Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
A Conversation with Bernard Tschumi, FAIA
A look back on Postmodernism—and all the post-Modern isms.
Present 25 years ago at MoMA for the troubled, and later disputed, birth of Deconstructivist architecture, Bernard Tschumi’s, FAIA, introduction to the world emanated firmly from the avant-garde establishment. Design tastemaker since the 1930s Philip Johnson (who curated the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition) praised the warping, curving, twisting design provocations featured for their “pleasures of unease.” But, at the time, Tschumi and his contemporaries in the show hadn’t had many opportunities to share this peculiar kind of delight with the world. Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, didn’t have a single completed commission, and Tschumi had only one: Parc de la Villette in Paris, a series of dozens of massive structures that blend forms reminiscent of industrial infrastructure with freehand sculptural expression.
But by now the world has grown up around Deconstructivism, Parc de la Villette, and Bernard Tschumi. The project’s bright red follies are still a refreshing jolt after rambling through the medieval street grid of Paris; but in other ways it’s set the tone for its neighborhood and even become a neighborhood in and of itself. Amongst Tschumi’s enigmatic urban-scale sculptures is a fast food restaurant, garbed in the same asymmetrical twists and turns. If Deconstuctivism has ever been marginalized as an architectural aesthetic, Tschumi has taken it from MoMA to the quarter pounder with cheese, a measure of widespread cultural acceptance most highbrow genres of architecture don’t attain.
Here Tschumi, who will be the keynote speaker at the AIA Virginia Society convention in November, discusses his definition of architecture and the effect of computers on architecture with Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design who currently teaches at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.
Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh: As one sees from your recently released book Red Is Not a Color, which is a generous autobiographical chronology of your work to date, yours has been a long cumulative journey, which has had a profound effect on the discipline—its pedagogy and practice. What or who would you say were you responding to, or reacting against, or affiliated with early on in your career? What are those affiliations for you right now, if any?
Bernard Tschumi: From 1968 to the early ’70s, I felt one had to take a step back—not accept all the received ideas that architecture had been known for. After I graduated, I stopped designing so that I could think about what architecture is. As part of that, I started to look at literature, film, and other disciplines in terms of what they could bring to architectural thought.
The late ’70s were the beginning of a return to the past. That was inspired by the work of, among others, Robert Venturi [FAIA] in America and Aldo Rossi in Europe. The title “Postmodern” aside, I saw it as a pre-Modern movement. To me, this was problematic. I was far more interested in recapturing the spirit and concept of the avant-garde of the early 20th century. Postmodernism in architecture quickly became dominated by people such as Robert Stern [FAIA] Paul Goldberger [Hon. AIA], and Prince Charles. I felt much closer to people such as Frank Gehry, FAIA, Peter Eisenman, [FAIA], and Rem Koolhaas—even though their work had nothing to do with mine. They were interested in a new attitude toward the discipline.
Today, rather than those two very different approaches, architecture is all over the place, with perhaps the only strong dogmatic ideology being the intensely image-driven obsession of making iconic objects. I feel relatively antagonistic against that very simplistic way of looking at architecture. There are individuals who are doing very interesting work, but I do not perceive them as an organized force, maybe because I do not yet have historic perspective. Still, there is every reason to anticipate further fantastic ideas. I am extremely optimistic about the future of architecture. Of course, the definition of architecture will change, too, because of things such as communication technology and our acceptance of virtual space.
Regardless of a current style, architecture is simultaneously about concepts and derived experiences. These are abstract ways of organizing space for which we are trained and that don’t come easily to most people. Then, once it is built, there is an experience that people do understand. You don’t have that in mathematics alone. For instance, with a Gothic cathedral, the architect uses abstract formulas and geometries that become awe-inspiring experiences only through the resulting building. That is true of all periods of architecture. Deconstruction was not a style. For me, it was the constant questioning rather than a formalist set of answers.
Your years at as dean of Columbia’s school of architecture [1988–2003] produced perhaps one of the most significant shifts in architecture education, with the introduction of the digital paperless studio. How do you think our tools affect the way we work?
Look back through various periods of history. Perspective drawing in the Renaissance changed the way architects look at the world. In the early Modern movement, the mode of representation shifted to axonometrics, which also shifts our way of thinking. My own interest in modes of notation used by artists, dancers, and filmmakers has had an influence in my own work. So there are always moments that are ruptures—paradigmatic shifts in history and periods of invention.
When we started the paperless studio at Columbia, I could look at the work on a screen and tell immediately if it was by a student of Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid, or Scott Marble [AIA]. In that regard, the computer is simply an accelerator. At the time, though, we were experimenting with many software platforms to explore a multitude of interests and approaches. Now we have merely a handful, with only a few specialists using other systems. That homogenization is very bad. Drawings by Paul Rudolph matched his thought process and were very different from, say, Corbusier or Charles Moore. If we all are doing the same hyper-realist computer-generated drawings, then we risk practicing iconism and not architecture. If you are only looking for the money shot—the icon—and you don’t form the concept and derive the experience, is that even architecture?
Tschumi is the keynote speaker for the Virginia Society AIA’s Architecture Exchange East convention in Richmond, Nov. 6–8. This article originally appeared in the September 2013 edition of the Virginia Society AIA’s magazine Inform. For a complete transcript of the interview, visit www.readInform.com, or click here.