Using formal analysis as a method to understand architectural form, this seminar provides students with an understanding of the complexities of current architectural production and helps them to become fluent in the language of form. Students are required to produce weekly drawings and to participate in reading discussions on specific buildings, ranging from Renaissance to contemporary. Limited enrollment.


Within the context of the Modern, a formal basis had become legible, one that allowed form to be read both within its time and across different eras. However, by the 1960s it became increasingly apparent that architectural language was changing. The clarity of the 1920s and 1930s was giving way to new interpretations of the modern. For example, Le Corbusier’s late works, the emergence of Brutalism, the regional interpretations of Modernism in Scandinavia and Latin America. Modernism gave way to modernisms, allowing the irreducible and logical relationships of form (the universal) to become specific to a moment in history. Furthermore, due to the positivistic character of the 20th century, Modernism aligned itself with technological progress and the zeitgeist. The result was the opposite of the universal: eventual obsolescence. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century, Modernism was declared over, and both the Modern and the idea of the universal folded in the face of changing societal conditions. Both the modern and universal had tried to overcome the temporality of the zeitgeist, but neither were able to do so.

Ultimately, the modern proved not to be universal. What, then, bounds the specificity of the modern? Luo suggests that it is an attitude towards time: modern conceptions of form took a critical stance towards time, suggesting that a theory of history is inherent to Modernism. As such, history is no longer an objective reconstruction. The specificity of the Modern, then, is time, rather than form. The aim of this course is to study how one can grant the possibility of a formal basis without succumbing to ideality. Students will study the Modern period due to the fruitful tension that arose in that period between form and time. Students will be asked to consider the following questions:

What are the universal qualities of architectural syntax? What happens when an irreducible logic of form is drawn into a specific moment in history? How did the modern access the universal aspects of form in order to produce an architecture distinct from what came before? Ultimately, can architecture, through an awareness of temporal conditions, become a theory of history in itself? This course proposes this possibility as a way of working in the present time that differs from the techno-zeitgeist, the post-critical, or the post-digital.


As a basic premise, the course recognizes both the applicability of formal analysis across time, while recognizing the nature of time and its passing. As such, students will be asked to keep the modern and the universal in a productive tension, investigating the different ways in which the Modern and the universal relate to each other.

During the Modern period, certain new spatial structures and architectural forms emerged, such as Le Corbusier’s 5 points of the new architecture (the free plan, the free façade, the roof garden, pilotis, and fenêtre en longeur). While essentially modern in their moment of emergence, these articulations of form eventually were absorbed into the language of architecture, becoming typologically universal. The Modern period also absorbed syntactical elements generated in other moments in history, giving them a historical specificity while granting the syntactical element universality by recognizing its applicability through time, for example: the use of a four-square or a nine-square plan. The tension between the Modern and the universal, then, can be said to lie with the notion of architectural syntax.

During the seminar, students will select works from the Modernist period and analyze their form through drawing. As the course progresses chronologically, students should track formal structures in their moment of emergence and as they are ultimately absorbed into the wider lexicon of architectural language. Could form be considered both modern AND universal? When do the modern and universal come into conflict? When do they ultimately fail?

The course will move chronologically from 1890 to 1988.


Date Subject
January 19 Introduction: Modern vs. Universal
January 26 Part I: 1890 to 1910
February 2 Part I: 1890 to 1910
February 9 Part II: 1910 to 1930
February 16 Part II: 1910 to 1930
February 23 Part III: 1930 to 1950
March 2 Part III: 1930 to 1950
March 9 Guest lecturer: Anthony Vidler
March 16 No class—Spring Break
March 23 No class—Spring Break
March 30 Part IV: 1950 to 1968
April 6 Part IV: 1950 to 1968
April 13 Part V: 1968 to 1988
April 20 Part V: 1968 to 1988
April 30 Lecture: TBD


Eisenman, Peter. “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End,” Perspecta 21 (1984): 163.

Eisenman, Peter. The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture. Baden, Switzerland : L. Müller, 2006.

Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. London ; New York, N.Y. : Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Luo, Xuan. Prefacing and Unfacing : Aporia and Its Disclosure in Peter Eisenman’s The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture. Thesis: Harvard Graduate School of Design, Spring 2017.

Vidler, Anthony. Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism. MIT, Massachussetts Institute of Technology, 2008.

Carpo, Mario. The Digital Turn in Architecture: 1992-2012. Wiley, 2013.

Carpo, Mario. The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence. MIT Press, 2017.

Rowe, Colin. The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa.

Open accordion

Other Semesters and Sections of this Course

Spring 2017
Diagrammatic Analysis: The Space of Time, Part I—Lateness
Peter Eisenman, Elisa Iturbe
Spring 2016
Diagrammatic Analysis
Peter Eisenman