Architecture and Transgression
"Architecture and Transgression" is a 1976 essay by French architect and theoretician Bernard Tschumi originally published in the journal Oppositions.
The essay outlines what Tschumi identifies as a fundamental paradox at the heart of architectural design: the gap between its projected, conceptual, designed nature, and its ultimate existence as a physical, experienced spatial object. Borrowing ideas from the writings of Georges Bataille, specifically his L'Erotisme (Erotism), 1957, "Architecture and Transgression" attempts to posit a resolution to this paradox—or rather to claim the impossibility of its resolution as an essential characteristic of the architectural, and therefore something to be embraced.
The Architectural Paradox
Tschumi had already written about 'The Architectural Paradox' in an essay of that name in 1975. There, he links the notion to Hegel's classification of architecture as 'first of the arts' in his Lectures on Aesthetics of 1835. Uneasy at the notion of assigning artistic status to something as fundamentally functional as architecture, Hegel defined the 'art' in architecture as whatever in a building did not point to utility—a "sort of 'artistic supplement' added to the simple building."
Throughout the modern era in architecture, a bifurcation of form and program, with the artistic qualities of the discipline tending to be located in the former, increasingly became ingrained. In "Architecture and Transgression", Tschumi traces manifestations of this bias, from Étienne-Louis Boullée ("the production of the mind is what constitutes architecture") through to radical conceptual architects of the 60s such as Superstudio or Archizoom. Tschumi also identifies the critical positions of Bataille or Foucault—for whom political, religious, or social meanings of architecture were foregrounded—as equally 'supplemental' to the domain of the daily experience of architectural space.
The 'extraterritotiality' of any kind of architectural representation—be that a product of the drawing board, or architectural writing and theory—exists outside the reality of space, sensuality, subjectivity and thus represents a kind of architectural 'death'. The imperative of how to "question the nature of space" in the form of concepts, theory, design, and "at the same time, make or experience a real space" was a fundamental challenge facing architects.
Tschumi invokes Georges Bataille's definition of eroticism as a model for thinking our way out of the architectural paradox.
In L'Erotisme (1957), Bataille outlined a distinction between eroticism and sensuality. Where sensuality is the pure pleasure of the senses, eroticism incorporates sensuality, but includes an additional element, an excess. This excess is essentially conceptual, held in the mind, and relates to given historical and social meanings, limits, and taboos around sexuality. The existence of these limits, and their skirting or transgression are necessary for a merely sensual experience to achieve the level of the erotic.
Tschumi maps this notion onto architecture, and the two sides of the architectural paradox—the immediate, sensual experience of space, and the conceptualism of architectural history, theory and design. Architecture, for Tschumi, is the ultimate erotic object because it is predicated on the sensual experience of space brought into contact, and sometimes conflict, with understood historical and cultural 'rules' of the discipline. Architecture, by its very nature, is transgressive.
Tschumi illustrates his point with reference to Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye in its mid 1960s state of vandalism and disrepair. This, he argues, was not an 'unnatural' state for the building to be in, but one in which it "was never more moving". The building's dereliction transgressed both the taboos of Modernism's obsession with purity and hygiene, and bourgeois society's notions of conservation. In doing so, it was allowing time, use, the elements—all of those facets of a building that architects seek to keep at bay—to assert themselves, bringing the physicality of the rotting Villa into contact with the historical and conceptual idealism of the building.
Tschumi clearly picks an extreme example to illustrate the central argument of "Architecture and Transgression", but his point remains: that the sometimes violent transgressions between used space and conceptual ideal (and vice versa) is what constitutes the architectural, properly speaking.
Architectural 'taboos' are widespread (for Tschumi, writing in 1976) because "most architects work from paradigms acquired through education and through subsequent exposure to architectural literature, often without knowing what characteristics have given these paradigms the status of rules [in the first instance]. Rules stay obscured, for schools of architecture never teach concepts or theories in the abstract."
While the given rules may change over the years, the mechanism for their transgression remains the same: "...the momentary and sacrilegious convergence of real space and ideal space. Limits remain, for transgression does not mean the methodical destruction of any code or rule that concerns space or architecture. On the contrary, it introduces new articulations between the inside and outside, between concept and experience. Very simply, it means overcoming unacceptable prevalences."
"Advertisements for Architecture"
The "Advertisements for Architecture" (1976-1977) are a series of postcard-sized printed works produced by Tschumi that juxtapose words and images related to ideas being explored in his theoretical writings at the time. "When removed from their customary endorsement of commodity values, advertisements are the ultimate magazine form, even if used ironically. Because there are advertisements for architectural “products,” the logic of the Advertisements for Architecture asks, Why not advertisements for the production (and reproduction) of architecture?"
Two of the Advertisements include Tschumi's images of the abandoned Villa Savoye, juxtaposed with texts closely related to the "Architecture and Transgression" essay.
- Oppositions, issue 7, Winter 1976, (Cambridge: The MIT Press). Reprinted as: Bernard Tschumi, "Architecture and Transgression", in: Architecture and Disjunction, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996), 64-78.
- See: Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2001).
- Bernard Tschumi, "The Architectural Paradox", in: Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction, 27-53.
- Ibid., 32.
- Quoted in Tschumi, "Architecture and Transgression", 67.
- Ibid., 69.
- "Architecture is the ultimate erotic object, because an architectural act, brought to the level of excess, is the only way to reveal both the traces of history and its own immediate experiential truth." Tschumi, "Architecture and Transgression", 71.
- Ibid., 74
- See Tschumi, "Violence and Architecture", in Architecture and Disjunction, 121-141. Tschumi discusses the relationship between form and program in terms of a reciprocal violence: that of architectural form upon those that use its spaces; and on the reverse side, the chaotic and unpredictable effect of events that unfold within architectural space on any building's aspirations toward a design ideal. "Architecture's violence is fundamental and unavoidable, for architecture is linked to events in the same way that the guard is linked to the prisoner, the police to the criminal, the doctor to the patient, order to chaos. This also suggests that actions qualify spaces as much as spaces qualify actions; that space and action are inseparable and that no proper interpretation of architecture, drawing, or notation can refuse to consider this fact." (122)
- Tschumi, "Architecture and Transgression", 77
- Ibid., 78
- "Advertisements for Architecture", Bernard Tschumi Architects, retrieved June 14, 2018.