War II, the Nazis killed six million Jews - an extermination considered the worst crime in history. According to Martin Walser, the Holocaust memorial "matches the crime it commemorates: It's a gigantic monument." Amazingly, it is also "a beautiful construction, a work of art." The bright lights in the background belong to Potsdamer Platz.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

Creating the impression of a rippling field

In summer 1998, a model of the memorial was presented at Brandenburg Gate. As a result of a competition, four designs had been chosen, including the "field of stelae" conceived by American architect Peter Eisenman. The concept found favor with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl who, from then on, advocated the construction of the monument.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

The initiator

The basic concept of the Holocaust Memorial was mooted on August 24, 1988, during a panel discussion in West Berlin. Journalist Lea Rosh proposes to erect a monument at this "site of perpetrators". Without her dedication, the monument would not exist. The picture shows Rosh delivering a speech marking the symbolic beginning of the monument's construction in January, 2000.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

In the heart of Berlin

Erecting the enormous monument in the center of Berlin, between the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and Potsdam Square, was a mammoth task that took several years. 2,710 concrete slabs, or stelae, were arranged symmetrically on 19,000 square meters (4.7 acres) of land. All of them have identical base measurements, but different heights. The total cost amounted to about 27 million euros.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

The Stonehenge of Berlin

The central monument commemorating the killing of Jews in Germany has developed into a tourist attraction. Year after year, hundreds of thousands of visitors dip into the sea of cement pillars - mostly young people from all over the world. The Holocaust Memorial is one of the most visited sites in Germany's capital.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

The Holocaust in detail

The monument's information and musem center is located underneath the memorial and complements the abstract form of remembrance represented by the monument. The permanent exhibition gives names and faces to the victims, portraying the fate of individuals and their families, their lives, their suffering, their deaths. Drastic images are rare - the horrors can be imagined in the visitor's mind.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

Lonely and disoriented

The deeper visitors enter the rippling maze, the stronger their feeling of existential loneliness: they don't know where to go. Although in the center of Berlin, they are far, far away from everything. All of a sudden, one gets an eerie feeling of loneliness, of desertion and threat. Such was probably the experience made by most of the victims during the Holocaust - albeit much more terrifying.

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

The architect

The Memorial's architect, Peter Eisenman (82), is delighted that his monument has been so well received. Children play hide-and-seek here, young people take "selfies" and couples kiss - he likes it all. He didn't want to create a "sacred place", he says. He is also pleased with the abstract nature of the monument: "You're neither reminded of a death camp, nor of anything equally horrible."

Ten-year anniversary of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial

Monument of reflection

"You can't arrange the way people remember the Holocaust," says Eisenman. Some bring flowers, some pray, some sit on the slabs. Playing, laughing, contemplating: in Berlin everyone can make up their own mind about how they want to commemorate. That many visitors are clueless about the Holocaust does not bother Eisenman. The monument is always open, and free - as is remembrance.