Abstract (En): This article shows how an understanding of the uncanny may be crucial to an understanding of contemporary deconstructionist architecture. Projects and buildings by Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Coop Himmelblau and Daniel Libeskind are analysed in order to reveal how contemporary architecture makes use of the uncanny, on the one hand, to criticise traditional architectural narratives, and on the other hand, to express the core of our postmodern condition.
Abstract (Fr): Cet article se propose de montrer qu’une bonne compréhesnion de l’ « unheimlich » est capitale pour toute approche sérieuse de l’architecture « déconstructionniste » contemporaine. Nous analysons les projets mais aussi les réalisations d’architectes comme Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Coop Himmelblau et Daniel Libeskind, afin de montrer que leur travail recourt à la notion d’ « unheimlich », d’abord afin de critiquer l’architecture traditionnelle, ensuite afin d’exprimer les idées de base de la condition post-moderne.
Keywords: deconstruction, architecture, Tschumi, Libeskind, Himmelblau, Eisenman.
« [W]e don’t want architecture to exclude everything that is disquieting. We want architecture to have more … Architecture should be cavernous, fiery, smooth, hard, angular, brutal, round, delicate, colorful, obscene, voluptuous, dreamy, alluring, repelling, wet, dry and throbbing. » (Himmelblau 1988: 95)
This programmatic paragraph written by Wolf D. Prix and Helmut Swiczinky, founders of the Austrian architectural cooperative Himmelblau, articulates a preference for an aesthetics of architecture that is disquieting rather than reassuring. At the time of writing in 1988, Coop Himmelblau was not the sole prophet of a destabilising, wanton form of architecture. In the early 1980s already, a number of architects had begun to question the Vitruvian prepositions that underlie traditional well-made « anthropocentric » architecture. These include, next to Coop Himmelblau, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind.
These architects were catalogued under the header of deconstruction, a term that not merely emphasises their familiarity with Jacques Derrida’s thinking, or under the header of deconstructivism, but also stresses this new generation’s oppositional relationship to early twentieth-century Russian Constructivism.
As Anthony Vidler argues in The Architectural Uncanny (1992), some of these architects have been inspired by the uncanny in their efforts to incite discomfort and unease. In this article I will analyse projects of four contemporary architects (Tschumi, Eisenman, Himmelblau and Libeskind) from the viewpoint of the uncanny. This, of course, does not imply that the appearance of the uncanny in architectural discourse is an exclusively contemporary phenomenon. On the contrary: in the cultural history of architectural representation, three moments can be discerned in which the uncanny manifests itself. The first signs of an awareness of the uncanny in the context of architecture appeared in the late eighteenth century. Short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann often thematised the contrast between a safe and homely place and the intrusion of a weird and alien presence. A second period in which architecture was linked to the uncanny was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the city turned into a metropolis. This evolution had serious psychological consequences described by, among others, Baudelaire and Zola. The individual felt estranged in the metropolitan mass, estranged in all possible connotations of the word. The uncanny manifested itself in phenomena like agoraphobia and claustrophobia, as Vidler explains in his most recent book Warped Space (2000). In the arts, historical avant-garde movements tried to transfer the modern feeling of the uncanny to their public using techniques of defamiliarisation.
After the appearance of the uncanny in romanticism and in the modern period, a third, postmodern version of the architectural uncanny came into being in the 1960s. This resurgence was probably due to influential Lacanian and Derridean rereadings of Freud. The postmodern form of the uncanny can be found in literature, where William Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of the classic examples, but also and especially in film, where popular directors like Wim Wenders and David Lynch are often referred to. From the 1970s onwards, architectural projects were developed that were closely related to forms of the postmodern uncanny in other disciplines. In many cases, these projects were designed by architects who were gathered under the header of deconstruction in the 1980s. Not only Coop Himmelblau, but also Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman and a bunch of others expressed both in their programmatic texts and in their building projects the need for an architecture of « discomfort and the unbalancing of expectations » (Tschumi 1977: 214). Some members of this new generation, especially Tschumi and Eisenman, explicitly drew on Derrida’s philosophy and worked together with him in specific projects, as Tschumi did for his design of Parc de la Villette in Paris. Others, like Frank Gehry and Coop Himmelblau, minimised or denied the link with the French thinker of deconstruction. Broadbent (1991: 80) therefore distinguishes between Derridean and non-Derridean deconstruction. Still, the two groups are united by their urge to express in their work a kind of « objective correlative » (as T.S. Eliot would call it) of the contemporary uncanny.
One of the most renowned architectural projects of the 1990s must be Bernard Tschumi’s design for the Parc de la Villette in Paris. In 1982, the French government offered a prize to fill up an empty spot in the Parisian landscape. The year after, Bernard Tschumi’s design was selected from the contributions. Agreeing to an invitation by the architect himself, Derrida in 1985 commented on the project in his article « Points de Folie – Maintenant Architecture », thus guaranteeing Tschumi’s success.
Tschumi destroyed the nineteenth-century notion of a park as a place where one forgets the city. Instead, he produced an « urban park » for the twenty-first century. This park meant a radical break with tradition as the architect moved drastically away from modernist functionalism. Yet, Tschumi’s « folies » and « cases vides », red cubicles standing at a regular distance from each other throughout the park (see fig. 1), often formally remind us of Melnikov’s or Tatlin’s Russian Constructivism. On the level of contents, however, Tschumi’s designs couldn’t be further away from modernist utopian thought that saw geometry as a means to adapt the world we live in to new technological evolutions. Russian Constructivists believed that geometry could function as an idealistic therapy, that it would guarantee happiness, harmony and health among the people. The formal references to constructivism in the Parc de la Villette should therefore be understood as a subversion of that philosophy by its very repetition. The idea of repetition as a means of differentiation echoes Derrida’s concept of iterability.
The pleasure of superimposition
In a 1987 article, Tschumi formulated his revealing idea of pleasure in architecture: « [m]y pleasure has never surfaced in looking at buildings, at the ‘great works’ of the history or present of architecture, but rather in dismantling them » (Tschumi 1987: 116). The Parc de la Villette design thus leaves behind all functionalist and therapeutic nostalgia and is governed only by the « pleasure principle » (Vidler 1992: 103) of the architect himself. In this particular project, that principle manifests itself in the superimposition of three different ordering systems (see fig. 3). A first layer consists of a system of points. A grid is drawn over the whole site.
Every 120 metres, the horizontal and vertical lines cross. Tschumi calls those crossings « points ». On each point, a « folie » or folly is built, a three-storey red cube measuring 10 x 10 x 10 metres that can be used for any activity. These buildings have no pre-programmed function and may be used as an exposition hall, as a café or as any other public space. Therefore, the cubes are also referred to as « cases vides », empty huts. But although every single folie is conceived of as a cube of 10 by 10 by 10, no single cubicle is exactly the same as any other in the park. Some folies have cylindrical or triangular forms attached to them; others lack walls or are turned on their sides. In that way, Tschumi wants to investigate the often-ambiguous relationship between norm and deviation. Here again the idea is taken up that repetition may function as a means to establish contrast and difference. This first layer of points should allocate space to what Tschumi calls « point-like activities » (http://www.tschumi.com), specific activities that take place within the concentrated space of a folie.
The second layer, the layer of lines, is superimposed on the grid and establishes a space for « linear activities ». « Linear activities » describes the pedestrian traffic that crosses the park in several possible ways. The centre of this linear layer is formed by two axes, the North-South coordinate and the East-West coordinate, which link up the four entrances to the park (a coordinate can be seen on fig. 2). Apart from straight axes, the layer consists of erratic, undulating lines meandering through the landscape. At this point, Vidler says, Tschumi remains indebted to traditional park design. For the straight axis was a common feature of Classicist park design (think of the Versailles gardens) and the undulating line that leads flaneurs past most charming sights was characteristic of Romantic parks and gardens. But again the reference to tradition is merely formal. One should not forget that Tschumi found pleasure in dismantling tradition. Tschumi’s axes and pathways do not possess the same controlling, authoritarian function they did possess in traditional parks. They no longer limit a certain domain, they no longer link up a series of meaningful sights, they are no more and no less than what they are: alternative tracks through the park. Whoever is looking for monuments or historical significance on his walk, for narrative coherence, in short, will have to leave the park unsatisfied. The « unbalancing of expectations » has become reality. The passer-by is forced to abandon his search for meaning and to surrender to the game of arbitrariness and chance in which the architect puts him.
The third ordering system that is put on top of the previous two is the layer of surfaces. These surfaces provide room for all activities that need large horizontal strips of land, like sports, games, and markets.
Releasing the repressed
The superimposition of these three layers allows for some form of interaction between three autonomous systems. Principles of chance and juxtaposition generate interference and clashes between the systems. The result of this « superimposition », as Tschumi calls it, is, according to Mark Wigley, a « series of ambiguous intersections between systems […] in which the status of ideal forms and traditional composition is challenged. Ideas of purity, perfection, and order, become sources of impurity, imperfection, and disorder » (Wigley in Broadbent 1991: 17). It is at this point that we can return to Schelling’s statements on the uncanny as that which « ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light » (Freud 1955: 225). The inherent purity of the geometrical system evokes a feeling of rational control and stability. If things turn out differently, then, and the juxtaposition of several « pure » systems gives way to impurity, the geometric system’s rational control over that which « ought to have remained secret », weakens. The repressed leaves its enclosed habitat and thus provokes in us an uncanny feeling. In the case of Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette, the uncanny does not function as a physical motif that threatens the bodily integrity of passers-by, but rather as a theoretical concept that helps to undermine and – indeed – deconstruct traditional humanist and functionalist architectural discourses.