Bernard Tschumi, “The Architectural Paradox,” 1975.
As we’ve seen before, the 20th century is marked by the discovery of Space as an architectural product and by the burden of developing and defining that product. According to Tschumi, the struggles over Space arise from an unrecognized division in Space’s definition: space the concept is not the same as space the perceived, delineated reality. Parallel to this, and in a way because of this, is the mid-century “dematerialization of architecture,” when theory, writing and drawing replaced architecture as the media of architectural thought. Thus Tschumi marks a relatively neat division in architecture thought unfolding across the 20th century: conceptual and perceptual, analogous to Georges Bataille’s “Pyramid” and “Labyrinth.” Together they mark the paradox of architecture—mutually exclusive and inseparable, working in tandem to drive architectural evolution.
The distinction of two different definitions of Space is Tschumi’s central observation. Between architecture, art and science there was no clarity on which was actually being discussed, and subsequent confusion arose from semantic ambiguity. Nevertheless, the distinction between space the concept and space the reality managed to have drastic effects on architectural thought in the twentieth century.
In one line space the abstract concept has its parallel in abstract, theory-driven conceptual architecture. Tschumi: “The renewed importance given to conceptual aims in architecture quickly became established. The medium used for the communication of concepts became architecture; information was architecture; the attitude was architecture; the written program or brief was architecture; gossip was architecture; production was architecture; and inevitable, the architect was architecture. Escaping the predictable ideological compromises of building, the architect could finally achieve the sensual satisfaction that the making of material objects no longer provided.” Tschumi dubs this rise of conceptual ends in architecture—and alternative means of finding those ends—the “dematerialization of architecture,” an alternative name for the trend Hays initially described as the “rise of theory.”
The specific quandaries of this architecture are already familiar to us—disciplinary and existential autonomy, content v. form, critical architecture, architecture as a self-reflexive language—and are summarized by Tschumi: “Can a piece of architecture question the nature of architecture?” “Is there an architectural essence, a being that transcends social, political, and economic systems?” In the process architecture turned to structural linguistics (see my review of that nonsense) and managed to incorporate the Hegelian definition of architecture as “artistic supplement” to building, combined with the now familiar definitions of ‘architecture as representation’ and ‘architecture as the language of itself.’
Taking from George Bataille (the force behind Hollier’s “Architectural Metaphors”), Tschumi introduces the Pyramid and Labyrinth references, with the Pyramid representing abstract conceptual knowledge, therefore the architecture of concepts. With the Pyramid comes the Labyrinth, which is coordinated to represent the alternative line in architectural history: space as real, perceived, delineated volume within an envelope. The Labyrinth is the problem of perceiving the architectural object. Whereas the Pyramid is the abstract conceptual architectural object—sometimes built, sometimes purely concept manifest in drawings or writing—the Labyrinth is our limited experience of space.
Because our perception of real, built space is limited, this line of architectural (and artistic) thought is drawn by two questions: First, how does our perception of space, especially interior space, relate to the object as a whole? This more or less sums up the entire paradox being discussed, the difference between the object—rife with meaning, architectural language, signs, representations, &c.—and our perception of the object—incomplete, biased, narrow.
An effort at combining conceptual architecture (Pyramid) and real space (Labyrinth) is clarified in the second question Tschumi addresses: can space itself be a medium of theory? In this way the unfolding of space is coordinated to its meaning in an experiential way, but again begins to separate the perceiver from the object as a conceived whole. This is ultimately the paradox of architecture, which Tschumi sees as naturally being both conceptual and perceptual: ‘Architecture is the reality of experience, while this gets in the way of the overall vision. But architecture also constitutes abstraction, which gets in the way of experience.’ Tschumi believes that either of these agendas without the other leaves architecture “in silence;” only in tandem can they drive architecture forward.
Hays’s narration tells us more—as is, of course, his role as mediator—and for the sake of information I’m going to include his commentary here. Hays draws a connection to Althusser (noted Post Structuralist and Marxist familiar from the work of Gandelsonas and Agrest) via the division of conceptual and experiential knowledge, correspondents to ideological and scientific knowledge. He also registers George Bataille, Hegel, and Rowland Barthes. Bataille provided the original Pyramid-Labyrinth dichotomy, and Hegel’s definition of architecture as artistic addition to building haunts Hollier’s “Architectural Metaphors” text. Hays explains Barthe’s distinction between plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance (bliss) as precursors to Tschumi’s binary, just in a different language: “Plaisir pertains to the propriety, the comfort, and the security of pyramidal knowledge, the realm of a unified but dematerialized conceptuality. Jouissance is the orgasmic breaking up of that unity through the constant labyrinthine detours of Text, the fragmentation of experience.”
On second look this sounds like a ridiculous stretch—the correlation to Barthes is a loose and distant one. On the one hand, correlations like this are Hays’s job and bring to mind Agrest’s multi-textual reading in an academic sense. On the other hand it is this inter-textual heavy handedness that makes theory difficult to read and, sometimes, more difficult to accept. Either way, I include it here to make these posts more efficient in terms of a summary and annotated bibliography to the texts and to Hays himself.
One last thing to note: Hays calls this tandem between Pyramid and Labyrinth, between concept and percept, ‘experienced space,” noting that it is “a process, a way of practicing space.” I note this because it signifies a crucial change in what ‘architecture as process’ means. First we came across this trope with Tafuri, in which architecture was the technical process above anything else. Now architecture—both experiential and conceptual—is the process of working back and forth between them. In terms of architecture experience, see Tschumi's future Manhattan Transcripts, Pérez-Gómez's phenomenological architecture, and, for color, Libeskind's Chamber Works.