Bernard Tschumi: Architecture as a form of knowledge

By  Staff Writer

Identity – at once as simple as the name of an individual and as complex as the thought processes behind their leanings, through which they are recognized. Often one’s leanings help form the ideology that bleeds into their work, and if honed meticulously, give way to the development of a personalized style.

This was also the case with Bernard Tschumi. A dual national (France and Switzerland) born in 1944 to Jean Tschumi, a well-established architect himself, young Bernard was never much interested in architecture until the age of 17 when he had a chance to visit Chicago, one of the “Great American Cities” in his own words. The experience molded his perspective of a what a city can be and the inspired teenager went on to pursue architecture in Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.


Bernard Tschumi in 2004. Image source: Interview for the Intercontinental Curatorial Project


Tschumi started his architectural career as a theorist and academician after he had graduated in 1969. His writings and sketches were influenced by two major French philosophers of the time, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault – while Barthes thoughts were to appropriate popular culture in order to re-purpose it, Foucault saw history as a storehouse of ideas and believed that questioning the dominant existing ideas in institutions leads to discoveries. The ideologies of Barthes and Foucault influenced him such a way, that he went on to create works that were considered as the extensions of the thoughts from the philosophers themselves.

Tschumi was an ardent lover of literature and films since his teenage years, even before he got into architecture. Another one of his influences was Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian Film theorist, also known as “Father of Montage”. Tschumi’s realizations of the “Kuleshov effect” used in Sergei’s films are observed in his work, “Screenplay”, through which he investigated scenes and abstracted them into his architectural concepts – sketching and testing simple hypotheses.

“Screenplay” – Abstracting scenes into concepts. Image source:


Tschumi’s name is often considered synonymous with deconstruction. Considered one of the pioneers in the concept of “Deconstruction in Architecture”, Tschumi’s ideologies coincided with that of Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s famed writings about the theory of “Deconstruction” dwelled upon is the concept of dismantling excessive loyalty to any idea, new or old, and learning to see aspects of truth buried in its opposition. Tschumi sought the opinions and ideas of Derrida, while he prepared his design proposal for his well-known project Parc de la Villette, which was a competition project that Tschumi won hands down.


One of the many bright red architectural “follies” at the Parc de la Villette. Photo by Lauren Manning


Bernard Tschumi envisioned the Parc de la Villette as a space that exists in an ontological vacuum, without historical precedent nor any semblance of reference. The park embodies “anti-tourism”, disallowing visitors to breeze through the site and pick and choose the sites they want to see – upon arrival, visitors are thrust into a world that is not defined by conventional architectural relationships. The frame of the park, due to its roots in deconstructivism, tries to “change and react to the functions that it holds within” with Tschumi’s strategically placed architectural “follies” dispersed throughout the park in strong red monotones.


Deconstruction and evolution of the different follies. Image source: FRAC-Centre


In fact, the use of the colour red for his follies as a political statement may have carried forward from his representations of these objects in his drawings. Apparently, when asked “Well these objects read distinctly in your drawing only because they are red, but would they be really read so clearly in real context?” and it was perhaps just a matter of Tschumi saying “Yes, they will be red”. The colour red may also be associated with the history of the site as a slaughter house.


“Architecture is not so much a knowledge of form, but a form of knowledge.”


Another one of his notable projects is the “Acropolis Museum”, which was also incidentally a competition project, that got off to a rather unfortunate start – the news that he had won the competition and his project had been selected for construction reached his New York office on September 11, 2001.

The project itself faced a lot of opposition before it was realized on an excavation site in Athens in 2009 beside the legendary Parthenon. His concepts of reinterpreted juxtaposition and superimposition came to life in the galleries of this respected work of architecture.


Rendering of how the museum fits on site. Image source:

The Acropolis Museum completed. Image source:


In 2012, Tschumi authored an autobiography that covered his theory and practice related work in architecture, titled “Red is not a Colour”. The book featured his works from “The Manhattan Transcripts” till the Acropolis museum, his selected works, concepts, understandings and applications that had been narrated in such a way that it is not necessary to be an architect or a student of architecture to understand it. The book has been acclaimed by critics and described as part architectural theory and part personal story.


Tschumi has been in the field of architecture for almost half a century and celebrates his 74th birthday on the 25th of January.



Header image source: Le Temps

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