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Tschumi still devoted to ideas

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Bernard Tschumi made a somewhat triumphant return to London last week, brandishing a fistful of buildings near completion or complete. His insights into the idiosyncrasies (and idiocies) of the construction industry seemed offered almost as proofs of his initiation into a world far removed from the conceptual realm of Manhattan Transcripts.

However, speak ing at the AA, Tschumi made it clear he does not want to disavow his work as a theoretician in the 1980s. 'Architecture is not about form or style but about ideas, ' he insists, but his assertion's vigour suggests an element of fear that his long-held convictions could gradually erode due to sheer pressure of work on the building site.

Tschumi paid tribute to the AA as a formative influence: 'a place where students were asked to write their own programme.' His recent success in winning competitions for architecture schools - Marne-la-Vallee in France (which is half finished), Miami and Columbia, where he has built a new University Student Centre - owes much to the organising principle learned at the AA, where it was the 'left-over, the interstitial spaces' which hosted the intellectual, creative life of the school. The new projects are all developed around the concept of the walkway, staircase, and ramp as crucial 'activating' focal points in the structure of the institution. Tschumi calls them 'movement vectors', which generate a choreography of events, as expounded in Manhattan Transcripts.

At that point, he says, he was 'starting to define architecture as space, movement, action.'But in the end, architecture on paper could not go far enough, for 'the diagrams say nothing about the materiality.'On the other hand, his inability to participate in the historicist building programmes of the 80s allowed him to explore architectural issues conceptually in relation to other realms of culture such as cinema, which exemplified his ideas about 'the movement of the body in space' and the 'juxtaposition of unlikely things.'

The focus on interstitial space is a pragmatic response to the fact that '95 per cent of the world is built already - you always have to play with that given reality.' The challenge at La Villette, Tschumi's first construction project, was to work out how to combine that with the 'technology of movements'. In the Art and Film Centre at Le Fresnoy, a conversion of nineteenth-century buildings, it is accomplished in the form of a huge umbrella roof which unites the disparate elements, supplies the services, and creates an unusual in-between space containing various activities linked by a zigzag walkway.

Although Tschumi stressed the importance of materiality, he hardly elaborated on the subject. The built work, notably Marne-la-Vallee and Columbia, reveals a preference for an 'industrial' vocabulary of hard surfaces - metal, glass and concrete - which often results in a visually complex forest of elements. But more interestingly, perhaps, it guarantees a lively acoustic experience dominated by the endless sound of footsteps: an architecture defined by the signs of movement.

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