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Thursday31 July 2014

Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi at ETH, Zürich

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Public Debate

Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi
ETH Campus, Zurich
May 18

The two heavyweights talked to a Swiss audience about the parallels and dislocations of their careers, says Philip Shelley

It was pure spectacle, live broadcast performance, a surprise for the students of the ETH Zurich at the end of the academic year: Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi descended on campus last week for a rare public conversation. No sooner was it over, they had already made their getaway. No time for extending the debate to the floor – the rambling discussion stretched to almost three hours. The students and the city’s architecture crowd, crammed into seven lecture theatres, left less rapidly, mulling over the evening on their way down the hill into the city.

The evening was billed as an alternative form of an architectural presentation. It eschewed the usual format of an architect in persuasive monologue, and instead had the pair in conversation. The format proved successful, the discussion in turn insightful, revealing, and often funny. Performing the difficult role of moderator was the architect and theorist Stephan Trüby who had devised the evening, aiming to cover the many parallels between the two.

Koolhaas and Tschumi began appropriately enough with Switzerland and their relationship to it, and went on to examine the beginnings of their careers, their early obsessions with film, the culture of the sixties, the political currents of their generation and the experiences of New York the following decade in which they produced their defining early manifestos. They crossed paths in strange ways, even meeting by chance diagonally crossing Moscow’s Red Square, acknowledging each other but not bothering to stop. Later Tschumi arrived in New York and took over Koolhaas’s apartment and desk at Peter Eisenman’s Institute for Architecture & Urban Studies.

Koolhaas’s deadpan delivery paled against Tschumi’s verbal craft

Afterwards they were pitted against each other in the competition for the Parc de la Villette in Paris, and the evening provided the chance to discuss their entries and the story behind the realisation of Tschumi’s scheme. The pair were even forced to discuss their diploma projects, at which point Koolhaas was reduced to deep sighs at the moderator’s comparative questions and Tschumi admitted he couldn’t remember where exactly in Zürich his site was.

The talk opened up, allowing them to set their work retrospectively in context, offering views on each other’s oeuvres, and revealing much about the state of the long established avant-garde. This provided delicately absurd moments in places. To Tschumi’s elaboration of his strategy of “trying not to design at all” Koolhaas gingerly countered, “I would have said the same thing, perhaps five or 10 years ago. But do you still think that we can possibly get away with not designing?” At which point the illusion of rationality began to fray at the edges, but a discourse conducted in everyone’s second language tends to be able to withstand such anomalies.

Alongside distancing themselves as far as possible from the farce of “deconstructionism”, they also assured the audience, that however good the work of Chipperfield and Zumthor and the School of Porto or whoever else is, it “will never add up to a school of thought”. That the school they were in might have been able to offer them a number of traditions in response perhaps flickered in their minds, but perhaps not.

So the heavyweights provoked, enlightened and perhaps bored in equal measure. Koolhaas’s unfailingly deadpan delivery paled against Tschumi’s practised verbal craft, and Trüby’s handling allowed for much to emerge, tracing the influences on these figures who are inextricably part of wider cultural and intellectual currents – for what else would they clothe themselves with?

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