Bernard Tschumi

Interview with the influential architect in his New York City office.
Your father was an architect. What role did his ideas about design and architecture play in your early childhood and development as a designer?
Really when I started out I was in a different world, fascinated by literature, cinema, and art.  Being from the 68 generation, I was more inclined to question most of what the previous generation was involved in. It was only later on in my life that I began to admire the work of my father Jean Tschumi. 
But growing up I was extremely aware of the architect’s profession because it was happening all around me, above me, next to me; the office of my father was in our house. When I was younger I would wake up in the morning and be taken out of my room so that a desk could be put in and a drafter could work there.  Our Sundays were spent visiting building sites.

Being so exposed to the life of an architect at an early age one would think you would jump into the same environment when you graduated from your studies.
Actually it was quite the opposite. I was not in a hurry to become an architect because I knew what it meant to be one.
I also had a lot of questions that I wanted to find answers to. That is why for 12 years after I graduated, I spent a lot of time exploring different issues, raising certain questions.  First on an educational context where I was teaching, then doing my own exploratory work.
When I came to New York I started to draw and exhibit in art galleries. I had a good set of friends who were raising similar questions in different disciplines.  It wasn’t until after a decade in 1982 when I finally became ready to engage in architecturally detailed projects.

Did you feel that the questions you were asking could not be answered in a traditional architectural setting?
Yes, definitely! The traditional setting of architecture is full of pre-set answers and received ideas of clich├ęs that architects use without being aware that they are using it.  For me it’s very important to take a distance and not look at architecture from the center but from the margins where you can have a critical outlook. 
Is that where your fascination with film comes in?
Exactly, that’s an interesting example. What interested me in film, was the architectural application.  In film the space and the surroundings are a protagonist of the action. They are not just the background; they are part of the narrative. In architecture it is the other way around; the user is the protagonist in the architecture.

What role did moving to London play on your ideas about life and architecture?
London played a very important role.  I could first trace it back to Zurich where I had a very conservative education that was building oriented. But I felt there was something missing and that some questions had to be raised.  I became quite fascinated by the work of someone in London by the name of Cedric Price and was sort of in contact with him before I finished my studies.  During this time I was also interning and the events of 1968 really took over the world. This had a major impact on my thoughts and the environment I lived in.
To continue my exploration, it seemed that London was the city where I could ask certain questions, because at that time the political situation in France and Spain was quite different. I knew that my questions wouldn’t be answered in an architectural context in those countries. 

What were some of the thoughts you had when you were writing The Pleasure of Architecture?
If you are looking at the margins of architecture, you will touch upon other areas. I was interested in seeing the questions that were being raised in other disciplines and how I could apply those to the thinking that I had. At that time some people who were exploring the margins and limits of their activities were writers such as Kafka and Poe. I used to ask my students to make a program for their projects based on the works of Kafka or Edgar Allan Poe.  It was a great exercise in thinking within the context of architecture and literature. 
I was also inspired by a lot of writers who were part of the French Theory movement.  One of these was Roland Barthes who wrote The Pleasures of the Text and the Structural analysis of Narrative.  One dealt with pleasure and another dealt with movement and structure, which are all part of architecture.  I always insisted that architecture is the form of knowledge and not the knowledge of form. As such if we share these aspects with other areas of knowledge, always importing and exporting these ideas.
How important is movement in the projects that you develop now?
Sometimes it is one of the first things I think about. It all depends on the project. The interaction of the different parts of the project always comes to mind. The interaction can be the movement of bodies in space, the idea that architecture is always unstable, or that architecture is not permanent. That is very important.

You have lived in various urban centers all over the world.  Do you think there is a certain type of similarity in all these cities, or are they all different?
I would say that “cities” is a generic word; it suggests that if you have a certain type of density you have a similar setting. A city that is 2,000 years old is not to the same as the city in America that is 100 years old, or a city in China that is 10.  The differences are fundamental.  I always cringe when people say we will all be urbanized by a certain date. The nature of urbanization is always different and can’t be measured the same in different places.

How do you feel about the rapid urbanization of cities all over that world that is happening now?
I am a city fan. I don’t regret it. I am more concerned these days about the anti-city movement happening within cities. Densities like New York City or Paris when they start making them green, making it feel like it’s the countryside riding around on bicycles and holding hands. It’s not really what cities are made for.  I strongly believe in the cities of grit, noise, and the power of the city.  People who put plants on their balconies so they can feel like they are living in the countryside do not impress me.  I did not come to New York to see flowerpots on every street corner.
You’ve had a lot of success from winning numerous competitions. Is participating in such an environment important part of your studio culture?
We live on them. I would say 2/3rd of the work we do is the result of any one competition. We are asked occasionally to create projects, but most of the work we do is through competitions. We get invited to competitions all over the world. We rarely participate in open competitions. 
What I like about the competition system is two things.  Once you have reached a certain level of recognition you can choose which competitions you want to enter. Therefore you can already determine the type of work you want to be involved in. Even if you haven’t won that competition it still becomes part of your portfolio sort of like research.
Secondly, I have always wanted to keep a small office. I want to be involved directly in all the work.  That’s why if you combine the offices here in New York City and Paris I have about 30 people working together. Which is a good size for me. 

Aren’t most of the competitions you participate in cultural and public projects?
Yes strangely enough. I would love to do more housing projects or a hospital, but those you don’t get through competitions, at least not in the United States.  

You have taught classes at various universities. Do you see a change in the way students are learning architecture today from 20 years ago?
Yes, it’s more of a cycle or maybe a generation thing.  If I look at early 70’s there was this idea of really reinventing the world. The students wanted to create a strong foundation that was sacred and wanted to challenge it while at the same time sanctifying it.  This generation was questioning history and the connotation of it. However, while we were going in one direction there was a group of people who were going in the opposite direction and being more conservative.  Post modernism, which at that time was the establishment, the next group, were discovering new tools, like the computer and making clear of what they were interested in.  Maybe it’s the envelope of politics or algorithms, but they didn’t build much. It was quite theoretical.
For the current generation it’s kind of too early to qualify. Some of the things they seem to be focusing on are issues of small interventions in physical and ecological terms. It is creating a tension between the very small and the very large.  We still have to wait and see what becomes of all this.
What advice would you give to this new group of architects?
Take advantage of it all, stay focused, remember life is short, and that every project that you do is the stepping-stone for the next project. It is not about shooting in all different directions, you have to have an agenda. 
Architecture is not the knowledge of form, it’s the form of knowledge, and you better make sure that you respond to larger issues than just of form.

When did the red scarf come into play?
It was recorded that I was wearing the red scarf when the results of the Parc de la Villette competition were announced.  But who knows! I have worn it ever since.