BERNARD TSCHUMI

Built to last

Prestige Indonesia - Lifestyle - - CONTENTS -

Don’t call Bernard Tschumi a “star­chi­tect”. The de­signer of Vacheron con­stantin’s head­quar­ters in the heart of Geneva talks to Vin­cenzo La Torre about the role of ar­chi­tec­ture in the 21st cen­tury

They call it “the Bil­bao ef­fect”. When the Guggen­heim Mu­seum com­mis­sioned ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry to de­sign a satel­lite branch in the Span­ish city of Bil­bao, the strik­ing struc­ture, with its fa­cade of cor­ru­gated metal, a Gehry sig­na­ture, helped put the pre­vi­ously off-the-beaten-track town on the map. It didn’t take long be­fore cities all over the world re­alised the im­pact that a build­ing from a big-name ar­chi­tect could have on their econ­omy, and now me­trop­o­lises such as Dubai and Shang­hai are vy­ing with each other to build big­ger – but not al­ways bet­ter – build­ings.

This re­cent phe­nom­e­non co­in­cides with the rise of the “star­chi­tect”, the of­ten overused and much-loathed moniker that refers to the select group of ar­chi­tects who have be­come mini celebri­ties and who bring a great deal of pub­lic­ity by at­tach­ing their name to a project.

Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss-born ar­chi­tect, is one of the world’s top prac­ti­tion­ers of the craft, although he would baulk at the idea of be­ing la­belled a celebrity.

The vi­sion­ary, who splits his time be­tween New York and Paris, was re­cently the sub­ject of a ret­ro­spec­tive at the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou in Paris, spon­sored by one of his pa­trons, Swiss watch­maker Vacheron Con­stantin, whose CEO, Juan-car­los Tor­res, hired Tschumi to de­sign its high-tech head­quar­ters in the heart of Geneva. The ar­chi­tect gave us a tour of the ex­hi­bi­tion and sat down for a chat in the mu­seum, sur­rounded by al­most half-a cen­tury’s worth of projects.

What do you make of the re­cent glam­or­i­sa­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture?

Well, as with many things, it has a pos­i­tive side and a neg­a­tive side, right? The pos­i­tive side is that it gives more vis­i­bil­ity to the im­por­tance of ar­chi­tec­ture. It gives the abil­ity to let peo­ple, or the head of a cor­po­ra­tion or even the govern­ment, know that ar­chi­tec­ture can make a dif­fer­ence. It can make a dif­fer­ence with liv­ing, with the per­cep­tion of the place, its iden­tity, and in the best of cases, both. But there’s also a neg­a­tive side. We’ve seen a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing prece­dents like the Opera House in Syd­ney or the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre in Paris or the Guggen­heim by Frank Lloyd Wright. Each of these three build­ings is strangely dif­fer­ent and good and im­por­tant in its own right. How­ever, then, a num­ber of politi­cians or heads of state in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries have thought, “Ah, it’s enough to have some ec­cen­tric build­ing to at­tract tourism,” and so it means that when these build­ings are not ca­pa­ble of ful­fill­ing my first point, which is to deal with the well-be­ing and the iden­tity of the peo­ple who use them, then we have a prob­lem. The prob­lem is that it be­comes a sort of fast-food ar­chi­tec­ture, which is con­sumed and then thrown away, and I think we have to be very care­ful. It’s easy to pro­duce im­ages but it’s harder to pro­duce good build­ings.

How do you feel about the Way cities are de­vel­op­ing in the 21st cen­tury?

I re­ally have a prob­lem with raz­ing blocks. I find that one of the most in­ter­est­ing things, the rich­est thing that I can do, is to com­bine the old and the new and the dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods. I did a project in Bei­jing where there was a whole neigh­bour­hood that had to be com­pletely razed and re­placed by 25-storey hous­ing blocks, and I re­ally didn’t want to do that be­cause I felt that this was cer­tainly not the right way to com­bine the fu­ture and the rhythm of the pre­sent. So I pro­posed a city that would be sort of float­ing, hov­er­ing over the old fac­to­ries, which would be taken over by artists and gal­leries. I pro­posed the project 11 years ago. There was a big cam­paign, with big posters, which said that you could keep old and new at the same time. The cam­paign went to tele­vi­sion and there was a lot of press and even­tu­ally – I don’t want to claim too much – but the de­mo­li­tion was aban­doned and some fac­to­ries were saved and I like to think that we played a role in chang­ing per­cep­tions.

How is it dif­fer­ent Work­ing With pri­vate or pub­lic en­ti­ties?

Well, I will say the main dif­fer­ence is whether I work for a per­son who I can iden­tify [with] and who is re­ally

“I re­ally have a prob­lem with raz­ing blocks”

my equal, and we have to work to­gether, in a way. If I work for an anony­mous en­tity, it’s a very dif­fer­ent type of work and the rea­son why one is bet­ter than the other is sim­ply that I have to know who is go­ing to be the part­ner. There’s no ar­chi­tec­ture with­out the client. I have to em­body the client. I have to imag­ine what’s good for them so if I have a client that lets me go fur­ther, I can go fur­ther into the de­tails. When you have an anony­mous en­tity or a large com­mit­tee, you have to make sure that you don’t do things wrong, while when you have a sin­gle client you can do things right, be­yond right.

How Was it to col­lab­o­rate With vacheron con­stantin?

At first I knew very lit­tle about them. I knew the brand of course, the his­tory, but I didn’t know anybody there. It was a com­pe­ti­tion with five per­fectly re­spectable ar­chi­tects, and we each pro­vided an im­age and I was lucky enough to be se­lected to win it and then I be­gan to know them. In the devel­op­ment of the project there were very in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions ab out their qual­ity re­quire­ments and you re­alise they were cer­tainly knowl­edge­able and re­ally in­ter­ested in de­tail, ex­tremely open to thoughts. I could re­late to the fact that their search for qual­ity and in­ven­tion is re­lent­less, it never stops, at no mo­ment. That’s prob­a­bly the lux­ury of small watch com­pa­nies like that: they can af­ford to be ab­so­lutely de­mand­ing with ev­ery­thing they do. And I share that my­self. The rea­son I have a cer­tain type of of­fice, I have 30 peo­ple in my of­fice and not 300, is be­cause I want to be able to have qual­ity con­trol.

Is there a city you love from an ar­chi­tec­tural point of view?

The rea­son I live in New York and Paris is that I can­not choose [be­tween them] and I de­cided that I was go­ing to or­gan­ise my life around these two cities; it’s as sim­ple as that. But I love all big cities like Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Tokyo…in Paris the space of the city is re­ally im­por­tant but in New York it’s far more the ac­tion. I like New York be­cause it’s rough. It’s still not very civilised. Paris has be­come very civilised. I think it’s be­com­ing like Geneva and that’s not a good idea. I like the raw, the rough­ness. I like Hong Kong, but I liked it more 30 years ago.

THE EX­TE­RIOR OF THE VACHERON CON­STANTIN HEAD­QUAR­TERS IN GENEVA

BERNARD TSCHUMI AND THE VACHERON CON­STANTIN HEAD­QUAR­TERS IN GENEVA

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