Where Are Our Death Star Lasers, Mr. Eisenman?


Nathan Eddy


Newsletter, Preservation, historic preservation, docomomo, 1993
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In 1990, Peter Eisenman’s office won the competition for a new convention center for Columbus, Ohio (Greater Columbus Convention Center), with their startling scheme: a 580,000-square foot polychrome structure crushed up against the curving concrete decks of Interstate 670 on the northern edge of the city.


In a packed town hall meeting on the eve of the competition vote, a 600-member jury rejected Michael Graves’ post-modern pastiche of ships masts and maritime symbolism, choosing instead Eisenman’s snaking nest of cable-like forms and information age allusions. 


With full theatrical trappings—nu-age Philip Glass music, smoke machines, mood lighting--the Eisenman team unveiled to the crowd a scale model of the building, which produced a light show to rival a Laser Floyd spectacular.


These dozen red-hued Death Star beams, developed with artist Walter Gundy, were to be placed on the building and neighboring structures, flashing, blinking, sweeping across downtown like some insane city-scale laser security system.


The citizens of Columbus, some dazzled, some frightened, but all intrigued by this mesmerizing fusion of light and structure, put the convention center on the fast track.


Three years later, it was opened.


Sans lasers. 

Aerial views of the building taken shortly after its completion are still startling—a colorful cartoon building dropped into a grey industrial landscape, the massive black, blank screen of the Hyatt looming like a short-circuited television behind it.


The sinewy, robust forms snaking across the landscape echo and amplify the highway lanes racing around it; the building seems almost alive, in motion, shuffling and reorganizing itself without breaking completely apart.


It also reads as a colossal metaphor of information processing; the back of the building, the loading docks, is the receiver of information, the central part, the convention hall itself, is where information is displayed, and the front part of the building, the meeting rooms, is where information is processed.


Then there’s the color palette--to this day it ranks among the most controversial in modern architecture-- neck and neck with Helmut Jahn’s rose and robin’s egg blue Thompson Center in Chicago.


Its Necco Wafer hues were originally to be more sharply metallic golds, coppers, silvers and bronzes—an expensive gloss that even a $94 million budget did not allow for—and with time the Piero della Francesca effect has gotten even weirder.

But from an architect known for difficult, disorienting buildings whose very philosophy was to defy function, the GCCC actually works—it is abstract without being opaque, challenging without being actively hostile.


No upside down stairs here or windows in the floor, no hallways to nowhere or vertigo effects--though the pitched planes of the ballroom even gave Eisenman the illusion the room was moving


In fact, for all of its outward attempts to jostle the eye, the inside of the convention center is a clear and straightforward, organized around a skylit atrium paralleling the building's long sides.


On one side are 54 meeting rooms and the ballroom; on the other, the exhibition hall, but the main space inside is a corridor that cuts perpendicularly through the building so that colors and ceiling heights change as you walk through it.


Up top, the curving strips of the roof screech to a halt at the building’s western end on High Street, on the downtown edge of the city, two miles south of Eisenman’s Wexner Center, completed a few years prior.


The GCCC’s three-block-long facade is broken up into 11 segments, clad alternately in masonry and glass and generally matching the proportions of the 19th century brick industrial buildings across the street.


Eisenman’s side is a jauntier, more colorful Who Framed Roger Rabbit? version of a city street, from one long view a rumpled mass, as though shaken by an earthquake--crooked, sliding forward, backward, playful, slightly aggressive.


Those bizarre colors.


A number of these High Street facades also recall sawed off ends of fiber optic cables, blown up to an absurd scale—a scale that nevertheless neatly matches its neighbors over the road.


Contrast this with convention centers built at the time and those built in the decades before, which made little to no attempt to integrate into their surroundings.


Pei Cobb Freed’s Javits Center, opened 10 years earlier, remains an isolated, lumpen pile of bottle green glass on the western edge of Manhattan—as AIA members (re) discovered at the convention this June.


The building’s roof—Eiseman’s “fifth façade”—is best appreciated from a plane or Google Maps--where its reads like some giant Claes Oldenburg microchip, but bigger and far more disquieting.


The late New York Times architecture Herbert Muschamp hailed it as exuberant, robust, visually generous, even jolly.


Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin remarked it made Jahn’s Thompson Center seem tame by comparison—“What in the name of Newton is going on here?” he asked.


The deconstructivist acrobatics of Eisenman’s buildings still provoke and challenge (or anger and unsettle, depending on your point of view), but GCCC is unique in its contextual approach to the physical fabric of the city and the rapidly accelerating electronic information landscape.

Of course 25 years on, the symbolism of the information superhighway we remember from the 1990s—those Web 1.0 images of brightly colored, gently curving streams of light, the flow of the capital “I” Internet made visible--now seem almost charmingly quaint.


The January 1994 edition of Popular Mechanics, for example, could have dropped the GCCC onto its cover with picture-perfect effect.


We don’t think of Web-based communications that way at all anymore (what would a WiFi building even look like?), but in fact the Ciscos and Belkins of the world have started to make their wireless routers and their data storage units more architectural.  


Meanwhile we observe the fracturing of fact-based reality, buried in the crushing daily media onslaught of brain-melting relentlessness--Eisenman’s building starts to look more like a security blanket.


The convention center’s freehand lines even offer a sensuality untamed by mathematical precision of Eisenman’s more rigorously geometrical forms.


Meanwhile, his interest in creating an architecture of the weak image—that is, a building that cannot be summed up in one shot, has become an almost impossibility.


 In architecture today a few clicks of the camera capture most buildings. The building itself is not the important creation, the photograph of the building is potentially the work of art.


If one actually visits a building, Eisenman has argued, one doesn’t really see it—the mind notices a few clues and automatically refers back to one or another of the image types already stored, categorized and forgotten there.


Forget the Bilbao Effect—today’s clients demand the Instagram Effect, with architects all but forced to include social media experiences into their designs.


In 2018, a quarter century feels like forever ago, and Eisenman’s building, with its peculiar colors, slanted walls and cocky posturing, is still somehow both out of and ahead of its time, a futuristic anachronism.


In the end, or maybe even in the beginning, Eisenman’s idea of a convention center is/was/will be a strange and fascinating near-miss portent of the future, a splintered meeting place slithering into the protean dawn of the “AOL 1000 Hours Free!!!” era of the World Wide Web.


Perhaps it’s time to switch on those Death Star lasers.


About the Author


Nathan Eddy lives in Berlin and is the director of architecture documentaries Starship Chicago and The Absent Column, both available online. Most recently, he led the effort to save Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T Building in New York, which delighted and infuriated equal numbers of people.