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Wired (july 96)

From Bauhaus to Koolhaas

By Katrina Heron

Fifty-two-year-old Rem Koolhaas, a renowned Dutch architect and co author of S,M,L,XL, the book whose weight everyone is still talking about (6 pounds, The Monacelli Press), is only now making his American professional debut - he's been commissioned to redesign MCA headquarters and its 420-acre Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles. But Koolhaas's fame as an iconoclastic visionary has been growing since the publication, in 1978, of Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (2 pounds, Oxford University Press), which looks at urban life in this century as a fluid, largely chaotic "culture of congestion" over which architects can assert virtually no lasting control. And who would want to? Not Koolhaas. His love of the urban condition is surpassed only by his mania for the unknown, the untenable, the unmanageable, and the untried.

Wired: Is architecture behind the times?


Architecture has been defined in terms of one activity, and that activity is adding to the world. A few years ago I realized the profession was as if lobotomized - it was stuck conceiving of itself only in terms of adding things and not in terms of taking away or erasing things. The same intelligence for adding ought to also deal with its debris. It's a very depressing phenomeon that we can deal with decaying conditions in the city only by inventing weak attempts to restore them or to declare them historical. It would be much more powerful and creative to use other tactics, such as taking away something and then building something entirely new. One of the ambitions of S,M,L,XL is to extend the repertoire, which also includes, for instance, not doing anything, or asking somebody else to do something - both of which are, curiously, things that an architect never does.

Maybe because they're not overly appealing options from a business perspective.

But I am not modest, and the ambition to do this is not modest, either. The largest domain in which that sensibility to extend the repertoire is present is the virtual domain, and it's kind of leaving architecture behind.

Where do you see the future of architecture going?

With globalization, we all have more or less the same future, but Asia and Africa feel much more new. I've been doing research in China recently, investigating cities that emerge suddenly, in eight years or so, seemingly out of nothing. These places are much more vigorous and representative of the future. There, building something new is a daily pleasure and a daily occurence.

You're doing a big project in China now, aren't you?

Yes. Its working title is City of Exacerbated Differences. It is in the Pearl River Delta. It's not a single city but a region inhabited by a cluster of very diverse cities such as Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Guangdong, Zhuhai, and Macau. Together, they may represent a new model of the megalopolis in the sense that their coexistence, their functioning, their legitimacy is determined by their extreme mutual difference.

What are you learning there?

We've been looking at the average time that goes into designing a building in China and the average number of people who work on it. We discovered that in the area we were in it takes 10 days - and it's three people and three Apple computers. And it's a 40-story building. Others are done in two days. The work definitely becomes more diagrammatic, but maybe more pure at the same time.

It would also seem likely to produce a less hospitable environment.

I disagree. People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that's both liberating and alarming. But the generic city, the general urban condition, is happening everywhere, and just the fact that it occurs in such enormous quantities must mean that it's habitable.

You make it sound like no one's in charge.

Architecture can't do anything that the culture doesn't. We all complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are completely similar. We say we want to create beauty, identity, quality, singularity. And yet, maybe in truth these cities that we have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides the best context for living.

So generic is not a dirty word?

Well, Singapore has succeeded, over the last 40 years, in removing any trace of authenticity. It is a culture of the contemporary. And many Asian cities are like this now, seeming to exist of nothing but copies - in many instances bad copies - of Western architecture. But actually, if you look closely you can perform another reading - you can see, for instance, that these copies are dealing differently with layering and with problems of density.

S,M,L,XL - why make a 1,344-page book about anything? Some people have said the book's physical bulk is a deliberate retort to the outpouring of "weightless" digital information.

Yes and no. What's interesting is that the book form itself has been threatened by a succession of media - film, TV, now electronics. It has survived, but each of these media has profoundly influenced it, changed its nature forever. So, in its physicality, S,M,L,XL is counter, but in its conception, it is analog: it is "against" the other media, but at the same time unthinkable without them.

So it wasn't simply your famous love of "Bigness"?

S, M, L, XL - I am passionate about every scale. But in the '70s and '80s, while the world was in the process of enlarging, architecture was subdividing; there was a self-marginalization, a fanatical attention to detail, even a language that was splintering. Bigness already existed, as the outcome of inventions such as steel and air-conditioning, but engineering was still being considered a mere afterthought and not a necessary complement to architecture. And in fact there seemed to be absolutely no conceivable connection between architecture and the driving forces in society. So the reason to consider Bigness was to find a way to align architecture with the bigness of the new climate.

You've also said, "I like thinking big. I always have. To me it's very simple: If you're going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big."

[Laughs.] That's also part of it.

Are you thinking Bigness on the MCA project?

There is an enormous, deliberate, and - I think - healthy discrepancy between what I write and what I do.

Do you have an idea of how the project will develop?

It's too early to say, but what interests me is that Universal City is a site of production - films are actually being made there - and of consumption - a vast theme park, hotels, et cetera. The "work" legitimizes the "pleasure." And since moviemaking is the driving theme, there is the suggestion of ever new additions to the canon. In that sense, Universal is fundamentally different from a place like Disney, where a fixed repertoire of ancient inventions is endlessly, morosely recycled. This project has to, and can, symbolize real vitality, real creativity.

For a long time, you didn't believe that building was the necessary outcome of designing, and in fact you've built only about 20 projects so far.

S,M,L,XL is deliberately seamless about this, trying to present an absolute equivalence between unbuilt and built, because in a way I think it's a moot point. Of course, it can be very inspiring to build things. But part of the goal of the book was to explore architecture that didn't come to fruition. I was also interested in showing the implications of failure - showing both the calculations and the miscalculations of projects.

The most romantic example of this is the story you tell about a house that the young Mies van der Rohe was commissioned by a wealthy woman to build. After having him design and construct a 1:1 scale model in canvas she abandoned the project. The story seemed to make a deep impression on you: "I suddenly saw him inside the colossal volume, a cubic tent vastly lighter and more suggestive than the somber and classical architecture it attempted to embody. I guessed - almost with envy - that this strange 'enactment' of a future house had drastically changed him was this canvas cathedral an acute flash-forward to another architecture?"

Yes! The impact on me was in the fact that the "cancellation" of the house was more dramatic, more important almost, than its realization. It's a sensation that later, as an architect, I became intimately familiar with.

If "the culture of the 20th century is the culture of congestion," what will the culture of the 21st be?

The culture of dissemination, dispersal.

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