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 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 about 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.