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After the Event: Bernard Tschumi Retrospective at the Pompidou Centre

The recent retrospective on Bernard Tschumi at the Pompidou Centre provided a compelling analysis of a career spanning over 45 years - and ultimately reveals the architect’s unique integration of theory and practice

In the summer of 1987 I stood with Tschumi in front of a completed Folly at La Villette, and asked whether he thought that their red colour might have appealed to the Socialist aspirations of François Mitterrand. He replied, ‘But red is not a colour.’ I’m not sure whether this was the first time he had said this, but it was a first for me.

Venarey-les-Laumes in the Côte d’Or north of Dijon, is, it must be said, a veritable ghost town: a former bustling railway junction, its rows of railway houses are grey and depressed; the major bar, aptly entitled Le Crépuscule, is for sale; its sole attraction a large regional supermarket. Just beyond the town, however, there rises a small mountain sacred to French historical mythology: the reputed site where Vercingetorix, general of the assembled Gauls, was defeated by Julius Caesar in 52 BC: ‘it is here that France was born’, announces the guidebook. A climb through the tiny village of Alise-Sainte-Reine brings the visitor to a small excavation of the camp and the remains of the small Gallo-Roman town built after the victory. In 1895, at the completion of the excavations, Napoleon III had a statue of himself, improbably dressed up as the Gallic general, standing 7 meters tall on a base designed by Viollet-le-Duc at the highest point of the mountain.

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MuséoParc Alésia marks the site of Vercingetorix’s stand against the Romans and the supposed ‘birth of France’

Two years ago, in a strange sign of new life, there rose up from the flat plain on the site of Caesar’s camp, another monument − an elegant cylindrical construction − its upper storeys sheathed, like a palisade, in open-work slats of wood. This structure, soon to be joined up on the hill by its half-sunken stone-clad twin, forms the new MuséoParc Alésia (AR June 2012) designed by Bernard Tschumi. Inside the completed Interpretation Centre, a luminous circular atrium gives access to a gently sloping ramp leading to the exhibition floor; there, an interior exhibition provides a graphic vision of the Gallo-Roman conflict, and outside a view of the broad plain, the sacred mountain and a reconstruction of the Roman ramparts. When complete, the two cylindrical buildings will complement each other, a mile apart, two 21st-century panoramas, the one of a contemporary ‘restored’ history, the other of ancient historic remains.

 

Retrospective

In the retrospective exhibition mounted in the South Gallery of the Centre Pompidou, 30 April - 28 July this year, the project of the MuséoParc was shown, together with five other completed, commissioned or projected projects dating from 2005 to 2014, in an open ‘pavilion’ of panels, under the rubric of Concept-Forms. This group of Tschumi’s most recent works constitutes the fifth in a sequence of pavilions set in the gallery along an aleatory route, that offers a more or less chronological exposé of Tschumi’s career from 1974 to the present, from, that is, The Manhattan Transcripts to the recently completed Zoological Park in Paris.

Each of the pavilions is, like the fifth, named, or rather conceptualised: starting with Space and Event that comprises the studies from The Manhattan Transcripts to the Park of La Villette, we are led to Program/Juxtaposition/Superimposition that includes the series of major competition submissions for the Tokyo National Theatre, Osaka’s Kansai Airport, the French National Library, and the completed National Studio for Contemporary Arts at Le Fresnoy. The third pavilion, Vectors and Envelopes collects the built projects of the Zéniths at Rouen and Limoges, the Vacherin Constantin offices and factory, and the ECAL School of Art and Design, Lausanne together with a series of competitions in the USA and Brazil. The fourth, Concept, Context, Content, brings together a group of university buildings − the Athletics Center for the University of Cincinnati, the Lerner Center for Columbia University, the Schools of Architecture for Marne-La-Vallée and Florida International University − with the Acropolis Museum, Athens. Finally, Concept-Forms includes, besides the MuséoParc and the Parisian Zoo Park, recent competitions and studies for the Dubai Opera House, a museum in Shenzhen, a cultural centre for Grottammare, Italy, and the Carnal Hall for the Institut le Rosey, Rolle, Switzerland now under construction.

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Installation view of the Pompidou Centre’s Tschumi retrospective

A more or less complete roster of the most important studies and buildings of Tschumi’s entire career to date, then, under the rubric of what appears to be a theoretical evolution or trajectory. This theoretical thrust is given force throughout the exhibition by the constant interrelation of Tschumi’s drawings and quasi-polemical texts with models, renderings and photographs of completed works. There is, it is implied, no separation between theory and practice, concept and construct.

 

Rethinking

In the presentation of La Villette, Tschumi admits that his overriding question, having won the competition, and after more than a decade of theorising and teaching, was: ‘Can practice follow theory?’ The division of theory from design, and thence from practice, was of course embedded in architectural thought, sustained by both by theorists and their ‘practical’ opponents, and ingrained in the course structure of architectural schools. It was a division that was especially marked in the years of recession around the 1970s, and exacerbated by a younger generation of architects convinced that the reformist wing of CIAM − gathered in Team X under the wings of Peter and Alison Smithson − had failed to regenerate an architecture that corresponded to the demands of a new politic, an ever expanding and economically challenged urban realm, and a newly technological world.

The alternatives were many. Banham’s call for an ‘architecture autre’ launching the ‘New Brutalism’ in 1955, but transformed into a support for a technological revolution spearheaded by Buckminster Fuller, had been countered by those like Robert Venturi who preferred to work with the already established codes of historical architecture, and the polemical diatribes of the AR in favour of Gordon Cullen’s Townscape. By the 1970s, the ‘New’ Brutalism had evolved into a ‘New Monumentality’ in béton brut, and the International Style heralded by Hitchcock and Johnson, and practised by SOM, was no more than a trickle-down version of its corporate self. Under the leadership of Peter Eisenman at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and Alvin Boyarsky at the Architectural Association, the theoretical exploration of more radical architectural possibilities was fostered in design studios, symposia and publications.

First at the AA between 1971 and 1973, then at the IAUS in 1976, Tschumi traced a path in writing and teaching that set him apart from his colleagues. While at the AA, Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, with Madeleine Vriesendorp and Zoe Zenghelis, explored the potential power of post-Surrealist visual fiction; and at the Institute Peter Eisenman and the ‘Whites’ developed a rigorous formal method; and Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas investigated the relationships between semiotic theory and design, Tschumi posed a series of questions about the nature of architecture itself.

Refusing nostalgic pleas for the continuation of one or more of the multiple Modernist traditions − themselves revealed to be equally historicist by the late 1970s − and equally sceptical toward the utopian aspirations of ‘68, Tschumi built his case out of intellectual movements that were neither ‘Modernist’ nor ‘Postmodernist’ but that had emerged out of the political and disciplinary conditions in France in the mid-’60s: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, and in particular the writings of Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida through to Denis Hollier and Georges Bataille. His reception of these philosophers vis-à vis architecture differed radically from the ‘semiology’ that all-too-easily adapted itself to historicist quotation, and equally from the Foucauldian discourse theory of institutional power, or the Rossian structuralism that identified static typologies in city form. Rather, Tschumi opted to identify categories of analysis that at once denied the boundaries between ‘autonomous’ disciplines and that at the same time overcame any superficial interdisciplinarity that had too often led to analogical rather than internal reformulations.

The flux that he defined was the idea that architecture was not primarily about objects and reified programmes in themselves, or technological solutions overcoming all others, but rather the complex interaction between programme, action and event. Architecture in these terms was neither autonomous, nor a supposed ‘language’, to cite some of the alternative positions in play in the ’70s.

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Installation view of the Pompidou Centre’s Tschumi retrospective

But in order to construe an architecture of programme/action/event, Tschumi had first to confront two other ruling themes present in theory from the 1920s: ‘space’, the hero of Giedion’s apocalyptic ‘history’ of modern architecture, and gestalt psychology’s idea of Form. Both had seen a revival in the 1960s and ’70s, and were commonly prescribed antidotes to historicism, the former by phenomenologists and empirical behaviourists, the latter by the Formalist, later Collagist, criticism of Rowe.

Here the essay ‘The Environmental Trigger’ − prepared for a symposium at the AA in 1972, but only published in 1975, after the gruelling battle to form a more ‘democratic’ constitution and Council against John (Michael) Lloyd the Principal; and after the appointment of Alvin Boyarsky as Chairman in 1971 − was pivotal.¹ Contributions included Martin Pawley’s rollicking version of his schooldays in architecture, and a more serious article stemming from Emilio Ambasz’s 1972 Universitas conference; Cedric Price’s terse statement of why he was an activist against the merger with Imperial; an early version of Kenneth Frampton’s signature ‘Labor, Work, and Architecture’; interviews of prominent former AA grads with James Gowan; a perceptive analysis by Peter Cook of successive generations of AA students; and an account of the political struggles for a ‘democratic’ constitution by Charles Jencks.

Of these, Pawley on the demilitarisation of the university and Tschumi on the various strategies of architecture and/or revolution were the most radical. Following a bleak description of the existing conditions for politics and architecture, Tschumi considered the ways in which architects might attempt to generate social transformation − and especially through the notion of ‘space’ recently demonstrated as political, first by the revolutionary events of ‘68 and then, more theoretically by Lefebvre. Could space, asked Tschumi, be made a peaceful instrument of social transformation, a means of transforming the relationship between the individual and society? Certainly the revolutionary tradition post 1917, now being historically excavated by Anatole Kopp and others, had advanced new spatial forms of living − the minimal kitchen, the communal apartment, the linear city.

‘Could space, asked Tschumi, be made a peaceful instrument of social transformation, a means of transforming the relationship between the individual and society?’

Post-‘68, Tschumi’s generation was less optimistic − the ‘behaviourist’ assumptions underlying these spatial experiments had failed in their vision for structural change, and the ‘social condensers’ hailed by admirers of the Constructivist period in Russia had been defeated by the resistance of ingrained social structures. ‘Most people concerned with architecture feel some sort of disillusion and dismay,’ Tschumi wrote in 1975. ‘None of the early utopian ideals of the twentieth century has materialized, none of its social aims has succeeded. Blurred by reality, the ideals have turned into redevelopment nightmares and the aims into bureaucratic policies.’²

Space, Tschumi concluded, was less tractable, more neutral and more open to absorption by reigning ideologies and ways of life than idealists had supposed. In the face of contemporary capitalist land speculation the architect could (1) simply ‘translate’ existing political and economic conditions into form; (2) work in the critical and intellectual realm to reveal contradictions, or (3) attempt to practise as a professional with expert ‘environmental knowledge’ to reform urban and architectural structures. Combining the last two potential activities, Tschumi identified two strategies: ‘exemplary actions’ raising consciousness of urban conditions through propaganda and demystification; and, ‘counterdesign’ − ironic, like Archizoom and Superstudio. In the end Tschumi proposed neither, developing in contrast a form of analysis he named ‘subversive’, and gave the example of the Situationists, but also the key acts of the radical avant-garde in art, literature and film.³

The result is well-known: building on his perception that, while grand transformations were unlikely to stem from architectural interventions, a certain power inhered in ‘incidents’, in ‘small actions’, he began to investigate the potential of literary texts, and above all film, to contribute strategies for the manipulation of space in relation to what he now called ‘event’.

 

Reference

The answer to Tschumi’s question on the relation of theory to practice is at least partially delivered by the present exhibition, for the layout of the exhibition as a whole actively immerses us in a theoretical project of its own. Scattered through the five pavilions are 18 so-called ‘Reference Tables’, square glass-topped vitrines containing a host of fragments seemingly swept from the architect’s table at various moments in his career, from family photos, and formative sketches, through press-cuttings from 1968, the little books published while teaching at the Architectural Association, Princeton and the Cooper Union, spatial diagrams, drafts of theoretical essays, preparatory works for the ‘Advertisement for Architecture’, analyses of screenplays, performance notations, preliminary studies for the early conceptual works, strategic games, to the roster of published books.

Spaced at apparently random intervals among the five pavilions, these red-painted tables evoke nothing other than the folies of La Villette, or rather, if we see the pavilions as events, perhaps points in the implied grid through which the movement of the visitor is guided as if in notated dance. But with this difference from the early grids of Joyce’s Garden or La Villette, Tschumi, as he explains in the text accompanying the presentation of the Paris Zoo, has embraced, together with Concept-Form, the idea of a Concept-Informe, a scrambled and somewhat ambiguous grid that allows for multiple routes and choices of events.

We are thus presented with a mise en abyme: a microcosm of a Tschumi park/city, reformulated according to a carefully prescribed evolution from Space/Event to Content/Form, that in itself includes all the evidence for that evolution − a city within a city so to speak. Which immediately leads to a problem of interpretation − how to stand outside this immersive panorama that does what it says and says what it does so clearly and insistently?

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One of the 18 ‘reference tables’ on show at the Pompidou retrospective, which collect fragments from Tschumi’s archive - this one titled ‘cinema’, a medium which has deeply influenced his work

One way would be to disengage the strategy of the exhibition − that of the five conceptual strategies − from the chronology of the works themselves; to distinguish between the strategies of the individual projects from any assumed ‘evolution’ or ‘development’. In this regard, you might discover that the Five Points of Tschumi’s architecture were perhaps unequally distributed over time, or better, from the outset incorporated in his initial strategy only to be revealed in different modes according to changing programmes; even as those celebrated ‘Five Compositions’ of Le Corbusier − that seemed to rationalise after the event, five major commissions over a period of a quarter century − could be seen in retrospect to inhere into the first, omni-strategy, the Maison Domino. And indeed, the Maison Domino, the degree zero of Corbusian space, that led ultimately to the invention of what he was to call ‘l’espace indicible’ or ineffable space, would be an appropriate starting-point for analysing Tschumi. It is not by accident that the very first image presented to the viewer in the exhibition, is precisely that of this ur-paradigm of Modernist space, invented in 1914. Against this − and it could be hazarded that Tschumi’s entire oeuvre has been calibrated in the struggle to overcome the Corbusian rhetoric of ‘the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of volumes beneath the light’ − Tschumi poses two alternative motors that together might generate another kind of space: movement and action.

The apparently simple first move, that of elevating movement in space constructed by events, over an idea of space constructed by architecture for movement, finally resulted in the emergence of the Folly as against the Maison Domino, an elegant reversal or rather readjustment of authority. Where the Domino House was a carefully calibrated structure for the exercise of the promenade architecturale through a plan libre controlled and scripted by the architecture of solids and voids, the Folly itself is constructed through movement, and its ‘event’ quality construed as a kind of ‘knot’ in space that at once enfolds this movement, and acts as a generator for new events. The counter-Corbusian point is driven home in the series of Advertisements for Architecture developed between 1976 and 1978 where images of the deteriorating fabric of the Villa Savoye are accompanied by texts that celebrate its ‘state of decay’, not to deny its paradigmatic status but rather to propose a beginning again, using the counter-architectural metaphors of Bataille.

‘It could be hazarded that Tschumi’s entire oeuvre has been calibrated in the struggle to overcome the Corbusian rhetoric of the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of volumes beneath the light’

The invention of a new paradigm, however, involved a long period of analysis and research, a period that is given full attention in this exhibition, with studies of the introduction into architecture − its ‘corruption’ so to speak as an autonomous discipline − of fields that privileged the representation of movement: literary narrative, film, and of course, dance and performance, all of which had invented systems of notation that might have architectural implications. Gradually, superimposing the narrative structure of Finnegans Wake on the map of Covent Garden (in the process superimposing Dublin on London), and with the example of Eisenstein’s triple notation of Alexander Nevsky (frame, music, montage), Tschumi developed Screenplays that, taking one frame at a time, mapped its implied movement pattern, and then translated this into a three-dimensional construct. It is significant that the last of the Screenplays − that included clips from the films Psycho, Frankenstein and Citizen Kane, together with a notation taken from an American football play − was no other than ‘Maison Domino’; the direct application of the filmic movement of fade-in and fade-out to a prime architectural space.

The trilogy event, space and movement was now introduced into architecture, and The Manhattan Transcripts (1978-81) served as an extended exploration of the potential development of an architectural language out of this mapped calibration of vertical simultaneity and horizontal temporality. The display of all four parts of the Transcripts, probably not seen together since 1981 at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York, grounds this present exhibition in a double sense. Stretched out in a single line, on the red-painted entry wall of the room, their continuities and disruptions are revealed, even as their complexity anticipates the ‘unpacking’ undertaken by the rest of the show.

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The narrative structure of Finnegans Wake is mapped on to Covent Garden in Write-on-Slides, Joyce’s Garden (1976): one of Tschumi’s explorations of narrative structure in space

There is, first and foremost, the narrative that, in four acts, traces a murder mystery in a prose, implying a plot worthy of a Chandler or Elmore Leonard; a narrative that is to accompany each of Tschumi’s projects, not as an appendage or ex post facto authorisation, but as the engendering structure of events that rewrite the programmes with which he is presented. Then there is the image that cuts the event out of the narrative − a photo or film shot − that bears within it the potential of movement in space. Finally there is the tracing of that movement in space through notation, and projection in two and three dimensions − plan and section, and axonometric. The result is never a single, static spatial solution, but the beginning of a process of investigation that nevertheless retains echoes of the preceding operations. The narrative informs movement, movement notation eventually informs physical elements, while three-dimensional ‘pantographic’ translations inform the spatial construct achieved.

In the end nothing is given up, while nothing remains exactly the same. Thus in the Parc de la Villette, the point grid of the follies stems from the grid adopted from the intersecting lines of the map of Covent Garden in Joyce’s Garden, which themselves echo the cruciform towers that stand as information centres in the plan of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. These are merged with the idea of the 20th-Century Follies projected and partially constructed between 1979 and 1982; the follies as events then serve as markers for the aleatory paths, that as extended ribbons of filmic notation put the park into movement.

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One of Tschumi’s notations relating to a 1992 firework display at Parc de la Villette, ‘a three-dimensional and fleeting version of the organisational principle of the park: namely, the superimposition of systems of points, lines, and surfaces’

It would not be difficult, in these terms, to return each of the Five Concepts to their ‘origin’ in the Transcripts, even as we can trace the ebb and flow of different strategies over the next 45 years of work. Thus the Superimposition of the grid on the Park, the Follies on the Grid, and the Movement paths on this, anticipate other superimpositions, such as the inhabited roofscape of Le Fresnoy. Equally, the La Villette grid partakes of the nature of a Concept-Form, while programme, concept, context and contents are ever-present. Perhaps the only theme absent from the Transcripts is that of the ‘envelope’, that inevitable intrusion of an architectural surface into the programmatic demands of mass entertainment and production. In this way avoiding the trap of behaviourist functionalism, and evading the internal ‘autonomies’ of traditional architectural theory, Tschumi moves from map (Joyce’s Garden) to story-board (Screenplays, Manhattan Transcripts) transforming architecture’s use of maps and story-boards along the way.

All five conceptual strategies come together in the Acropolis Museum. Set below the mountain itself, but with a full view of the side of the Parthenon, the Museum is poised above the excavated archaeological remains revealed by construction. As if in ‘superimposition’, the glass viewing box for the frieze and associated fragments is placed over the museum proper, and this above the entry level, which in turn hovers over the underground that was once the ground of the Greek civilisation. The envelope of glass at once wraps a space that allows full rein to the Parthenon processional, as if magically transported from the hill above, and displaces any ‘architecture’ that might obstruct the connection between the original monument and its former sculptures. The route taken by visitors to the Acropolis, along the path traced by the mosaic of fragments composed by Dimitris Pikionis, is referred to in the path of visitors who first enter the museum from a plaza with their backs turned to the hill, before moving in a spiral finally to view the Parthenon at the same moment as its frieze. Space and event are conjugated by the erratic grid of columns supporting the structure, in a pattern forced by the uncovered ruins, columns that double for the statues that are scattered among them, as if set between the trees of the Academy garden for Plato’s students to contemplate.

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Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum superimposes an aleatory route on the ruins of Greek civilisation, bringing together his interests in narrative, movement and games

Beneath this apparent ease with which conceptual categories are used to articulate the final structure and elements of a single building, is a second strategy that provides the logic of the design process itself, and ensures its flexibility. This is the dialectical play of what, in an almost literal analogy, sees the site, urban or architectural, as a game board. It is impossible to see the crosses on the grid of Joyce’s Garden, the grids of Manhattan Transcripts, and those of the projects for La Villette, without imagining a complex game being played. Not a game that, as traditionally conceived, articulates architectural elements or assembles them into a more or less unified parti, but a kind of elaborate chess with rules that seem to be reformulated at every instant, a game of strategy, like that played on his own game board, the kriegspiel of Guy Debord. In an earlier article I compared this game to that encountered by Alice in Through the Looking Glass, but now I would set this game in the long history of urban games that attempt to construe new and different futures for the environment − from Plato to Buckminster Fuller.

Tschumi’s version is elaborated in an actual game kit provided for the client of a business park at Chartres in France, where as Tschumi notes, he proposed ‘several abstract systems, including a grid defined by trees and a linear vector superimposed on the grid at an angle. The linear vector, or “long-cours,” contains cultural and commercial activities; the grid contains the office buildings. Other systems address public spaces, road networks, and infrastructure. Each system becomes part of a master-planning game that allows maximum flexibiliy and multiple combinations. The master plan represents a way to work that has to do with strategy rather than form. The competition model is a game-board with fixed and mobile pieces housed in an extra-thin case.’4

The exhibition as a whole demonstrates a ‘consistency’ in Tschumi’s work from the beginning to the present, as well as a conceptual ‘development’ that continually circles back to remember former exercises and projects. But this consistency does not rely on a forced unity of theory, nor on a self-conscious adoption of change and evolution. For while the analytical approach is ever-present in words, sketches, diagrams, programmatic research, that endow a strategic clarity to the resulting architectural construct, it is continually refreshed by encountering new programmes and environmental conditions. For in the end, what this exhibition reveals, and for the first time comprehensively, as we trace and retrace our notated dance through concepts and forms, is that, for Tschumi at least, there is no theory without practice, nor practice without theory. In fact it would be invidious to try to separate the two, and even better to jettison the categories altogether.

References

1. Bernard Tschumi, ‘The Environmental Trigger’, in James Gowan, ed, A Continuing Experiment. Learning and Teaching at the Architectural Association (London: Architectural Press, 1975), pp89-100.

2. Bernard Tschumi, ‘Questions of Space: The Pyramid and the Labyrinth (or the Architectural Paradox)’, Studio International (Sept-Oct 1975), reprinted in Architecture and Disjunction (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 1974), p27).

3. Bernard Tschumi, ‘The Environmental Trigger’, pp93-99.

4. Bernard Tschumi, Architecture: Concept and Notation, exhibition catalogue, Frédéric Migayrou, ed (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2014), p133.

 

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