Miami School of Architecture by Bernard Tschumi
The Miami School of Architecture Building (also known as the Paul L. Cejas School of Architecture Building) was designed by Bernard Tschumi. It is a visually exciting building, and was one of the many highlights on a recent architectural pilgrimage that I made to Miami. This project is one of three must see buildings on the Florida International University campus, the other two structures are designed by Robert Stern and KPF, and if you can believe it the Robert Stern designed structure is the best of the three architectural gems hidden on the campus. There is also a building that was designed by HOK, which is worth a visit, because it is a great example how architects often miss great opportunities.
The structure was completed in 2001, and is known by few. Unfamiliarity is a common theme of most of Tschumi’s work, but this will undoubtedly change after the publicity he has received for his recently completed New Acropolis Museum in Athens. Tschumi’s design for the Miami School of Architecture is actually a campus of five separate buildings which are connected by a series of exterior walkways. The most impressive constraint regarding the design and construction of this building is the fact that Tschumi managed to create a unique architectural image, while working within a budget of $130 a square foot. This alone makes the structure impressive and should serve as encouragement for the vast majority of us that are faced with creating innovative architectural solutions for projects with limited budgets. The Miami School of Architecture is proof that quality architecture doesn’t have to break the bank.
Books referenced for this publication that document the architecture of Bernard Tschumi.
Theory, Tactics & Theming
I have been working on this article for a long time, and have repeatedly delayed its release, because I thought it was necessary to understand Tschumi’s theory on architecture, before critiquing it. After reading Architecture and Disjunction, one of Tschumi’s many manifestos, I realized that Tschumi’s process and theory, although interesting, is his, and that it is more important to critically analyze the project according to the project’s architectural tactics and not the creator’s theoretical musings. I think it is important for young architects to take their own theories of form and space and apply these principles in the form of a critique, a critique that focuses on all works that define the built environment, significant and not. The mere process of writing down your thoughts and analyzing a built structure does two things: First it forces you to put what you see into words. The process of writing down your thoughts in the form of a critical argument is an important skill, because all designers at one time or another will be forced to explain their project verbally to clients, peers, friends and family. Secondly, practice makes perfect. I hate cliches but it is true, the more times you practice critiquing projects, the more refined your architectural theory and process becomes. The more you talk and write about architecture, the better you become at verbally communicating your design intent and observations. In the Beaux Arts system of training, it was required for students to study a single building for a year or longer. This research forced students to develop strong theories and techniques related to formal generation, composition and ornamentation. Architecture in the United States has suffered from a lack of critical thought. American architects tend to over complicate architecture, as if it is like catching lighting in a bottle, or we are some mystics that channel creative energy through our hand via the great creator. Even worse is that many take an architectural critique as a personal attack. Preference for architectural style may be in the eye of the beholder, but all architecture can simply be defined in terms of formal tactics. These tactics are the same regardless of the inspiration or theme. I hate projects that have themes. I hate project presentations that begin with an architect talking about a bird in flight and how their design represents that. Architectural theming is a crutch, and should be avoided by anyone looking to become a serious architect. Process and technique should be the focus of your studies, not theming. Theming in architecture is the equivalent of a one-liner in stand-up comedy, after awhile its just not funny. Steve Urkel, meet Santiago Calatrava, I rest my case.
Tschumi in his explanation begins to talk about generators that shape the site. This becomes a little to cute for me, but it is important to note that there are three generators on the site: red, yellow and green. The green generator seems as if an afterthought and not as developed as the other two, but the red and yellow generators are the driving forces behind this project. These generators become the image of the school, and regardless of how Tschumi created the design, the outcome is impressive.
Let’s take a quick photo break before I begin my critique.
Composition and Formal Relief
Given the project’s limited construction budget, Tschumi had two choices: create a mediocre building or create a composition that takes advantage of such a constraint. Tschumi viewed a negative, like a crappy budget, as a constraint that drives the creation of the form, rather than limit it. FIU’s School of Architecture wanted a signature project but they lacked the funds to create 102,000 square feet of architectural gold. Tschumi’s solution was to create an exaggerated formal figure through fabricating an exaggerated context which creates a high degree of contrast with the adjacent structures. There are five buildings that are part of the complex. Three of the structures are simplified tilt wall concrete structures. The tilt wall structures creates a rigid datum that begins to form a background for the brightly colored red and yellow generators. The tilt wall structures is a blank canvas for the reflected light from the tiled red and yellow generators, the light that paints the background structures is beautiful and changes throughout the day. This effect may have been an unintentional result of the material selection but is great nonetheless, and this play of light should be examined and thought about by designers that wish to create spaces that have a quality of spirit that is not easily distilled to shape, size, location, orientation or treatment.
Color, Light & Miami
The structure is undeniably Miami. The warm colored tiles exemplify the flair and color of the varying styles of architecture made popular in Miami and South Beach. The yellow, orange and red tiles are the best part of the design. Tschumi and his design team selected colors which were appropriate to the context of the project. His team avoided the trap that many designers fall into of selecting popular or fashionable colors, which tend to date a project to a particular era of design. In doing so Tschumi avoided a lime green kitchen in favor of something timeless and appropriate to the project.
It wasn’t the colors alone that were just right, but the materials selected for the project embellishes the bright colors as they almost seem to glow like pixels on a monitor. The smooth tile contrasts with the surrounding rough concrete, and further emphasizes the notion of contrast that Tschumi is beating over our heads. The yellow and red tiled generators contrast beautifully with the green vegetation and the blue Florida sky, creating dynamic vignettes of color and composition. The embrasures of the red generator’s roof line draws the sky into the composition as if creating a joint between the building and the sky, a connection that allows it to hold on tightly. This formal gestures pulls the blue into the red generator and creates an experience of intense saturation of red tile and blue sky that one is not accustomed to seeing when gazing up at the clouds.
Deconstructing Form & Contested Symmetries
The plan for Tschumi’s Miami School of Architecture is a play of symmetrical relationships, which are used to create a dynamic asymmetrical composition. Tschumi’s end design results in a building that is open to a textual reading. The final design cannot be deduced to a single reading that can determine its origin, but the final form can never be deduced to a single condition and is open to multiple readings. The textual nature of this project is what makes the building’s composition dynamic. Below is a series of diagrams that examine the contested symmetries used by Tschumi, which order the campus. I do not have access to sections or elevations for the building, but can only assume that the below analysis would maintain similar results in the building’s section and elevation.
Diagram 1: The above diagram denotes the existing regulating lines of the site, the dashed lines are further emphasized by the addition of the structure designed by Tschumi. The walkways that lead to the courtyard are slightly canted. This emphasizes the formal entry of the automobile on the western facade, while the diminishing walkway on the eastern part of the building is scaled more appropriately to the pedestrian.
Diagram 2: The initial composition is symmetrical about the major walkway in the center of the initial composition. Regulating lines begin to form from this central axis. The moves that follow this base transformation seek to maintain a sense of symmetrical balance while working within an asymmetrical composition.
Diagram 3: This is the first move that begins to suggest rotation within the composition. One could argue that rotation as a formal technique occurs in diagram 2 as well. The regulating lines that frame the shape of the red and yellow generators could have begun initially as lines that were parallel to the background structures which are highlighted in red. These parallel lines would then have been rotated along the central axis to create the diagonal.
Diagram 4: In an attempt to find balance, rather than symmetry, several narratives could begin to emerge from the above transformation. The mass of the northern background building could have been displaced, creating a fatter northern building, while still maintaining the same amount of mass. The displacement of mass is denoted by the letter A above.
Diagram 4.1: It is important to note that the corridors for the northern building are exterior, while the corridors for the southern building are interior. The building could also be read as a separation of mass, rather than a reconfiguration, see diagram 4.1 above. Focusing on interior space results in massings that are more rectilinear and similar in size to the southern building. The severing of the mass creates formal balance.
Diagram 5: The above diagram suggest that the primary axis of symmetry is part of sub symmetries that begin to regulate the composition. These symmetries duel for attention, and the lack of a clear hierarchy creates the illusion of disorder. Tschumi’s skillful understanding of symmetry is used to create what at first glance appears to be a highly disordered campus of buildings, but upon further investigation the plan is actually highly ordered through a hierarchy of contested symmetries which is not easily recognizable. The notion of contested symmetries is an idea originally brought forth by Preston Scott Cohen, and is being used here by Tschumi to control the dynamic composition of the Miami School of Architecture.
Diagram 6: An east-west axis of symmetry begins to emerge upon further investigation. This axis is important in determining front and rear, public and private entry points.
Diagram 7: There are many sub axis of symmetry that exist in the project. These symmetries shape the building and its alignments. One can only assume that a similar technique is applied by Tschumi to the building’s section and elevation.