Interview with Bernard Tschumi - Bernard Tschumi Architects
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Interview with Bernard Tschumi

Bernard Tschumi Architects

Edited By Alessandra Orlandoni - 8 January 2010

Alessandra Orlandoni – Pietro Derossi, who at that time was assistant professor at the Faculty of Architecture of Turin University, invited you there in the early seventies. At that time several Italian architects showed a deep interest in experimental projects from the Architectural Association. You were influenced by the International Situationist, strongly advocating contradictory behaviour to push the cultural world in a new direction. On the other hand, it seems that even though disliking and criticizing his buildings, you had an interest in Aldo Rossi as a theorist and teacher…
Bernard Tschumi – I think the report you give is probably correct. I was critical of some of Aldo Rossi’s architecture and that of his followers. Recently, about two months ago, I got through his Scientific Autobiography and was fascinated by what an excellent writer he was and by his architectural personality. So that means that occasionally you have to make a distinction between the persons and what they stand for. I think he was convinced of the correctness of his ideas just as I am about my own, even if indeed my trajectory is of course very, very different.
A.O. - From 1970 up to 1979 you taught at the Architectural Association. Among your students there were some young talents who later became archi-stars. To keep working on experimental architecture is a difficult issue; it needs deep intellectual interest in what we do. At that time were you convinced that one day, not too far from then, those research projects would have been built, leading to the creation of new architectural languages?
B.T. – The short answer is YES! The long one is: at that time there was such an architectural system of established offices and corporations, multinational commercial corporate architects that what we were doing seemed to be completely away from any real opportunity. But we knew that we were doing the right exploration. Meanwhile people was saying, “this is ridiculous, that’s paper architecture, which is never going to happen” and so on. The same year I won the Parc de La Villette competition and Zaha won The Peak competition in Hong Kong (1983). Suddenly the whole world said “Ah! If they have won a major international architecture competition, where are we going…?” And indeed within a few years, when in the rest of the world everybody was historical - you may remember Prince Charles’ speech in 1984, and in America also there was post-modernism – we were doing something completely different. Then we got into that exhibition at the MOMA called “Deconstructive Architecture”, which I had always criticised as the concept, but at the same time they were all my friends! I was happy to be with Rem, Zaha, Peter…you know, at that time we were the ones who were really exploring. Certainly now everybody is doing a lot of things like that. The world has of course evolved.
A.O. - You speak about “disjunction”. That makes me visualize a gap between two situations. Your and your friends’ works rose from the void between the end of the Modern Movement and the rise of the Post-Modern movement; that is to say, your researches originated during that time interval, when control was lost…
B.T. – The issue is always to keep questioning. One of the wonderful things about architecture is that for me architecture is not about certainty; it is about questioning certainty. Many people think architecture is fixed; it is about precise rules and regulations, about form or about the way of designing spaces. There are schools that tell you what is good and what is bad. I have always seen my role as questioning those certainties, trying to understand what was behind them. You know the expression “dictionary of received ideas”? (*1). I’m trying to question the dictionary of received ideas, trying to see what is behind it all. So it is always changing. For me every job is fascinating because I cannot apply the same recipes, I ask to get to next step. This is the case of a few people in my generation, but not so for others. So the important thing is to know that architecture is a very young discipline and one has to always ask new questions and not say, “oh, I’ve found the solution; I have got the answer”. Back to Aldo Rossi, Aldo would say there are constancies and one repeats because memory is important. For me it is almost the opposite.
A.O. – Andrea Branzi has said that we keep on doing the same project all our lives (*2). That might make us think of constancies as well…
B.T. – Not necessarily. I can do the same form but I can ask questions all my life. So if I ask questions, even if it is the same project, it is the project of questioning. It’s dynamic not static questioning. So I think that now in Andrea Branzi statement I would distinguish those who stay static and those who keep running. I think it’s nice to keep running!
A.O. – The pyramid and the labyrinth for you are two metaphors. I would like to add the ellipse, a form I’ve investigated as a metaphor of ellipsis with my students over the last two years of teaching in Florence…(*3)
B.T. – Let me first go quickly back on the pyramid and the labyrinth as metaphors. One, the pyramid, is perfection and the rational; the other, the labyrinth, is subjectivity and the irrational search. That’s why I oppose them. What I find interesting when you talk about the ellipse is to introduce a certain notion of movement, which is not about search but about fluidity. The pyramid is not fluid. I would bring a slide twist to your arrows. I would be interested in the spiral.
In other words, instead of the enclosure back of an ellipse being finite, imagine it, as endlessly moving. It’s almost like introducing a sort of constant movement that never ends. That would interest me probably because of my fear of closure and my need for opening.
A.O. – Let’s speak about your entry to the recent competition for the Architectural Foundation building in London, won by Zaha Hadid.
B.T. – You know, I did exactly the opposite of what they wanted. They wanted a monument and I wanted to question that. The word “foundation” is substantive, right? As often when I do competitions I tried to be very serious, to answer the programme exactly. I wanted not to do something outside their request. I did it exactly the way they wanted it. But I wanted something that was against the foundation of architecture. In other words, a wall that was neither a green nor electronic or both. So I carved the cheapest stones we could find, which allows plants to grow and electronic signs that now cost almost nothing. That was using two non-architectural components in order to get to architecture. They told us they had a small budget so I respected that. Then it seemed the budget was not so small...
A.O. – Philip Johnson died recently. Somehow he officially became an eighties icon, more for his personality than for his architectural work. Do you agree?
B.T. – Oh, he has always been an icon! He was many icons. He was changing all the time and his architecture was continuously changing. He was a living changing icon! I had a lot of differences with him. I’ll just tell you one little anecdote, which maybe symbolises that difference. One day I presented a project that I had done, Le Fresnoy, showing it at the MOMA. He saw the project and came up to me afterwards and said “When are you going to do a building in the middle of nowhere so we can see your shapes…?” and I said, “I don’t do shapes!”.
A.O. – How did you transform Columbia University?
B.T. – It’s very simple. I arrived in a school in New York where not much was happening, and I told everybody that the school was like a city. So instead of fighting against one another and blocking each other – you know, like everywhere in the world, fights block everybody, nobody can do anything – I pushed them to unblock it.  I told everybody “you want to do that? Don’t block the other person, just do it!” and so on. So I helped them to do their own things and suddenly you had six, eight, ten people who were all exploring, doing research in many different directions. It’s a rich place where you should have a mixture. The Architectural Association was also a mixture. There was Léon Krier and there was Rem Koolhaas. That’s the point. I think it’s really very important that a school be a platform for ideas and freedom of thoughts.
A.O. – And if there is a lack of ideas?
B.T. – If there is a lack of ideas…the world is big enough! You will see in Moscow, in Rome…where you have people who have ideas. You bring them in so you find plenty of people who have ideas!
A.O. – Last year at Cooper Union you took part with Moby in “Resonating Frequencies”, a series of discussions exploring synergy of architecture and music. Throughout the 1990s Moby remixed tracks, scored movies, produced other artists and made his own recordings. How do you see the connections between architecture and music?
B.T. – The context was a series of lectures where the organizer had paired a musician and an architect. Some spoke about sound, some about architecture as frozen music etc. I decided to talk about something else. There were two parts to the conversation. The first part was about my interest in notation. I always found the scores interesting because they showed something that was both simultaneous and evolving in time. Architectural plans only shows the simultaneity, not the evolution in time. More scientifically, we speak about the difference between diachronic and synchronic. At the lecture in Florence I showed the notation from the film Alexander Nevskij by Sergej Ejzenstejn, which showed the score of Sergej Prokofiev with the movement of the camera. That was the first discussion I brought in. The second subject referred to a lecture I did 20 years ago together with Brian Eno, who was interested in muzak - background music you hear in elevators, supermarkets and things like that. In architecture I was wondering whether architectural muzak existed. So one of the things that we had been exploring was the idea of camouflage. For this thing with Moby I showed projects that used a small pixilation on the façade, and the façade can be almost like the abstract appearance from a landscape although it is a building. So I was making the parallel with music when it is applied to a background.  
A.O. – Let’s speak about the way you’ve faced the project in Beijing…
B.T. – How do you completely and radically change a city? Generally most people change the city little by little. Some old buildings remain or are modified in part, new ones added, and so on. In Beijing, for a number of historical reasons, the change has to be radical. So the question that we asked is how to be simultaneously radical and conservative. In other words, how can we keep many of the old structures, much of the public life and social spaces while at the same time provide a radical architecture solution.  
A.O. – In the lecture given in Florence, you said that the Zénith Concert Hall in Rouen was built very quickly to be finished in time because politicians wanted it ready one week before the elections. Is architecture a political medium?
B.T. – The example I gave you is absolutely true. There are many other places where that has happened. Politicians organise projects in order to have more visibility. I’ll give you another example. There is a beautiful building in Nimes, the Mediatèque Carré d’Art by Norman Foster, and the mayor wanted something that would enhance his glory.
A.O. – How can an architect remain free from political compromises and influences and succeed in building something consistent with his vision?
B.T. – This is an important issue. I’m going to shift slightly. In America, for example, “money speaks” and quite often it carries ideological connotations. I resigned from a job in New York because they wanted to force us to make the building we had worked on for three years look totally different from what we intended. One day there was a change in the corporation; different people became part of it and they wanted a very conservative building. I said NO and they hired a different architect who was Robert A.M. Stern. So this is not political pressure in terms of politicians, right? - the right versus the left - it is rather between progressive thought and conservative thought.
A.O. – You chose not to accomplish the building…
B.T. – Yes. In other words I did not compromise.
A.O. – Do you consider it always possible to build avoiding compromises?
B.T. – No. I think occasionally you have to face contradictions. All architects sometimes have been confronted with contradictions. The only thing you can do to not compromise is to find a way to express those contradictions. You should use them.

A.O. – What about connections between architecture, design and art?
B.T. – What I would say is that one has to make a distinction between design and architecture and not confuse the two. I have no problem with an architect who also does design, but I sometimes do have a problem with architects who treat a building like a design object. In other words, architecture can’t be simply a decorative design.
Again I am more interested in conceptual parallels than in visual and aesthetic parallels. I would never work like Herzog & de Meuron who used aesthetic devices inspired from artists. When they take an Andy Warhol sort of picture and apply it to the façade of a building, for me it’s just decoration. I think the different art fields can borrow from one another. It’s ok to have what I call import-export. But you have to be careful not to do things which are what I would call reductive.      

Florence, Targetti Foundation, March 19th 2005

Alessandra Orlandoni

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