La Villette is a Grand Project with enormous cultural pretensions: it is supposed to be nothing less than the first piece of Deconstructivist architecture. Bernard Tschumi’s aim has been to create a park which has no coherent meaning: one that can be experienced by each visitor in a unique way. Peter Blundell Jones, while respecting the intentions, questions whether they are achievable in a culture which retains shared perceptions
With the first dozen or so follies complete and the great north-south axis largely defined , the Parc de La Villette is beginning to take shape and make itself felt. After all the publications about Deconstruuion and disorder, it seems surprisingly coherent, for the two major routes and axes - almost decumanus and cardo - are well defined by their canopies and supporting structure, while the serial nature of the red painted follies is soon made obvious by their even spacing and shared vocabulary. The path of thematic gardens, a curved route which is intended to play on against the main axes, is too incomplete yet to be clear or obvious, and the spaces defined by trees arc scarcely legible without foliage, though since sizeable trees have been used, the effect should soon be felt.
Arriving at the north end, one finds a painted plan on the first folly, an exploded one with tilted frame and projecting structure which introduces the idea, a sample of the architectural syntax. From there on, one folly leads to the next, and from any point there should always be a few follies visible. The experience of exploring them is a bit like a trip round an exhibition, moving from work to work, each safely marooned on its podium and comfortably labelled, in orderly sequence. Indeed, it is difficult not to read them as a series of large-scale habitable sculptures. For whether intended or not, this seems to lit in well with the French passion for institutionalised culture, which one witnesses on driving into any French city: ‘sa Cathédrale, ses vieilles maisons, ses musées’ to be seen and ticked off on the mental map. There is also something of the funfair, and the great water-wheel on one of the follies seems to poke fun at the open-air museum. Detailing is deliberately rather mechanical, and Tschumi takes some pride in not expressing, construct ion: in fact the identically dad structures of the follies vary between steel and concrete according to lire-protection requirements.
Despite a paucity of activities available on a dreary cold weekday afternoon quite a lot of people were wandering about: a crowded playground with children queuing for the slide, a group of men playing boules on the gravel, even a family playing hide -and-seek around one of the follies. When all is complete, the through routes connected and the enormous number of cultural facilities added, it is easy to imagine that use will be intense, however loved or unloved the architecture.
La Villette is far from being just another work of architecture. First it is a Grand Projct, pride of the French Government and monument to Milterrand, being carried through at awesome scale. Second, it is the first completed work by an architect already widely known for his theoretical projects , and so becomes the test-piece for a new philosophy, a new approach to architecture.
Bernard Tschumi’s engagement with La Villette began with his participation in the unproductive first competition of 1976, his first bid to return to a built world after years of teaching and theoretical speculation. Displeased with his entry, he continued to ruminate about the problem, and was well placed to tackle it again for the second project of 1982. It was obvious that eighteenth and nineteenth century precedents for a park had become unworkable after the half-fulfilled promises of the garden city and the failure of the ville verte. Thus neither the forced formality of a Versailles (power over nature at a scale undreamed of), nor the artificial informality of a Stourhead (recreating the Garden of Eden) would sustain a late twentieth-century view of nature, nor contribute meaningfully to the city. A fresh approach seemed necessary.
In addition to the requirement of open spaces, there was a substantial and complex programme of cultural facilities: a rich mix that appealed to Tschumi ‘s desire for layering and conflict, while also suggesting the narrative possibilities which had been so essential to his earlier speculations. He had been working for years with sequential programmes, oftenbased on literary texts, and willingly admits a debt to film theory. Because of this complexity, and the uncertain destiny of many elements, working from specificities of detail towards an integrated whole would have been very difficult. What was needed above all was a grand strategy, a framework to pull the whole great site together, and it was undoubtedly for this that Tschumi won the competition. His strategy was clear, clearer than the rival OMA project which demonstrated a similar kind of layering. The much published key drawing, has three layers; lines, points and surfaces.
La Villette has been hailed as the first major piece of Deconstructivist architecture. Tschumi has misgivings about the great Deconstruction bandwagon launched at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by the opportunistic Philip Johnson, and doubts whether he should have taken part: ’ there never was a movement: we are all guilty to participate’. 1 All the same, if there is a Deconstructivist architecture it is surely this, for not only does Tschumi make the claim: he is backed up with a long theoretical essay from Jacques Derrida, founder of Deconstruction. 2 Such legitimation is not easily come by, nor quickly shrugged off. Derrida is also designing one of the gardens at La Villette along with Peter Eisenman.
What is supposed to be Deconstructive about La Villette? First a denial of coherent meaning. This is not to say that the place is intended to have no meaning, rather that a single dominant meaning is supposed to be unsustainable and therefore not worth aiming for. Everyone will experience it in a different way, making his or her own interpretation. Tschumi admitted that it would be very bad news for him if a consensus interpretation were to arise: ’ I would have to come like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead and blow it all up!’ he added with characteristic humour.
This claimed incoherence no doubt fits in with literary Deconstruction theory in which the meanings of words become increasingly unfathomable as one attempts to pin them down: it is supposed to be the current human condition. The lack of shared meaning is said to invalidate past approaches: Modernism, Post Modernism, Functionalism, Formalism arc dead, so now… ‘the game of architecture is neither function (questions of use), nor form (questions of style), nor even the synthesis of function and form , but rather the bringing together of possible combinations and permutations between different categories of analysis - space, movement , event , technique, symbol, etc’ ‘I am not interested in form ‘, says Tschumi , ‘1 attack the system of meaning. I am for the idea of structure and syntax, but no meaning. “
La Villetle is said to present us, for the first time in history, with a ‘dis-structured structure’. This is achieved simply by overlaying, without synthesis into a higher order, the three systems of the point-grid, lines and surfaces. Enormous emphasis is placed on the lack of resolution between the three systems, the way they collide and interact. Thus typically the main north-south axis, which takes its orientation from the Grandt Halle already on the site, collides with several of the follies whose grid is two degrees off. Similar conflicts occur in the details, so, for example, the spacing for the supports of the canopy along the axis is 8 meters while the canopy waves up and down on a rhythm of 3’6 meters, with every suspension rod a different length, According to Tschumi there is ‘no rhythm, no synthesis, no order’, but .the visual effect is not disturbing, indeed it seems parallel to the way different rhythms are set against each other in minimalist music. Our perception copes rather well with such conflicts, and I am not convinced by the novelty, for surely there is plenty of architecture from earlier periods in which different systems of order conflict, if not quite in the same way.
When talking about La Villette, it is always the collisions and disjunctions that Tschumi seems to relish; rather than the order, of which there is plenty. It is almost as though it has no formal identity for him, hut merely presents the possibility of a series of cinematic tableaux like his earlier Manhattan Transcripts. He even goes so far as to suggest that La Villette did not have to be the way it was: there would have been no point grid but a random distribution of parts; the formal manipulations could have been organized differently. Yet the point grid was clearly the starting point and the formal manipulations that have taken place give the follies their strong identity. The architecture also seems to be envisaged as a means rather than an end, for Tschumi stresses process over product: ‘the follies, as built, are nothing but a moment in the process of conception… abstract notations, meta-operational elements, a frozen image, a freeze frame in a process of constant transformation, construct ion and dislocation ‘
In the light of statements such as this, the follies’ presence in direct experience seems all too real, too unambiguous, even monumental. And if the images presented for earlier projects like the Manhattan Transcripts seemed politely to support their text, the follies seem to have overrun and escaped to lead an independent life. The title of Tschumi’s folio about La Villette is La Case Vide – literally the empty house. The follies are supposed to be empty of meaning, Of content in order to interact with it new kind of occupation, a new set of human relationships. Along with the formal collisions were supposed to go functional collisions, such as ‘the running track within the bar within the tropical greenhouse’, while the usual Modernist intention of expressing a functional identity is definitely eschewed. Tschumi is quite clear on this: he takes some pleasure in the fact that a folly originally destined to be a kindergarten became a television studio, while one intended as a garden center was reconceived as a restaurant and finally built as a studio for sculpture and painting. A third is according to him functionless, and he hopes it will stay that way. Naturally there is some pragmatic adaptation to purpose, but the whole intention is against the slightest expression of it. The point grid and the compositional procedure are intended to be autonomous: each folly starts with a three-story cubic frame which is subjected to a series of manipulations, additions and subtractions according to a set system, producing a theme and variations.
The trouble is that the follies are anything but empty. They have a strong formal presence which is only enhanced by the uncertainty of their functional identity, and they provoke the usual questions about historical precedent. Inevitably, they refer back to the Modernist 1920s, with their gridded frames, geometric shapes, disdain for conventions of wall and roof, and object-like detachment. The parallels of the compositional system with those of Chernikov and De Stijl are striking. Above all, it is the abstraction of the follies which recalls the ’20s. Then it was directly connected with abstraction in painting, representing a parallel liberation from the demands of content.
Perhaps in gaining a physical existance they have drawn on areas of Tschumi’s cultural baggage which he prefers not to talk about. For just as many of the more realistic Expressionist projects of the early ’20s were nourished by an implicit Neo-CIassicism, so Tschumi ‘s work is full of implicit Modernism, transformed perhaps, inverted, even perverted. What else could he do? We are all trapped by our past. New sentences in an old language, old sentences with a new twist: a tussle with abstraction, formalism, functionalism, the plan libre, the neutrality of the grid. The whole emphasis on transgression in Tschumi’s work, on breaking rules, is less iconoclastic than it first seems. The breaking enhances their importance. The most devastating satirists often turn out to be conservatives by nature, for the power of their critique stems from a deeply held conviction about the way things ought to be.
The point-grid is one of the essential gestures of La Villette, full of reassuring certainty. A decade after Collage City, the fact that it is a point-grid and not a line-grid, that it marks objects-concentrations of energy-rather than enclosed spaces, shows some scorn for urban nostalgia. As a planning technique it has had clear consequences: there is a strong desire to complete it, and its dimension is absolute rather than readjustable like the random curved route. Tschumi says the French like the grid because of its rationalist nature, but one can go further. It is the same gesture of complete artifice that the Romans and countless other civilizations employed in laying out their cities: originally a sacred order. Surely it is this rather than the purely mechanical repetition of a kit of parts as in so much Modernism, if only because the interval is not confirmed by a mechanical system. Yet as Tschumi describes it, it is merely a tool, meaningless.
Can a grid ever be meaningless, can it ever be neutral? The order is generally highly perceptible , and even when adopted purely for the convenience of construction, demonstrates the designer’ s priorities in no uncertain terms. The neutral grid is a well-worn Modernist myth: all those educated in the ’60s were steeped in it, and it comes as no great surprise to learn that Tschumi worked for Josie Candilis Woods, authors of that famous piece of grid theory into practice , the Free University Berlin. The neutral grid: seductive promise of a helpful trellis on which the the tender plant might grow. Yet did not the Miesian theory about universal flexible buildings turn out to be the alibi for producing some of the most powerful monuments of the twentieth century, theoretically exchangeable in function only to remain resolutely constant in form? One such is the Neue
Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where the subordination of the usual concerns in designing art galleries only adds to the power or the form. The building certainly does not retreat into a quiet subservient role, but rather takes over: so, perhaps, will Tschumi’s follies.
Just as the follies are almost too real, standing- on their site at La Villette, so in the folio produced by the AA they have become too iconic. The lavish silk-screen images produced for the gallery wall invite admiration in their own terms, visually, without intellectual understanding of the rules and syntax which go un presented, Given the power of exhibitions and magazines, of the visual image propagated as visual image, a so-called architecture without habitation and without tectonic identity, we have reason to be suspicious of product ions such as this. Is it merely the souvenir pack for an operation which has its primary existence in the world, or is the built object following on from the world of paper? After all, it is possible to build almost anything these days, the only prerequisite being that someone believes in it enough to provide the money.
If formal autonomy brings accusations of formalism, they can only effectively be countered by showing a relation with content: surely the essential issue with any living architecture. That Tschumi is interested in content is clear from his Manhattan Transcripts, among other things a critique of Modernist Functionalism. Few would now disagree with his complaint about the mechanical causality of the Frankfurt kitchen, or with his contention that spaces can be used in very different ways. The relation between form and content is undoubtedly extremely complex. However, it is neither random nor insignificant. Where he suggests the cathedral as cinema, the Sistine chapel as hall for the 110 yard hurdle, Tschumi surely understands that the fascination of the somewhat surrealist disjunctions is entirely to do with the understood conventions which are broken, conventions about use and meaning.
When Duchamp put a urinal on display, it was not just another object, chosen at random. And when in one of his late films Buñuel inverts the ritual aspects of eating and excreting, it is only to expose how strong the rules are, the implicit conventions which determine our everyday lives, providing the bourgeoisie with their discreet charm.
‘Conventions, you’ve said it, they are only conventions, they have no basis in hard fact ‘, said Tschumi, at a crucial point in our conversation. Yet what kind of basis in hard fact could they be expected to have, could anything have for that matter? We have been beset by the vertigo of relativity for half a century, which makes any kind affirm truth problematic, for we can only know the world through the conceptions which we inflict upon it. This makes it difficult to achieve any stable basis against which to judge the artifice of conventions. Arguably, reality is a social construction; space and time are social constructions. Thus conventions, along with our other mental constructions, are perhaps all that we have.
La Villette is interpretable as a transgression of conventions, and might indeed be successful as such. Its role is recreational, and just as at the office party the errand boy becomes the boss, so in the park the rules can be invented or perverted. There is plenty of precedent for this kind of thing, which we celebrate every New Year’s Eve and every April Fool’s Day, only it is not the way Tschumi chooses 10 present his case. Crucially, he does not differentiate between the park and other more everyday kinds of programme which have to sustain the conventional order, making its breakage significant.
Finally, the whole argument is about significance. When the psychologist F. C. Bartlett made his famous experiments on the nature of memory in the 1920s, his advances were due to his decision to employ significant material. Earlier experimenters had asked their subjects to recall nonsense phrases - insignificant material - precisely in order to avoid cultural complications, in an attempt to work with memory insolation. Using folk-tales and representational drawings, Bartlett showed that memory is selective, active, and utterly dependent on significance that the ‘cultural complications’ avoided by his predecessors were the very heart of the matter.
Bartlett also demonstrated the extent to which the cultural assumptions on which memory is based are shared by subjects of similar cultural background, generating some stability of interpretation, without which their social world would surely grind to a halt. It is precisely what is shared that matters, and the idea of a private meaning is a contradiction in terms. Of course culture is always on the move and meaning therefore ever changing, but we change too and cope with it. By denying significance and conventions, Tschumi seems to be moving in the opposite direction to Bartlett.
Jacques Derrida says that the follies are like architectural dice thrown out and perhaps play will have to begin in earnest before we can assess the effectiveness of the venture. There will certainly be any number of bizarre and unexpected combinations, and perhaps when the place is brimming with activity it will produce the desired effect. But those of us who believe architecture a less haphazard business have our doubts.
The Interpretation Centre of the Muséo Parc Alésia by Bernard Tschumi Architects is featured in the June 2012 issue