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April 22, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 5

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

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

5. The collapse of French deconstruction, and its implications for architecture.

Let us turn to Greek Mythology for a critical analogy. Two monsters that wreaked havoc but could not easily be defeated were Antaeos, the mythical giant who gathered superhuman strength from touching the earth -- and the many-headed Hydra, whose heads kept growing back after being cut off. The hero Herakles (Hercules) was able to vanquish Antaeos by lifting him off the ground, thus cutting his contact and source of strength. Herakles got the better of the Hydra by cauterizing the wound with a flaming torch after cutting off each of its heads. Just like in the cases of both Antaeos and the Hydra, deconstructivist architecture draws its strength from somewhere, regenerating itself after each devastating attack. It has seemed impervious to criticism, always reaching back to its philosophical power base for new strength.

Realizing where the source of this strength lies, I recently wrote a paper that presents a new interpretation of the French deconstructivists. (It can be read here.) Instead of accepting their writings as philosophy, as has been customary, I suggest that they are a kind of mental virus, whose purpose is to destroy ordered thinking and stored knowledge about the world. In my paper, I draw detailed analogies between this type of mental virus (also referred to as a "meme") and the ways that biological viruses act. In honor of deconstruction's founder, I named this ingenious mechanism for meme propagation after Jacques Derrida. I should mention that in expressing this innovative and controversial thesis, I am by no means acting alone, and in fact draw support from distinguished allies in philosophy, science, and architecture.

Tschumi's Lerner Student Center at Columbia University

This discussion opens up a Pandora's box of questions that eventually need to be answered. It has nothing really to do with any individual architect, but is a phenomenon tied to the current architectural establishment. If the French deconstructivists are not only exposed as being without intellectual merit, but their method as actually dangerous to our society and institutions, where does that leave deconstructivist architecture? Will it be able to survive as a style cut off from its traditional intellectual power base? It could indeed; for the following reason. In addition to its intellectual power base, deconstructivist architecture possesses a considerable political power base in those persons and institutions that have profited from it, and therefore have the most to lose if it ever collapses.

What is immediately obvious is that, following the collapse of French deconstruction, deconstructivist architecture will henceforth likely be judged as a fashion -- a sensational stylistic play for fun and profit. Finding itself without the crucial support of French intellectuals, deconstruction in architecture appears simply as a visual provocation, a radical form of posturing that helps architects make a career by getting noticed. In this game, users (i.e. human beings and their needs) no longer matter, since the goal is simply to be noticed enough to get the top commissions. Being provocative is what it is all about. No more an expression of our age -- unless it is an expression of alienation and mass psychosis -- deconstruction becomes a marketing phenomenon, alongside with perfume, fashion, junk food, and bizarre cultish behavior.

There are two possible interpretations of the impact deconstructivist architecture has on our civilization. The first considers it as just another style, which in a pluralistic society has a right to be expressed along with every other conceivable style. As such, while people may not like deconstructivist buildings, they cannot object to others who promote them. The second, alternative interpretation is much more categorical, however. It considers deconstruction as genuinely harmful to our way of thinking, since deconstruction promotes a warped and skewed model of the physical universe. If this interpretation is taken in earnest, then the architects, clients, and sponsors of deconstructivist buildings are inflicting harm on our society. I argue this point in my paper on the Derrida Virus.

More zigzags and glass, courtesy the Lerner Center

These are very serious concerns, and it remains to be verified which of the two preceding interpretations is more accurate. If it turns out that it is indeed the second one, then the issue of culpability needs to be raised. Were clients and architects blissfully unaware of possibly negative consequences of their actions? Did none of them listen to pleadings from more sensitive people that such buildings are, in a fundamental way, "inhuman"? What happens to those institutions, including our universities, learned academies, professional organizations, and governments, which have supported and sponsored deconstructivist architecture all along? Are they also to be judged guilty by association?

Nikos Salingaros, "The Derrida Virus" (here), TELOS No. 126 (2003), pages 66-82.

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

posted by Michael at April 22, 2004


On this excellent page here, whose author followed the debate, construction and arrival of the Lerner, I found this article by a Columbia student. What's the building like to use? Not terribly accomodating, seems to be the answer.

"Understanding Lerner Hall by Daniel Immerwahr Event-Cities 2. By Bernard Tschumi. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. 692 pp. Paper, $35.00, ISBN 0262700743.) Last year, the Columbia student body received, with much fuss and to-do, a new student center. This year, that same student body can read about this project in a book recently published by Lerner Hall's architect, and Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, one Mr. Bernard Tschumi. As architectural fluff books go, Event-Cities 2, Tschumi's 692-page brick/book, is rather cheap, although I suspect that its hefty price tag ($35) puts it out of the reach of much of the student body. This is unfortunate, as one of the chapters of the work is dedicated to Lerner Hall, a significant building in the lives of many Columbians. Event-Cities 2 is Tschumi's attempt to pitch his work to his fellow architects and architectural critics, as well as to future clients."

"In an attempt to respond to (or, better put, dismiss) critics of the building, Tschumi offers this: "This project is about a building that was alternatively praised and attacked for the wrong reasons. For example, 'conservatives' derided its large expanse of glass as heresy within the historical context, while some 'progressives' said its use of 'mimetic' granite, bricks, and cornice was a disgrace to the ideas of progress, newness, and creativity." Regardless of whether or not we buy into Tschumi's very reductive reading of the architectural criticism of his work (which lets him position himself comfortably as the smiling iconoclast), it is worth pointing out that there is another source of criticism that is completely ignored: that of the actual occupants of Lerner Hall."

"The lack of concern for the students (and staff, administrators, guests, etc.) for whom this student center was designed runs throughout Tschumi's commentary on his work. To whatever degree the people using the building figure into Tschumi's conception, they are "forces" whose movements are molded into patterns that are as much a part of the architecture as the building itself. As Tschumi writes, Lerner is "not about forms, but about forces" -- a thought one should keep in mind when navigating the poorly-planned aggregation of ramps and stairs that are required simply to get to one's mailbox. We can take comfort in the knowledge that, at night, our bodies on the ramps form a sort of "silent shadow theater" for those in the know."

"These sort of comments from Tschumi should lead us to question the motives that drove the design of Lerner Hall. For whom was it built? Clearly, Tschumi was interested in producing something that could function as a thought-provoking and exciting architectural project. This is why, for Tschumi, the "critics" are the architectural cognoscenti, the kind of people who could, with some semblance of a straight face, call Lerner's glass wall "heresy." However, we must remember that Tschumi was contracted to build a student center, not a vanity project. We should ask why the stage is so ill-suited to performance pieces (the dance group Orchesis entitled last year's show "Zero Degrees" in reference to the lack of incline in either the stage or the seating). We should ask why the administrative area of the building, conspicuously unmentioned in Event-Cities 2, is such a labyrinth. We should ask why we needed a "softening committee" to mediate between the students and the sterile building when Lerner was first opened. We should ask why, in a university that has had so much trouble relating to the neighborhood it occupies, the Broadway fašade of Lerner takes on the look of a fortress."

"Of all the questions we might ask, perhaps the most important one is about Lerner's price tag. From an administration that is quick to inform us that the expansion of teaching staff or of much-needed classroom space is not on the immediate agenda, $85 million is an almost ludicrous sum to spend on a semi-functional collage of glass and brick. To a certain degree, we should be invested in the kind of aesthetic statements our architecture is making, but is this a priority worth $85 million? How much are we getting out of Tschumi's gigantic glass wall, made of 800-pound sheets of specially-fabricated glass? How much do we need clusters of expensive leather chairs at the end of every ramp? While I realize that much of the money for Lerner Hall has been raised specifically for the project, including from Mr. Alfred Lerner himself, who coughed up a cool $25 million, was this the best aim of our university's fundraising efforts? What about scholarships, neighborhood initiatives, funding for student events, or even pay raises for our overworked junior faculty and teaching assistants? With so much at stake in a building of these proportions, we are justified in demanding an explanation for some of the choices that directed the Lerner Hall project, and this is just what is lacking, both in Event-Cities 2 and in all of Tschumi's public statements that I've come across about the project. This lack of public response is especially jarring when one considers that Tschumi, who associates himself very closely with the French student uprisings of 1968, "les evenements du mai," seems to have, while still talking the talk, walked right on over to the other side. Lerner, more so than the buildings of the McKim, Mead and White plan, exerts a top-down control on its inhabitants. The ramps are uncomfortable, and rather than encouraging a "contamination of activities," as Tschumi suggests, they force students into awkward circulation patterns, and often remain totally empty. Notre lutte continue. Lerner Hall, and Event-Cities 2, are both done deals. As time passes, and as the quickly-changing college population forgets the construction of Lerner, it will also forget that there were other possibilities. Just as students on this campus do not gripe about the imperialist architecture of the original McKim, Mead and White plan, they will soon learn to accept Lerner Hall as just another piece of the unchangeable landscape. Thus, with a nod to the inevitable, we tip our hat to Tschumi, he has foisted another one on us. He can go back to his work on Event-Cities 3: My Life as a Rebel, and we can go back to the unfeeling structure that is our student center, and wait for a storm."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 22, 2004 12:25 PM

Michael: This is a good essay, and I find the writer's criticism of Tschumi much more convincing than Salingaros's. Like him, I spend most of my waking hours in a "signature" deconstructivist building - the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati by Peter Eisenman. It's a building that its users love to hate, as its aesthetics are incomprehensible without a decent understanding of deconstructivism in general and Eisenman's theories in particular, which, unfortunately, few are willing to invest time reading.

I find the building brilliant aesthetically and theoretically and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But I must admit to being annoyed by its numerous practical problems: poorly placed handrails on the grand stair, ugly low-grade materials on the building exterior, uneven heating and cooling. Such practical issues are always legitimate criticisms of architecture. Although I think an architect who is truly pushing the aesthetic envelope can be forgiven a few small problems of this nature, I certainly sympathize with the writer's frustration at Lerner Hall's awkward circulation and other functional quirks.

Salingaros, on the other hand, claims the building is nothing less than "harmful to our way of thinking, since deconstruction promotes a warped and skewed model of the physical universe." This accusation is juxtaposed with a sinister photograph of Lerner's interior ramp, labeled "More zigzags and glass." Harmful indeed!

While I don't agree with Salingaros's essay, I do think it is an interesting read, and I'm glad you're posting it as it provides a marvelous context in which to talk about deconstructivism. I posted a brief discussion of Salingaros's second installment last week, and I intend to examine his arguments in more detail when the full essay is online.

Posted by: Joseph Clarke on April 24, 2004 1:40 AM

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