Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

Derrida's Garden
Eleanor Morgan

In 1985, Jacques Derrida was writing an essay on Plato’s theory of the cosmos when he received a phone call from Bernard Tschumi. He invited Derrida to collaborate with architect Peter Eisenman on a garden design for his Parc de la Villette project in Paris. This collaboration would attempt to combine the two creative spaces of writing and architecture—creating a unity of theory and practice. The problem was to find a common ground. As a possible source of inspiration, Derrida offered Eisenman his interrupted essay on Plato.

Plato outlines the first written argument for the binary structure of the universe.1 He divides it into two parts: the intelligible and the sensible. The former signifies the world of ideas, those that are governed by reason, while the “sensible” represents the material and changeable world that is created. Plato believes that the world of ideas contains the original moulds of all “matter.” The “sensible” or material state is therefore an inferior copy of the “intelligible.” But Plato finds that he needs a third term, a word to symbolize the space in which the ideal becomes visualized. He names this in-between area chora, Greek for “space” or “site.” He defines it as a “receptacle of becoming”: a site for creation, which everything passes through, but in which nothing is retained. Yet, with its very introduction, Plato poses a huge problem. If chora lies outside the two states of the universe, then how is it to be defined? It is outside description and language, outside the binary, and as such it must remain unrepresentable. Derrida writes that chora is “irreducible to all the values to which we are accustomed—values of origin, anthropomorphism, and so on ...2 So, chora comes from nowhere; it has no beginning, no essence, no nature. Chora is essential to Plato’s theory of creation, while at the same time refuting that model. It undermines what have been the two fundamental concepts of Western philosophy: the sensible and the intelligible. Plato’s binary order contains and relies on its own disruption.

Derrida and Eisenman choose the indescribable chora as a theme for the garden. Eisenman believes that the in-between state of chora will tie-in well with his own attempts to challenge the dominance of “presence” in architecture. He wants to create spaces in which presence and absence work together equally, against a traditional hierarchy that equates “presence” with solidity and “absence” with void. Chora as a refuter of binaries seems an ideal theme for the collaboration of two men who attempt to disrupt Western philosophical and architectural traditions.

The problem becomes how to represent the unrepresentable. They begin on a process of layering in which one site will be allegorically read through another. There will be three stages to their work: Derrida’s interrupted essay on Plato, Eisenman’s reaction to Derrida’s essay, and a previous building design that Eisenman created in Venice which echoes the grid pattern of the Parc de la Villette. It is hoped that this layering will rid the garden of any notion of origin or single authorship. Like chora, it will have no beginning. However, they worry that visitors to the garden may need some guidance as to its meaning. So, the first decision they make is that there should be an explanatory text accompanying the site. The second point they agree on is the title of the work, Choral Works, with its play on the word chora and in reference to the belief that their collaboration is like music. Textually, then, the project is moving successfully. The only problem is to translate this theory into practice, as the following exchange between Derrida, Eisenman, and his colleague Thomas Leeser exemplifies:

Eisenman: Great, now we have everything—we have you, me, a story, a title.

Derrida: It remains to do the work.

Leeser: The work is missing.3

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About the Author

Eleanor Morgan is a British artist currently living in Vancouver. Her recent work explores our relationship with animals. This has included sculpting with spider’s silk, creating a staring match with a squirrel, and recording a close encounter with a giant sea anemone.

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