Without an Experiential Concept, Is It Architecture?

Update: Bernard Tschumi is the keynote speaker for the 2013 ArchEX conference.

Interview by Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh, July 26, 2013


Bernard Tschumi and Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh

Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh: I want to thank you, of course, for speaking with us, but really for this great tome, Red Is Not a Color. I was so excited when I first received it. I carried it with me to work on the metro and I think Michael Hays is right: it is the weight of a small child! When one has the opportunity to interview Bernard Tschumi there are so many things that one wants to talk about, but perhaps starting with the book is apropos, since it really is a complete account of your trajectory and a very generous one at that. And I want to make sure to say for my part how significant this is, because not only is it a more or less chronological account of many things that have had a profound effect on the discipline—its pedagogy and practice—but also because you have shared with us, in an autobiographical manner, all the influences that from an early moment in your career shaped you. In fact, reading this book, I feel that I have been already in dialogue with you and today we only continue that dialogue! So there is a question at the end of this long prologue.

My question is two-fold here. What or who would you say were you responding to or reacting against or affiliated with early on in your career, not so much in the broad cultural terms, but more so in disciplinary circles. I think what I am asking is to be even more specific than you already are in Red Is Not a Color. And if I may continue in that same vein, while there may be no styles or canons at this moment, undoubtedly there are tendencies and affiliations. What are those affiliations for you right now, if any?

Bernard Tschumi, FAIA: I would phrase the answer to the first question in two parts. One that is specific to myself, and the other in terms of what you called “affiliations.” In terms of the way I felt at the time was probably because of the intellectual climate from 1968 to the early ’70s. I felt that one had really to take a step back and not to accept all the recipes, the received ideas that architecture had been known for. In other words, literally, I said after I graduated: “Now I stop designing.” And I stopped to think about what architecture is after all. So that was a conscious step away from all the clichés of the architectural establishment at the time. And I started to look at literature, look at film, look at other disciplines in terms of what they could bring to architectural thought.

The second part of the answer to your question is not regarding myself but regarding who I would talk to, who were my friends, and who were my enemies, to simplify the formulation. Clearly, the late ’70s were the beginning of what I would describe as the return to the past. Here in America it was the work of Robert Venturi or in Europe with the work of Aldo Rossi and others who were advocating a look and a pre-Modern movement era. This was, to me, really problematic. I felt very antagonistic toward this attitude and was far more interested in trying to recapture the spirit of the early avant-garde of the 20th century, or the concept of the avant-garde. So there were people who were also feeling uneasy about this return to the past, which generally became known as Post Modernism in architecture, although Post Modernism in art was very, very different. But Post Modernism in architecture got quickly dominated by the Robert Sterns of the world, in the newspapers the Paul Goldbergers, or the Prince Charles in Europe, etc., etc. So that was something I felt I was against. I felt much closer towards people—even though their work had nothing to do with my work—such as Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas. These people who had an interest towards inventing a new attitude towards the discipline were really where I felt I wanted to be.

Today, it’s a very interesting period because if, in my answer to the first question, I was able to make a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, if you want, there were two very different approaches at work. Today, it’s very strange because it’s a little bit all over the place. I think there are not strong dogmas or ideologies you’d want to find. If there were one, it would be the intensely image-driven nature of the profession now. What I call Iconism—the obsession with making “iconic objects.”

GAA: And the social media does such a great job of communicating and proliferating that.

BT: That’s right, exactly. So here I will feel relatively antagonistic against that very simplistic way to look at architecture. But in terms of affiliations, I would say I do not see at the moment a group of people who have common interests in something different. In other words, there are individuals who are doing very interesting work, but I do not perceive them as an organized force—maybe because I do not have yet an historical overview.

GAA: Right, we have stopped writing manifestos for some time now and perhaps we will never write them?

BT: I would think that we will. There is no reason for not seeing in the future further fantastic ideas in architecture. I am extremely optimistic about the future of architecture as something you cannot escape today. Of course the definition of architecture will change because of communication technology and a lot of virtual stuff and so on. It means that architecture has a great future in front of us.

GAA: You talk about the spirit of avant-garde in the early 20th century. In the arts we know that there was a moment when the avant-garde were interested in distancing themselves from the bourgeoisie, and that became something of the definition of avant-garde in so many ways. In architecture, we talk about the “historical Avant-garde.” In architecture, what is the moment for you where avant-garde begins.

Brunelleschi on perspective

Brunelleschi on perspective

Exploded axonometric

Exploded axonometric

BT: You could go through various periods of history when in the Renaissance someone invents perspective, it makes an unbelievable change in the way that architects look at the world. When, in the early Modern movement, the mode of representation shifts to axonometrics , and that is also a shift in the way of thinking. In my own interest in modes of notations that are being used by artists, dancers, and film makers, that has had an influence in my own work. So there are always moments that are ruptures, which people refer to as paradigmatic shifts in history. This does happen. It is rather the spirit of having what I would call a period of invention. I have a definition for architecture: Architecture is the invention of idea and concept and then materializing it. In other words, turning invention into something that is built. So the emphasis is on ideas and concept and not forms. Forms are important, but they are not the starting point.

GAA: That is a much broader definition, and one that doesn’t point to any specific moment in history.

BT: That’s right.

GAA: If we may continue on the topic of one’s milieu—given our contemporary predicament, this moment of environmental crisis, socio-political unrest, and with mass media and social media usurping all aspects of culture—do you think the role of architecture is changing? In the discipline, at least in the academy, there is a great overhaul towards all things multi-disciplinary, which I am struggling with because at the same time, we are expected to specialize more every day. And perhaps those things go hand in hand. I know you were one of the first people who went outside the discipline to cinema, literature, arts, etc. to enrich the discipline. If you were to go outside the discipline now, what would it be? And how would it be different?

Concept for Carnal Dome, Rolle, Switzerland

Concept for Carnal Dome, Rolle, Switzerland

BT: Let’s make a distinction between working outside the discipline and looking at things that happen outside the discipline and then can have an influence on the discipline. I would call one import and the other export. I am personally feeling that I am an architect and my reference point is architecture in terms of things that eventually get built and be used for everyday purposes. For me, if I were to work outside the discipline, referring to architecture in everyday life as part of urban life and so on, then it would not be my work anymore. I am not terribly interested in designing ashtrays or teapots. Because to me it does not really respond to that overall ambition of architecture as part of our urban life. I’m sure you could write a play or make a film in the same way you can write an article, which is trying to talk about architectural ideas and concepts. That’s no problem. To me it’s part of the same job. What I’m saying is I get concerned about people who go totally toward design or totally towards a certain form of presentation, which I do not feel is the best thing an architect can do because anyone can do fabrication. So my own response is that I tend to want to contribute to the making of urban life and architecture that has perhaps an effect on the way we live.

What architecture is, regardless of whether it is called Deconstruction or whatever, is simultaneously about concepts and about experience. Architecture is very abstract. If you think of certain ways of organizing spaces, these are things that are not easy to do for the common person, architects are trained to do so. So there is a certain level of abstraction. And then, once it is built, there is an experience that goes with it. This is fascinating, because you don’t have that in mathematics. You can have something very abstract, but not the spatial experience of an equation—unless you are a great mathematician with incredible climaxes in the pleasure of your equation. But in the common person, a space is quite different.

A basic example in the definition of architecture in general, if I take a Gothic cathedral, it is using mathematical formulas and geometries, which are extremely abstract, and yet the emotion and experience that you go through as you go through the building is an amazing ability that the architect has to combine the abstract and the immediate; in other words, the concept and the experience. That is true of all periods of architecture. Then if you talk about the construction … Deconstruction was not a style that was exploding the night. It was more of a critical attitude trying to avoid falling on the same clichés. It was rather trying to question. For me, Deconstruction was the constant questioning rather than bringing formalist answers.

GAA: This is precisely the problem with the way social media today portrays architecture. It’s all about the money shot and not at all about the experience of Architecture.

BT: You don’t get the concept and you don’t get the experience. To me it’s borderline not even architecture.

GAA: And as we look toward the icon there is all the digital craft that we are getting so good at. And then there is the interest in saving the world and the environment. Where do you think architecture fits in all of this.

BLUE Residential Tower, NYC, Photo by Peter Mauss/ESTO

BLUE Residential Tower, NYC, Photo by Peter Mauss/ESTO

BT: You use the word “environment.” I think if you use the word in relationship to not simply things like LEED or whatever, but in relationship to the fact that the planet is changing also in terms of the way we live. I’m not talking about historical cities or downtown New York, Paris, London, or whatever. But I’m talking about all those enormous developments that are being built in many parts of the world, in China, Africa, the Middle East, and so on, this is not to be taken lightly. I think this will change the culture and the relationship among people. Instead of having a street where people have a social life, they are in anonymous tower blocks, and their social life is through the Internet, that’s not quite the same life. Therefore, we architects have to take it into the way to design. In terms of cities, no one has come up with new ideas about the cities in about a generation or two. I haven’t seen many works. There are objects, but they’re not thinking of cities anymore. And that’s a problem.

Inform: Does advanced communication technology point toward the dissolution of the city, since you don’t have to have that kind of face-to-face interaction that requires commuting to work and population density? Plus we are seeing, as mentioned, that computer manipulation is creating a shift in the way buildings are conceived, designed, delivered, and maintained. How do you see this moving in the next 10 or 15 years?

Joern Utzon diagrams his opera house.

Joern Utzon diagrams his opera house.

BT: I would say any architectural concept can be expressed in a few lines in a diagram. I like the word “diagram” because it’s a short cut between a thought in your head and a real drawing of what it looks like. That diagram doesn’t have to be done with a computer. With Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, he has an architectural concept of a shell. Of course it needs to be worked out, which may take a long time, as it did in that case. The engineering was not advanced enough. The actual thought, though, does not necessarily require the help of software or of a machine. Another example is that mankind invented towers long before they invented elevators. The elevators completely changed the nature of towers and cities. And that’s what I think is happening with digital technology. It will boost an incredible acceleration in the way we think because of that, but it doesn’t necessarily alter the way we think.

GAA: Your years at Columbia (1988-2003) produced perhaps one of the most significant shifts in architecture education. At a time when architecture schools were doing very different things, how was the initiation of the Paperless Studios received? Even today we talk about having lost this relationship of hand and mind as a result. And related to this, I have perhaps a somewhat naive question: A lot of the software that we use is borrowed from other industries—ranging from film and animation to aeronautics and other design disciplines. Was it your interest in the other disciplines that led you to consider borrowing their tools and methods?

Lynn's early CAD church design, with Douglas Garofalo and Michael McInturf.

Lynn’s early CAD church design, with Douglas Garofalo and Michael McInturf.


BT: That touches on what we were just talking about. With the Paperless Studio, something very interesting happened. The other day I was at some sort of colloquium at the CCA at which there was an exhibition called The Archaeology of the Digital, curated by Greg Lynn. I was asked to talk about the Paperless Studio, and to prepare the talk I went back over 15 years of documentation and archives of the evolution of projects by students and faculty at Columbia before the Paperless Studio and then during the years that immediately followed the start of the Paperless Studio. I saw something that I had experienced subjectively and now can see objectively.

When we started the Paperless Studio, you would walk into the top floor of Avery Hall at Columbia, and I could immediately recognize, simply by looking at what was happening on the screen, whether the work was from a student of Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid, or Scott Marble. What they had been doing was simply expanding their own interest in the realm of digital technology. Then, when I started to look at the archives two weeks ago, I saw that it was very clearly the case that digital approach simply accelerated some things, which were already there. Strange, convoluted geometries did not appear overnight because of the computer. There were already people who were really trying to struggle with it. Then the computer gave them an incredible boost. So that’s where my point about the fact that it simply is something that is an accelerator.

The second part of the question has to do with the software. What was interesting was that in the early days of the Paperless Studio there were not that many architectural software programs. There was FormZ and a version of 3D AutoCAD, and a French version. So people had to look elsewhere to find what they could use. It was a very strange period. There was Greg Lynn who was experimenting with software that was coming from engineering and fluid mechanics. Somebody else had found for free the same software that was used for making the film Jurassic Park. There was experimentation that was fresh and exciting because the people who were working with the media were using programs that were quite different. Today we are all using the same software. Some specialists will be using different applications, but by and large we are using the same aesthetic and hyper-realist images, which has nothing to do with thought. It is just something you can see on the screen of your Iphone, and this has had a homogenizing effect, which is very, very bad for architecture at the moment.

GAA: Clearly the tools that we use have an impact on the way we conceive our work and the way we design.


Rudolph’s Callahan Residence drawing.

BT: Absolutely. But when we go back to the Renaissance and the development of perspective drawing and the Modern era with the axonometric, and of course you think differently. To an extent that is a good thing. I used to tell my students that you do your project, and then at one moment you stop and write about it and try to say the same thing. Then you see how the words are suddenly transforming the way you are thinking, and what you have been drawing. We have to be aware of it. And the problem I am having right now is that the production office, when clients are asking us for hyper-realistic images, we all use the same means. Once upon a time you had drawing by Paul Rudolph and his extraordinary illustrator. They were very different from the drawings from, say, Corbusier or Charles Moore. That gave a match to the thought. If we all do the same thing, then it does become Iconism.

GAA: You left Columbia in 2003. And it was at this point a great machine that produced a certain kind of work and many great architects. What do you think of the way it has transformed since you stepped down as dean? And on a related note: Given how the discipline has expanded, how and what should be taught in general pedagogical terms?

Zénith Concert Hall

Zénith Concert Hall

BT: For the first part of the question I have to take a step back. When I started in 1988, first it came out of the blue. I never thought I would be asked to be a dean. But I had one intent and mission, which was to try to shape or generate the next generation; the one after me. This is a little bit in the same way as the Architectural Association in London. A conversation took place that eventually created a new generation, with Rem Koolhaas, Leon Krier, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, myself, etc. So I felt, 15 years later, it was possible to see whether one could identify some of the major talents who were then in their late 20s and see what they could come up with.

So people like Hani Rashid, Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, and Bill McDonough, etc., or people who we imported from Holland, like Ben van Berkel, created a kind of conversation that became extremely important. And when the computers arrived, it took off like a rocket, because it really became the center of creativity. And it had a lot of influence in other schools. So it worked.

Now what do I think has happened since I left? Inevitably once you have done that for 15 years and identified a new generation, it has to move to the next generation. I think here, this is interesting, I am not the one of whom you should ask this question. You should ask that question of Mark Wigley because sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. And the new people at the school are very interesting. But as you were asking me at the very beginning of this conversation, whether I could encapsulate a trend, I cannot yet.

Parc de Vallette folly. Photograph © J.-M. Monthiers.

Parc de Vallette folly. Photograph © J.-M. Monthiers.

GAA: I want to ask some questions about your buildings. Parc de Villette was my very first experience of what I would consider contemporary architecture. I remember as a young student I was told to study it as a precedent, and I didn’t quite get it until I got there. It was an incredible eye-opening experience for me. You talk about “architecture as materialization of concept.” You built a whole practice on theoretical and conceptual projects. We are now again at a time that it is very difficult to build. But at the same time, there is a lot of media dedicated to architecture, or rather its image. And this can get frustrating. How important is it to build?

BT: It’s really important to think about the building more than it is to build. I’m going to give you an example based on a few architects you know very well. Of course, going back in history, there is Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu, and before that Piranesi and in the 1960s and ’70s, Raimund Abraham, possibly borderline because of his very special sensibility, or someone like Lebbeus Woods, doing drawings that really address what architecture is. The drawings of Piranesi and Abraham, even if they are not built, really engage the architectural discourse. So that is fundamental. I would even put into the same category Buckminster Fuller, who at the time people said was not an architect … when he does the big dome over Manhattan, he is already ahead of everybody in the conversation. So it doesn’t have to be built, but it has to refer to and address issues that can only be solved through those material means. If you are lucky enough to be able to build that is even more exciting because then you realize that there are certain things that have to do with the art of architecture, which is the relationship between a concept and the material you use to build it. An experience with building a large concert hall with steel and concrete, and then the same concept at a different site using wood and polycarbonate. So you start to see that perception is completely different and has to be altered. It’s a fascinating thing. In this respect, I keep saying it’s a ridiculous profession, but it’s the most beautiful there is.

GAA: In the past 10 or 15 years there has been a lot of digital fabrication, and a lot of installation … offices like SHoP, Office dA, LTL, DS+R, and many others have taken on the “installation” as a means to experiment for larger projects. And you can sometime actually see the traces of these experiments in larger projects.

BT: It’s really important to understand the process of fabrication and manufacturing. It is really important to experience the spaces and environments. So the work that the people you mention did with fabrication with those tools and the environments that they create, that’s really important. But it can go only so far. I think that we architects are really like the film directors or the conductors of an orchestra. If you just spent your time fabricating, you may be a great violinist but you’re not really running the symphony. I feel that you have to understand how it works, but you don’t have to do it yourself.

GAA: In Athens, on perhaps the most difficult site, you built an incredible project. It does many things at once: the super-imposition of volumes, the sequence that captures time and space, materiality—and I have not been there—but this is what I wonder: How does this building—or does this building—become part of this cinematic sequence that Eisenstein talks about and Choisy draws and you refer to? And I could be completely off here, but this is the diagram that I am dying to draw. Was this part of the dialogue? Or is this kind of situating oneself in history completely the wrong dialogue?

The Acropolis Museum.

The Acropolis Museum. Photograph © Christian Richters

BT: I would phrase it: Inevitably to design something that is 800 feet from the Parthenon makes you fairly aware of the history. To have these incredible sculptures is also quite a challenge. In reality there is a part of you that is really almost quite arrogant about the fact that you know that you have to abstract yourself from all of those incredible architectural circumstances. Earlier, when I used the word “abstraction,” I often said at the time that I was not going to compete with Phidias the sculptor, who designed the Parthenon. I was going to look at Pythagoras the mathematician; to have that abstraction and then use the materials to transform it into a building. We had something that was difficult and also helpful. We had so many constraints that came from the historical, archaeological, and political context that it helped us within that abstract framework to do a building that is a small miracle. You have to go and see it because no photograph can communicate what it does in terms of the sequence of spaces and the dialogue between the building and the sculptures, because that was really important to me. So to me it was an unbelievable experience. I was very lucky to have a remarkable client and remarkable contractor. The three of us were like conspirators. We worked so well together, which is a totally unusual experience. If architecture was always like that, everybody would want to be an architect.

GAA: Is it possible to see this project as part of the sequence of the Acropolis?

BT: Let me tell you one thing … and you saw the big fat book … we have been invited to have a major retrospective exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the spring of 2014 in a gallery of 10,000 square feet. And indeed that is what I’m going to try to do is look at it as the development of a position, and show that architecture is not a series of single objects, but is the evolution of a thought.

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