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Monday, November 07, 2011

Book Review: Supercrit #4

Supercrit #4: Bernard Tschumi, Parc de la Villette edited by Samantha Hardingham and Kester Rattenbury
Routledge, 2011
Paperback, 120 pages

In the summer of 1988 the Museum of Modern Art presented the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition (PDF link), curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. Coming over 50 years after Johnson's influential International Style exhibition also at MoMA, the show collected seven architects -- Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, Coop Himmelb(l)au -- who "share striking formal similarities," notably "twisted volumes, warped planes, and clashed lines." Now all household names, in 1988 they had built very little. Of the group Frank Gehry had completed the most buildings, followed by Koolhaas (Netherlands Dance Theater, 1987), and Coop Himmelb(l)au (Rooftop Remodeling, 1988). The rest could easily be lumped together as "paper architects," whose work remained on paper either by choice or circumstance, but coming five years after the competition for Parc de la Villette, Bernard Tschumi leaped into the world of built architecture, creating one of deconstructivist architecture's most important expressions on 125 acres in northeast Paris.

[Drawing courtesy Bernard Tschumi Architects]

Tschumi's design for Parc de la Villette is well known, so I won't go into too much detail here, but it is basically comprised of three systems: points, lines, planes. Respectively these are comprised of bright red folies, paths throughout the park, and surfaces for sports and other uses. The first, the deconstructed Constructive-esque folies, tend to be the focus of the park, how it is seen or presented, but the third, the surfaces, could be seen as the most important aspect of the design. While the three overlays create an overall design, the surfaces relate most to the use of the park; open-ended, they await people to activate them in just about any way. They stem from Tschumi's investigations into the relationship between use, or function, and architecture, most eloquently seen in The Manhattan Transcripts. The folies follow from this open-ended approach, but it is the spaces between the points that embrace any sort of activity, be it soccer, sunning, or a concert, such as in the photo at the bottom of this post.

[Drawing courtesy Bernard Tschumi Architects]

A full 22 years after winning the competition, Tshumi presented the Parc de la Villette project at the University of Westminster as part of the Supercrit series, which "bring some of the world’s most influential architects back to architecture school to debate their most famous projects with a panel of international critics, students and the public." Crits are fairly common in architecture school, and a weird source of pride for students and professional that have experience them, but surprisingly Tschumi starts this one by asserting that he never partook in a crit as a student. At ETH in Zurich, students would pin up their work in a room by their deadline and then receive a grade from the professors three days later. But for the Supercrit #4, Tschumi debated his project with Peter Cook, Bruce McLean, Nigel Coates, Carlos Villaneuva Brandt, Murray Fraser, moderator Paul Finch, and a roomfull of students.

[Photo copyright Peter Mauss/Esto | Courtesy Bernard Tschumi Architects]

But debate might be a strong term, as the proceedings are heavy on praise and pretty weak on critique. This stems from a few things: the project is a very influential one that strongly merges theory and form in a fairly diffuse public space, so it might be more difficult to find something to critique than, say, an iconic building like the Pompidou (of Supercrit #3); the panel was made up of people that participated in some way in the creation of the park, be it directly or by indirectly, such as influencing Tschumi's ideas; and, as Kester Rattenbury asserts in a review of the crit, "the arguments I might have wished debated were, indeed, set out by Tschumi himself." Regardless the slim volume that transcribes the Supercrit is valuable for the candid insights it gives into Tschumi's design, influences, and process of making the park a reality. And even though it is modeled on an architecture school crit, the proceedings are fairly laid-back and conversational, unlike real ones I've experienced.

[Photo by Xavier Bouchart | Courtesy Bernard Tschumi Architects]

Ultimately, the book is a worthy document that comes (five years after the Supercrit) at a time when icons of formal exuberance still grab the headlines. While each of Tschumi's folies can be seen as formal experimentation writ in red, the overall Parc de la Villette is a place of experience, such that iconic traits fail to apply. Primarily, as Rattenbury also points out, the park is difficult to encapsulate in photographs. Tschumi's design may be influential to the architects producing today's icons, and he may be producing a few of those himself, but there is still something appealing about the way the park synthesizes the three overlaid geometries into a place that not only hosts activities but lets the visitor dictate what those are. That is something quite democratic and public, things we need more of these days.

[Photo by Sophie Chivet | Courtesy Bernard Tschumi Architects]

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