Contemporary Architecture

BERNARD TSCHUMI – Parc de La Villette

A brief biography:

  • Bernard Tschumi is an architect and educator born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1944.
  • He spent half of his childhood in Lausanne, Switzerland and half in Paris, France due to the fact that his mother was French and his father was Swiss.
  • His father studied architecture in Paris, and at the end of World War II he set up the School of Architecture of the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne.
  • Presently, a permanent United States resident who holds both French and Swiss nationalities, Tschumi studied in Paris and at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, from which he received his degree in 1969.
  • From 1970 to 1979 he taught at the Architectural Association in London.
  • He also taught at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies at New York in 1976 and at Princeton University in 1976 and 1980.
  • From 1981 to 1983 he was visiting professor at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York.
  • He has been Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York from 1988 to 2003.
  • ‘Form follows fiction’ is one example of Bernard Tschumi’s rules of architectonic notation that have made him an internationally influential theorist.
  • He has applied his theories to the problems of cultural and educational institutions, with his approach evident in his successful proposal for the project that catapulted him to prominence, the Parc de la Villette, Paris in 1998.

Awards and Honours:

Tschumi has garnered numerous awards, among them are:

  • the Legion d’Honneur (1986)
  • the Ordre des Arts et Lettres (1998)
  • the French Grand Prix National d’Architecture (1996)
  • the British Royal Victoria Medal (1994)
  • The American Architecture Award (1999).

Advertisements for Architecture, 1976 – 77:

“There is no way to perform architecture in a book. Words and drawings can only produce paper space, not the experience of real space. By definition, paper space is imaginary: it is an image.”

  • Several of Tschumi’s early theoretical texts were illustrated with Advertisements for Architecture, a series of postcard-sized juxtapositions of words and images.
  • Each was a manifesto of sorts, dealing with the dissociation between the immediacy of spatial experience and the analytical definition of theoretical concepts.
  • The function of the Advertisements -reproduced again and again, as opposed to the single architectural piece – was to trigger the desire for something beyond the page itself.
  • When removed from their customary endorsement of commodity values, advertisements are the ultimate magazine form, even if used ironically.
  • The logic presumes that since there are advertisements for architectural products, why not advertisements for the production (and reproduction) of architecture.

Screenplays, 1978:

“The Screenplays are investigations of concepts as well as techniques, proposing simple hypotheses and then testing them out. They explore the relation between events (“the program”) and architectural spaces, on one hand, and transformational devices of a sequential nature, on the other.”

  • The use of film images in these works originated in Tschumi’s interest in sequences and programmatic concerns. (“There is no architecture without action, no architecture without event, no architecture without program.”) Rather than composing fictional events or sequences, it seemed more informative to act upon existing ones.
  • The cinema thus was an obvious source. At the same time, the rich formal and narrative inventions of the only genuine 20th-century art inevitably encouraged parallels with current architectural thought. Flashbacks, crosscutting, jumpcuts, dissolves and other editing devices provided a rich set of analogies to the time and space nature of architecture.
  • Yet the concerns of the Screenplays were essentially architectural. They dealt with issues of:
    • material (generators of form: reality, abstraction, movement, events, etc.)
    • device (disjunction, distortion, repetition, and superimposition)
    • counterpoint (between movement and space, events and spaces, etc.)
    • The Screenplays aimed at developing a contemporary set of architectural tools.

The Manhattan Transcripts, 1976 – 81:

“Architecture is not simply about space and form, but also about event, action, and what happens in space.”

  • The Manhattan Transcripts differ from most architectural drawings insofar as they are neither real projects nor mere fantasies.
  • Developed in the late 1970s, they proposed to transcribe an architectural interpretation of reality. To this aim, they employed a particular structure involving photographs that either directed or witnessed events (some would call them “functions” others “programs”).
  • At the same time, plans, sections, and diagrams outlined spaces and indicated the movements of the different protagonists intruding into the architectural “stage set”.
  • The Transcripts explicit purpose was to transcribe things normally removed from conventional architectural representation, namely the complex relationship between spaces and their use, between the set and the script, between “type” and “program”, between objects and events.
  • The dominant theme of the Transcripts is a set of disjunctions among use, form, and social values, the non-coincidence between meaning and being, movement and space, man and object was the starting condition of the work.
  • Yet the inevitable confrontation of these terms produced effects of far ranging consequence.
  • The Transcripts tried to offer a different reading of architecture in which space, movement and events were independent, yet stood in a new relation to one another, so that the conventional components of architecture were broken down and rebuilt along different axes.

Parc de La Villette, Paris, 1982 – 97:

  • The competition for the Parc de la Villette was organized by the French Government in 1982 as a part of  Les Grands Projets de L’Etat à Pariscommissioned by President Francois Mitterand.
  • Its objectives were both to mark the vision of an era and to act upon the future economic and cultural development of a key area in Paris.
  • Tschumi wanted to test his ideas in competitions with other architects, and he entered the competition for the design of the Parc de le Villette against 470 other designers. Up to this point, he believed his architecture would be purely theoretical. However, he surprised himself and won the competition, the first he ever entered.
  • Despite its name, the park as designated in the competition was not to be a simple landscape replica. On the contrary, the brief for this “Urban Park for the 21st Century” developed a complex program of cultural and entertainment facilities, encompassing, open-air theatres, restaurants and cafes, art galleries, music and video workshops, playgrounds and computer displays, as well as the obligatory gardens where cultural invention, rather than natural recreation was encouraged.
  • The object of the competition was to select a chief architect who would oversee the master plan and build the “structuring elements” of the park. Artists, landscape designers, and other architects were to contribute a variety of gardens or buildings for the project.

History of the site:

  • First, it was the former site of a slaughter house that employed more than 3,000 people.
  • Second, two canals run through the site. The Ourcq canal supplied water to the city of Paris and the St. Denis canal was used to transport cargo and freight.

Design Requirements :

  • Parc de la Villette’s design is the opposite of the 19th century “park in the city” that Frederick Law Olmstead championed, because the residents of a modern 21st century city are different from their 19th century counterparts, their parks should also be different.
  • The idea of a city park as a naturalistic representation in the heart of the city does not necessarily satisfy the various needs of current city dwellers.
  • Parisian city parks no longer serve as communal areas. Instead, they are used mostly by children and the elderly, and function as the meeting place the town square once provided.
  • Paris is no longer organized around a traditional center but spreads out into the suburbs, causing the central focus to be diffused.

Our starting point is ideas or concepts, and the ways in which concepts relate to other disciplines and to different modes of thought. Architecture is not knowledge of form, but rather a form of knowledge. In other words, whenever we start to do something as architects we need to ask ourselves what architecture is. Architecture is not a pre-given thing. We architects always think that we define spaces by using walls, but “to define” also means to provide a definition or meaning. As architects, we need to constantly define and redefine what architecture is.

About the building:

  • The park is located on one of the last remaining large sites in Paris, a 125 acre expanse situated in the north-east corner of the city, between the Metro stations Porte de Pantin and Porte de la Villette.
  • Over 1 kilometer long in one direction and 700 meters wide in the other La Villette appears as a multiple programmatic field, containing in addition to the park, the large Museum of Science and Industry, a City of Music, a Grande Halle for exhibitions and a rock concert hall.
  • The park scheme was selected over 471 other entries in a two-stage competition and built over a period of almost fifteen years.


  • The basis of the design is the superimposition of three independent systems, namely:
    • Points
    • Lines
    • Surfaces

1. Points

  • The folies are placed according to a point-grid coordinate system at 120 meter intervals throughout the park. The form of each is a basic 10 x 10 x 10 meter cube or three-story construction of neutral space that can be transformed and elaborated according to specific programmatic needs. Taken as a whole, the folies provide a common denominator for all of the events generated by the park program.
  • The repetition of folies is aimed at developing a clear symbol for the park, a recognizable identity as strong as the British public telephone booth or the Paris Metro gates.
  • Their grid provides a comprehensive image or shape for the otherwise ill-defined terrain. Similarly, the regularity of routes and positions makes orientation simple for those unfamiliar with the area. An advantage of the point-grid system is that it provides for the minimum adequate equipment of the urban park relative to the number of its visitors.

2. Lines

  • The folie grid is related to a larger coordinate structure, an orthogonal system of high-density pedestrian movement that marks the site with a cross.
  • The North-South passage or Coordinate links the two Paris gates and subway stations of Porte de la Villette and Porte de Pantin, the East-West Coordinate joins Paris to its western suburbs.
  • A 5 meter wide, open, waved covered structure runs the length of both Coordinates.
  • Also, organised along the Coordinates so as to facilitate and encourage access are folies designated for the most frequented locations and activities, including the City of Music, cafes and restaurants, children’s playgrounds, the first aid center, and music performances.

3. Surfaces

  • The park surfaces receive all activities requiring large expanses of horizontal space for play, sports and exercise, mass-entertainment, markets and so forth.
  • During summer nights, for example, the central green becomes an open air film theater for 3,000 viewers. The so called left over surfaces where all aspects of the program have been fulfilled, are composed of compacted earth and gravel.

“To achieve architecture without resorting to design is an ambition often in the minds of those who go through the unbelievable effort of putting together buildings.”

“Architecture is not about creating a static envelope. In other words, the building is always about movement in space.”

In many ways I prefer the images of Lerner with people because they show what the building is for.

One day, a dance company decided to use the building for a performance. People were sitting outside the building and looking into the spectacle on the ramps. They had understood the building.

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