Bernard Tschumi’s Proposal for L’Institut Le Rosey

29 Aug

Art Center at Le Fresnoy

Growing up, I didn’t have many architectural heroes.  My first books on architecture were big photo coffee table books on Palladio, Louisiana plantation houses, and McKim, Mead, & White.  Steaming hot architecture brain soup for a little kid for sure.  But it was hard getting excited as a young to-be builder when without exception every building I found in those books was built at least a century and a half before I was born.

But in my first year of architecture school, I discovered the work of Bernard Tschumi in the first volume of his exhaustive folio Event-Cities. I was transfixed.  The efficient sensibility of his graphics – hand-sketches paired with simple early-CAD drafted drawings – lended a simplicity to his sometimes over-the-top architectural solutions.  Two of my favorites, the School of Architecture at Marne-la-Vallée (completed 1999) and the Le Fresnoy Art Center at Tourcoing (completed 1997), challenged my young Palladian mind’s metastasizing notion that experience of the exterior takes precedence over all, and that all information about space must be understood plainly in plan.  It felt like I’d finally arrived in the twenty-first century from my home in the nineteenth-century.  It was a great feeling.

School of Architecture, Marne-la-Vallee

It was Tschumi who helped me crack my preconceptions about architecture wide open.  In his 1990s works, we see massive forms of program suspended inside generous enclosed atria, stairs and walkways that lace across, above, and through them, and bold moves of  “trans-programming” linking building uses in playful and unprecedented ways.  There was an exciting kind of visual poetry there drawn in the pages of Event-Cities, a kind of space-making before which I’d never encountered.

And the actual built structures didn’t disappoint either.  Tschumi’s translation of his drawings to actual construction really clarified and intensified the ideas found in his diagrams, making the potential found in his sketches and drafted drawings even more powerful.  To say the least I was a huge Tschumi fan.  I look at my Tulane work today and I see a baby Tschumi in those models and drawings.

Tschumi's Institut Le Rosey proposal from the air

This week I saw what Tschumi is working on these days – a center for the performing arts at the exclusive Swiss boarding school L’Institut Le Rosey – and it shocked me.  A steel bubble will wrap the center’s programmatic guts, intended to curb energy inefficiencies by reflecting light and heat back up into the sky, an interesting (but plausible?) scheme that will also cut down on the building’s vulnerable and expensive surface area.   But one thing jumped out of me above all: it is absolutely huge, exponentially bigger than the groupings of small eighteenth- and nineteenth-century school buildings it will stand adjacent to.   The scale of this Tschumi design overwhelms.  Indeed, I expect that that is the whole point, to essentially swallow up its smaller, old-fashioned neighbors and in effect permanently do away with Le Rosey’s reputation as the stuffy breeding ground for Europe’s elite.

I am often excited and impressed by the ingenuity of architects to built additions and adjacencies that can both complement and challenge a more-traditional neighbor (Steven Holl’s addition to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is one that immediately comes to mind).  But this is one flying saucer I wish would fly away.  The feeling that Tschumi’s new center might overwhelm the older campus is not one that should always be welcome.  While the interior of the building will probably be a thoughtful, impressive space, the danger and disruption the building as a whole could wreak on the rest of the complex might be fatal to this little school.

The bird’s-eye scale disconnect aside, the most concerning image is a ground-level view looking from the old campus to the performing arts center.  Tschumi’s siting of his building transforms what appears to have been an open-ended stop on the way to a parking lot into a reactivated wedge-shaped enclosed quadrangle – a really commendable move on his and the school’s part.  But looking out from the old campus, Tschumi’s facade looms, and frankly bores.  Must his proposal be such an utter rejection of the architectural spirit of Le Rosey?   Such a radical intervention into an historic campus might be better placed further away – through a forest of trees, we come across Tschumi’s mysterious silver ziggurat?  While the facilities inside the center and the fertile new exterior enclosure the architect creates for the school may enhance the experience of Le Rosey, this new center also might do real harm to how visitors and students come to understand the school and its history.

This new design has all the big themes I love about Tschumi’s work; it has a boldness, a big-ness, and shows a rejection of precedent in favor of a design driven by the building’s use are all still thrilling to see.  But in a such a traditional setting as L’Institut Le Rosey, I think Tschumi’s execution of such a newness shows too much of a heavy hand.

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