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April 17, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 2

This is part two (of eight) of a new Nikos Salingaros essay. You can read part one here.

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

Part 2. Bernard Tschumi's Writings.

Is this man a theorist? Is he even a thinker?

I recommend to everyone Tschumi's two books: The Manhattan Transcripts, and Architecture and Disjunction. The first is worth studying in great detail, since it helped Tschumi to become the Dean of Columbia University's School of Architecture in 1988. It contains a 6-page Introduction and barely 10 pages of text. The body of the book consists of indistinct black-and-white photographs (whose subject often cannot be made out), and line drawings by the author. Those represent cartoons of distorted and broken buildings. Their message is unclear, as is their relationship to the text. The same black-and-white drawings are reproduced, this time filled in with dull purple and red, in a separate section entitled "Colored Plates." The photos in "The Manhattan Transcripts" include the infamous one of a man being thrown out of a window, with the caption:

To really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder.

What is contained in this book was judged at the time of its initial publication (1981) to represent a novel architectural theory -- and considered worthy of reprinting in a new edition in 1994. I cannot see any theory here that explains or predicts the effects of architectonic form.

If this is not architectural theory, then we need to discover exactly what the text conveys. There is an explanation in the Introduction and in the prefaces to each set of drawings, which sets out the underlying idea. For example, on page 8:

The first episode ... is composed of twenty-four sheets illustrating the drawn and photographed notation of a murder.

On page 14 we read:

And that's when the second accident occurred -- the accident of murder ... They had to get out of the Park -- quick.

And on page 8:

He gets out of jail; they make love; she kills him; she is free.

And again on page 32:

But what could she do ... now that the elevator ride had turned into a chilling contest with violent death?

This has nothing to do with architecture, of course, but it does help to establish a macabre psychological ambiance that is crucial to the project.

If I were pressed to come up with the message of this book (and this is necessarily a subjective opinion) I would say that it communicates violence; and projects violence onto buildings. This is in fact the visual message encoded in the cartoon drawings shown in the Color Plates. Forms that are instantly identifiable as buildings are broken, twisted, and dismantled; their component elements left precariously unstable. Images that someone leafing through this book might at first glance dismiss as silly actually carry the clear message of undoing coherent structure. These images have a special quality that sticks to the reader's mind. By doing so, they act on one's subconscious long after the book is put away. "The Manhattan Transcripts" are therefore not so much a presentation of architectural theory, as a collection of images meant to work subliminally, precisely the same way as in advertising.

Tschumi's later book "Architecture and Disjunction" contains 250 pages of text. The book touts itself as "a lucid and provocative analysis of many of the key issues that have engaged architectural discourse over the past two decades". Nevertheless, I find neither lucidity, nor an analysis of design. A phony theory can be easily dismantled by finding flaws in its arguments. As I can recognize no theory in this text, however, there is nothing to criticize. Tschumi instead presents disordered observations on a variety of topics. For example, he remarks on violence and architecture (pages 132-134):

The integration of the concept of violence into the architectural mechanism -- the purpose of my argument -- is ultimately aimed at a new pleasure of architecture. Like any form of violence, the violence of architecture also contains the possibility of change, of renewal ... two types of partial violence should be distinguished, types which are not specifically architectural ... Programmatic violence encompasses those uses, actions, events, and programs that, by accident or by design, are specifically evil and destructive. Among them are killing, internment, and torture, which become slaughterhouses, concentration camps, or torture chambers.

Earlier, on page 88, Tschumi suggests a parallel between sexual bondage and architecture:

Similarly, the game of architecture is an intricate play with rules that one may accept or reject ... These rules, like so many knots that cannot be untied, are generally a paralyzing constraint. When manipulated, however, they have the erotic significance of bondage ... What matters here is that there is no simple bondage technique: the more numerous and sophisticated the restraints, the greater the pleasure.

Tschumi's book is made more piquant by inserting quotations from the Marquis de Sade on unusual sexual practices. For example, he reproduces de Sade's ingenious solution to simultaneously committing incest, adultery, sodomy, and sacrilege with one sexual act (page 182). Read as architectural theory, this makes no sense; but within the context of psychological association, it contributes to reinforce a message.

Bernard Tschumi, The Manhattan Transcripts (New Edition) (Academy Editions, London, 1994; First Edition, 1981)

Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994).

Our thanks again to Nikos Salingaros. We'll post part three tomorrow. Please be sure to visit and explore Nikos' archive of his writing about buildings and urbanism, which is here.

posted by Michael at April 17, 2004


What can you deduce from all this? Only that in certain demented quarters of academe, terminal hipness trumps sense.

Posted by: ricpic on April 18, 2004 12:33 PM

I'm reading this series with a sort of horrified fascination. (Knowing nothing, as I do, about Mr. Tschumi's writings.) It's kind of similar to watching a train wreck in slow motion. Bring on the next episode!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 18, 2004 3:23 PM

But when did Tschumi ever claim the Transcripts were a "theory" of the sort Salingaros is seeking?

It's easy to diss Tschumi's work, harder to truly understand it. See my refutation of Salingaros's points so far at That Brutal Joint.

Posted by: Joseph Clarke on April 18, 2004 5:10 PM

Tschumi's career gimmick seems to be institutionalized vandalism. I suppose his audience and client base are people who desire more alienation and threat in their built environment.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on April 19, 2004 11:28 AM

Dear Mr. Clarke:

I read your remarks, part of which go as follows:

We live in an age that is trying to make up its mind about postmodernism. There are two paths we can easily follow: blindly embrace the work of postmodernism and deconstruction championed by architects such as Tschumi, or join Salingaros in rejecting its value categorically and regard architecture as a purely practical art. I suggest we forge a third, more difficult path forward: examine postmoderism critically and respectfully, learn what we can from it, and move on to arrive at a more enlightened architectural discourse.

Umm, how can I put this: I would think that a defense of Mr. Tschumi would lay out what you have learned from his work. Such 'lessons' are conspicuously absent from your remarks. Are you just defending 'fair play' or do you think Tschumi actually brings something to the architectural table? If the latter, I would be very interested to get your explanation of his contribution.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 19, 2004 12:38 PM

To Mr. Clarke:

It may be easy for some to diss Tschumi, just as it was easy for a boy to see the emperor had no clothes. But it wasn't easy for the Columbia administration to diss Tschumi, or for his Columbia students to do so, or for "progressive" opinion to do so. Salingaros actually engages Tschumi's notions in a manner far more rigorous than most of Tschumi's fans. Salingaros, indeed, respects Tschumi enough to subject his work to rigorous appraisal. Columbia's administration, I suspect, merely capitulated to Tschumi's modishness. Which tack do you prefer? I myself am inclined to judge Salingaros just about the best architectural critic writing today.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on April 19, 2004 2:01 PM


Thanks for your comment. Certainly Tschumi brings a lot to the table - but it is not the sort of rational, systematic design handbook that Salingaros seems to regard as the only acceptable "theory." One of the points of the Transcripts is that there can be other kinds of architectural knowing, which borrow more from art than from science. Just as Le Corbusier used painting to explore images and forms that later showed up in his designs at Ronchamp and La Tourette, so Tschumi produced this comparison of the visual relationships between our different methods of representing events in space-time to explore the concepts that influenced his architecture. I believe this is valid as a design methodology.

I don't want to write more on this subject until the rest of Salingaros's essay is online, but I look forward to discussing these ideas at length when the full essay is available.

Posted by: Joseph Clarke on April 19, 2004 2:22 PM


It would help in the debate if you could be very specific about the points you are defending. What is there in this type of architecture that is worth saving? I respect your sense of loyalty to certain architectural principles even though I disagree with them -- yet those principles are never clearly stated. By contrast, my friends and I have explicitly laid out what we believe architecture is and what it is not.

This is essentially the same point raised by Friedrich, above. Both Friedrich and myself (and probably several other interested readers) are looking forward to your further comments.

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on April 21, 2004 12:01 PM

What is there in this type of architecture that is worth saving? How about not selling ourselves into blind acceptance of tired traditional arrangements of forms that any Columbia student could throw together in a half hour if they wanted to? God, it upsets me so much when conservative jackasses stick their noses where they don't belong. This utterly pointless anti-Tschumi rant reminds me of dim Catholics screaming about the evils of sodomy. Get over it already. There's more than one way to do anything, and getting pissed every time somebody does something you don't like is not going to help (except maybe get these 2 blowhards guys to put your stuff on what appears to unforunately be a decently well-trafficked site).

Let's get into a few details here, shall we?

In part 3, you state:

"Furthermore, is this a master architect's statement to which young and impressional students ought to be exposed?... Perhaps our civilization has reached the point where it is thrilled to accept an architecture that does violence to form instead of putting it together coherently."

The only one doing any "accepting" here is you, Nikos. You tout the importance of scienctific progress in architecture, yet try to tear down one of the most significant agitators of architectural experimentation of our time. Should young students be taught to question ultra-traditional notions of composition in architecture, as implied by Tschumi's theme of violence? Indeed. Coherence is a low bar to hurdle. Some of us want a little more.

In Part IV, you blabber on:

"[Deconstructivism] represents a lack of respect (to put it mildly) for the ordered coherence embodied in traditional coherence embodied in traditional architecture and the vast majority of human artifacts. Deconstructivist buildings make no effort to connect to and blend with their surroundings."

Again, obvious cowardice. What is it exactly that you're afraid of though, I wonder? Are you so sedate that you've forgotten that "context" is a contructed thing? Do you think that God took his butter knife and spread uniformity and dullness across the entire built landscape? Well, to possibly burst your bubble, he surely did not. As with nearly everything else, humans take the blame and so are free to learn from their mistakes as well as their triumphs. The moment a deconstructivist building, or any other building for that matter, has its foundations laid it becomes part of "context," in all of the word's connotations from ultra-local to global. All of these fancy-pants architects that are being hired by important organizations across the world to build these supposedly non-contextual buildings are almost certainly too busy thinking about how to shape an ever-changing global context than to dwell upon these babyish worries of yours.

Which brings me to my last and probably most important point for you to understand: when lots and lots of very intelligent people are putting lots and lots of energy into something constructive, and you think what they're doing is entirely incorrect, odds are A) they don't care, or, more significantly B) you, in fact, are wrong. Of course the case is C) both of the above.

From Part IV again:

"Anyone has the right to write what he or she likes, but when the professional architectural societies, the architectural journals, our major universities, respected publishers of architectural monographs, and governmental institutions praise [Tschumi]... the burden of liability in case something goes wrong falls squarely on those institutions."

Man oh man, how could ALL of those groups listed above been so easily duped by such an obvious fraud?? Don't worry, Nikos, when something goes wrong we'll take the blame. There's surely enough of us to shoulder it.

So give it up. Trying to tell an intellectual that what they value is incorrect is like trying to climb a glass wall covered in crisco.

However, I do invite you an all others to attend the GSAP's end-of-the-year show of student work. It opens on May 15th. Who knows, maybe you'll find something of interest in the thousands and thousands of manhours of work put into projects by hundreds of students all perfectly happy to embrace the notion of productive violence (read: fearless experimentation).


Posted by: Joe Duignan on April 28, 2004 7:46 PM

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