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Pittsburgh Transcripts

Bernard Tschumi

Bernard Tschumi speaks with inter·punct about his incredible career and insightful writings.

For additional information and to view Bernard’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: How has how you’ve thought about architecture changed from when you were working on the Manhattan Transcripts versus today, especially after your recent Pompidou retrospective?

Bernard Tschumi:
That’s a really good question. I’ll start with what has consistently been the concern, and then we can talk about the differences. Mainly, in all the work, it’s always about the definition of architecture—what architecture is. In other words, it proceeds from an assumption that architecture has no fixed meaning—in its own definition over the centuries, architecture slightly changes what it says and what it does. In a sense, as I often say, it’s not about a knowledge of form but about a form of knowledge, and the work throughout, from the time of the Manhattan Transcripts to today, is really an investigation into what architecture is. So that’s what all the works have in common. Today, because I now build real buildings, there are certain constraints which are different from the self-imposed constraints I dealt with at the time. Namely, at the time, it seemed important to talk about architecture without using the word architecture—talking about it without all of the cultural preconceptions of it—taking the word out. Calling it space, calling it movement, calling it event, and working simply with the constraint of the blank piece of paper and inventing your own script. Today, when I start working on a building or a competition, clients have provided me with some sort of a script. I rewrite it, but it is already loaded with a number of constraints. So that difference is interesting but only in terms of the chicken and the egg. Is the chicken first, and then the egg? Is theory first and then practice? Or does practice lead to theory? And I would say it goes both ways. These days I’m more interested in practice that leads to theory, while at the time I was more into theory that leads to practice, but it goes both ways.

i·p: What spurred you to create your canonical advertisements for architecture in the 1970s, and would you say that we still need them today? If so, is it for the same reasons?

Well at the time, I felt I needed to reach a slightly larger audience, so I sought to use the language that was the most understandable by that audience and therefore comprised a certain lingo and rhetoric. Hence, when I was publishing more theoretical articles, I would negotiate with editors for permission to insert advertisements for architecture within those more typical publications. I probably could not escape making these advertisements in relation to the time they were made—in other words, in the time of slightly post-conceptual art, there was quite a fascination with the world of advertising. These days, yes, something like the advertisements might be necessary, but for totally different reasons. I’m getting interested again, and I may be working within the next several months or years using the medium of film for exactly that purpose. I could elaborate on this for some time.

i·p: Looking at one particular advertisement, ”Ropes and Rules”, does it suggest that the architect is a masochist? Should architects be masochists, or is that simply a construct of the profession?

Oh no, well, I think if you want to get into these categories you can be quite a sadist or masochist as an architect, right? You can play on every single definition and permutation of the idea of pleasure, whether it’s through a joint constraint or inflicting constraints, whatever. It is simply suggesting that there are other dimensions to one’s work because of two underlying things: the architecture itself, and the act of making architecture. I’ve often quoted Orson Welles, the film director, saying that he liked making films more than he liked watching films.

i·p: Almost in opposition to that, what do you think of the notion that of all the arts, architecture has the most affinity with music?

Number one, there’s nothing I hate more than people who say that architecture is frozen music—it’s ridiculous. Secondly, I’m not sure. I would say that you can find any parallel you want between architecture and another field—any. In the visual arts, some people would go towards sculpture while others would go more towards painting. Others would go towards film, and you could then even start to play analogies with the sciences, with organic and natural sciences, and so on. I think the richness of what architecture covers allows endless parallels and transpositions, and music is but one of many others.

i·p: In the context of what you’ve said about these many parallels, the Manhattan Transcripts and the notion of a narrative and an event, how can architecture change the relationship between two people? Are there any dangers inherent in an architecture that sets out a certain event, program or sequence?

I’ll give you an example of something I was working on the plane coming in—I don’t know though if it’s the shortest answer. I’ve been asked along with another half a dozen architects—let’s call it the list of usual suspects—to propose an extension to the little house that Le Corbusier designed and built for his parents, Villa Le Lac. You know, it’s very narrow. My point is—this proposal is actually a trick question because the point of this house is to be a very small house—to enlarge it makes no sense. Because I always define architecture as both space and program or space and event, instead I thought why not act on the event rather than on the house? So, if I take that house and I jam it with 400 people, it’s not going to have to have the same type of meaning or same experience that it would for a lonely, 80-year old person. Inevitably, the meaning of architecture is qualified by what happens within it, and by extension, as an architect, I can very well design something that will augment or decrease the interaction between these people—augment it to the state of conflict and decrease it to the state of loneliness. That’s part of the power of architecture, yes, absolutely, but it’s only a partial power because ultimately, life takes over.

i·p: What advice could you give to a young architect looking to your work as precedent in their own process of challenging the preconceptions and stereotypes of architecture?

You make it difficult by referring it to my own work.

i·p: Or in general?

I’d rather have it in general. All I would say is take nothing for granted and not only question things but make sure the questioning leads you beyond the dictionary of received ideas, which architecture is filled with, about what architecture is or is not. So let’s leave it at that. After that, come on, look around! Observe!

i·p: How did teaching at the Architectural Association influence the trajectory of your career? Who was there at the same time—what was the spirit of the place?

I had just finished studying myself in a conservative—very good, but very traditional—school, the ETH. The thing that struck me as I arrived at the AA was that instead of being a typical student given an assignment—you have to do something with so many square feet, that performs such and such a function—the students themselves had to invent their own problem. I thought that was amazing. And because of this, the faculty members—the teachers, tutors, critics, whatever you want to call them—were also constantly placed in the situation of having to invent things. In other words, not referencing architectural history or the famous architects of the day, or whatever the definition of what architecture was—you had to reinvent all the time. That was very interesting and very important. Regarding who was there at the time, it’s also quite interesting that at that time you would find a variety of people coming from different horizons including Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Leon Krier, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Nigel Coates—that was really interesting. I think I know some of the historical reasons of why that happened, but it’s unusual that you would have such a crowd in the same space. And there were also the visitors, such as Wolf Prix and Thom Mayne. And of course Cedric Price and Peter Cook were still important figures.

i·p: You’ve written about visiting Chicago for the first time at around the age of 17. How did that impact or inspire your thinking through architecture?

Well I would say until that day, the only architectural theory I had thought about probably came from the fact that my father was an architect and I had been on building sites a lot as a child. I was actually more interested in going into literature and writing—things of that sort. I was on an exchange program, spending a few months in the States at the time and arriving in Chicago just blew my mind. The city was quite different from what it is today—I always liked cities; cities were always the starting point—but I think Chicago was what really evolved my interest from literature to the city to architecture. Clearly, that city was an epiphany for me.

i·p: In what ways was Chicago different from how it is now?

The density, the mass—I’m talking literally. There was that central area, the Loop, with all these buildings of the same height, all twelve stories high, and relatively close to one another, so you had this sense of an incredible weight. Although it was not a three dimensional city in the sense of having bridges in the air, it gave the impression of a spatial mass. In Chicago today, because they destroyed all that and replaced it with “towers in the park”—a series of individual objects—the density is gone. They probably multiplied the actual number of buildings, but visually or conceptually the density and the power is gone.

i·p: Has the rise of digital media and technology required a reevaluation of any of your previous theories? Do you think that your earliest projects would have been able to take on the same characteristics had they been done digitally?

I’ll tell you why that’s a good question. Considering the way that the Manhattan Transcripts came together quite intuitively through lots of trial and error, I’ve asked myself a few times why, when I arrive at the third episode, I start to lay down the rules before I really play the game. And in the fourth episode, I’m doing exactly that: I have a program that could be translated by or into a software, and I use it to do all possible permutations and transformations. At that time, they could have been done in the computer. But certain parts of the Transcripts could not have been, because I made all sorts of—this is what is interesting about the drawing, that one that I kept, the draft—there was so much erasing that I made holes in the paper and so I had to redraw it. That was a process from the first episode, which is made of a series of three squares, but before it was that, it did try to articulate the argument in a different way.

So by the time I arrived at the last episode, which was probably four years later—if it had been today or fifteen years ago—I would have probably tried to do it with digital media. That now raises a much larger question. There’s a huge difference between what’s happening in digital media today and what was happening in the 1990s. When architects started to work with digital media, they were on their own—they really had to invent. There was no specialized software. The most sophisticated one was called Form Z, which was not very sophisticated. When we started the so-called “paperless studio” at Columbia in 1994, young faculty members started to experiment with software used in fluid mechanics engineering, or with some film software from Hollywood. People were playing with it all and were very inventive in the sense that what they were doing with digital media was an extension of their own inventions. In other words, it was multiplying what they were thinking. Today, the culture has become so sophisticated—the software, the machines—that it’s become exactly the other way around. We, I’m talking about we architects, insert ourselves in a world which has been prepared for us. As a result, there is less inventiveness, and that’s a huge problem. It means clients also are less capable of reading something that doesn’t proceed from hyper-realistic renderings, for example. There is an absurd amount of details on some of these renderings. They sometimes include details that in the built reality, the human eye would not notice. At the moment, I would be quite critical of what is happening to architectural culture due to digital media. There are exceptions; there are a few crazy brilliant people who are doing crazy brilliant things, absolutely, but they are a very small minority. But that’s another discussion entirely.