The exhibition Bernard Tschumi: Concept and Notation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is the first major European retrospective of the professional, pedagogical, and theoretical work of Bernard Tschumi. Curated by Frédéric Migayrou and Aurélien Lemonier and running from April 30 to July 28, 2014, it presents forty-five projects through a collection of over 350 drawings, sketches, collages, and models.1 A richly illustrated and commented catalog, containing curators’ and architects’ essays, as well as an interview with and selections of early theoretical texts by Tschumi, accompanies the exhibition.2 This retrospective continues the Centre Pompidou's interest in assessing the works of architects who emerged as major representatives of the post-1968 generation, such as Renzo Piano (2000), Jean Nouvel (2001), Morphosis (2006), Richard Rogers (2007), and Dominique Perrault (2008). The difference between the Tschumi retrospective and its predecessors, especially the last two, is quite marked. This exhibition feels much less corporate, clearly highlighting Tschumi’s more intellectual approach. This difference can be seen in three distinct ways.
The first has to do with the exhibition design and its relation to the space. At first glance, the Centre Pompidou’s South Gallery seems too big for the exhibition’s contents, especially when compared to the greater density of prior architectural retrospectives. Yet Bernard Tschumi Architects’ pared-down exhibition design makes a virtue of this spatial paradox. MDF exhibition panels supported on pipe scaffolding structures enclose five intimate pods organized in a suggested circuit (Figure 1) around a central space equipped with modest seating gathered around three video screens (Figure 2). Seventeen cubic boxes painted Tschumi’s signature red and five black model tables punctuate the generous in-between spaces. The overall experience combines immersion in pods featuring built, unbuilt, and academic projects with wandering through the interstitial spaces to linger at the cases and tables, focused on multidisciplinary references and strategies (Figure 3), or to pause in the central space to watch videos featuring the architect and his work. This organization creates a range of densities of visual and textual information. Alternating compression and release allows moments of both intensity and respite, making the experience digestible for visitors.
Beyond its handling of scale, the organization of the exhibit strategically picks up on the situation of the gallery in relation to the city. The path through the pods begins in a more internalized and saturated space, gradually acceding to open spaces that have a more direct relationship to the urban sphere. An entry vestibule features an introductory video and display cases presenting the architect’s background and formative events (“1968 and the City”). The gallery’s red-painted north wall leads into the exhibition (Figure 4). It focuses on Tschumi’s early theoretical works, most notably the Manhattan Transcripts (1976–1981) As one advances, the exhibit gradually opens up onto the city. Organized thematically, the pods present a wide range of projects, including Parc de la Villette (1982–1998), Columbia’s paperless studio, and the redesign of the Paris Zoo (2009–2014). Situated in an enclosed part of the gallery, the first pod is dedicated to the themes of Space and Event. Its internalized configuration constrains the visitor to a circular path. Natural light and exterior views play an increasingly important role as one passes diagonally through the second pod, dedicated to “Program, Juxtaposition and Superposition.” The third pod, focused on “Vectors and Envelopes,” is the most fluid in its organization. Bathed in natural light, its panels parallel the exterior plaza’s pedestrian flows (Figure 5). Dedicated to “Concept, Context and Content,” the fourth pod again directs the visitor’s movement diagonally, this time along a more enclosed edge. A final, more internalized pod addressing “Concept-Forms” ends the sequence, returning the visitor to a circular path. Differentiated degrees of enclosure and openness create shifting patterns of movement and speeds of passage, giving a varied rhythm to the exhibit visit that recalls the cinematic promenade of the Parc de la Villette.
This shifting experience opens onto the city through the full-height window walls that enclose the gallery on three sides, giving direct visual and aural access to the contiguous plaza of the Stravinsky Fountain (Nicki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, 1983). Sight lines created within and between the pods lead to views juxtaposing interior and exterior objects and events (Figure 6). The plaza’s sights and sounds animate the gallery. This condition echoes Tschumi’s familiar preoccupation with the juxtaposition of movement and event. Conceptual diagrams of key projects pasted onto the gallery’s windows further highlight the gesture’s intentionality. Interior and exterior are mediated as the glass walls become transparent exhibit panels. This strategy clearly situates Tschumi and the Centre Pompidou itself in a shared temporality and intellectual heritage. The legacy of Cedric Price, in particular the Fun Palace project (1961–1964), is key to both. Price’s work not only was crucial to the inception of Piano and Rogers’ Centre Pompidou project but also inspired the Tschumi’s ETH thesis project (1969). This shared inspiration may explain why this exhibition feels so at home at the Pompidou.
The second characteristic underscoring Tschumi’s intellectual positioning is the centrality of reflective thought, the spoken word, and the demonstration of ideas. The educator in Bernard Tschumi is clearly at work in the organization of contents with five levels of information. The datum of the red wall introduces the sources and origins of his thought. The pods, which can be interpreted as Tschumi’s “Five Lessons on Architecture,” establish links between concept, process, and creation. The red boxes and black tables highlight featured strategies and sources, moving in and out of focus in relation to the viewer’s position. The videos focus gathering spaces and give voice to Tschumi’s thinking. The window diagrams connect the exhibition to the city, animating the experience of the exhibition.
The exhibition pods are themselves didactic, in both construction and content. Their legible kit-of-parts assembly system, again recalling Price’s work, underpins the demonstration of constructed thought. Tschumi organizes the pod displays around questions that challenge fundamental preconceptions in architecture, such as, “Can practice follow theory?” “Can architecture be achieved without resorting to design?” or “Could ... constraints be turned into a concept?”3 Throughout the exhibition, he rethinks these essential architectural notions through the prism of program, which must be understood here as the combination of space, event, and movement.
This foregrounding of didactic praxis reveals a third important characteristic of Tschumi’s theoretical/critical approach: process is at the heart of both the exhibition and its contents. Indeed, the retrospective is organized around the primary ideas of concept and notation—ideas that, for Tschumi, are guiding precepts: “there is no architecture without an idea or concept, just as there is no architecture without a method of notation to express its content. Architecture is not a study of form, but rather a form of knowledge.”4 Notation is thus understood as an essential tool for materializing an architectural concept. This position is not grounded in a predetermined aesthetic, but rather in one in which the result is far less predictable.
This anchors the experience of the exhibition itself, conceived as a process. Multiple narratives, found in both written and oral content, come into play. In the wall text, the curators’ explanatory and documentary voice alternates with Tschumi’s questioning and declarative voice. The three central video screens simultaneously project different films and interviews about the architect’s work, adding a multilayered narrative voice. Only the visitors’ own reflexive processes can integrate the dialogue of these many voices. The visitor’s experience of the exhibition is thus itself structured as a process of discovery and reflection. What appears casual or dispersed at first glance becomes increasingly coherent as one advances or retraces one’s steps, repeatedly repositioning oneself in the gallery space. The tie that binds is revealed in time, through movement and experience.
The Centre Pompidou’s Tschumi retrospective gives hope to those who want to believe that critical thinking could actually matter to architecture. The exhibition permits visitors to effect a displacement of the notion of architecture from being a product to being a process. This displacement moves beyond binary oppositions, opening up toward mediated thought anchored in the combination of savoir, savoir-faire, and savoir-être (knowledge, know-how, knowing how to be). This strategy is demonstrated by the incremental way in which the retrospective reveals its internal coherence not only in its dialogue with the Centre Pompidou and its context but also in its physical organization and contents. Architecture is, as Bernard Tschumi shows us here, fundamentally rooted in critical thinking as a lived process.