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Michele Costanzo interviews Bernard Tschumi about his work and his vision of the changing field of contemporary design research. How do the younger generation of students receive Tschumi's seminal theoretical works? Is a lack of time merely the current scapegoat for a more considered conceptual approach? How does Tschumi view the proliferation of architectural fetishes in the urban landscape? How is his own theoretical landscape shifting?
By encapsulating the social context and the economic transformations typical of their time. Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. In a similar way that it was apparent in other cultural and artistic forms at the time.4 There is a strong sense that the featured architects are poised to pass on something important to ensuing generations. His ties with academia. or Electric Lady Land from Jimi Hendrix). which paved the way for the exponential rise of the signature architect. However. and building and site plans). Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York. such as the imminent shortage of water. In 1976 he moved to the US where he taught at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. This effectively placed the architectural experience in close proximity on three different levels. food and energy as well as climate change. and in 1988 he was appointed Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture. movement (re-created by diagrams of movements from choreography and sport). The fact that Bernard Tschumi is both a theoretician and a designer is key to understanding his distinctive approach to architecture. providing a catalyst for new ideas? ‘While the mode of communication and the general sensibility of The Manhattan Transcripts clearly belong to the period. Curated by Jeff Kipnis. they all subsume the historical momentum in which they were produced. ‘Perfect Acts of Architecture’ displayed the graphic work that Peter Eisenman. France. Between 2001 and 2002. Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre. with the current economic slowdown and an acute growing awareness of wider issues. before taking up a position as a visiting professor at Cooper Union in New York in the early 1980s. Kipnis notes. Tschumi moved to London in 1970 to teach at the Architectural Association (AA) under the directorship of Alvin Boyarsky. Rouen. This incontrovertibly led to the profusion of computer-aided design with its almost inexhaustible potential.3 In other words. and space (explored through photography. an activity that provided him with a great deal of stimulation and an important outlet for his ongoing speculative. becomes one of the project’s key spaces. such as cinema and rock music (think of 2001: A Space Odyssey from Stanley Kubrick. This research was expanded in The Manhattan Transcripts (1981) with its three simultaneous levels of reality:1 the event (represented by documentary-style news photography). in which he used collages of images from film noir to experiment with the technique of cinematic editing and montage. remained strong. there was a significant schism in architecture. can have a role in the history of architecture provided that it is innovative and if its main purpose is the drawing in itself. This was triggered in the recently globalised world of design by a simultaneous crisis in theoretical thought and a growing shift towards the formal. he entered the world of professional practice and started to build a series of highly iconic projects. In 1983 when Tschumi won the competition to design the 50hectare (125-acre) Parc de la Villette in Paris. However. The concert hall plays host to various musical and sporting events. Tschumi began to focus on identifying a different and more direct relationship with architecture through a series of drawings known as The Screenplays (1977). In the late 1970s. Daniel Libeskind. It is now time to re-evaluate how the architect might become an operative figure in the world of aesthetics while being attentive to social and urban objectives. with a large ‘in-between’ area which. Elevated by the association with the gilded world of the global brand. however. close to the National Route 138. and the University of Princeton. intellectual reflections on the making of architecture. Thom Mayne and Tschumi all produced in a 10-year time period – from 1972 to 1982.2 Paper architecture. animated by the various routes to the hall itself. the issues they explore always had the ambition to transcend the historical conditions Bernard Tschumi. As the preoccupation with form developed through the decade it concurred with a burgeoning international economy. Work was selected from that particular era in order to consider these points by highlighting their internal values. founded by Peter Eisenman. although supported by a profound theoretical content. 2001 This cultural complex is located at the gateway to Rouen. 25 . they stress their affiliation to a period of great communication changes. After completing his degree at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Does he think that The Manhattan Transcripts continue to have a theoretical value to emerging generations. the drawings from The Manhattan Transcripts were included in a significant retrospective exhibition that travelled to four US cities. it must suggest new research trends and have an objective value. and the new exhibition centre accommodates large conventions and trade fairs. the architectural doyen inevitably became separated from the spatial concerns of the city. Kipnis captures a renewed confidence. the reconsideration of the architect as merely a marketing instrument or branding package has become pressing. The concept involves two envelopes. pervaded by a profound theoretical investigation. In his selection of the six projects for the exhibition. His 15-year term at Columbia testifies to his efforts in the field of education. Transcending History and ‘Concept-Form’ Interviewing Tschumi provided the unique opportunity to ask him whether he shares Kipnis’ interpretations of the featured projects.In the early 1990s.
’ Given Tschumi’s association with Deconstruction.’ Tschumi’s generation was able to dedicate a great deal of time to further research and careful consideration of conceptual design. yet the questioning would have remained fairly comparable. This raises conceptual as well as political issues. movement and programmes in the definition of architectural form. The strategy was to create a highly specific architectural statement that responds to the eclecticism of the historic neighbourhood. now a justifiable scapegoat for the loss of any conceptual approach to design? ‘There have always been periods of conception and periods of consumption. So does the architectural dictionary of received ideas. however. Is this. 2007 This 17-storey residential and commercial tower in the Lower East Side of Manhattan includes 32 apartments. Blue Residential Tower. I was keen to find out what his understanding of the ‘formalistic’ is vis-à-vis the current hedonistic attitude affecting architecture now: ‘What is “form”? The problem is that both media and dictionaries define it in the most reductive and banalising way: “form as the outline of an object against a background”. it is likely that the use of computers would have radically changed the appearance of the work. Would the new generations be able to draw from them? I have always been suspicious of the notion of generations. 26 . bringing a high level of abstraction in orchestrating together a complexity that includes materials. pixellated profile is a new presence in the Manhattan urbanscape.Bernard Tschumi. Its original. This is due to economic or social forces way beyond the control of architects. New York. I hope these will soon be investigated. of their time. I find more pleasure in what I would call “concept-form”. Would it have changed the content itself? Probably up to a point. together with their mode of notation. the early 21st century is characterised by a faster cycle of production and consumption. returning to haunt us at certain moments of history. My interest at that time (as well as today) was to try to contribute to – or potentially alter – the generally accepted definition of what architecture is. Hence issues of movement and event. Manhattan. I rather believe in a certain periodicity of themes. ‘Had I engaged in the work today. were first of all an investigation into the nature of architecture. due to the larger issues at hand. I would say that. as opposed to the1970s.
’ Given the distractions and difficulties of executing work. whether it is a matter of interpretation or mirroring their own inner thoughts. Ohio. but one is substantially more complex and more abstract.’ Spectacle? ‘I also would not completely condemn the production of spectacle. can the theoretical/conceptual nucleus of a project safeguard architecture from the market? ‘Architecture does not need to be safeguarded: commerce has also been a driving force of progress throughout history. in which programme. Bernard Tschumi. was to create a new model for the urban park. ‘I suppose it is the same distinction as between pornography and eroticism. around which issues revolve and occasionally intersect: space. as the architect asserts. envelopes.. economy of means. programme. 2006 Representing the epicentre of the university’s athletic and academic activities. I personally like the challenge of different geographical or social contexts as a stimulus to new architectural concepts. etc. body. the unusual curvilinear shape of this building takes advantage of the tight constraints of the site to create dynamic residual spaces between the existing stadium. Lindner Athletic Center. ‘ Context. After all. Parc de la Villette. the idea that the importance of architecture ‘resides in the ability to accelerate society’s transformation through a careful agency of spaces and events’.’ Given this.’ 27 . With this in mind. sports fields and the recreation centre. but four or five anchor points. The image represents. concept-form. how can we view the proliferation of architectural fetishes in the urban landscape. it can also be theorised . Yet it is commercialism that is problematic – when market forces begin to control every aspect of architectural thinking. form and ideology all play integral roles. Los Angeles or Abu Dhabi may on the one hand raise interesting questions about a new form of architecture.. global versus local. 1983–98 The aim of this project. do you think it remains important to establish the ‘theoretical core’ around which architecture is to rely on in the near future? ‘Probably not one single synthetic core. that is. yet on the other signify an impoverishment of architectural thought and invention. Exporting the same “shapes” to Bilbao. typology versus topology. which marked the starting point of Tschumi’s career as a theorist and designer. the uncontrolled diffusion of architectural objects that are indifferent to the environment they are part of? ‘This indifference is more problematic.Bernard Tschumi. Paris. Place and Theory Designers cannot avoid including in their work the changes occurring in their everyday lives. University of Cincinnati. They are both okay.
a theory of contexts. 1976–81. Text © 2009 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. and London). Event. And yet I knew the project was important. Practice is a theory. 1986.’ Tschumi’s buildings tend to be vital places open to a range of human activities and exchanges: places committed to the satisfaction 5 of social needs. Concert Hall. Content’ triad seems to have removed the role of the user from architecture’s original aim. 29 . p 27 © Sophie Chivet. The Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus). Its buildings are thus generators of events and interactions. is clad entirely with wood. in which Tschumi asserts that it is possible in defined circumstances to arrive at a theory through practice. It took me a while to realise that this project brutally confronted issues that I had been able to sidestep before. 26. I was not sure what to make of it. Florida. p 3. and Kate Mantilini Restaurant. 3. 2005. School of Architecture. varied yellow ceramic tiles. Does this shift in terminology represent a critical reassessment of the work? ‘The project for the New Acropolis Museum had a profound effect on my thinking. 1978. 2003 The Florida International School of Architecture is a place in which social exchange. France. a case where practice feeds theory. op cit. explains and analyses more thoroughly what he affirmed at the beginning of his studies and reflections on the project: that ‘concept. House VI Transformation Collages. Theory is a practice. Sixth Street House. while the exterior envelope is composed of polycarbonate panels. Translated from the Italian version into English by Paul David Blackmore Notes 1. Content” is by no means a negation of the first triad. Event-Cities 3. 2001.’6 4 This interview has been compiled from email correspondence between Michele Costanzo and Bernard Tschumi from April to June 2008. To bring context and content to event and movement is a way to confront them with the realities of both culture and production. Daniel Libeskind. Images: pp 24.asp?id=42. in the third volume from Event-Cities. context and content are part of the definition of contemporary urban culture and therefore of architecture. 2007 Like the Rouen Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre. Athens. Bernard Tschumi. it became a means to expand thought about the overall work. varied red ceramic tiles and nature. The Manhattan Transcripts. 2nd edition. What has caused such a change in the understanding of strategic planning? ‘To move from “Space. Context. Jeffrey Kipnis. which delineates the perimeter of the performance space. The Manhattan Transcripts. surrounded by 200-year-old trees. such as the issue of context. 1986–87.’ The last consideration.org/exhibitions/exhib_detail. Context.Bernard Tschumi. This seemed to start happening with the project for the New Acropolis Museum. Bernard Tschumi. words like ‘event’ and ‘space’ in Tschumi’s work have been replaced by others like ‘concept’ and ‘context’. Event-Cities. Peter Eisenman. For an overview of the exhibition see http://www. It did not fit neatly into the argumentation around my earlier projects. 1981. 4. MA. So I would rarely talk about it. The concept responds to the dramatic site: a clearing in a large forest at the edge of the city. the Limoges Concert Hall is based on the idea of a double envelope. 29 © Peter Mauss/Esto. The inner envelope. the three generators are. Perfect Acts of Architecture. Exodus or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture. However. Architectural Design (London). Limoges. Rather than a reassessment of the work. 6. After we won the competition and for a couple of years. Thom Mayne (Morphosis Studio). 2.sfmoma. p 28 © Christian Richters Bernard Tschumi. FIU Miami. 1972. The six featured series of drawings in the exhibition were as follows: Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. respectively. 1994. New Acropolis Museum. 2009 The distinctive characteristic of this new museum structure is its relationship with the ancient Acropolis and celebrated monuments which sit on a plateau overlooking the city. 5. Bernard Tschumi. discussion and debate between students and teachers are key. my goal is to expand the earlier issues by inserting the unavoidable complexity that reality entails. a practice of concepts. According to Tschumi: ‘The project can be described as the sobriety of two wings defining a space activated by the exuberance of three colourful generators. and Chamber Works.’ In recent times. 1983. Micromegas. The building highlights the individual elements on the site by focusing on the creation of broad and inspired views from the different vantage points within the museum. Movement” to “Concept. 1976. Academy Editions (London). MIT Press (Cambridge. the identification of the ‘Concept. The sober wings are made of precise yet user-friendly precast concrete. On the contrary.
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