On the Ontology of Events: A Conversation with Bernard Tschumi

Copyright Peter Macapia


The radical nature of Bernard Tschumi’s architecture has an important connection not only to the problem of architecture in the 21st century (the function of envelope-as-event), but also the Western philosophical tradition and the problem of ontology. First, Tschumi’s architecture reconstitutes the ontology of architecture around the problem of program and event rather than the problem of form, an ontology that Delueze discovered in the ancient Stoics and their interest in limits, mixtures, time, space, and events — those things (aliquid) that could not be called objects proper, but that were nonetheless material constitutions, un materialism de l’incorporel, as Foucault would say (cf. “Panopticism”). Thus Tschumi’s work dispenses with the formal expression of traditional composition and aims instead toward the event-status of functions (in the mathematical sense of that term) such as movement and disjunction.

Second, in terms of strategy, Tschumi’s development of the diagram has enabled advanced architecture to proceed as a function of material and performative effects rather than pictorial ones typically associated with form. In a structural sense, the ontological status of events and the diagram are deeply connected to the problem of the general and the specific, that is, law and event, meaning and use. The ontological and diagrammatic aspects of Tschumi’s work are, on the one hand, generous in their open-endedness, general in their configuration, and somewhat generic in their selection of materials (“general” is of course linked to genus – origin - hence, ontology). On the other hand, they emerge as architecture through a specificity of events that, in certain ways, the “general” is unable to predict (“specific” is of course related to “species” and the Latin specere, that which can be perceived).

Thus one finds in Tschumi’s architecture a specificity that enables us to rethink the general classical categories of architecture, categories such as envelope, form, site, and of course, program. To be sure, these issues go back to the very foundation of the Western philosophical tradition. Aristotle’s Categories, a summation of the relation between the general and the specific, served as the starting point for his ontology, existence as being, as well as his Metaphysics, the science of being. But within the Metaphysics Aristotle posed the central problem that would later preoccupy the Stoics and, almost two millennia later, contemporary philosophers such as Delueze, that is, the problem of events. There can be no science, Aristotle claimed, of the accidental. There can only be a science of that which is continuous, not disjunctive. In contrast, the Stoics argued that ontology begins not with being, but rather with what they called ?? (or aliquid in Latin, or something in English/quelques choses in French) and this “something,” they argued, is not immaterial, but rather incorporeal. The first order of existence, they argued, begins with matter, events (states of affairs), and their expressions (lekta) – not, contra Plato, Form. 2

PM: Let’s start with a current project, the New Acropolis Museum. The site, of course, is extraordinary. It stands next to Parthenon on the Acropolis, which is a founding symbol not only for Western ideologies of society but also Western ontological concepts of architecture. But the Parthenon also has something programmatically very specific about it, something quite rich: it is the first monumental project in which the Greeks, here the Athenians, represented themselves in a sculptural program traditionally reserved for Heroes and Gods, and represented them at the moment as they pass through the site during the Panathaneic procession.

But there is more. After numerous failed attempts by archaeologists and architects to discover some symmetrical organization for the Acropolis, Auguste Choisy, in the late 19th century, determined that in fact there was no symmetry to the site. He discovered that it was asymmetrical and that the asymmetry — which, like the frieze of the Panathaneic procession was equally unusual for ancient monumental architecture — was in fact part of adesign strategy to mobilize the spectator across the site through oblique vectors.

Both conditions, the asymmetry of the site and the content of the frieze, have to do with circulation and event, functions of a design process that appear in much of your work, and which have become in the last decade elements of radical design concepts through the diagram. Can you talk about the specificity of circulation?

(Illustration: Auguste Choisy, perspective and diagram of Erechthion, from Histoire de l’architecture, Paris, 1899)


Well, like any museum, the New Acropolis Museum has as a particularity, movement. It is about a flow, it is about a circuit through the museum. Hence, inevitably, ideals with issues of sequence, of narrative, of coIt plays with time and space simultaneously. It is something that you see in a number of museums throughout history. Of course it culminates at the top with the Parthenon marble sequence, which, after all, was already in the original Parthenon a narrative. So we re-constitute a way to view the narrative as you go around in a continuous walk visualizing . . .

(illustration: Bernard Tschumi Architects, New Acropolis Museum)

And I was quite fascinated by this problem of narrative and sequence when I discovered it again at the beginning of my early conceptual work. One of the very early pieces I did in the late seventies, Manhattan Transcripts, was a 32’ long drawing that you could only view by walking along side it — in other words engaging your body, reading in the perception. Now, this process of walking while viewing is repeated of course in the Parthenmarble and is recreated as the culmination of the narrative sequence in the New Acropolis Museum. That’s one dimension of it. The other is directly related to the site-ing, or setting of the Museum. In other words, the Museum has to have a condition from above and a condition from below. The one from above has to do with the relation to the Acropolis and the Parthenon. The one from below has to do with the archaeological finds from another era. And the building is in a sense hovering in between with three parts that deal with the middle, below, and top conditions. And this is what makes the characteristic of the museum. After that, the geometry of each of those three parts is very much related to programmatic or zoning constraints. In other words, it becomes fairly straightforward. It is, as usual with what I do, 3

not a formal exercise. It is simply a result of the conditions we’ve set up at the beginning of the project.

(Illustration: Bernard Tschumi, Manhattan Transcripts, 1981)

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October 25, 2008 - 11:03 PM