Situated in north-east Paris in the 19ème arrondissement, Parc de la Villette was built during the 1980's to redevelop an area of the city once used as an abattoir. As a collaboration between architect and philosopher, it was one of the first examples of a genre that would influence both architectural education and cutting edge practice throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
'To achieve architecture without resorting to design is an ambition often in the minds of those who go through the incredible effort of putting together buildings. Behind this objective is the desire to achieve the obvious clarity of the inevitable; a structure in which the concept becomes architecture itself. In this approach there is no need to design ‘new' abstract shapes or historically grounded forms...according to ones ideological allegiance. Here the idea or concept would result in all the architectural, social, or urbanistic effects one could dream of without reliance on proportion, style, or aesthetics. Instead of designing seductive shapes or forms, one would posit an axiom or principle from which everything would derive.'
This statement by French architect Bernard Tschumi, is both the essence of his architectural quest, and a bridge between present day contemporary theory and its predecessor - poststructuralism. We’ll begin this node by examining the essence of his ideology and then look at how this became the design rational behind one of Paris’ grande projet.
architecture without resorting to design...
A singular obsession can be read between the lines of Bernard Tschumi's work since the publication of 'The Manhattan Transcripts' and the later 'Architecture and Disjunction'. His search for the almost indefinable 'in-between' or interstitial existence was the beginning of architecture's intellectual cross fertilisation with poststructuralist philosophy.
The previous structuralist manifesto of a world consisting of signs and its concept of 'signifier' / 'signified', was accused of being too rigid and ignorant of time or place. In poststructuralism the notion of these binary oppositions - such as up/down, male/female or alive/dead - are challenged in an attempt to break down accepted hierarchies.
One of the most important figures in this movement was Jaques Derrida. His written disassembly of structuralist work, such as that by Claude Levi-Strauss, became known as 'deconstruction'. Here his connection with Tschumi begins in their work together for Parc de la Villette.
Our aims were to displace the traditional opposition between program and architecture, and to extend questioning of other architectural conventions through operations of superimposition, permutation, and substitution to achieve "a reversal of the classical oppositions and a general displacement of the system," as Jaques Derrida has written, in another context, in 'Marges'. (Tschumi, 1996)
Parc de la Villette consisted of the collision/superimposition of three separate programs - 'system of points', 'system of lines' and 'system of surfaces'. Their pre-collision exclusivity is an expression of the notion of working 'within' a preconceived order and the production of a flat hierarchy. The superimposition is then administered arbitrarily and any form of controlled composition is avoided. The Parc expresses two vital parts of the Tschumi/Derrida technique or 'pharmakon': That of the creation of an unpredictable 'event' at the point of superimposition, derived from the critique/construction occurring 'in between' the texts/programs; and (as already seen in the opening quote) the desire for complete objectivity during the creative act.
Although each is determined by the architect as 'subject', when one system is superimposed on another, the subject - the architect - is erased. (Tschumi, 1996)
Two further Tschumi projects demonstrate his desire to erase his subjective persona from his architecture. The glass video gallery at Groningen in the Netherlands, and Le Fresnoy, the Centre for Art and Media at Tourcoing in France. Le Fresnoy, a re-inhabitation of an old school building, is perhaps the complete distillation of all Tschumi's desires into one project. The combination of the old and new programs producing the most physical manifestation of his quest for 'interstitial' or 'event' space. The placing of the roof plane over the existing buildings generates a new circulation space between the two.
How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone's ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognizable as mine seem to me a cage that restricts my possibilities. If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes... (Calvino 1981)
visiting Parc de la Villette...
Get there by taking the metro to Porte de Pantin or Porte de Villette. If you’re in Paris during the summer, all the better, the park comes to life when the sun is shining. The structure of surfaces, lines and points laid out by Tschumi is inhabited by numerous spaces designed with different themes. Look for the bamboo garden for some sensory delight and try not to be too disappointed by the discovery that the aural treats are just recordings.
Other things to look for include the chairs by Phillipe Starck and the huge pop art sculptures by Claes Oldenburg.
Stand in the spaces born from the superimposition. Can you feel the infinite possibilities of stylistic objectivity stretching out in front of you? You’re deep in the in between.
(1) Tschumi, Bernard (1996) Architecture and Disjunction , MIT Press.
(2) Calvino, Italo. (1981) If on a winter's night a traveller , Minerva.