PRINT November 2014


Bernard Tschumi’s retrospective

Bernard Tschumi Architects, Acropolis Museum, 2009, Athens. Photo: Peter Mauss/Esto.

“ARCHITECTURE IS the materialization of a concept.” This is just one of many polemical positions that Bernard Tschumi has articulated throughout his forty-year career, and it is the perfect summation of the celebrated architect’s position—capturing his conviction that his discipline is fundamentally about thinking, that building is first and foremost about ideas. But such a statement also leaves the definition of architecture uncertain, contingent on its material realization and on the vagaries of putting ideas into practice. Yet, the paradox is, perhaps, the real force behind Tschumi’s remarkably varied and prolific career. He was, after all, seen during the late 1980s as a quintessential avant-garde architect whose forceful designs encapsulated the crises of the field in that decade and its spread into writing, philosophy, manifestos, and experimental and visionary projects. From the beginning, then, the retrospective of his work “Bernard Tschumi: Concept & Notation,”on view this past summer at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, faced a difficult challenge. The exhibition not only attempted to chart a trajectory through a diverse body of work but grappled with the pressing question underlying Tschumi’s entire oeuvre: What is the relation between his early, highly theoretical projects, which remained on paper, and his more recent built work?

For an architect who has done so much to explore the relation between writing and architecture, the exhibition fittingly began with a text: Tschumi’s book Architecture Concepts: Red Is Not a Color (2012). The volume combines the comprehensive detail of a catalogue raisonné with a battery of theoretical writings, providing an encyclopedic analysis of Tschumi’s career. When the architect sent a copy to Frédéric Migayrou, head of architecture at the Pompidou, the latter almost immediately invited him to do an exhibition. Tschumi was then confronted with the problem of translating the discursive space of text and the page into the built space of the show.

Tschumi’s book eschews restrictions of a strict chronology, instead following a thematic arrangement that allowed the architect to weave together certain key concepts in his practice. The theoretical texts themselves, which range from mid- to late-1970s manifestos penned in the initial years of his practice to essays written specifically for the book, serve as the connective matrix. This thematic structure was retained in the exhibition, but rather than text it was drawing that formed the common ground. Eighteen reference tables punctuated the gallery space, displaying a wealth of archival material from Tschumi’s oeuvre—among them sketches, diagrams, notebooks, clippings, and photographs—forming what Tschumi called “the footnotes” of the exhibition, even as they also seemed to be its real content, representing the thinking behind the fifty projects on view. These were clustered by theme. The first was “Manifestos: Space and Event,”which began with a long red wall that lined the right and back sides of the gallery, displaying Tschumi’s filmic Manhattan Transcripts, 1976–81, shown here together for the first time. Drawing heavily on cinematic influences, this project found Tschumi developing a new language of notation through a tripartite structure of image, space, and event to show how urban spaces can be animated by the activities that unfold within them. Also included in this section of the exhibition was Joyce’s Garden, 1976–77, the architect’s attempt to translate the literary construction of Finnegans Wake into a spatial organization through a series of translatory drawings. Next came the renowned Parc de la Villette, begun in 1982 although not finished until 1998, originally a competition entry for one of then president François Mitterand’s grands travaux. The park, situated on a 125-acre site in the northeast of Paris formerly occupied by slaughterhouses, represented a radical rethinking of urban intervention, with Tschumi proposing not a bucolic green space but a highly formal, programmatic structure of points, lines, and planes embodied by a series of discrete red buildings (which Tschumi called “follies”), arranged on a grid and connected through a series of walkways.

The second thematic grouping was “Program/Juxtaposition/Superimposition,” which was centered on two pivotal projects: Tschumi’s competition entry for the New National Theatre, Tokyo (1986), in which the architect again explored the notion of the event, investigating the ways in which even a static architectural arrangement could engage the temporal dimensions of its program, and Le Fresnoy (1997), an interdisciplinary center of exhibition, performance, and production spaces for film, video, and other media. In the latter, a soaring, folded roof encapsulates preexisting structures from a ’20s leisure complex—a cinema, a ballroom, and ice-skating and equestrian arenas—giving birth to the idea of a flexible, all-inclusive envelope that would become prevalent in Tschumi’s later work. This concept was explicitly explored by the next thematic grouping, “Vectors and Envelopes,” which showcased Tschumi’s project for the École Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne, Switzerland, (2007), which deploys a similar design concept.

The following section, “Concept, Context, Content,” presented one of the most compelling projects in the exhibition: Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum (2009). The project masterfully and dynamically responds to its chaotic site, located at the foot of the Acropolis, amid archaeological excavations, encroached on by contemporary Athens, and a stone’s throw from the nearby Parthenon.“Concept-Forms,” the final section of the show, highlighted Tschumi’s most recent work, including the just-completed Paris Zoological Park (2014). The project responds to the zoo’s long legacy of a cage-free program, with a series of aviaries constructed with a double wooden envelope over a heavy steel armature. These structures efface the distinction between spaces for humans and those for animals, forming a common architecture—an overall landscape—through which visitors move.

With only a handful of exceptions, the built works among these projects were displayed only on video monitors, while the clusters of double-sided partition walls that formed the core of each thematic grouping displayed drawings. And one of the most consistent pleasures of the exhibition was the sight of Tschumi repeatedly thinking with his hand, working through the problems of each project via a stunning range of drawings, diagrams, and other modes of visual analysis. Yet Tschumi’s approach to architectural representation is complex. He does not partake in the fetishization of the autographic, originary sketch so common in his field. Rather, he argues, “Drawing is a form of investigation, but the mind is a form of correcting and editing, in other words you cannot be . . . uncritically fascinated by what your hand does.” Indeed, at the beginning of his career he adapted the word notation for its nonarchitectural, nonrepresentational, temporal, and choreographic associations, as a transcription of movement, event, and space. As he recalls: “I used the word notation very early on, in New York when I was doing the Manhattan Transcripts, quite close to a certain art scene and notation was a word that was around. You realize that there is a certain way you think that has to do with the way you draw, the way you articulate something visually.” Tschumi’s notations are often associated with cinematography, choreography, and the performative and Conceptual art of the 1970s: References abound to John Cage’s musical scores that embrace silence; the rooftop choreographies of Trisha Brown, in which architecture and objects became performers in the dance; the camera notations that Sergei Eisenstein prepared for his film Alexander Nevsky (1938), which included a temporal mapping of framing, camera movements, the musical score, and the actors’ movement; the jump cuts of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960); and the theatrical compositions of Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach (1976). Tschumi’s early work was influenced, too, by the architectural avant-garde of the late ’60s and early ’70s, by practitioners such as Andrea Branzi, Archizoom, and Cedric Price, who proposed a radical urbanism of movement, rather than of static form, in response to the unrest and uprisings of 1968.

In fact, almost all of Tschumi’s diverse representational experiments can be understood as part of his desire to create what he calls an “architecture . . . about movement,” to build structures that embody time. His radical reconceptualization of the building envelope offers perhaps the clearest example of his ability to do the seemingly impossible, translating choreographies of space and time into built form. The expansive canopy of the Le Fresnoy project and the double skin of the Paris Zoo produce structures in which one may move back and forth between inner and outer boundaries, taking in different spaces and events according to varied patterns of movement, just as one’s eye might meander through one of Tschumi’s drawings or diagrams, absorbing the many layers of time, space, and movement they contain.

Surprisingly, the intellectual position for which Tschumi is well known—his bold association of the philosophy of deconstruction with architecture—was not overtly addressed in the exhibition. He sought out Jacques Derrida himself for collaboration with Peter Eisenman on the Parc de la Villette project, and Tschumi’s inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s 1988 “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition established him as one of the leaders of the so-called deconstructivist style. Though the overt influence of this philosophy has faded from view in his more recent work, his early interdisciplinary explorations remain highly pertinent, because the relation Tschumi articulated between architecture and philosophy—as separate forms of discourse and thought, the structure of each inhabiting and informing the other—is similar to the underlying connections his retrospective explored between architecture, concept, notation, drawing, text, exhibition, and building. And so the event-space of the exhibition could not help but be inhabited and activated by the event-space of Tschumi’s architecture, and they stood together as dynamic structures of thought.

Tina Di Carlo, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Oslo School of Architecture.