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April 19, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 3

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

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

Part 3. Psychological association in Tschumi's texts.

Trying to pin down anything in Tschumi's writings is very frustrating; but there is something I wish to note. In "Architecture and Disjunction" (page 187), we are offered a supposedly scientific explanation of the design for Le Parc de la Villette.

The stated concern of the project was to apply theoretical concerns on a practical level, to move from the 'pure mathematics' of The Manhattan Transcripts to applied mathematics ... The other strategy involved ignoring built precedents so as to begin from a neutral mathematical configuration or ideal topological configurations (grids, linear or concentric systems, etc.) that could become the points of departure for future transformations.

And again (page 197):

La Villette was the built extension of a comparable method; it was impelled by the desire to move from "pure mathematics to applied mathematics.
Applied mathematics?

Now, in addition to being an architectural theorist, I also happen to be Professor of Mathematics, and I can find no obvious mathematical content (either pure, or applied) in Tschumi's writings and buildings.

One could (although he himself does not do this) describe Tschumi's buildings as intentional but selective randomness introduced into ordered form. His designs destroy the order achieved by having a multiplicity of subsymmetries; he undoes those symmetries in order to define structures that are partially, though not totally, incoherent. Breaking vital connections and symmetries between component parts amounts to violence in terms of undoing the mathematical richness of coherent form. Such a drastic severing of internal connections kills biological organisms. In "Architecture and Disjunction", Tschumi had already (sort of) summarized his basic idea:

The concept of violence also suggests different readings of spatial function -- that the definition of architecture may lie at the intersection of logic and pain, rationality and anguish, concept and pleasure" (page XXVIII).

This may be the key to understanding what is really going on. A psychological state of excitement, anxiety, and sensual urges (especially those triggered by the forbidden pleasures of combining violence with sex) is subtly created by the text and photographic images.

I am not presenting the above quotes in order to criticize them, since I don't know exactly what Tschumi wishes to communicate. Nevertheless, the theme of violence is evident throughout his work. He reproduces the defenestration photograph from "The Manhattan Transcripts" again on page 100 of "Architecture and Disjunction", enlarged just in case someone missed it in its earlier, smaller, incarnation. Back in "The Manhattan Transcripts", I recognized two shocking, revolting frames from the 1928 Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí film "Un Chien Andalou", in which a young woman's eye is slit open with a straight razor (page XXIV). Just in case we missed them then, these images are presented again in "Architecture and Disjunction" (page 158), therefore Tschumi must consider them important to his overall message. Is this a way of saying that nowadays, "cutting-edge" in architecture literally means the same thing as in Luis Buñuel's film?

To introduce a new architectural style, one needs to implant -- using whatever means possible -- images of a particular typology into architect's minds. All of this graphic and implicit, suggested violence in Tschumi's writings does makes sense if interpreted in a certain way. Tschumi unfortunately does not explain, but if true, then this would amount to a brilliant psychological trick. Could it be (and here I am conjecturing) that the violent/erotic undercurrent in Tschumi's texts serves to fix his images of dismantled forms in our subconscious so that we somehow accept them and remember them? Is their message one of shock followed by subliminal reinforcement, associating visual dismemberment of buildings with the forbidden thrills of dangerous sex and violence so as to make it more attractive? This would be very subtle, but nevertheless effective, psychological conditioning. I am not exactly sure of this, but the possibilities of subconscious association are there to be explored.

Tschumi makes the following confession in "Architecture and Disjunction" (page 210):

... my own pleasure has never surfaced in looking at buildings, at the great works of the history or the present of architecture, but, rather, in dismantling them.

Have his clients bothered to read this statement? Does it convey an appropriate sentiment from the chosen architect of a museum facing the Parthenon? Furthermore, is this a master architect's statement to which young and impressionable students ought to be exposed? Tschumi is being honest here, so one cannot fault him: any possible criticism must be directed at those institutions that have commissioned his works and helped to propagate his message. Or, 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.

Thrill-seeking architecture

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the association of architecture with violence is successful; how does such a conditioned mind view buildings from that point on? Every adaptive structure, which necessarily connects its component parts to each other and to adjoining forms, must appear dull and unexciting. The thrill of violence can only be triggered by breaking or destroying some ordered structure, yet this quality is entirely lacking in traditional architecture. In a mind-set that has been conditioned to get a physical thrill from violence, the opposite paradigm -- consisting of adaptive, living forms -- is unattractive. Not only that, but when a choice has to be made, then complex adaptive forms will be replaced by those that give the thrill of violence. We have here a selection criterion that, acting over time, will change the psychological character of the built environment.



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 four 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 19, 2004


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