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Twenty Years After (Deconstructivism) An Interview with Bernard Tschumi
Rivista AD N° 1
di Jan/Feb , 2009
Autore: Michele Costanzo
Articoli 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 he view the proliferation of architectural fetishes in the urban landscape? How is his own theoretical landscape shifting?

In the early 1990s, there was a significant schism in architecture. This was triggered in the recently globalised world of design by a simultaneous crisis in theoretical thought and a growing shift towards the formal. As the preoccupation with form developed through the decade it concurred with a burgeoning international economy, which paved the way for the exponential rise of the signature architect. Elevated by the association with the gilded world of the global brand, the architectural doyen inevitably became separated from the spatial concerns of the city. However, with the current economic slowdown and an acute growing awareness of wider issues, such as the imminent shortage of water, food and energy as well as climate change, the reconsideration of the architect as merely a marketing instrument or branding package has become pressing. 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.
The fact that Bernard Tschumi is both a theoretician and a designer is key to understanding his distinctive approach to architecture. After completing his degree at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Tschumi moved to London in 1970 to teach at the Architectural Association (AA) under the directorship of Alvin Boyarsky. In 1976 he moved to the US where he taught at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, founded by Peter Eisenman, and the University of Princeton, before taking up a position as a visiting professor at Cooper Union in New York in the early 1980s.
In the late 1970s, 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 which he used collages of images from film noir to experiment with the technique of cinematic editing and montage. This research was published in The Manhattan Transcripts (1981) with its three simultaneous levels of reality:1 the event (represented by documentary-style news photography); movement (recreated by diagrams of movements from choreography and sport); and space (explored through photography, and building and site plans). This effectively placed the architectural experience in close proximity on three different levels.
In 1983 when Tschumi won the competition to design the 50-hectares (125-acre) Parc de la Villette in Paris, he entered the world of professional practice and started to build a series of highly iconic projects, pervaded by a profound theoretical investigation. His ties with academia, however, remained strong, and in 1988 he was appointed Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York. His 15-year term at Columbia testifies to his efforts in the field of education, an activity that provided him with a great deal of stimulation and an important outlet for his ongoing speculative, intellectual reflections on the making of architecture.
Between 2001 and 2002, the drawings from The Manhattan Transcripts were included in a significant retrospective exhibition that travelled to four US cities. Curated by Jeff Kipnis, ‘Perfect Acts of Architecture’ displayed the graphic work that Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, Daniel Libeskind, Thom Mayne and Tschumi all produced in a 10-year time period – from 1972 to 1987.2 Paper architecture, Kipnis notes, can have a role in the history of architecture provided that it is innovative and if its main purpose is the drawing in itself.3 In other words, it must suggest new research trends and have an objective value. Work was selected from that particular era in order to consider these points by highlighting their internal values. However, although supported by a profound theoretical content, they all subsume the historical momentum in which they were produced. By encapsulating the social context and the economic transformations typical of their time, they stress their affiliation to a period of great communication changes. This incontrovertibly led to the profusion of computer-aided design with its almost inexhaustible potential.
In his selection of the six projects for the exhibition, Kipnis captures a renewed confidence.4 There is a strong sense that the featured architects are poised to pass on something important to ensuing generations. In a similar way that it was apparent in other cultural and artistic forms at the time, such as cinema and rock music (think of 2001: A Space Odyssey from Stanley Kubrick, or Electric Lady Land from Jimi Hendrix).

Transcending History and ‘Concept-Form’
Interviewing Tschumi provided the unique opportunity to ask him whether he shares Kipnis’ interpretations of the featured projects. Does he think that The Manhattan Transcripts continue to have a theoretical value to emerging generations, providing a catalyst for new ideas?
‘While the mode of communication and the general sensibility of the Manhattan Transcripts clearly belong to the period, the issues they explore always had the ambition to transcend the historical conditions of their time. 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, together with their mode of notation, were first of all an investigation into the nature of architecture.
‘Had I engaged in the work today, it is likely that the use of computers would have radically changed the appearance of the work. Would it have changed the content itself? Probably up to a point, yet the questioning would have remained fairly comparable, due to the larger issues at hand. Would the new generations be able to draw from them? I have always been suspicious of the notion of generations. I rather believe in a certain periodicity of themes, returning to haunt us at certain moments of history.’
Tschumi’s generation was able to dedicate a great deal of time to further research and careful consideration of conceptual design. Is this, however, now a justifiable scapegoat for the loss of any conceptual approach to design?
‘There have always been periods of conception and periods of consumption. This is due to economic or social forces way beyond the control of architects. I would say that, as opposed to the1970s, the early 21st century is characterised by a faster cycle of production and consumption. This raises conceptual as well as political issues. I hope these will soon be investigated.’
Given Tschumi’s association with Deconstruction, I was keen to find out what his understanding of the ‘formalistic’ is vis-ŕ-vis the current hedonistic attitude affecting architecture now:
‘What is “form”? The problem s 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”. So does the architectural dictionary of received ideas. I find more pleasure in what I would call “concept-form”, bringing a high level of abstraction in orchestrating together a complexity that includes materials, movement and programmes in the definition of architectural form.
‘I suppose it is the same distinction as between pornography and eroticism. They are both okay, but one is substantially more complex and more abstract.’
Spectacle?
‘I also would not completely condemn the production of spectacle. After all, it can also be theorised ... ’

Context, Place and Theory
Designers cannot avoid including in their work the changes occurring in their everyday lives, whether it is a matter of interpretation or mirroring their own inner thoughts. With this in mind, how can we view the proliferation of architectural fetishes in the urban landscape; that is, the uncontrolled diffusion of architectural objects that are indifferent to the environment they are part of?
‘This indifference is more problematic. Exporting the same “shapes” to Bilbao, Los Angeles, or Abu Dhabi may on the one hand raise interesting questions about a new form of imperialism, yet on the other signify an impoverishment of architectural thought and invention. I personally like the challenge of different geographical or social contexts as a stimulus to new architectural concepts.’
Given the distractions and difficulties of executing work, do you think it remains important to establish the ‘theoretical core’ around which architecture is to rely on in the next future? ‘Probably not one single synthetic core, but four or five anchor points, around which issues revolve and occasionally intersect: space, programme, body, envelopes, global versus local, economy of means, typology versus topology, concept-form, etc.’
Given this, 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. Yet it is commercialism that is problematic – when market forces begin to control every aspect of architectural thinking.’
Tschumi’s buildings tend to be vital places open to a range of human activities and exchanges: places committed to the satisfaction of social needs. However, in the third volume from Event-Cities,5 the identification of the ‘Concept, Context, Content’ triad seems to have removed the role of the user from architecture’s original aim. What has caused such a change in the understanding of strategic planning?
‘To move from “Space, Event, Movement” to “Concept, Context, Content” is by no means a negation of the first triad. On the contrary, my goal is to expand the earlier issues by inserting the unavoidable complexity that reality entails. To bring context and content to event and movement is a way to confront them to the realities of both culture and production.’
In recent times, words like ‘event’ and ‘space’ in Tschumi’s work have been replaced by others like ‘concept’ and ‘context’. This seemed to start happening with the project for the New Acropolis Museum. 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. After we won the competition and for a couple of years, I was not sure what to make of it. It did not fit neatly into the argumentation around my earlier projects. So I would rarely talk about it. And yet I knew the project was important. It took me a while to realise that this project brutally confronted issues that I had been able to sidestep before, such as the issue of context. Rather than a reassessment of the work, it became a means to expand thought about the overall work, a case where practice feeds theory.’
The last consideration, in which Tschumi asserts that it is possible in defined circumstances to arrive at a theory through practice, explains and analyses more thoroughly what he affirmed at the beginning of his studies and reflections on the project: that ‘concept, context and content are part of the definition of contemporary urban culture and therefore of architecture. Theory is a practice, a practice of concepts. Practice is a theory, a theory of contexts.’6


This interview has been compiled from email correspondence between Michele Costanzo and Bernard Tschumi from April to June 2008.


Notes
1. The Manhattan Transcripts, Architectural Design (London), 1981; 2nd edition, Academy Editions (London), 1994.
2. For an overview of the exhibition see http://www.sfmoma.org/exhibitions/exhib_detail.asp?id=42.
3. Jeffrey Kipnis, Perfect Acts of Architecture, The Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus), 2001.
4. The six featured series of drawings in the exhibition were as follows: Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, 1972; Peter Eisenman, House VI Transformation Collages, 1976; Bernard Tschumi, The Manhattan Transcripts, 1976–81; Daniel Libeskind, Micromegas, 1978, and Chamber Works, 1983; Thom Mayne (Morphosis Studio), Sixth Street House, 1986–87, and Kate Mantilini Restaurant, 1986.
5. Bernard Tschumi, Event-Cities 3, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London England.
6. Id., Event-Cities 3, op cit, p. 15.

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