Rem Koolhaas, globetrotting architectural provocateur, lectured a jam-packed Call Auditorium last Wednesday about his vision of a global “generic” architecture, claiming that “the box is the final form of architecture.” Koolhaas gave a brief history lesson about the influence of technology on American building practices — mostly cribbed from his early book Delirious New York — before delving into the history of his firm’s projects over the last ten years. While the embrace of paradoxes has made Koolhaas’ innovative theoretical raids on architectural complacency a salient point of departure for a whole generation of younger practitioners, his talk Wednesday positioned his own ideas as the new complacency. Inevitably, the old vanguard becomes the next establishment: His provocative paradoxes that once shook up thinking in the field now seem pasted together in a flippant and flimsy discourse riddled with ideological contradictions.
While critiquing celebrity architects who assert their own signature look over an architecture that reflects the values of a “civilization,” Koolhaas himself has been a principle exponent of branding. It’s easy to laugh at a picture of a fat-headed, smarmy-looking Daniel Libeskind, poster boy for today’s “starchitect” in his black suit and thick frames, shilling designs that memorialize cultural grief while he rakes in bank. Koolhaas, however, ironically acknowledges he has more in common with the jet-set lifestyle of Libeskind than the old fashioned image of an architect with his sleeves rolled up, directing the dirty work and heavy lifting on site, holding a blueprint if not exactly wearing a blue collar. But Koolhaas and OMA retain their well-remunerated prestige by creating recognizable — even kitsch-like — landmarks: Every pan-out during Olympic coverage to the CCTV Headquarters on Beijing’s skyline, for example, both implicitly plugged OMA and helped put Beijing on the map as player in the global marketplace.
Likewise, Koolhaas’s designs for Prada’s flagship stores locates his aesthetic as mutually beneficial to a vision of global corporate hegemony. In the new world order, Koolhaas claims, “there will be little for us to do but shop” — hence, in his Prada stores “luxury is not shopping.” The Prada stores are designed around archives, theaters, runways, laboratories, peepshows and clinics that supposedly create a differentiated space that resists the generic shopping mall that has infiltrated everything from hospitals to airports to museums: Each flagship store, moreover, is different in its design and merchandise so that it becomes sought out as a Mecca. The consumer is given a space for “the luxury of clarity and focus:” A showroom has been transformed into a museum, which Koolhaas says are popular for their “lack of content” — one can come and go moved only by whim and contemplation, with no pressures and no decisions to be made.
The Beverly Hills store literalized this museum effect by keeping intact the Guggenheim logo of its previous occupant, offering the symbolic capital of a brand name emptied of any content, as if the Prada wares (and Koolhaas’s design) were being displayed as the latest trend in art’s fashion system. All this, perhaps, reveals that Western modernism — which is still, like it or not, our civilization — values recognizable individual style; for OMA to thrive as a business, it must conform to a larger corporate culture that values recognizable brand individuality above all else. What better representation of how architecture supports corporate interest by “museumfication” than superimposing the Prada and Guggenheim logo in a signature landmark?
Against this background, we can read the “thirty-four soccer fields worth of museum space” designed by OMA in the last ten years. One of the firm’s proposals for the MoMA was to re-think the concept of a museum as a space of selection; the vast holdings of most museums’ acquisitions are frozen in an inaccessible vault. Koolhaas envisioned a storage space that could be accessed by viewers, which would turn museum-goers into curators. Ironically, however, breaking down the institutional framing provided by the museum would also make the spectator a type of “shopper,” exchanging contemplative focus for an experience that was much like the busy maze of merchandize in a museum shop.
To navigate such opposed visions of design, Koolhaas described planning a tower based on at least four independent criteria: “virtual” (conceptual), “circulation” (mobility), “collective” (social space) and “executive” (making money). Optimizing any one criterion results in a different design, so that the ultimate building will necessarily be a hybridized form that contradicts some of these goals, while incorporating compromises from all of them. His design process is thereby more pragmatic and self-conscious about what it prioritizes.
Nonetheless, he also referred to the “autonomous box” as “not defined by human users.” The box is a catchall that can be endlessly repurposed, responsive to pluralistic or changing needs exactly because it is oblivious to any specific function. Many of his architectural diagrams highlighted this vacuum of content by appearing as little more than multicolored stacked rectangles where architectural details were absent and had been overtaken by the textual labels written on them: “conference room,” “gym,” “parking.” Koolhaas emphasized instead what he called a “program reshuffle” by focusing on which boxes connected to others to produce more openness between sites and arranging novel intersections of purposes, inspired by the Downtown Athletic Club’s 9th floor that houses a side-by-side boxing gym and oyster bar. Similarly, his proposal for the Whitney’s extension extended exhibits into prosaic spaces such as the parking garage and escalators, deconsecrating the museum’s framing of art.
His planning initiatives also invert traditional distinctions, such as the pastoral campus against its crowded urban environs. At the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, for example, he fractured the clear, linear space that cut a “zone of nothingness” through the middle of campus to create obstructions which made the site resemble the density of the surrounding city, tracing the zigzagging angles of the footpaths used by students as they hurried to classes. He also highlighted rather than hid the elevated train tracks that bisect the campus, which not insignificantly were designed by Mies van der Rohe. Even as he promulgates the generic box, Koolhaas rewrites and disrupts the linear grids on the very grounds of the box’s biggest Modernist exponent.
Likewise, at Harvard where he now teaches, Koolhaas proposed a radical plan (though rejected) to divert the “stranglehold” that the “pretentions” of the campus architecture had vis-a-vis the rest of the community. Koolhaas described the periphery of the campus as a “demoralized zone” since there was a stark contrast between the egregious wealth of Harvard’s buildings and its more pedestrian neighbors. His idea was to create a canal and fill-in 150 acres of the Charles River, opening up a meandering course of new development that would de-center Harvard’s occupation of Cambridge. His riposte to detractors of the plan was that we have a stubbornly “timid vision despite the magnitude of means.” Such fantasias are situated on the ambiguous frontier between re-visions of urban planning’s utopian potential and an ironic embrace of the concrete landfill that urban planning too often effects.
While Harvard is not going to budge anytime soon, Koolhaas has recently been granted an enormous budget in Dubai to create an artificial island city that not surprisingly looks a lot like New York taken to delirious new heights with globes and zigzag towers. Today’s architect, according to Koolhaas, traverses a destabilized, yet oddly homogenized, urban landscape, a terrain of inevitable global corporate dominion where Dubai, Las Vegas, Lagos and the tomorrow’s overnight megalopolis in China are nearly synonymous, devoid of their cultural heritage and historical specificity. But the paradox is that the so-called generic architecture that Koolhaas favors has its roots in historically contingent zoning laws, technological conditions and architectural and geographical contexts. Furthermore, specific economic factors of the new globalism make it more likely that tomorrow’s most innovative skyscrapers — at once generic and spectacular — will arise in the deserts of the Middle East and the rapid sprawl of Southeast Asia rather than in Chicago and New York.