The main events
Bernard Tschumi Edited by K Michael Hays and Giovanni Damiani. Thames & Hudson, 2003. £15.95
In an interview transcribed for this monograph, Marco de Michelis asks Bernard Tschumi: 'If space as movement, time and flux is architecture, doesn't this mean that the notion of tectonics is definitely dead?'
Back comes the answer, brief and blunt: 'Yes, materiality is alive but tectonics are dead.'
Later in the interview, Tschumi talks about the systems of notation derived from cinema and dance that he used in his famous theoretical project, The Manhattan Transcripts. 'They provide a good means of developing concepts, ' he says. 'Unfortunately, however, you have to translate back into the general architectural code [plans, sections and elevations] so that these concepts can be understood by the building industry.'
The implication is clear: architecture, in Tschumi's world, has little to do with building. For him, the physical fabric is unimportant. Events, not forms, are the true stuff of architecture. At Parc de la Villette in Paris, his first major work designed in 1982, the only new structures recognisable as architecture in the conventional sense are the so-called folies. Set out on a square grid that deliberately ignores any existing features of the site, they are tongue-in-cheek parodies of Russian Constructivism, not so much architecture as a mockery of architecture. The park as a whole is conceived as a support structure for events rather than an architectural composition. It is no surprise to discover that Cedric Price's Fun Palace project was an early influence on Tschumi while he was teaching at the AA.
But if Tschumi's architecture is all about events, what kinds of event does it envisage?
Certainly not the ordinary kinds implied by conventional clients' briefs. Tschumi is only interested in events that involve an element of 'transgression' (a favourite word) or even danger. 'To really appreciate architecture, you may even have to commit a murder, ' says the caption of one of his 'Advertisements for Architecture' published in the mid-1970s.
Such straining to shock seems comical now, after the enfant terrible's decade or more as dean of the graduate school at Columbia University, but the underlying theory remains valid. Tschumi wants to break down conventional barriers and encourage unusual juxtapositions, like the jump-cuts in a film. Above all, he wants to subvert the normal relationships between events and spaces. Pole-vaulting in the Sistine Chapel and hang-gliding in a lift shaft are among the surreal examples often cited.
In practice, juxtapositions are achieved either by planning buildings in parallel strips, like the project for a new national theatre and opera house in Tokyo, or by providing a common space in which the various functions can mingle. The latter might be an ordinary atrium, like that of the School of Architecture at Marne la Vallée, or, more interestingly, an enveloping structure like the umbrella roof thrown over the existing buildings of the Le Fresnoy contemporary arts centre in Tourcoing (see picture).
The problem for a monograph of this kind, which presents projects and buildings straightforwardly in photographs, drawings and descriptive text, is that the subtleties of the theory are completely lost. The events that are supposedly so important to this architecture are invisible. Most of the photographs are conventionally architectural, which means they don't have people in them, and the buildings look ordinary. For example, the front cover shows a detail of the double-curved corrugated-metal envelope of the recently completed concert hall in Rouen. It is elegant enough, but it might have been designed by any reasonably competent architectural practice equipped with the right software.
The monograph shows us only the physical fabric of the buildings - the aspect of architecture in which Tschumi, by his own admission, is least interested.
Theoretical essays by K Michael Hays and Giovanni Damiani don't help much, clear ideas emerging from the fog of architectural theory-speak only in direct quotations from Tschumi's own writings.
Colin Davies is a professor at London Metropolitan University