YOU PROBABLY ALREADY KNOW THAT MUCH OF THE CULTURAL elite in this country dedicates its life to translating leftist philosophy into culture. Let's take a look at how this works in the case of one Bernard Tschumi, one of the most celebrated avantgarde architects and quite possibly the worst. Tschumi is head of Columbia University's top-ranked architecture school and a practicing architect with offices in New York and Paris. He is originally a French Swiss who was influenced in his youth by the legendary Paris 1968 student strike which nearly brought down the French government. This seems to have been the thrill of his life, as he has spent the rest of his career trying to infuse the "revolutionary" spirit into architecture. Unfortunately for him, as anyone familiar with the history of architecture will know, by 1968 the modernist revolution in architecture had already happened, so his only option was to rebel once again, this time against the modernists themselves. But since he wouldn't, of course, return to traditionalism, he had to push even further into the wilds of aesthetic radicalism. It hasn't been pretty.
Tschumi describes his revolutionary aspirations by saying he wishes that architects,
"could act as revolutionaries by using our environmental knowledge (meaning our understanding of cities and the mechanisms of architecture) in order to be part of professional forces trying to arrive at new social and urban structures... a combination of the roles of critics and revolutionaries." (Architecture And Disjunction)
To be fair, it is never really clear from his statements just how much of a capital "M" Marxist he is, and he didn't have an AK47 hanging over his shoulder the one time I met him a few years ago. He seems to have relaxed his Marxist aspirations somewhat in recent years, but without modifying the style derived from them. So like a lot of people of his generation, he is left with the residual tics of the cultural Left, reduced to a set of gestures aiming at a revolution long ago abandoned in favor of tenure, career, and New York to Paris frequentflyer miles.
You may wonder why you haven't heard about any of Tschumi's buildings. Well, the astonishing thing about him is that, despite being considered a major architect, he has built virtually nothing. Until I began researching him, I was under the impression, like most people, that greatness in architecture consists in building buildings. But apparently not today; being just a theorist qualifies. In this country, he has built only one. Back in Europe, he has five. He's not a kid, either; successful architects his age (57) generally have dozens, if not hundreds, of buildings to their credit. And the few he has built are not accounted masterpieces even by the avantgarde that would desperately like to believe in him. But they've invested so much in his reputation that they have to keep propping him up to avoid admitting their emperor has no clothes.
Notwithstanding his lack of professional success, or even basic experience in his profession, he is not only allowed to teach architecture, but run an entire school of it. There is something extraordinarily callow about this, reflecting the absurd prominence of theory in the contemporary architectural world. He has lurched from failure to failure whenever he has actually built or even designed anything, and yet has managed to soar upwards into the prestigious heights of the profession on the strength of theory alone. His American building was panned from one end of the critical spectrum to the other. He didn't get the desperatelysought commission to expand the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He lost the competition for Kansai airport in Japan and for the French national library in Paris. His 1988 show "Event Cities" was widely panned by its own intended admirers. He recently withdrew from a competition to design the expansion of the Carnegie Science Museum in Pittsburgh when he realized he wasn't going to win.
Despite his pretenses of originality, Tschumi's signature style is basically a rehash of the constructivism that flourished briefly in Russia just after the revolution. Skeletonlike structures with steel beams sticking this way and that. Bits of structure that don't do anything. (Ironically, this too is a style that has left a longer paper trail than built record, because, though theorized to death, the Bolsheviks ceased wanting revolutionary architecture once they became the new establishment and switched to the ponderous style that we know as Soviet architecture.) The picture attached to this article is the best example of it, and I presume it requires no explanation why this sort of thing is objectionable. If you actually like it, all I can suggest is that while it may be amusing in small doses, can you imagine an entire city that looked that way? This is an architecture at best of stunts, mostly of gags, and at worst, gags that fall flat. If you put a lot of these buildings together, you wouldn't get a city; you'd get a carnival funhouse. For a city of clowns, it might be appropriate.
Tschumi's American building is Lerner Student Center at Columbia University (1999). Those of you who enjoy watching the cultural opposition fall on its face might find it amusing to see, but for the most part, it is so boring as not to be worth visiting. It manages to be simultaneously dull and gratingly inharmonious with its surroundings. Its strangeness attracts attention, and then when you look, there's nothing to see. It was described in City Journal ( article) as,
"an agitated, irrational mix of limestone, brick, metal, and glass... giving the impression of a building on the edge of a nervous breakdown."
It illustrates perfectly the old adage that there is nothing so boring as the bad avantgarde. There is nothing in its design that one couldn't find in an upscale strip mall except an utter lack of the userfriendliness that usually redeems commercial architecture. If the architecture of Frank Gehry, star architect of the moment and designer of that museum in Bilbao that looks like a B52 practicing yoga, has been described as a movie composed entirely of special effects, then Tschumi's is like special effects that don't quite come off. Herbert Muschamp, the modernist cheerleader who is the architecture critic for the NY Times, began his review of the building by saying "By now, everyone knows that Bernard Tschumi's new Lerner Hall at Columbia University is a dud." Nice to have the agreement of critics who should be this guy’s natural friends.
The really sad thing about this building (and the rest of Tschumi's work, for that matter) is that it acts as if all manner of avantgarde tricks that might have been clever in 1924 were still fresh. (This is leaving aside the issue of whether buildings are more like salads or like wines, but the love of cultural "freshness" is too entrenched for me to challenge it here.) For example, is it really original to have all that exposed concrete and steel? There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but railroad stations all over the world were built with exposed steel 100 years ago. Lerner's claim to fame in the architect's own eyes seems to be its system of flying steel ramps that go nowhere. Original? Anyone who has ever been inside a factory will recognize these catwalks. Their weird configuration makes the building's users scurry along them like rats in a cage designed by M.C. Escher. Why does one get the feeling that much of postmodernism is a giant joke at the expense of the poor public? Postmodern architecture makes me feel like I've been abducted onto the set of some theatreoftheabsurd play I never volunteered for. Tschumi has endorsed, in his essay What Is Deconstruction? the concept of "posthumanist architecture." Here we see the consequence of this: contempt for the users of the building. The early modernists at least had the decency to promise that form would follow function; here form tramples on it with glee.
It is rumored that Tschumi was given the commission for this building as part of his compensation package for becoming dean of Columbia's architecture school, which was reportedly embarrassed at hiring someone who had built nothing in this country. This is contrary to all accepted principles of good academic administration; if true, it is the perfect example of how the incestuous leftist establishment greases the way for its own friends. All his commissions in his native France are government work, where he can similarly trade on his elite connections. Tschumi has not had a single commission for a real, paying, privatesector client. In his published writings, he has implied that there is something wrong with the American private sector itself:
"In America, it's more difficult because architects have lost a lot of power; power has fallen into the hands of the builders... the general strategy is determined by the client himself... That's a big problem. And that's what we want to avoid." (magazine GA Document, special issue, 1997)
This is powerhungry whining from someone who cannot survive the transition from the architectural welfare state of France to the rigors of freemarket America. He thinks that he, the architect, or his friends in government spending someone else's money, should decide what gets built, not the people who are actually paying for it. Lerner Hall went over budget due to his insistence on his eccentric design, which was very hard to build and had to be partly fabricated in France, so no wonder paying clients don’t want him. The most selfindulgent of the stale cliches of the avantgarde is the idea that commercial success eludes them due to the philistinism of the bourgeois establishment. On a philosophical level, he no doubt thinks that his failure to find success is due to the fact that, as he puts it,
"the capitalist organization of space destroys all collective space in order to develop division and isolation." (A & D)
An obviously false assertion, by the way, to anyone who has ever enjoyed the sumptuous public space of the average American shopping mall, but what's mere observation compared to the pleasures of Marxist pontification? Another aspect of his arrogance is his expressed preference for the autocratic planning process that governs state commissions in France over the democratic processes that rule here. He has blamed the failure of at least one proposal of his that was never built, at Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York, on meddling by the local communityplanning board. Perhaps he should read a little of his compatriot Tocqueville on democracy in America.
Someone once told me that architecture has generated more bad philosophy in the last 25 years than any other discipline. Tschumi's theoretical writings, the basis of his reputation, are a tangled mess that alternately induces dizziness and puzzlement as to whether the author actually knows what philosophy is, or merely heard it described by someone in a bar once and thought it might be neat to try his hand at it some time. He writes in these gobs of pseudoprofundity that seem, at first reading, to indeed reflect his central contention that a radical rethinking of the very nature of space is the key to "progress" in architecture. Then you go back and read them again and realize that there is no such thing as "a radical rethinking of the nature of space" unless you are a physicist. He adheres to the dubious conceit that the deeper the philosophical "foundation" behind a building, the better the building will be. These foundations come not only from the usual suspects of deconstructionist philosophy (Foucault, Derrida et al.) but from some rather comical attempts of his own to philosophize in his own right. The worst of this stuff is so selfevidently empty as to defy attack; better simply to exhibit a selection:
"1.0 Is space a material thing in which all material things are to be located?
1.1 If space is a material thing, does it have boundaries?
1.2 If space has boundaries, is there another space outside those boundaries?" (A & D)
I dunno; is there? And why does time go forwards and not backwards? And what on earth has this got to do with architecture? And try this one:
"4.2 On the other hand, if history does not end, and historical time is the Marxist time of revolution, does space lose its primary role?" (A & D)
Hey, maybe it does, comrade! This at least connects us back to the known quantity of Karl & Co. These ideas are not even so much false as just emptiness pretending to be deep. It's the kind of thing one would expect from a precocious highschool senior. It isn't even worth refuting. I mean, what actually follows if we concede proposition 4.2? Anything? Nothing? Another Marxist Koan? A flying steel ramp that goes nowhere and costs $2,000,000? There's no discernable connection between this mumbojumbo and the actual buildings he produces except their common incoherence. Maybe the Greek Cynics had it right: the correct response to some philosophy is just laughter.
The big theoretical insight on which Tschumi purports to base his architecture is the idea that architecture up to now has been based on the mistaken notion that the essence of a building is a static thing, namely the building itself. He wants to replace this idea with the idea that the real essence of architecture is what happens in a building, which requires a "dynamic" conception of space. As he puts it,
"Architecture is as much about the events that take place in spaces as about the spaces themselves... The static notions of form and function long favored by architectural discourse need to be replaced by attention to the actions that occur in and around buildings... in short, to the properly social and political dimensions of architecture." (Event Cities)
Nobody who has ever been involved in building anything will think this insight original for a second. Have people really been building buildings for 4,000 years without thinking what they're going to be used for?
Tschumi suffers from the classic leftist infatuation with violence at a safe distance. He proudly records going to Belfast with the help of contacts in the IRA to explore ways in which urban terrorism was creating innovative new urban environments. To make an avantgarde toy out of a lethal ethnic war is one of the most nauseating acts of dilettantism I have ever heard of. Imagine what he could have done with an historical tragedy with a more impressive body count: how about examining the innovative urban forms created by the Khemer Rouge evacuation of the Cambodian cities? Tschumi once produced an infamous poster of a man being thrown out of a window that is captioned,
"To truly appreciate a work of architecture, you may have to commit a murder." (A&D)
The idea, I think, is that this is the only way to appreciate the upper stories of a building. No kidding. Naturally, this may be hyperbole, but he makes the essential idea perfectly explicit when he writes that,
"society secretly delights in crime, excesses, and violated prohibitions of all sorts." (A&D)
Here he is in bed with the George Bataille school of deconstructionist philosophy, which celebrates disorder, social pathology, and chaos. Put more simply, this is architectural sadomasochism (a charge he actually admits in a few places, though you will probably thank me for not quoting him.) It is a natural result of the modernist love of shock for its own sake, which results, like a drug addiction, in the everincreasing search for more shocking aesthetic experiences. It is also a clear sign that the avantgarde is on its last legs. One almost feels sorry for individuals like Tschumi, whose careers had barely left the ground before the party ended.
One consequence of this jadedness is that, for Tschumi, the traditional languages of architecture, which architects like Robert A.M. Stern ( FP article) speak so fluently and which still have resonant and satisfying meanings for most of us, no longer mean anything. As he puts it,
"the excesses of style Doric supermarkets, Bauhaus bars, and Gothic condos have emptied the language of architecture of meaning" (A & D)
Really? Speak for yourself is all I can say. By the way, has there been a Doric supermarket or a Gothic condominium built anywhere in the world in the past 60 years? Are we really facing a surplus of such things? His other canard against traditionalism, which would seem to contradict this by implying that traditional architecture is alltoomeaningful to most people, is that it represents,
"the Arcadian dreams of a conservative middle class whose homogeneity of taste..." (A & D)
proves them to be a bunch of petitbourgeois squares, et cetera et cetera. Here at last is the real motivation for his architectural Marxism: aesthetic traditionalism equals middleclass equals bad. As he puts it,
"The general public will almost always stand behind the traditionalists. In the public eye, architecture is about comfort, about shelter, about bricks and mortar..." (A & D)
But... isn't it? He goes on:
"However, for those for whom architecture is not necessarily about comfort and Geborgenheit, but is also about advancing society and its development, the device of shock may be an indispensable tool." (A & D)
This is quite an astonishing confession: aesthetic shock isn't due to observing the harshbuttrue dictates of modernist artistic insight, which is the reason we have usually been given for why we should put up with it. Instead, it is a form of propaganda whose real purpose is its social agenda. But since Tschumi's career, which hasn't exactly been spent designing housing projects, casts doubt on the sincerity of his leftist political agenda, it is more likely that this "progressive" politics is just a prop to add some philosophical fizz to an agenda which is, in the end, empty. The polished civicminded traditionalism of a Robert A.M. Stern or an Elizabeth PlaterZyberk may not point to revolutionary solutions to social ills, but it does point to a solid and familiar set of civic values that are at least real and known to be worth something. Tschumi, for all his terrors, is ultimately a poseur. One would be relieved, except that the buildings are quite real.
On some level, he doesn't deny any of this. He writes that,
"the ultimate pleasure of architecture lies in the most forbidden parts of the architectural act, where limits are perverted and prohibitions are transgressed." (A & D)
In other words, making trouble for its own sake is the whole point. There's nothing really wrong with tradition and there's no good reason to destroy it; it's just really fun to break rules. This is the most astonishing confession of cultural emptiness I have ever read.
Tschumi is reliably infected with the standard European intellectual's patronizing ignorance towards America. He says, for example,
"I feel very comfortable in New York, in a city where there is no such thing as 'nationality'" (GA Document)
As a New Yorker, I take this as an open insult and feel like whupping his ignorant French ass. More specifically in defense of our cultural identity, is there any other country in the world where the kind of architecture New York has would have been built? Is there a Chrysler or an Empire State Building in Paris, Buenos Aires, or Hong Kong? New York is American and could not exist anywhere else. This blithe denial that Americans even have a national identity is, of course, the natural consequence of the modernist's and postmodernists' deliberate failure to pay any attention to any cultural traditions, let alone ours. This is despite the fact that there are more good skyscrapers within walking distance of Central Park than in all of Europe. For Tschumi,
"Cities today have no visible limits. In America, they never had." (A&D)
That a man who lives in Manhattan, riverbounded today as it was 350 years ago when the Dutch owned it, could write this drivel, borders on senility. Residents of other cities can find examples of their own, but the irritating thing about it is the way an abstract a priori concept is allowed to ride roughshod over empirical reality just because it sounds clever. But given that deconstructionist philosophy ultimately teaches that there are no facts, only interpretations, what should we expect? Probably more flying steel ramps that go nowhere. One can only hope this sad, coddled career does.
Note: Bernard Tschumi Architects has a web site at www.tschumi.com that has pictures of his buildings and plans. There's a page about Lerner Hall on a local communitynews site.
Note: Here are excerpts from some of the bad reviews Lerner Hall garnered:
From New York: A Guide To Recent Architecture
"Oh dear. The first American building by Bernard Tschumi has turned out to be a bit of an architectural fiasco. Tschumi's career as dean of the Columbia School of Architecture makes the universal panning of the building all the more painful. The radical building promised by much of his writing turned out to be far more exciting in prose than in reality... What explains the 1980's dentist office glass block, imitation limestone and fake copper? Tschumi's socalled strategy 'a quiet building on the outside and a stimulating building on the inside' seems to have resulted in just the opposite. The confused, pastiched facades never really gel on their own, let alone with each other. The list of inconsistencies and sloppy design details goes on and on, sadly trivializing any revolutionary effect. One can only imagine what Tschumi the theoretician would have said if presented with a model of Lerner Hall by a student."
From The New York Times
"Lerner Hall doesn't reflect an architectural way of thinking. Form, structure, space, image, context, function, symbolism and social intention have not been synthesized into an esthetically persuasive whole. Tschumi has described his approach as cinegraphic. But good movies tend to have a sounder sense of structure a better architecture than we see here. Quite possibly, Tschumi will one day design a building that reveals original thinking about the relationship between buildings and events. At Lerner Hall, however, that glass atrium could symbolize the plight of an architect trapped in an elaborately staged conceit that the day is already here... Lerner Hall's biggest weakness, however, lies with the notion that the use of architectural forms to generate events represents an original contribution to the making of social space."