Peter Eisenman’s The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture: A Preface

Xuan Luo (MDes '17)

This thesis is a retrospective reading of Peter Eisenman’s 1963 doctoral dissertation, The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture in the form of a preface. Prae-fatio, or “a saying before-hand”, as Gayatri Spivak confesses in her own preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, “harbors a lie” in its pretense of having been written before a text that must already exist. Also drawing on Derrida, Barbara Johnson reflects on the preface in her introduction to Dissemination by saying, “Situated both inside and outside, both before and after the ‘book’ whose ‘book-ness’ it both promotes and transgresses, the preface has always inscribed itself in a strange warp of both time and space.”

In this light, Peter Eisenman’s belatedly published dissertation (2006) can be also interpreted as a preface at multiple levels. By the early sixties, the general cultural condition in the West manifested an alienation from the crumbling modern vision of the utopian society and a sense of rupture of historical continuity. Eisenman’s dissertation arose as one of the earliest responses toward this fundamental transformation. His intellectual exercise reflected an inward turning momentum in search of an immanent formal order, one that was estranged from the classical authority of the humanist subject. This thesis aims to parse Eisenman’s text in four separate sections: 1. Formal: the origin of geometry; 2. Basis: the origin myth; 3. Modern: the end of the Classical; 4. Architecture: autonomy, thus re-reading it as an active and open-ended theoretical text.