Born: 1944, Lausanne, Switzerland
Education: Studied in Paris and at Swiss Federal
Institute of technology (ETH) in Zurich (1969)
Practice: Established the firm in Paris in 1983 and the head office,
Bernard Tschumi Architects in New York in 1988
Zoo, Paris (2014); Alésia Museum
and Archaeological Park, Alésia, France (2012); New
Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece (2009); Blue Residential Tower,
Manhattan (2007); Limoges Concert Hall, France
(2007); Vacheron Constantin Headquarters, Geneva,
Switzerland (2005); Rouen Concert Hall and Exhibition Complex, Rouen, France
(2001); Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University, New York City (1999); Parc de
la Villette, Paris, France (1998), Le Fresnoy Art Center, Tourcoing, France
Tschumi, Centre Pompidou Catalogue (2014); Tschumi on
Architecture: Conversations with Enrique Walker (2006); Event Cities, 1,
2, 3 (1994, 2001, 2005); The State of Architecture in the Beginning of
the 21st Century with Irene Cheng (2004); Index Architecture with
Matthew Berman (2003); Architecture and Disjuctions (1996); The
Manhattan Transcripts (1995); Cinegram Folie: Le Parc de la Vittette (1987); Manifestoes (1979)
Teaching: Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and
Preservation (1988-2003); taught at Architectural Association (London),
Princeton University, Cooper Union (New York)
Academy Award for Excellence, New York (2012); Mies van der Rohe Award,
Finalist (2011); AIA
National Honor Award (2011); Officier Légion d'Honneur, Paris (2010); Officier
de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Paris (1998); Grand Prix National
d’Architecture, France (1996); Royal Victoria Medal, London (1994)
How did you become interested in
interested in cities before architecture. When I was 17 I visited Chicago. I
was so fascinated with that city as a European kid that I decided to become an
architect. Well, I intended to go more towards literary studies to be a writer,
but seeing that city and then New
York made me want to be an architect. I knew a little
bit about architecture. My father, Jean
Tschumi was a successful architect who designed several major buildings in Europe, including the
Nestlé Headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland and the headquarters of the World
Health Organization in Geneva. I was only 18 when he died.
When you say Chicago and New York you
mean skyscrapers, right?
but you know, the reason why I organized my life between Paris and New York is
because these cities I like the best and not because of my family or
professional practice. In Paris there are no skyscrapers, in New York there are
many skyscrapers. So I balance different fascinations.
Your architecture is deconstructivist,
Well, so it is labeled.
How do you define deconstructivist
go back a little bit into history. The year is 1988. The architectural scene is
dominated by historicist Post-Modernism. Most architects are rediscovering the
past. They are trying to build with signs and symbols, coming from 18th or 19th
century. The big corporate firms all put little pediments and colonnades on
their buildings, and so on. A few architects, at the time are very much against
it and want to reclaim the legacy of avant-garde.
architects are people who were at the MoMA show: Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas,
Peter Eisenman, Coop Himmelblau, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and I. Among us
there were at least two architects who were interested in literary theories and
ideas of deconstruction by Jacques Derrida. So curators of the show invented
something called deconstructivism,
which is deconstruction plus Russian Constructivism.
But, as we
all said at the time it is not a movement. It is not a school. It is the title
of the exhibition. But what is interesting is that 1988 was the most conservative
period in architecture in the 20th century. And we, those few architects were
among the first to go against that conservative period, and now, look –
everybody is doing, so called contemporary architecture.
You are referring to the historic exhibition
Deconstructivist Architecture held in
1988 at MoMA and organized by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. As an
introduction to so called deconstructivist projects there were also projects by
the Russian Constructivists. So what are the differences and similarities
between Russian Constructivism and deconstructivism?
First, these are time and geography, time and space. Look, our work emerged 70
years later in a different social, economic, and political context. So there is
a very big difference.
with the similarities. They are: a wish to reinvent architecture, to discover a
new world, a new vocabulary, a new attitude, and new programs. The differences,
of course, are social, political, and economic. Social and political because all
of the conservative institutions: the family, the state, the church. In other
words, the whole series of certainties were destroyed. Russia was an
extraordinarily fertile ground for discovery not only in architecture but in
cinema, in poetry, and so on. This was not quite the situation in the West in
the 1980s. What we did was more superficial, more related to creativity then
the real social movement, right? Nevertheless, I still believe that what we
were doing was important because it was about placing architecture back in the
realm of ideas and invention.
And what about the similarities and
differences of stylistic language of Constructivists and deconstructivists?
Let’s start with the similarities. It is the
fascination with elements expressing movement, because architecture is not only
static, but also dynamic, in other words: staircases, ramps, towers, cranes,
elevators, and so on, right? This fascination with technology is a way of
introducing a new vocabulary. Now what are the differences? This is
interesting. It is a move away from primary forms: the sphere, the cube, the
cylinder, and the cone towards much more fluid and dynamic forms. And, of
course, a few years later we arrived at the discovery of what we can do with
computers, which the Russian Constructivists didn’t have, right? So this led to
the invention of the formal vocabulary, which is in itself a very dynamic form
How the use of computers could not
only help to solve a problem, but also to enhance the quality of design?
the famous Brunelleschi’s cupola in Florence. That is a work of engineering and
to calculate it required a mixture of intuition, mathematics, and geometry.
Today, of course, you would never do that by hand. Never, never, never, but you
would use computers almost in the same way as the mind calculates. However, we
also use computers in a different way, in a way that is going to explore
certain spatial configurations that our mind has difficulty imagining. Hence,
suddenly the computer, which is always an amplification of the mind, becomes
many times more effective.
Who in your view was first to use
deconstructivist ideas in architecture?
Well, it is
hard for me to name one person. You have Frank Gehry who is using a bricolage
of materials in a very liberated way and then later uses computer software
which allows him to do complex curvilinear geometry. You have Peter Eisenman
who develops an obsessive formal investigation and theoretical discourse. He is
also interested in what is happening in other disciplines.
You have Coop
Himmelb(l)au who in a very intuitive way, in the early 1970s, is testing
collisions, distortions, tensions, and compressions in materials. You have Rem
Koolhaas who is fascinated with Leonidov and the Russians. I am interested in
film theory and literary theory, and new social programs. You have Daniel
Libeskind who is interested in symbolism. You have Zaha Hadid who has an
incredible intuition in purely formal issues. So I took you chronologically at
who was first developing certain things, but we were all different.
Were you all aware of each other?
So some of you influenced the others,
No, I don’t
think so. I think it was about the spirit of that period.
Did you ever meet to discuss your
meet as a group, but we all knew each other. In the 1970s, Wolf Prix of Coop
Himmelb(l)au, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and myself were all
at the Architectural Association in London. Then in the late 1970s, Peter
Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas again, and I were at the New York’s Institute for
Architecture and Urban Studies. So we all knew each other. But there was no one
person to influence the others. Or maybe everybody influenced everybody.
Why do you think all of these
architects from London and New York, and Frank Gehry from Los Angeles
simultaneously developed deconstructivist language in architecture?
call it deconstructivist! Call it contemporary language of architecture,
because at that time and today none of us would consider our architecture
deconstructivist. We didn’t even like the name. We wanted to be contemporary.
We didn’t want to be another movement, because movements come and go. They are
born and then they die. But we wanted to be the present.
You keep saying that deconstructivism
was not a movement. So why do you think it never became a movement?
because it was never meant to be a movement. It was just a title of the
exhibition. Everybody wanted to avoid to what happened to Post-Modernism, which
was intensely marketed as a movement.
You lived and worked in Paris in 1968,
the year of violent student riots. How did it affect you?
then was a radical questioning of all social institutions, including
architecture. So a number of people of my generation became radically critical
of architecture and what it symbolized. I decided to explore the definition and
the limits of architecture. In other words, find a way to define architecture
beyond all the preconceived ideas and clichés. And that is what my work is
about. So it starts with questioning.
Who influenced you most as an
You know, it
is not an architect; it is a filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein. And Eisenstein was
interested in architecture. And interestingly enough, now we are working on the
New Acropolis Museum
in Athens and
I’m rediscovering his studies of the dynamics and the movements of the
Acropolis. Also I’m influenced by another Russian filmmaker, Dziga Vertov,
whose technique of montage was very crucial. And then more contemporary
filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders; in other words, my
starting point comes from film studies.
And Parc de La Villette in Paris is
conceived as the cinematic promenade, analogous to a film strip.
idea was developed before La Villette. It was already in “The Manhattan
Transcripts.” So, in many ways, La Villette is based on my research.
You said that you are suspicious of
architecture that wants to tell a story. Then how do you explain your famous
slogan – “Form follows fiction?”
That’s a good
question. Let’s try to make a difference between story and fiction. Form
follows fiction is, of course, a play on famous formula – form follows
function, emphasizing the difference between function and fiction. This has to
do with a program, or how architecture is used, since for me architecture is
never about form, but about ideas and what it can do.
starting a project with questions about specific requirements, such as so many
square feet for a bathroom or a living room I’m interested in looking at
literature or film. Here is an example – in the 17th century there were no
corridors. Then the corridor was invented in order to introduce privacy. That
is not an architectural idea. That’s a cultural idea. So I said – let’s look at
literature. What are the changing cultural sensibilities? So when I said – form
follows fiction, I really meant – let’s look for what is before function.
Because before functions there are stories, there is culture, there is fiction.
But I have to admit it was just an easy play on words.
After teaching at the AA in London for
a decade, why did you move to New York and how do you see its place in
contemporary architecture then and now?
When I was In
London I was very interested in what was happening at the art scene. And the
center of the art world in the 1970s was New York. That’s why I came to New York and I had more
friends among artists then among architects, because the architectural scene
for me was very conservative. I was the first architect in New York to exhibit
projects in art galleries. This was very important time for me. I was very
fascinated by the city and decided to make it half of my home. The other half
is in Paris.
Around this time I was influenced to draw “The Manhattan transcripts.”
talk about New York then and now. New York there is always a battle between
commerce and culture. That was the case then and that is the case now. In other
words, on the one hand there were big commercial firms like SOM, HOK, and so
on. On the other hand – there were intellectuals like New York Five and others,
affiliated with universities. The major word at that time was autonomy. The
architects were very rigid. They were defending their territories. The
architects thought that they possessed a special knowledge that was only
theirs. And when I arrived I was interested in breaking the boundaries to other
disciplines and to other fields. So I couldn’t work with them. I was teaching
at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, but I was very
uncomfortable there and therefore I was spending more time with my artist friends.
still have very large commercial firms, actually the same ones. But in the
early 1990s, it became clear that new ideas were not at the architectural
offices, but in schools. In other words, for the first time, and maybe for the
first time in the 20th century, the new discoveries were happening in schools.
And in Columbia University, for example, with the young faculty we were
developing new vocabulary that no one else was doing, and, of course, we had better
computers then the commercial offices. There is one more difference. And that
is the role of the media. In the 1970s, the media was more specialized and more
educated. There were architectural historians, architectural theorists, and
architectural critics. Today, there are fewer. But there are architectural
journalists and architecture is published everywhere, but in a more populist
manner. And that is an interesting shift.
What about the place of New York City
in the world?
amazingly alive. It is not the only place, by the way, but it is a big center
of ideas. There is also a culture of architecture in England and Spain, much
less in France
amazingly alive, thanks also to a lot of support from the Dutch government. I
don’t know any other country, which has so much strategic support. In any case,
the world of architecture has become enormously global. In other words, the
polemics are everywhere. The strength of New York is, of course, in publicity
and the power of its institutions. Whenever something happens here it has a
worldwide resonance. And one of the reasons why we were able to make Columbia
one of the most powerful school in the world is that we are in New York City.
Everybody comes through New York and we are all fascinated by this city.
Speaking of The Manhattan Transcripts you said: “Perhaps all architecture,
rather than being about functional standards, is about love and death.”
I think so.
These are some of the key elements of architecture. Architecture has a
dimension of pleasure and risk, which are rarely discussed. So I wanted to
introduce a discourse on architecture, which goes beyond professionalism,
right? Because everything about our life intersects with architecture and it
always has, whether six thousand years ago or today.
How would you describe your
Areas of my
investigations over the years are in the ideas of vectors and envelopes.
Architecture is always about movement. Another area of my investigation more
recently has to do with the intersection of three terms: concept, content, and
context. These are three terms that often play with one another or exclude one
because I believe that architecture is always about ideas. Forms are not
important, ideas are. Context, because architecture is always located
somewhere, including nowhere. Nowhere is somewhere. I’m not talking about
visual context – I hate contextualism – but more about political, economic,
cultural, and also urban context. And finally, content because architecture is
always about events that happen in its space. These three aspects don’t
necessarily intersect in a predictable way. This is part of my investigation.
I’m fascinated with cities, with multiplicity, heterogeneity, the conflict, and
Do you have a set of questions that
you usually ask yourself when you start a new project?
always start fresh, as it were the first project ever. We are very analytical.
For me, architecture is like a theorem. Architecture is the demonstration,
right? So we test several hypotheses before we make a statement. And I’m more
interested in strategies than formal solutions. And I don’t like it when
clients ask me to produce a quick image or when they want me to do a project,
similar to what I have done in the past. For that they better go to architects
who have a more predictable range. Those who come to me are more interested in
a different approach.
The Lerner Center at Columbia
University is a very controversial building because of the zoning requirements,
but what often gets criticized is the middle part, the glass atrium where you
had the most freedom to express yourself. The students who use the building say
it is not functional. As an architect, how do you respond to that criticism?
Because it is
not meant to be functional. It is meant to be social. Look at the grand steps
in front of the Low Library. It is not functional either, right? But it is used
as a gathering center of the community. The Student Center
and its ramps is a place where you can see everything from everywhere. It is a
very large building and it is a vertical building. So as an architect, I asked
myself – how do you establish a vertical community? How do you establish a
vertical connection? And I think that part works very well! [Laughs.]
Why did you decide to step down as the
Dean of the Architecture School at Columbia University?
There are two
reasons. First of all, I’m an architect and I have a lot of projects. The other
reason is that I’ve been the Dean for fifteen years and that is a generation in
architecture. I think I succeeded in making a major statement about
architectural education. And now another generation has to come.
How did you select the faculty at
looked for people who had a capability to be creative and inventive, and not
only in terms of students, but also in terms of themselves. In other words, I
wanted the school to become a sort of laboratory of research in design and
architecture. In my view, research is a category of design. Hence, the faculty
was selected from the most creative people available. So I invited these young
people in their mid-30s and early 40s, they were full of energy and they were
fantastic teachers. You know the names: Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, Stan Allen,
Hani Rashid, Laurie Hawkinson…
Can you talk about your paperless
That is a
great name, but we generated a lot of paper! [Laughs.] Well, we decided to
introduce the computers in 1994-95 and we said that every student was going to
have a computer. Before there were computer labs, but we were the first to
bring computers into the studios. In other words, the idea was that all of the
work would be done on computers and there would be no paper. But then the
plotters were introduced… [Laughs.]
Did you also encourage students to use
real materials, in a model-making shop?
we were not yet ready to use computers in the first year. To teach with
computers is academically and pedagogically very different. We are still doing
a lot of models and drawings. I wanted to introduce computers to student
culture little by little. So we started with computers in the second year. In
my office we also do everything on computers. But we do a lot of working models
because, as I often say – models never lie and computers do.
What is your favorite teaching
I was always
trying to explore assignments that would break habits. I was giving short
stories or novels by James Joyce, Italo Calvino or Edgar Allan Poe for students
to read and to produce a project or anything that forces them to think on their
own, and not to use recipes. I welcome anything that brings a challenge. I’m
very much against the teachers who try to reach preconceived end products. My
case is the other way around. I have a starting point, but I have no idea what
the end product will be. I want to be astonished by what the end is.
What is your view of the World Trade Center
It is a very
difficult issue, because of the layer of symbolism that is attached to it. I
completely disagree with the political symbolism. I think architecture should
be independent of political symbolism. The worst examples are the Fascist
architecture or the Stalinist architecture. There should be no political
representation. I have a problem with buildings that remind people of such
symbols as the Statue of Liberty. The whole discourse hides enormous
deficiencies. There is no discussion about what that place should be and what
it should do. One needs to ask not what architecture should look like, but what
it should do. The enormous complexity of ownership and interests made it
extremely difficult to have one single voice. Therefore, the lowest common
denominator was a very simplistic view of patriotism translated into
Some critics believe contemporary
architecture is in a crisis because architects are constantly searching for new
ideas and directions, while others see it as flourishing and for the same
reasons. What is your view?
Yes, it is flourishing. It is very alive now! Before,
let’s say, in the 1970’s, there was interesting critical work and theoretical
work, but there were very few good buildings. Now good architecture could be