— by Sharvari Shanmugam —
Bernard Tschumi, renowned architect of deconstructivism explains his ways of thinking and his approach to architectural design in an impressive retrospective at the Powerstation of Art in Shanghai.
The exhibition is arranged in five separate sections based on Tschumi’s methodology of design. It starts with his early Manhattan Transcripts phase (1976-1981) which gives some hints about how Tschumi visualizes architecture by capturing an event; abstracting this moment into lines and metamorphosing this into an architectural form. He believes that architecture is not simply about space but also about movements, moments and emotions.
These transcripts are simply a documented interpretation of what he sees all around him, interpreted in architecture. The everyday, the ordinary.
Seeing these drawings with few curatorial notes, it is a struggle to understand the notion, but in some cases such as the photograph showing the feet of two people surrounded by bushes, it is possible to follow the simplicity of his design method. The shapes and angles of his photograph are abstracted into sudden lines, half circles, rectangles and grids… it begins to transmutate into some kind of artistic design and eventually, after several iterations the final form emerges. The image has become a mall, a tower, a lake, a performance space with no immediate link – but emerging from a clear heritage – with the previous stage. The caterpillar, the chrysalis, the butterfly.
It is difficult to follow especially for those for whom this is distant history. Apparently, this was a radical, revolutionary intervention in architecture at the time, influencing students’ designs, analysis, artistic presentational styles… as well as cyncial post-modern pretentiousness.
Sadly, the exhibition does not provide enough on site information about what these drawings are and links into Tshumi’s thought process while interpretation. Visitors at the time of my visit, seemed to like the idea of abstraction and interpretation but found the transcripts too abstract failing to communicate with them. Admittedly, the Manhattan Transcripts are exciting and beautiful pieces which help to communicate a different era in architectural ideology.
The next stage of the exhibition helps. It demonstrates the work through videoed interviews with Tshumi. This clarifies Tschumi’s thought processes behind some of his projects and finally one finds a way back into understanding the exhibit after the Manhattan Transcripts.
For example, he explores the term ‘Concept’ and the notion of use or program in architecture. This was the period when architects and architectural tutors started describing their work through the concept of a “concept”. Tschumi describes this through a relationship between space and its use, using these relationships as conceptual tools instead of serving a direct translation of client’s needs which we can observe in some of his works. So, we are to challenge the literal understanding of a typology, we are meant to re-conceptualize a building type. So, for example, the National Library of France is designed with the superimposition of running track, an incompatible activity – we might think – for a library. Kansai Airport is visualised as an ever-expanding airport into a potentially infinitely extensible city.
It is good to recall that Tschumi was one of the first to intellectually question the notion of a façade. preferring instead to explore the concept of a building “envelope”. “Can architecture be achieved without ‘composition’ by inventing an ‘envelope’, rather than ‘composing a façade’?”, he asks, and proposes the term “envelope” combining “façade” with “vector”. These terms indicate the two important architectural functions of shelter and channeling movement through space. It is still provocative.
In this exhibition, we can observe the change in the mode of notation with the gradual emergence of contemporary computer technology taking over from hand sketches and photomontages. But what can really be observed is that the era of beautiful drawings has been lost somewhere along the way.
Tschumi believes that architecture cannot avoid the context it accompanies or generates, in opposition to the approach of ‘contextualism’ in which architects imitate the appearance of the immediate surrounding. His controversial Acropolis museum project in Greece on a sensitive site, for example, demonstrates that context itself can be contextualized or inversely a context can be conceptualized. Similar phenomena can be observed in school building project located in Miami, Florida. The notations for these projects explore systematic comparisons between different alternatives based on the relationships between context and concept.
What I understand through this exhibit is simply that Tschumi uses formal abstraction and geometry as design tools for achieving a concept in order to start a design. In the end, ‘Form’ is a result of conceptualization rather than starting point of a design process.
A quick tip: its better to prepare in advance before you go to the exhibit by reading about Tschumi’s ideologies and scanning his works. If not then I recommend to watch the videos in the exhibit before going through the display area as this clarifies a lot and gives you more ammunition to challenge his – and your own – way of thinking.