Bernard Tschumi, Architecture: Concept & Notation was the first major retrospective of Tschumi’s work in Paris since the launching of his career internationally with the Parc de la Villette in the 1980s. It was one of a series of monographic exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou focusing on the work of contemporary architects Jean Nouvel, Thom Mayne, Richard Rogers, Dominique Perrault, and most recently Frank Gehry. Limited in size but sharply focused, it was set up in the mezzanine just beyond the entrance, the Centre Pompidou’s customary site for architectural exhibitions. The displays of models, drawings, and sketches, accompanied by explanatory texts, filled the corner of the building looking out onto the plaza and sculpture pond; its glazed walls and minimal metal structure provided an ideal space for an exhibition of Tschumi’s work, which focuses on engagement, movement, and activity rather than form and reflects his keen interest in the continuity between urban dynamics and building (Figure 1).
Visitors were thrust immediately into Tschumi’s intellectual sources by a display of the books, authors, arts, and artists he found inspiring—French theorists Henri Lefebvre, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida; literary theorists Georges Bataille and Roland Barthes; writers Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Italo Calvino, and James Joyce; filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard (“acid critic of the city”); contemporary musicians such as John Cage and their musical scores; dance and choreographic notation—all of which provided insight into the breadth of his thought. Accompanying this display was a video of Tschumi (an element now standard fare in museum exhibitions of this nature), the first of several providing glimpses of the architect within the context of his multidimensional professional career.
The displays that followed, with graphics and photos wall mounted and models in display cases, presented some fifty of Tschumi’s projects over the course of his career. They began with the Parc de la Villette, which not only served as a major catalyst for the deconstructivist show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art but also propelled Tschumi onto the global architectural scene, then quickly moved on to focus on his lesser known, more recent work, ending on a positive note with the newly opened Parc Zoologique, with its distinctive ecological biozones, just outside Paris. Incorporating glimpses of his training and early intellectual influences—born in Switzerland; attended the ETH in Zurich in the late 1960s, then the Architectural Association in London in the early 1970s at a moment of intense intellectual ferment; the impact of the Situationists, Archigram, and especially Cedric Price; his admiration of (if not reverence for) Shadrach Woods and his fraternization with Rem Koolhaas (considerable) and Zaha Hadid (less so); his move to New York and association with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, the beginning of his architectural practice, and his deanship at Columbia, all while he continued to maintain his practice—the exhibition portrayed an architect at once deeply immersed in theory and intensely engaged in city life. Projects included international competitions, master plans, and urban design projects as well as buildings throughout the globe, from the West Diaoyutai Tower in Beijing and the Media Zone master plan for Abu Dhabi to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. They culminated in the newly opened zoological park, marking the shift of Tschumi’s interests from theory to the natural environment, evident since the mid-1990s, as architectural practice globalized, the economy speeded up, and communication went electronic.
The concepts underlying his projects were articulated clearly in explanatory notes drawn mostly from Tschumi’s own writings, including articles (in L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, Architectural Design, Artforum, Oppositions) and books (among them The Manhattan Transcripts, 1994; the Event-Cities series, 1994–2010; Architecture Concepts: Red Is Not a Color, 2012). They made clear his aim to revolutionize architecture by redefining it, focusing not on form, as architects in the past have traditionally done, but on concept, with materials and form emerging from a conceptual base, never a formal one. Firmly opposed to static form (represented conventionally by plans, sections, elevations, and perspectives—drawings that fix form a priori in space), Tschumi has sought form generated by use (which is not the same as “function,” which is also predetermined). For Tschumi, use means the activities, movement, and events that would or might occur within the project, allowing vectors of movement, light, and other dynamic, often unforeseen and purely serendipitous forces to determine the form. Architecture is about the realization of ideas, or, as Tschumi has expressed it, the materialization of concept, not form. Opposed, like many of the progressive architects of his generation, to modernism’s focus on form and space, Tschumi has equally stood poles apart from postmodernism’s fixation on the past, its obsession with history, decoration, and eye-catching but arbitrary color, seeing the trendy new movement as in fact conservative—an approach that seeks security in the past rather than embraces the uncertainty of the future.
Demonstrating how Tschumi’s ideas evolved under the influence of Price, Joyce, Eisenstein, Cage, and a range of contemporary artists, the exhibition pointed out how integral these artists’ thinking and practice were to his work. His interest in new modes of representation and notation, inspired especially by Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky; his interest in temporal as well as spatial sequences influenced by contemporary dance (Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece, for instance); the idea of the form-generating movement of bodies through space, much of it inspired by Cedric Price, expanded by Archigram, Archizoom, and the Italian Radicals, and realized in the brazen Centre Pompidou—Tschumi absorbed it all, then moved on from there. His Elliptic City near Santo Domingo (2005, in progress) uses notation as a generative tool, with a series of malleable elliptical clearings carved out of the Caribbean jungle and linked by roads. The architect here serves not as a form giver but as a mastermind who provides an organizing concept of “provisional suspense” grounded in an incompleteness based on future expansion. The Athens Museum (2001–9) at the base of the Acropolis uses the generic concept of superimposed but uncoordinated systems of points, lines, and planes first explored in the Parc de la Villette, here with three layers of base (a recently discovered archaeological site), middle (exhibition space for the museum collection and temporary galleries), and top (a wholly transparent glass enclosure housing original and replicated statues from the Acropolis, with views of the Parthenon overhead). Still more recently, the newly opened Parc Zoologique outside Paris blurs the distinction between architecture for humans and architecture for animals, using a common language for both: steel-framed mesh aviaries to accommodate birds and the public alike; a huge glazed greenhouse providing a humidity-controlled biozone where visitors wander amid saki monkeys, tubular-nosed anteaters, and bamboo lemurs, with macaws and toucans flying about freely overhead; double-enveloped wooden shelters for giraffes and zebras that also house mechanical equipment. Uninterested in novelty for its own sake, Tschumi is concerned not with attention-drawing form but with the creation of a memorably experienced place.
The exhibition aimed high, providing a cerebral experience rather than a dazzling one and underscoring Tschumi’s commitment to ideas rather than form. It targeted architects and aficionados aware of contemporary architectural affairs and was free of large crowds and boisterous voices, opting for quiet contemplation rather than the “wow” factor.
The exhibition catalog, edited by Frédéric Migayrou, architectural curator of the Centre Pompidou, and featuring an essay by Aurélien Lemonier, was produced in close collaboration with Tschumi himself. While at times formidably dense, it provides a good sense of the scope and depth of Tschumi’s work. Aimed not at the casual reader but rather at sophisticated members of the architectural community, the catalog offers a clear and compelling synopsis of Tschumi’s life, work, and thought.
Frédéric Migayrou, ed., Bernard Tschumi, Architecture: Concept & Notation (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2014), 256 pp., 600 illus. €39.30, ISBN 9782844266491