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Interview: Bernard Tschumi

Paul Finch

Architect of Parc de la Villette, Parc Zoologique de Paris and the author of The Manhattan Transcripts speaks to Paul Finch about his education, work and critical position. Tschumi discusses his interest in the city, his admiration for Cedric Price and why he’s pessimistic about the future of architecture


Paul Finch We’re at the 2014 Venice Biennale in the Wine Suite of the Hotel Danieli and we’re talking to Bernard Tschumi. Bernard, what was it that got you interested in architecture – and I suppose to some extent it must be the fact that your father was a world famous architect himself?

Bernard Tschumi Well maybe that’s what at first got me not interested in architecture, as I felt I knew everything before I even began. As a teenager I was certainly more interested in literature, in film, in philosophy, and probably would have gone this way if I hadn’t had the opportunity to spend some months in the United States at the age of 17. Visiting Chicago, I suddenly discovered what a city could be. I came from a small Swiss town, and I knew Paris because my mother was from there, but visiting a great American city just changed my view of the world.
It is in Chicago that I decided to become an architect. It was the weight, the sheer gravity, the strength, the density. Chicago was very different – we’re talking about 1961-62, before the Loop and that whole area had been developed. Interestingly enough you didn’t have the perception of individual objects, but you had the feeling of a mass. A mass which was uniformly 12 storeys high, with the elevated subway above, and where shafts had been carved to let some light pass. It looked like one huge block of rock in which one had carved some openings. Now Chicago is something else: it is a series of individual towers. I love Mies, but the Miesian model has not been so good for Chicago.

‘Visiting a great American city just changed my view of the world. It is in Chicago that I decided to become an architect. It was the weight, the sheer gravity, the strength, the density.’

PF How did you find your architectural education? Was it interested in cities in the way that you are interested or was it a more traditional model?

BT I went to probably one of the best traditional schools: the ETH in Zurich. They were not terribly interested in cities, except I had a very good urban history professor, Paul Hofer. I was interested in cities, but within a very Swiss architectural context – very much as we knew it at the time and as we still know it today. I obviously went through the motions, did reasonably well, but by the end of my four and a half years, I was already looking quite distinctly elsewhere.

PF Where was the elsewhere? What happened next?

BT I had met Cedric Price and I wanted to work for him so I wanted him to be invited to give a lecture at the school. As a student representative I would normally have had my way, but I was told by my distinguished professors that Cedric was not ‘architecture’ and that we therefore should not invite him – which made him even more interesting to me.

Price and Tschumi

Cedric Price and Bernard Tschumi at the RIBA in 1985

PF At what point did you start to make designs for competitions and to make buildings?

BT I was in Paris doing my practice year, working as an intern in an office, and I happened to be at Candilis Josic & Woods. That made me part of what I would describe a very critical generation, quite weary of the strange relationships between architecture, power and money. A lot of the Modern Movement had lost its originality and power to become just formulas, so I wanted to spend some time asking questions about what architecture was. This same query had initially triggered my interest in Cedric, and is probably what then brought me to England. I started teaching at the AA, in a context which was encouraging people to ask questions: tutors would not give programmes, rather they would ask students to invent a programme – this is actually difficult. This required us to start looking outside architecture, at things which were happening in the margins the art scene, the literary scene, etc. I was quite close to people at Central Saint Martins or at the Royal College of Art, and the conversations we exchanged made me want to explore further.
My interest for cities had started in Paris, taken me to London, and was now moving towards New York. There was an incredibly exciting and intense art scene in New York, and it is there that I started to draw again – I had stopped drawing for five or six years after 1968. This time the drawings were substantially more experimental. They had relatively little to do with designing buildings, but a lot to do with the city. I was trying to find a way to develop a mode of expression, I used to call it notation, that would show not only plan, section and elevation, but also the movement of bodies in space. This led to The Manhattan Transcripts.

The Manhattan Transcripts

The Manhattan Transcripts
The Manhattan Transcripts

BT It then took another six years – so that makes 12 years after I had graduated – for me to look into applying the thoughts, ideas and experiments I had developed to a real project. It was the first time, with the Parc de la Villette, that I did a competition.

PF This competition was sensational because it was an entirely different proposition about the city, about a park, a new way of architectural thinking. Were you shocked when you won or did you assume that actually that’s what Paris would respect?

BT I’m tempted to tell you both, but the real truth is I did not expect it at all. The first note I pinned up in the office said ‘do we do this competition for history or just because we want to win it?’ I had to learn everything, because frankly I didn’t know very much, and it was probably my ignorance and my innocence which helped me lift political mountains and other economical and functional difficulties. In many ways the project was unusual, including the manner in which it organises the site and the users. I was extraordinarily lucky – it worked!

La Villette

La Villette
La Villette

PF Actually, there was an intriguing moment where it looked like Cedric Price might do some sort of pavilion at La Villette. It was designed with Frank Newby engineers – quite a substantial job – but I got the impression that the budgets were starting to be trimmed and it was never realised.

BT This is exactly what happened. Being the chief architect of the whole operation, I had asked a few people to design something. In the case of Cedric it was a pretty substantial greenhouse and he had worked quite seriously on it, but it had to be financed by both public and private money, and as the private money never came, it was never done. You might be amused to know that in the new Paris Zoo I just completed, the greenhouse is a sort of silent homage to that very one designed by Cedric.

Cedric Price's Pavilion for La Villette

Cedric Price’s proposal for a pavilion at La Villette

Paris Zoological Park

Paris Zoological Park
Greenhouse at the Paris Zoological Park

PF I’d like to find out more about your ideas on notation and architecture. This impulse to combine formal architectural description with something more to do with choreography – has that line of thinking in your work been consistent or has it adjusted and changed?

BT Well, in the exhibition we just opened very recently at the Centre Pompidou in Paris – which starts with the notation project, the drawings of movements of bodies in space, and ends with current designs – it is interesting to see how coherent the work is and how many tools invented in the early stages are still being applied now. The difference is that the early work was much more literal, with arrows drawn on the paper, whereas now it is in my head, and the set of plans produced naturally encompasses the concepts of the notation.

PF Is it possible to apply that technique, if one could call it that, in thinking about masterplanning large areas of the city rather than a single building or even a single complex project? How does it help to think about the city as whole?

BT Not only do I think you can, considering that a lot of the workings of a city have to do with exchange and movements, but I feel it is particularly relevant at the urban scale because it brings a certain level of uncertainty. And if in a house you might determine everything, in a city you cannot and you should not. I very much see urban design projects as a game. Imagine a form of chess or Monopoly where the various pieces can be moved around, and all the architect does is to establish the game board, a few pieces, a few rules, and then let the user start to play and develop it. It is very much a dynamic process and not a frozen image.

PF It’s a kind of theory of endless interactions or interactions to inter reactions.

BT I would say so, yes.

PF And how do you see the condition of the contemporary city? First in the West and then perhaps in the emerging cities of Asia and the Far East, do you draw comfort from the architectural thinking that is going into them?

BT Here my answer is not going to be very optimistic. I do think that architects in the last 15 to 20 years, at a time of maximum urbanisation, have completely failed in their mission to design the city of today or tomorrow. I think we are all responsible, I probably am, as much as my whole generation. Among the hundreds of cities that are being built, hardly any of them have done it with some sort of an objective sense of experimentation, of testing certain hypotheses and seeing how they can be demonstrated. At the moment they are mostly all alike, especially when we talk about the Middle East or China. It is a very serious problem: we are learning very little from what is being built at the moment.
In the cities of the ‘historical West’, London, Paris, Munich and so on, an incredible timidity has somehow replaced the extraordinary ideas and thinking processes that were taking place throughout the 20th century: in the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, even including the ’70s – I may totally disagree with Leon Krier and his proposal, but at least there was a thinking going on. I hope that we can call it a period of transition. As history has shown, when the work is too banal, irritation sets in, followed by critique, and then theory possibly comes back. This is my hope for the city of tomorrow.

‘We are learning very little from what is being built at the moment.
When the work is too banal, irritation sets in, followed by critique, and then theory possibly comes back. This is my hope for the city of tomorrow.’

PF Your father, as a founder of the international union of architects – the UIA – was engaged in the moral and ethical challenges that faced the profession, and by definition these were internationalist in outlook. Do you think that that attitude somehow has transmuted into something which is super internationalist and globalised? Or do you feel that architects’ interests have, for the most part, become much less concerned with the common good and much more individual and focused on their individual clients?

BT When architects gathered and decided to put together an international dialogue in the ’40s, it was clearly due to the fact that Europe and the world had been hurt tremendously by two World Wars. The intent, as far as I am aware, was really to re-establish a dialogue among architects that would go above and beyond those national and political differences. That was the starting point. Today, except for manifestations and events like the Olympics, which are highly nationalistic, everything has become quite global and architects do travel everywhere. They have plenty of opportunities, like the Venice Biennale where we are at the moment, when a dialogue is possible. But the question is: is there such a dialogue? In other words, are we really setting up some questions, some goals, some hypotheses, or are we simply bathing in a bath of self-indulgence and icons for the general mass consumption?

PF You have practices in New York and Paris. My impression is that most of the significant projects that you do tend to be either for public or institutional clients, rather than individual commercial property developers. Is that by choice or is it just the way the practice has developed?

BT Probably both. On one hand the history of my activity is made of large public projects as you know with the Parc de la Villette. I have been quite interested in entering a number of public competitions: I’m able to choose them, we do reasonably well – we win probably one out of four – and they offer quite an international range of possibilities.
We also have some private clients. Currently I’m completing two buildings near Geneva. One is the second watch factory, after doing the first one a few years ago, and the other is a large concert hall for a private educational institution, a very serious Philharmonic hall of a thousand seats. Both are private. When we did the blue tower in New York, that was also private. People generally approach us I would say out of the blue.
Nevertheless, as you said correctly, the majority of our projects – various concert halls, the New Acropolis museum, and so on – do come from public competitions.

PF The other aspect of your life as an architect, which is also public, is as a teacher. What do you see in today’s architecture students at Columbia that reminds you of when you were a student? Or are they quite different?

BT I think architecture is something quite extraordinary because it’s still in the making. There’s in no way the feeling that it is not still in front of us, so places like schools are quite extraordinary because they are really the places that prepare the brew of what architecture will become tomorrow. The young faculty has generally more energy and invention than the practice. It makes for fantastic people to work with and to develop what will become, by necessity, the architecture and the cities of the next generation.

PF Do you find that there is an interest, which obviously you would share, for cities of the future, or is there more interest in the individual concerns and psychological considerations to do with space and time?

BT Well, just looking at what has been happening around me in the last few years, I would say there are two extremes. What interests them is at the two ends of the spectrum, either the very small or the very large. I feel there are relatively few buildings to be designed now, and the buildings published in the magazines are not necessarily what interests students.
The very small could be described as fabrication: how does one use a number of extraordinary softwares to build up components, even to build apps for smartphones that will allow new ways to perceive space. On the other end, the discussion about cities is indeed coming back. I don’t know where it is going at this stage but it is there. There is really an awareness, probably because people travel a lot. Students at Columbia do projects in Doha, in Istanbul, outside Tokyo, and they do think quite seriously about the problem I mentioned a few minutes ago: the fact that we are unfortunately in a rather not terribly creative period about city thinking.

PF Do you think that, because communication and travel are so much faster, architects have yet to find a way of working in this digital world, which isn’t a kind of echo of working in an analogue way? I ask this because I’ve been thinking about your point about notation and in a way what you were doing with the La Villette proposition does have to do with how you represent a world in which space and time can vanish or be kaleidoscope or be expended – and actually it’s not far off from what we are now experiencing in a digital environment.

DIY City

DIY City

DIY City
DIY City

BT I’m going to amuse you. Just before coming to London, I did with a friend of mine a project called Do It Yourself City. It’s a project heavily influenced by Cedric and by his second Fun Palace, the one that travelled around. The idea was to speculate on how the role of mass communication could transform the built environment, how the ability for people to communicate through media while being simultaneously present in the same physical space could change the core organisation of something that could be integrated into the existing city in the new towns. The internet had not been invented yet, yet that awareness was there. I think it is still possible and it will inevitably come. Architects are always a little slow, sometimes they are faster than others, sometimes they take a while, but I think your question is absolutely correct. There is a moment where the two will interact: the software and the hardware, the invisible media – including the social media – and the hard architectural stuff.

PF A final question: if you were giving advice to young architects who are about to start practice, or try to start practice, what advice would you give them based on your own experience of competitions, buildings, exhibitions?

BT Never take anything for granted. Never accept what people tell you the solution is. Always start with a question.

PF Bernard Tschumi, thank you very much.

BT Thank you Paul.

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