Event and Movement in Architecture

The Manhattan Transcripts: Theoretical Projects

Event and Movement is an exploration of those terms in the context of architecture, through a review of Bernard Tschumi’s theoretical projects, particularly The Manhattan Transcripts.

Throughout his theoretical and pedagogical career Tschumi argues against formalism (reduction of architecture which is a form of knowledge to architecture as a knowledge of form). His statement “There is no space without event (…) no architecture without program” reflects a deep conviction in the dynamic character of architecture (Tschumi, 1994). For Tschumi, space is ‘created’ by an event taking place within it; and architectural space is defined by the activity taking place inside/in front/around – in any spatial relation with it.

He argues against ending the discussion on architectural programme in the, for him obsolete, functionalist doctrine> Programme should instead open up a relation between the abstraction of architectural thought and the representation of events. Here, architecture is a means of communication, defined by the movement as well as by the walls and an intertextual experience; it becomes a discourse of events and spaces. Architecture activates space through the movement of bodies. It is not a container. Derrida’s analysis of Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette (1982–1998) links his architecture to the performative as a spatial “acting out.” (Khan and Hannah, 2008).

With Manhattan Transcripts, Tschumi is for the first time testing his philosophy of event and movement in architecture, a topic he will develop further throughout his writings and practice. Seeking to reveal an internal logic underlying buildings and cities, he conducts playful drawing exercises, while at the same time working on the logic of a structure to represent and interpret space.

His focus on activities that are unnecessary (luxury, wars, games, art, erotics) is part of the attempt to overcome the paradox of architecture (identified with the dualism of the pyramid and the labyrinth (Hollier, 1989)). The pyramid and the labyrinth represent the two aspects of space in Tschumi‘s dualist view of architecture: the conceived and the perceived space (Martin, 1990). The paradox is that architecture is at the same time both pyramid and labyrinth. Furthermore, it always misses something – either reality or concept, due to “the impossibility of both questioning the nature of space and experiencing a spatial praxis at the same time” (Tschumi, 1975). The only way to address this paradox is to reach the point where the subjective experience of space becomes its’ very concept. In his later writings he claimed that space is created by an event taking place within it (Tschumi, 1983).

How can movement ‘carve‘ space? How can space carve movement, in turn?

The work on Manhattan Transcripts was a notation experiment, with the intention to arrive at new tools and methods of representation. Needing to go beyond methods usually used by architects (plans, sections, elevations, etc) Tschumi complements his work with photographs, schemes and collages (combining axonometric projections, drawings, cut out photographs). He develops the formula object-movement-event.

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The Visual Language

The visual language Tschumi developed here is rich in linear drawings, showing plans and elevations of architectural spaces and schemes of movement. Drawings are for Tshumi both; a key means and a limitation of architectural inquiries. Eager to represent the dynamic component of architecture, he uses notations of movement with dashed lines and arrows indicating a direction; he also uses dotted line to represent the underlying structures.

Square is the ‘big brother‘ of the right angle, containing four of them at equal distances. Its‘ use in architecture is unsurprisingly essential. Square almost stands for an equal of normality. Tschumi decided to give it another role. He acknowledges the square as healthy, conformist and predictable, regular and comforting, correct. He then uses the square as a unit of event, a frame of experience, subverting this highly architectural symbol for the purpose of his theory.

Square is the building block of all MT phrases, whether coming in successive formations of three (MT1) or as part of a timeline (MT2 and MT4). Even in the fully deconstructed pages that end MT4, the underlying square matrix is indicated with little crosses. It is only the first part of MT3 that escapes this normalising tool.

In contrast to the healthy square are dark, black and white photographs used to describe the event in architecture. Consistently abstract details of ‘unnecessary‘ activities (as discussed above, Tschumi emphasises the subjectivity of experience through these fragments that are not necessarily experienced by everyone), they serve as a layer of reality, of lived space in this visual experiment. Their poor quality is partly a result of the source quality and the technique used for their manipulation (gelatin silver photographs). However it is also an agent of pluralism, opening the territory for multiple interpretations of the work.

Architectural ‘push-ups’ and dynamic analysis

The work is partly dedicated to process, this process having no other result for a goal, but the process itself. The objective here is not to arrive at a building. It is rather a stylistic exercise. Tschumi is searching for an ideal architectural process, a process of design that is determined purely by design decisions. Any attempt at building would compromise his architecture.
Thus the way the transcripts are is closest to an aesthetic exercise, a play with shapes and volumes, recombining and changing meaning through the overlap of elements. Especially in the last two transcripts, volumes are the main protagonists of the city-saga. They are examined through the prism of other volumes, recombined and recomposed. What Tschumi is doing here is a kind of ‘architectural push-ups’.

Tschumi takes on a novel approach to architectural design, one that would recognise the dynamic activity architecture is supposed to become. He is looking for a dynamic definition of architecture and experience of urban space. For him, the Manhattan Transcripts are a device for analysing the city. The Transcripts are a means of putting this experience on paper. Tschumi calls this process ‘transcription’. He transcribes episodes of city experience using photographs and architectural drawings (plans, diagrams, axonometric projections). The Manhattan Transcripts are a book of architecture and not about it. They are a quest for ideas underlying the built habitat with its own existence and logic.

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