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Arts

Berlin Holocaust Memorial architect Peter Eisenman turns 85

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."

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (picture-alliance/Schoening)

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

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 (Certo Xornal)

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."

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