February 10, 2009

Burning Down the Haas

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There’s been a lot of hubbub around campus recently surrounding the construction of Milstein Hall, which will house new studio space for our world-class architecture program. Maybe it was an omen, then, that the not yet completed Mandarin Oriental hotel in Beijing, designed by none other than erstwhile Cornell Architecture student Rem Koolhaas, burned down on Monday night as result of misfired fireworks.
The hotel, a centerpiece in Beijing’s building boom that began before the 2008 Summer Olympics, was set open this year as a luxury resting spot for business travelers and tourists. Situated next to the massive black cantilever loop housing the Chinese government’s CCTV headquarters (also designed by Koolhaas and so far un-toasted), it was begun in 2004 and designed to hold 241 guests. The apparent cause of the fire was some celebratory sparklers set off to mark the Lantern Festival, which comes at the tail-end of the Chinese New Year fortnight of partying. No one was killed, though there were conflicting reports on the number of injured. A large crowd gathered on the street below to watch as the flames engulfed the high-rise structure.
Koolhaas — can you imagine a name more fitting a man’s profession? — was born in the Netherlands in 1944 and stopped by Ithaca for a few tips in the 1970s. Alas, he didn’t hang around for too long: rumor has it that he left before our beloved alma mater could claim the rights to his legendary manifesto, Delirious New York. In that work, Koolhaas lays out an aesthetic based on spontaneity and provocation, a departure from the heavy, self-regarding works of his predecessors.
One of the most recognized architects in his field today, Koolhaas’ major projects include the Seattle Central Library and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin (go figure). His buildings pop up everywhere from Las Vegas to Fukuoka, South Korea, and the CCTV and Mandarin Oriental structures in Beijing were the latest steps in establishing his dominance in big-city design.
But the plot thickens. Perhaps more relevant to us Cornellians, Koolhaas is the architect, with his Office for Metropolitan Architecture, of the aforementioned Milstein Hall. First budget cuts, then ominous omens from abroad — things are not looking good for the $50 million-plus project. And what’s with the recent spat of Asian luxury hotel disasters?
Needless to say, the burning of the Mandarin Oriental is a great loss to the world of architecture. Were Milstein Hall to get the axe as well, Cornell might be complicit in killing Koolhaas’ mood. But for now, design buffs will just have to lament the loss of a legend’s work. Only the good die young.