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April 21, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 4

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

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

4. Institutional validation of Tschumi's work.

I recently joined a debate over Bernard Tschumi's New Acropolis Museum being built in Athens. It was supposed to be ready for the Olympic Games, and to possibly house the Elgin Marbles if ever they are returned. In an earlier essay (which can be read here), I gave my opinion of the project (not a positive one, I am afraid), and used criticisms by other authors of Tschumi's writings and his previous work to support my point of view. Some commentators noted that the New Acropolis Museum could have played a role (albeit a minor one) in the downfall of the Greek Government. Tschumi's design for that building -- consisting of a glass box on stilts -- is only one of several problems facing this project. There are serious objections to erecting something on an unexcavated archaeological site, and critics allege that artifacts were destroyed while digging the building's foundations (which led to a lawsuit to block the project).

New Acropolis Museum

I believe there exists a philosophical relation between these two points. Deconstructivist design violates ordered structure in some way -- more obvious in some deconstructivist buildings than in others. It represents a lack of respect (to put it mildly) for the ordered coherence embodied in traditional architecture and in the vast majority of human artifacts. Deconstructivist buildings make no effort to connect to and blend with their surroundings, for the simple reason that they wish to stand apart from them. Indifference to what exists on and around the site (in this case the Classical style of the Parthenon; the Neoclassical style of the New Greek State; local residents; unexcavated antiquities) can be understood as being consistent with the general disconnecting method handed down by the French deconstructivists.

Tschumi forged an alliance between architecture and French Deconstruction, applying Jacques Derrida's precepts to the pavilions at Le Parc de La Villette built on the outskirts of Paris. The architectural establishment propelled Tschumi into a brilliant career as architect, lecturer, teacher, and university administrator. In the 1980s, architecture was desperately seeking a philosophical underpinning; something to give it both justification and renewal; anything unusual and exciting upon which to base a new movement in design. The profession seemed stuck in the modernist rut (the postmodernist stylistic fruit salad notwithstanding). To those who had bought into French deconstruction, Tschumi was seen as an ideal candidate to lead a progressive school of architecture. In the same year (1988) that Tschumi was appointed Dean of Columbia University's Architecture School, the Deconstructivist Show at the Museum of Modern Art validated all its main practitioners.

Even those of my acquaintances who applaud Tschumi's earlier role happen not to like his latest work very much, however. They consider him passé. No-one could explain to me why after years of criticism ranging from lukewarm to negative, and a general lack of commissions, Tschumi is suddenly being asked to build projects around the world. There is a noticeable boost in his practice. His current lecture circuit reveals him to be on his way up. The program for the 92nd ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) Annual Meeting in Miami, Florida lists Tschumi as the Opening Keynote Speaker. Being chosen to open an important national meeting indicates a considerable degree of prestige among one's peers. Tschumi spoke on March 18 in Florida International University's new Paul L. Cejas School of Architecture, a building he recently designed.

Tschumi's books have been validated by the architectural profession. Architects continue to buy them and read them, and teachers recommend them as texts in university courses on architectural theory. 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 someone for being a cutting-edge architect on the basis of such writings, then the entire system is responsible. The burden of liability in case something goes wrong falls squarely on those institutions.

parc de la villette 04.jpg Le Parc de la Villette

It is not only our universities that have taken part in validating Tschumi as a serious architect and architectural thinker. Foreign governments have commissioned him to build important showcase buildings. François Mitterrand, the prime minister of France, was pushing the pavilions called "folies" at Le Parc de la Villette while he was still in power. As mentioned above, Tschumi designed the New Acropolis Museum at the request of the Greek Government, which defended it against a protracted series of criticisms. Do such institutions care about French deconstructivist philosophy? Probably not. What we are likely seeing is a self-feeding cycle of validation, where no-one questions the true value (or potential for damage) of what is being supported.

In the field of architecture, which has lacked an objective basis for the duration of the twentieth century, impression counts for everything. This raises a question with our present system of architectural education. How can a student not be intellectually intimidated when they see their university build one of Tschumi's buildings? How about if their government builds a prestigious national museum designed by him? Can anyone critically judge Tschumi's writings when their author is presented as an unquestioned authority backed by institutional support at the highest level? What if students perceive him as totally lacking in substance; if they are repelled by his message of violence to form? Do they dare to question the wisdom and competence of their teachers, administrators, and elected leaders for supporting his idiosyncratic vision of architecture, or do they instead suffer cognitive dissonance?

Nikos Salingaros, "The New Acropolis Museum,", here. (29 February 2004).

Our thanks again to Nikos Salingaros. We'll post part five 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 21, 2004


You're comments are not relevant. To me, it's seems that you consider architecture and architectural theory in particular to be only a matter of forms either in a typological or a geometrical fashion (historically or scientifically, meaning mathematically, justified). Everything that would embed architecture in a cultural context seems to be irrelevant for you (references to Klein, to surrealism..). I think it's important to consider every aspect of the justification of forms in architecture today as being part of what it is, even if it's not scientifically as rigorous as you which. It's the role of the theorist to analyse what happens and to synthetise it. Not the mission of the architect/practitionner. And by the way, Miterrand was President, never prime minister.

Posted by: Thomas on April 23, 2004 10:56 AM

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