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Rem Koolhaas, Toward a New New New New New New New New New Old New Architecture!

December 8, 2009

In April, Rem Koolhaas delivered the Keynote lecture on two strands of thinking in sustainability: advancement vs. apocalypse at the Ecological Urbanism Conference at Harvard University, expressing concern that architectural branding was doing more harm than good.

Now, what about architecture? I think what the crisis will mean for us is an end to the ¥€$ regime. For those who didn’t recognize it, this is a collection of masterpieces by architects in the last ten years. It’s a skyline of icons showing, mercilessly, that an icon may be individually plausible, but that collectively they form an ultimately counterproductive and self-canceling kind of landscape. So that is out.

So out! It is so hard for a highly branded intellectual figure to sound serious these days. If Koolhaas let OMA’s work speak for itself and didn’t continually reference his buildings within the context of a voracious mass culture machine, he wouldn’t “self-cancel” his own buildings before they are even fully realized. How is an educated public supposed to accept his oeuvre beyond a cultish appreciation if these branded giants are devoid of meaning the minute they change hands from Koolhaas-as-salesman to foolhardy client. Is Koolhaas murdering the discipline of architecture, luring its students into a trap of inauthenticity and insincerity as Koolhaas himself drifts back into scientific contemplation and rebrands himself as a Bucky Fuller type thinker? The problem with building your practice on delivering the new is that you must constantly reinvent your own image, reflecting context yes, but perhaps incorrectly.

Unfortunately, the sum total of current architectural knowledge hasn’t grown beyond this opposition. That is where the market economy and the evolution of architectural culture have been extremely irresponsible in letting knowledge simply disappear between the different preoccupations. I still think that architectural dialectics are between buildings like Falling Water and Farnsworth House, and are therefore not deep enough.

We have all of these images of buildings that do not perform correctly, but our answers are not necessarily very deep. I don’t exclude myself from any of these comments, as I hope you realize. Embarrassingly, we have been equating responsibility with literal greening. The boutique of Ann Demeulemeester in Seoul, for example, covered entirely in green (26). Even significant buildings by serious architects, such as the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, for me almost fall into the same category (27). What is very difficult about architecture today is that architects themselves are the main commentators, using a language that is either outrageously innocent or deeply calculated – probably both – but in a shocking way. If you read the criticism in the New York Times by Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architect’s commentary seems to work very well, because Ouroussoff is extremely happy with this building. A question that doesn’t seem to be asked is: is it all so necessary? And, do we need more aquariums? We have a kind of Parthenon with a planetarium, a piazza, and a rainforest. I would politely submit that it is not a Parthenon. In Abu Dhabi, Foster makes a much more serious effort with his zero-carbon city, Masdar, which will have no cars and will be carbon neutral by using technologies that are still to be revealed.

I like Rem’s analysis of Ouroussoff’s commentary. Ouroussoff is just happy to see things built so that he can talk about them. Jaded and expectant, the building’s appearance is simply pleasing in its own right, as if it was built for him to judge. Hmmmm… sounds, like, …. nevermind. I’ll let Rem continue to not talk about his own work by talking about his own work.

I didn’t really want to talk about our own work, but there is one project that resonates with the material here. It also indicates the direction in which I think we need to move: we need to step out of this amalgamation of good intentions and branding in a political direction and a direction of engineering. (read the whole thing)

“Step out of this amalgamation of good intentions and branding,” but I thought you said in Delirious New York….. Aren’t good intentions and branding what makes OMA so successful. Maintain clarity of form to encapsulate even the most complex project under a simple icon or slogan (CCTV or “the loop” or the continuous monument), then use the trusted OMA brand to realize unrealized architectural fantasies–like George Lucas’ Death Star

OMA, Waterfront City, UAE (instant new york if you check out the plan)

The Death Star

…or, Arata Isozaki’s Metabolist projects

OMA model for Stadskantoor, Rotterdam

….or, Superstudio’s Continuous Monument

CCTV Headquarters, Beijing

Superstudio, Continuous Monument, 1969

or, Buckminster Fuller’s “route for global energy.

OMA, Zeekracht

Where should OMA and architecture proceed? Well, away from architecture as a referential culture machine linked to aesthetic strategizing, and toward a new architecture, or wait, an old architecture, more attuned to science and nature as opposed to mass culture, media, and the history of architecture. Is the apocalypse coming? Bigger and Bigger they come–S, M, L, XL, and soon XXXXXXXXXXL! When I see Koolhaas running from his own creations, or at least pretending to be sincerely interested in scientific truth, I’m shakin’ in me boots! Is Rem the ultimate politician, masking his own soullessness with rhetorical fragments pulled from architectural history? Or maybe he’s just like all of us, floating in a sea of infinite reference, unable to cope with his own human origin as his ambition grows stealthily with his mediated image. Either way, he broke my heart with this devolution into science and sustainability as a guise for his planned architectural coup d’etat and now I’m coping, pouring my heart out to you about how I thought Rem thought that the future of architecture was locked in the hidden potential of the past, but now think that he thinks I should be getting my LEED certification and checking out some science books from the Seattle Public Library while he goes ahead and reshapes the entire world in his own image.

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