Summer has arrived in Paris and, with it, Bernard Tschumi with a triple foray. The Franco-Helvetian New Yorker has reworked the Paris Zoological Park—it opened to the public in mid-April—with characteristic themes of constructed terrain, artifice vs. nature, framing, and a sophisticated sense of viewing (from parkland prospects to the cinematic close-up). An hour or so south of Paris, FRAC Orléans, one of France’s sharpest regional art centers, is exhibiting works from its architecture collection selected by Tschumi, an architect whose career is of course interwoven with design avant-gardes from the 1960s to today. Then, on April 28, the Centre Pompidou inaugurated a major Tschumi retrospective, the ultimate mark of approval for any architect working in the French capital. Titled simply Bernard Tschumi, the retrospective stretches from the Manhattan Transcripts of the late 1970s up to the zoo, now a mere few weeks in operation. It’s an oeuvre still able to beguile and provoke reaction.
Curated by Frédéric Migayrou, Bernard Tschumi occupies the Pompidou’s South Gallery, one floor up from the main entrance. Being sited to one side of the museums’ primary circulation pattern may lose some visitors in search of the Pompidou’s greatest hits or, at the moment, masterworks by Henri Cartier-Bresson. A big plus, however, is that this dedicated gallery has walls of floor-to-ceiling glass on three of its four sides and is, due to the Pompidou’s depressed entry plaza, surprisingly at the same elevation as adjacent streets and the small plaza with its kinetic fountain sculptures by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. Tschumi has always been interested in urban life and, let’s say, the democracy of chance occurrence; if he has long stressed the vital role of the event in architecture, his own formation was inevitably informed by the “événements,” the Paris street protests of May 1968. Now in 2014, built and unbuilt proposals from four decades are visible to casual passers-by.
Courtesy bernard tschumi architects
How does the show look? Surprisingly straightforward in a world of exhibition as spectacle. Five booths—informal pavilions made from scaffolding—orbit about the column-free space. Each is allocated to a key aspect of Tschumi’s oeuvre: Space and Event, Program and Superposition, Vectors and Envelopes, Context and Content, and Concept-Forms. The gallery’s one opaque wall is painted signature red and makes a dramatic backdrop for early exploratory works on paper. The role of “concept” and “notation” is frequently restated. Then, interspersed on a casual grid across the gallery floor, more than a dozen red cubic boxes house ephemera that contextualize Tschumi’s interests, tactics (one is dedicated to games and other ludic devices), and the cultural milieu in which his work has evolved. This mise-en-scène is not unlike a small village with no single, specific route between pavilions: the networked pack donkey’s way, perhaps, as opposed to the old absolutism of Le Corbusier’s right angle.
It’s a pleasure is to encounter Tschumi’s early drawings and noir-tinged montages. As in Joyce’s Garden (1976), where constructed space and evidence of activity seem to fuse, there are echoes of modernism but also of the classic, of volumes, albeit fractured, as solid and void. Old favorites—sleek Kansai Airport (1988), the superstructure for Beijing’s Factory 798 (2004)—still turn heads. Visitors can take a metro to La Villette and compare Tschumi’s bravura proposal (1982), inevitably a star turn at the Pompidou, with the park constructed on that former abattoir site. Today the famous red follies (cubes, cylinders, and diagonal elements) may need a little TLC, but the space between these elements is animated with activity. Across town and separated by three decades of practice, Tschumi’s renovation of the zoo in Vincennes interweaves visitor and animal zones, the ground sculpted into a choreographed viewing sequence. You may well wonder who is viewing and who is being viewed.
Tschumi’s title in Orléans, Chronomanifestes, suggests both time as era and time as sequence, and manifest as both something perceptible and a manifesto or, more prosaically, a manual. His selection ranges from Yona Friedman and Rem Koolhaas/ OMA (interesting how two hip Europeans, Koolhaas and Tschumi, focused on Manhattan in the era of Abe Beame) and, fast-forwarding to Columbia in this our digital age, Asymptote and Xefirotarch. Back at the Pompidou, the curators do not overdo the didactics. In fact, the quintet of themes is almost identical to the structure of Tschumi’s 2012 monograph, Architectural Concepts: Red is Not a Color. If several evocative schemes work off existing built fabric (the zoo; Factory 798; Le Fresnoy), Tschumi reveals how in certain situations and with certain programs he may now revert to form as a starting point. Thus such newer projects as the Alésia Museum in Burgundy or the curiously named Carnal Dome near Tschumi’s birthplace in Switzerland.
Overlooking Lake Geneva, Le Corbusier’s house for his mother is a near neighbor to the remarkable Nestlé headquarters designed by Jean Tschumi, Bernard’s father, in the late 1950s. Tschumi fils’ critique of modernism has taken apart the Apollonian or Purist notion of architecture as frozen music (what, he might well ask, does frozen music contribute in the 21st century?). Nevertheless it’s impossible to fully evade history. To one side of the Pompidou gallery, Tschumi exhibits a sketch by his father. Dated 1937, it depicts a vast underground void, a Pantheon-like yet mechanistic womb to accommodate fluid traffic flow, envisaged for a notional site at Châtelet, a stone’s throw from the Pompidou’s South Gallery. Taken together, Bernard Tschumi at the Pompidou, the resurrected zoo at Vincennes, and Chronomanifestes at FRAC Orléans present an architect repeatedly replenished in Paris, for so long the capital of modernity.