Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2021
Peter Eisenman and Elisa Iturbe Lateness Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 120 pp.; 39 b/w ills. $26.95 (9780691147222)

Reading Lateness, Peter Eisenman’s new book with Elisa Iturbe, causes a cascade of ideas from Eisenman’s fifty years of production to come to the surface. They arrive, in effect, late—in stages, de-sorted—and as Lateness suggests, “apart from time.” It is difficult to view the book in isolation, yet there is a very new quality to the work. The tangential aspect to time—lateness—is in itself novel in Eisenman’s work. It portends an eventual, delayed rather than negated reconciliation with the times. Not with a would-be zeitgeist, but still far from the resistance often attributed to earlier work by Eisenman.

The focus of Lateness offers an alternative to a progressive—or as Eisenman had written early in his career, “heroic”—propagation of the modern period in architecture, a period often codified as manifest within a zeitgeist. Eisenman had written in 1971 that Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were both reductively understood in these terms. In Lateness Eisenman refers anew to a misuse of Mies’s words, in particular a phrase that cast architecture as the “will of an epoch.” Lateness, though, does not focus on these two architects except briefly in setting up its argument against a zeitgeist posture. As you read Lateness you see Mies and many other concerns from Eisenman’s early career effectively arrive in a form of lateness. They are in effect early Eisenman, but the times have changed.

If one steps back from the overall project, the book does startle in how directly it presents evidence. Explications of architecture by Adolf Loos, Aldo Rossi, and John Hejduk are each given a chapter and a series of analytical drawings. Before we see the architecture, however, Lateness outlines polemical readings of the use of the term “late.” In music or art, it becomes a “late period”; particularly discussed are the “late works” of Ludwig van Beethoven. In this case Beethoven is referenced by way of Theodor Adorno’s writing on said later works. From Adorno we see Beethoven in his chronologically later period returning to and leaving in place conventions he had previously made elastic and bent to his creativity. Later or late works by Beethoven restate these conventions and leave them intact (again). Eisenman and Iturbe quote Adorno to describe the effect of lateness: “Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form.” They continue: “Lateness frees form from the deformations wrought by a hand in search of expression” (13). The overall quality of this form of lateness—that of Eisenman and Iturbe—makes it possible to see a late style not as a hinge between two eras, but rather as a nonlinear breaking from time. Eisenman and Iturbe point to Edward Said to describe work that is “in and apart from the present” (9, emphasis added). Said, like Mies, returns from Eisenman’s earliest influences and foundations. Here lateness introduces a fragment as a viable form of art production, meaning that the temporal world of the author is not covalent with the temporal world of the art or its experience. The role of the author, something critical to each stage of Eisenman’s work, is made vividly real. The late work of art is not part of chronological time, nor is the author. As Lateness returns to Eisenman’s most important colleagues (such as Hejduk), the book performs its own kind of lateness.

Adorno provides more to the definition: late work is “not of the zeitgeist, and not of the avant-garde” (9). Architecture here would have a quality of “untimeliness.” In the case of Beethoven, his returning to structures that were left behind earlier gives his work a quality of being apart from time; more critically, it is thus not capable of commenting directly on the present. Its meaning is also not limited by the present. Yet, in stepping back from the work at hand, a reader might inquire as to Iturbe’s own recent very timely work on climate change. Iturbe, as guest editor for a recent issue of Log (“Overcoming Carbon Form,” Log 47, Fall 2019), would seem to declare it is not OK to be late in addressing climate change—in fact, most say we are already dangerously late. While it is not possible to be sure, I take Lateness as a double project: of Iturbe pushing Eisenman and herself to figure this out—is it OK to be late for an emergency?—but also of the authors asking, is there a form of the urban and architectural that can be applied to a world that sees need not as progressive but reparative? The subtext of why these two writers are joining forces is in itself a push/pull. It is hard to imagine Eisenman not wanting to address a crisis like climate change, but are he and Iturbe indeed looking to decouple it from a didactic or timely response?

When Eisenman’s first major writing appeared in 1973 in Yale’s Perspecta, Richard Nixon’s administration had just pulled the United States out of the Bretton Woods agreement. This launched the period of economic globalization and rampant financialization that is the focus of many of the voices shaping how architects see the city today. I initially took Lateness as a counter to the stage often set by current architecture schools: a latter-day metropolis that spans Adorno to Manfredo Tafuri as antecedents but is more likely shaped by economists Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz in terms of inequity, or David Harvey in terms of experience. Harvey spoke at Yale School of Architecture in the mid-1980s and, like Eisenman, published his work in Perspecta. Declaring that globalization instigated a new means of space and time, Harvey framed the new economy as a direct challenge to the territorial qualities of architecture/urban planning. I often feel the following decades within architecture programs became almost universally a plea to bring architectural intention to these extraterritorial dimensions. In this context, the autonomy Eisenman has been known for was a project not to reveal architecture (or resist technology) but to keep architecture from being weaponized as part of the accelerating—and predatory—economy. One assumes Eisenman would see architecture during these decades as having become a subsidiary means to propel a political/economic agenda (a new form of the “progressive”)—that is, not in the traditional, “heroic” form, but in finding intention(s) before form. Eisenman’s tougher appraisals would not see this as architecture.

Though the term “lateness” is new for Eisenman, in a way his work was always “late.” As a form of resistance, lateness staves off the misuse of architectural capacity; it inaugurates its own immanent capacity. But architectural concerns today are anxiously enmeshed in the social contexts of never-late money and deep inequality. Household debt in the United States in 1971 equaled 47 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP); by 2008 it reached virtually 100 percent. The cost to build a photovoltaic panel capable of producing one watt of electricity fell from $77 to 50 cents in that same period. Debt became dangerous, renewable energy inexpensive. The tenor of architecture schools today forces most to seek reconciliation with a dramatic expansion of markets and their liquidity and with a rewriting of territories that left many people poorer and less (not more) connected. All of this was coincident with the same years that Eisenman first introduced his own work to imagine an architecture that precedes or is at least apart from other forms of power and agency. Lateness has to be lauded for its attempt to sort out an architect’s relation to and engagement with history and time; even if one tends toward a newly progressive or quasi-autonomous posture, one gains a clearer lens through which to say, progressive in regard to what? Lateness does not abdicate ethics or action; it does question the author’s temporal relation to the immediate scene.

In reading Lateness I had in mind a passage from Frank Stella’s 1986 Working Space: Stella focused on Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (1610), declaring the violence of the narrative of David slaying Goliath as subordinate to—a betrayal of—the violence Caravaggio had achieved in his pictorial work. Lateness induces a similar set of questions. Are there forms of architectural space that are in themselves testament to the tenor of our time but that carry none of the narrative? May such forms speak to the violence of inequity, for example, without the originary intention (and ethics)? Stella transposed Caravaggio’s pictorial means into his own 1980s work. I saw it then and see Eisenman now as enacting a kind of brinkmanship. “Late form” is offered in lieu of immediate activism or agency; it threatens to sidestep or leap over the destructive forces of the present. The concept is not anti-progressive in either the heroic or the autonomous sense, but it also cannot declare what I take as a euphoria in Eisenman’s work—an architect set free from their own forms of expression. Lateness is the experience of forms tangentially dislocated from the social forces (sources) that limited them. It works if you can glimpse the nearby crises, and perhaps that is why it was critical for Eisenman to work with Iturbe, with her commitment to climate change, on this book.

Michael Bell
Professor of Architecture, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University