Rem Koolhaas and the Post-Modern City, by Grahame Shane – May 1995
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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“Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on the dissecting-table”

-Lautreamont

The Rem Koolhaas show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York pointed to one of the key problematics of the post-Modern city, which is half fused with media hyperspace and advertising simulacra. Like many of his generation Koolhaas had intuitively understood the public relations dimension of the modernist urban project, long before the current scholarly interest in the rhetorical and staged aspects of Le Corbusier’s architecture and urbanism. This surrealist reading of the city image inspired much of the research for his Architectural Association thesis of 1971, the unpublished work on the Russian Constructivists or the appreciation of Luna Park and Harrison and Abramowitz in Delirious New York (1978).

In Koolhaas’s pioneering work, the image of the city became an important visual commodity, a promotional tool ironically derived from Surrealism. At MoMA, Koolhaas began with an extraordinary reading of the section of New York City as an automatic image machine tracking its media/publicity dimensions in a not-so-random but wandering approach to the exhibit. This sectional exploration and its dissonant simulacra are a key to Koolhaas’s urban projects, which were presented on a landing outside the Architecture Gallery. These urban projects attempt to poetically manipulate the repertoire of “Exquisite Corpses” that inhabit the post-Modern city-region, strange combinations of low density new towns, highly concentrated urban theme parks and massive shopping malls/office parks attached to highways. This imagist, “Musee lmaginaire” collage approach confronts its own paradoxical limitations in the “Big 3″ architectural projects displayed at the core of the exhibit in the inner sanctum of the MoMA Architecture Gallery.

SURREALISM, ARCHITECTURE AND PUBLICITY

The section of the city had a peculiar importance for the Surrealists since it cut behind bourgeois facades and revealed hidden interiors, buried canals of unseen services, providing pointers to the repressed, collective unconscious of the city. Through the section amazing and grotesque juxtapositions could be mapped, splendid opulence could be shown floating on a surface of abject poverty and filth (the Surrealists loved to tour the Parisian slaughter-houses and sewers). Normal codings could be reversed and thrown into question. At the MoMA installation Koolhaas’s subversion began with the placement of a long incendiary text in the subway exit of 666 Fifth Avenue, under the street across from the museum, perhaps 100 feet below the exhibit. The text was part of Koolhaas’s forthcoming volume Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large, a witty and nostalgic poem to the global economy, traditional, standardized mass production, sprawling suburbs, the “generic city” of the new post-Modern city-region and its alleged new center, the giant international airport (why only one?). The neat black monotype was artfully designed to avoid doors, knobs and mullions in the windows of a large empty store, a victim of the prolonged recession in New York’s economy.

Reeling from the underground assault, the museum visitors could pick up the sectional trail again at nearby newsstands in the styling, fashion and women’s magazines with interviews given by the architect. At street level, telephone booths carried further passionate messages from S,M,L, XL spotted by the AIA’s Oculus correspondent. Philip Johnson is said to have chuckled as he paused before the monotype posters tastefully announcing the ephemeral nature of the city on nearby street hoardings. These hoardings stand in front of the derelict townhouses to be demolished for a museum extension (they are posted above the cardboard boxes in which homeless people sleep on the street). Once inside the museum the messages continued. Ascending the escalators, the visitor could look down at a model of an elegant suburban house design with a rooftop swimming pool (positioned where Koolhaas’s and Kollhoff’s model of Leonidov’s enormous Palace of Heavy Industry project had been displayed in the Deconstructivist show). At the top of the escalators on the foyer landing Koolhaas’s voice could be heard talking about his Lille Project on a publicity videotape. The Architecture Gallery itself was filled with standard, cheaply made New York bus shelters whose large illuminated panels displayed four projects in place of the usual commercials. This surreal transposition, bringing the street furniture from the city into the windowless room, faced a blackboard, containing, in the architect’s inimitable scrawl, another manifesto for “Bigness” in five neo-modernist points, echoing the underground S, M,L, XL passages.

Koolhaas employed his thread of publicity as a narrative promenade woven through the section of the city up into the museum, in a gesture which attempted to recoup an avant-garde impulse of the Situationalist’s random “derive” or “drift,” long lost to manipulative commercial art and the advertising industry. The museum itself would never have employed such blatant propaganda techniques in its early drive for modern art and modernism. This mission has changed during the 1980′s as the earlier educational drive for modernism fell away and the Post-modern, entertainment, mall-like aspects of art consumption were amplified in the Caesar Pelli redesign of the facilities for a new commercialism. The abandonment of the didactic, model-filled room of projects by canonical European, modern, dead white architects (single projects by Mies, Le Corbusier, Aalto, the mummified model of Falling Water etc.) followed the larger shift in the museum towards contemporary work with corporate and wealthy individual sponsors. The evacuation of the canonical models left a void in the Architecture Gallery which occasioned the initial publicity events of the Koolhaas show. Bernard Tschumi came to be the first contemporary architect exhibited, mysteriously beating the Dutchman to the post as he had done at Parc de la Villette. Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of the New York Times; amplified this rivalry by his negative review of Tschumi’s show, positioning himself clearly in favor of Koolhaas. Shortly before the opening of his own show Koolhaas scored another publicity coup at the Times, a young reporter enthusiastically described the details of the architect’s lifestyle in the “Living” Section. In the end, Muschamp’s final review of Koolhaas was surprisingly cool, it appeared on a Friday and did not connect with the “Big” drive of the show, discoursing instead for half its length about the abstract, formal problem of placing a spiral in a cube (Muschamp preferred Peter Eisenman’s tiny show on urban archaeology at the C.C.A. in Montreal, giving it the premier slot on the Sunday after Koolhaas’s opening).

THE SURREALIST SECTION AND THE LAYERS OF THE POSTMODERN CITY

The approach to the exhibition, wandering through the city section and city media, gave a clue to the organizational layering of flows and the architect’s informational, imagistic vision of the city. Arriving at the landing at the top of the escalators in the foyer to the Architecture Gallery, with the crop-dusting helicopter permanently suspended overhead, Koolhaas’s video presentation reinforced this emphasis. He enthusiastically argued that the space-time compression flowing along the lines of the T. G.V.’s 180 mph trains would provide the momentum to lift the decaying textile town of Lille into the ranks of the best office parks of twenty-first century Europe. A vast model of the new complex stood close by the monitor, showing the old railway station and Jean Nouvel’s triangular shopping mall, which was linked to the T.G.V. station, positioned beside the highway system, surrounded by an enormous linear parking garage and straddled by a series of office buildings commissioned from a variety of architects. In the background loomed Koolhaas’s Congress Expo (Exhibition Hall-Convention Center), an enormous oval building located beside the highway and seen speeding by as an indistinct blur outside the architect’s Masserati windshield. To judge by the photos in Any #9 (October 1994, pp. 24-40), surrealist sectional magic was assured in the parabolic, concrete, dished roof “garden” of the vast Congress Expo building. Here the captured skyline and unusual roofscape may offer a rare and welcome respite from the circus of flows below.

The delicacy of the Surrealist’s relationship with advertising and commercial marketing becomes clear in Koolhaas’s delight in describing the marketing convention of Mazda salesmen in the Congress Expo building. Here hundreds of new cars and dealers could be united on stage. The architect’s enthusiasm accentuated the ability of the building to host publicity events on a vast scale and manipulate time in staged simulacra, commercial urban spectacles and media circuses. The merging of Surrealism and advertising in mass marketing becomes explicit, with architecture as its largely uncritical facilitator and handmaiden. These new, interior, urban media spaces are places of space-time compression mapped in the network of larger global communication, marketing and transportation flows. These internalized spaces attempt to concentrate vast new mass meetings and hyper-real publicity events, but have almost nothing to do with the traditional city, beside whose decontextualized corpse they are sited. Their creation is also dependent on international capital flows, in this case manipulated by the state to create a suitable real-estate package, set within a larger city-region.

For Koolhaas these interior spaces are crucial components in defining the image of the post- Modern city. Interior sectional revelation of surreal juxtapositions form the basis of Koolhaas’s urban image making in a collage of ready-made elements. Koolhaas’s voice-over on the video emphasized Lille’s new center as the interior, self referential sectional excitement of the ” Espace-Piranesian,” connecting to the T.G.V. Here his surrealist sectional predilections came clearly into focus. A monster, multi-level pedestrian interchange hall was dissected by escalators and overlooked by the highway, linking visually to the trains. Sectional transparency transforms urban transportation flows into a spectacle, hopefully very different from the utterly banal, state sponsored panopticon in the circular central space of the old Charles De Gaulle Airport outside Paris. His image of hyper-concentration, although greatly miniaturized for the small provincial town, echoed his heroes of the oil-rich Rockefeller dynasty, who planned the New York Rockefeller Center in the 1920′s and 1930′s. This real-estate venture and public relations effort (to cleanse their name after press revelations of their unscrupulous business methods) was an economic and urban disaster according to Robert Fitch in The Assassination of New York (1994). The construction of EuroLille demonstrated Koolhaas’s skill in this tradition of urban image making, moving Lille into the post-Modern commercial realm, employing largely interior, sectional, urban spaces and manipulations of the city skyline to project a positive and dynamic future.

While Koolhaas’s vocal commentary for hyper-congestion at Lille filled the foyer landing, the neighboring Melun-Senart project offered silent visual testimony of the complimentary city-media argument for dispersal. Using the “Exquisite Corpse” technique, the random distributions of the city section could be replicated in plan. Surrealists had passed a piece of paper around a table, each filling a space and folding the sheet to hide their contribution, creating a collective effort, the “Exquisite Corpse,” which would break the dominance of a single, centralized authorial voice. Chance juxtapositions would be assured, potentially revealing another glimpse into the repressed unconscious. At Melun-Senart the energy flows of the post-Modern city are woven across the landscape using a variation on Ian McHarg’s ecological analysis of landscapes in combination with the “Exquisite Corpse” random, collage technique. Koolhaas produced the city plan through a process of subtraction. Some landscapes were safeguarded for their agricultural, aesthetic or recreational value, as positive regional images which would enrich the city-media experience. Other territories were avoided as negative fields which would detract from the city-image, because they were polluted by negative environmental impacts, such as highway noise, noisy airport runway approaches, industrial wastes or electromagnetic energy from high tension wires. Diagrams presented the new town sectors as four distinct layers of attraction and repulsion which created a composite tartan of cellular activity and nodal points of interaction. The large, beautiful model mounted high on the foyer’s long wall glistened with copper inserts, bright colors and nonstandard elements symbolizing the variety of built environments and their interpenetration. Like the British Newtown Milton-Keynes of the 1970′s, the Melun-Senart plan romantically mimicked the standard logic of dispersed, American, tract development in Edge Cities producing diverse, widely segregated pockets of urban imagery and investment (Koolhaas had studied Atlanta’s growth).

The final model on the foyer landing brought together the themes of sectional space-time compression in the center and the peripheral, “Exquisite Corpse” layering of surreal plan analysis into one project. The project for Yokohama developed the logic of American multi-functional regional malls, whose parking lots house the cars of office workers, shoppers and cinema goers in shifts throughout the day (as at the Galleria complex in Houston). The Yokohama plan proposed a multi-functional city-center based on the car parks of an early morning fish market. The city-media image was accelerated to shift from early morning market to daytime shopping center and office park, to night club district in the evening. Functions were again woven in bands, this time in three dimensions around highway ramps and car park structures, producing a matrix of dense urban uses tightly programmed around the clock. The perspex model of this project, illuminated by different colored flashing lights, perhaps to represent different uses at different times, presented an image of accelerated flows and transparent connections as the post-Modern city mutated hourly in section. City-media here took on the problem of the ephemeral, accelerated, compressed, sound-bite quality of the architectural and urban image in the post-Modern city, as the prelude to the visitor’s entrance into the inner sanctum of the Architecture Gallery.

THE LIMITS OF SURREALISM AND THE VERTICAL PROJECTS

After all this public foreplay with tentacles stretching down into the subway, arrival at the inner sanctum was somewhat anti-climactic. A blue-gray light suffused the room, reflected from the gallery walls, which were plastered with mottled gray drawings, reminiscent of construction bluelines. These drawings, mounted directly on the walls like fly-posters for rock bands on New York streets, referred to the bus shelter directly in front of them. Amongst the matrix of bus shelters stood often enormous models mounted on big bases to raise them to eye level, each shimmering perspex cube almost rivaling the black mass of the shelter. The walls were strangely uninviting. The blue-gray light reflected off the walls conspired to make the gallery feel underlit, allowing the illuminated poster panels on the bus shelters to dominate, along with slides projected onto the building facades of the model for the Kahlsruhe Center For Art and Media Technology. The facade of this building thus became the central focus, an immaterial, constantly changing flow of information and images projected on a vast, urban billboard by a suspended, constantly clicking Kodak Carousel slide projector.

A large blackboard mounted floor to ceiling on the wall to the left of the entrance announced the logic of the Vertical Projects in the Gallery, contributing to a dark, penumbral, slightly funereal feel of the room. Unlike Tschumi’s brightly-lit, suspended, free floating installations, the buildings were displayed in a very static manner like dinosaurs’ bones in vast cases. Koolhaas’s handwritten text on the blackboard provided further grist to the city-media machine, re-echoing the theme of Bigness first broached in the subway perhaps 100 feet below. The blackboard urges that, “Bigness does not seem to deserve a manifesto; discredited as an intellectual problem, it is apparently on its way to extinction…, through clumsiness, slowness, inflexibility, difficulty. But in fact, only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields.”

Bigness in addition has the virtues of disrupting the scale considerations of classical canons, allowing the free play of modern machines and totally decontextualizing the architectural object (like convention centers, sports stadia and mega-malls).

The Vertical Projects further developed the logic of Lille and Yokohama. “Big” buildings were cities in themselves, the modernists’ dream of the ocean liner as self-contained community, detached from place, mobile and decontextualized. The ambition of the Vertical Projects, as at Yokohama, was to encapsulate and replicate the life of the city within one single building envelope or enclave, providing for a shifting and changing use throughout the day and over time. Sectional and plan juxtapositions derived from the Surrealists would be engineered to give an appearance of diversity and difference, despite the enormous unifying effort which concentrated regional, even national and international flows in one space. These buildings became total, parallel worlds, a self-referential hyper-space, like the Surrealist’s “Musee Imaginaire”, a largely unconscious, collective memory device or image bank which conditioned behavior for those within its confines. The bland exterior facades of the Vertical Projects were intended as blank boxes, masking the variety of interior life where flows would be articulated on ramps against fixed, functional uses contained in sculpted boxes (like miniature, interior cubic versions of the organization of Tatlin’s Tower, the Constructivist’s Monument to the Third International). The effects of media played a small role in these projects, which relied instead on a relatively conventional vocabulary of modernist, functional articulations to create the urban imagery of congestion, flows and activity. The “Espace Piranesian” of Lille proved prototypical in this self-referential effect, as in its emphasis on the spectacle of mass circulation and enormous scale.

The sectional organization and plan juxtapositions of the tiny, built, Rotterdam Kunsthal demonstrated in miniature the promised virtues of the other jumbo-sized projects in the Gallery. Each plan cell contains one function, one image. In section the project is like a split level ranch, connecting to the surrounding park on the lower level and highway on the upper level. A central fire safety box contains a fairly steep ramp connecting the levels and forming one cross axis. A service road passes through on the lower level parallel with the highway forming the other cross axis. The exhibition hall and auditorium are located in cells on either side of the ramp and step up in section to avoid the service road. The gallery is conventionally lit from plate glass windows, while the auditorium contains many nice lighting devices and small scale structural displays—animating the interior surfaces as in the earlier Netherlands Dance Theater. As in that theater, a cafe is hidden under the slope of the auditorium floor in a beautiful, crypt-like space, lit by artificial light. The vertical fire-safety service core is extended onto the roof to carry a billboard and projection screen visible from the highway.

The sequence of larger Vertical Projects appeared to propose both larger boxed partitions and a more dynamic interplay between partitions and ramps in plan. In each project Koolhaas rapidly proceeds to try to break down these monster programs into intelligible distinct cells with distinct images, set within the secure perimeter of the cubic enclave. The huge model of the Tres Grand Bibliotheque of 1989 nicely illustrated this strategy with its plaster-cast white programmatic elements distributed like sculpted organs throughout the section of the vast building. As at Yokohama, each plaster-cast cell contained its own distinct program and image, this time vertically layered inside the grid of Maison Domino – like library stacks, with elevator cores providing the vertical connections. The Karlsruhe project appeared to keep the boxed interior cell-image partitions of Rotterdam, but with escalators in a separate boxed zone which wandered past the vertically stacked partitioned rooms and linked outside to the nearby station. As at Rotterdam it was the exterior of the building which acted as a publicity billboard, addressing the center of the city on the other side of the railway tracks. In the library for the University of Paris at Jussieu of 1992 the vertical sectional juxtapositions were this time married to a spiraling ramp perhaps inspired by Wright’s Guggenheim or Mike Webb’s “Sin City” Project of the Archigram years (setting off Muschamp’s musings). In the Jussieu project the spiral also weaves down through the podium of the miserable, existing monument to French bureaucratic modernism in a surprising attempt to link the sterile dinosaur to its small-scale historic surrounding neighborhood.

The Vertical Projects demonstrated the limits of the surrealist impulse as it became imbedded in the logic of the state bureaucratic apparatus. These were totally controlled, interior environments very different from the libertarian impulse of the Situationist technique of sectional, narrative “Derive,” or the Surrealist techniques of the “Exquisite Corpse” or the “Musee Imaginaire.” Slowly I began to read the penumbral lighting and funereal tone of the inner sanctum as a typically ironic performance by Koolhaas, framing the public display of these vast corpses in a temporary graveyard, a suitable resting place for such megalomaniac urban and architectural aberrations of the late 80′s and early 90′s. The tawdry bus shelters, gray walls and apocalyptic blackboard pronouncements reinforced this impression. In this suggested reading Koolhaas’s use of subdued lighting and aggressive public relations skills masked a display of self doubt, lacerating his modernist soul in public in the blue-gray haze of the Gallery, before the required arrogant display of monumental certainty.

CONCLUSION

The Vertical Projects also revealed the limitation of the Surrealist critique, as the projects collapsed over the edge of “Bigness” into either a commercial or a political quagmire. The cult of “Bigness” is one of centralization and standardization, once favored by modernist corporations and symbolically represented by the Rockefellers. It was also beloved by dictators in many ages, ranging from the Pharaohs to Napoleon, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler etc. Koolhaas’s pre-emptive defensive strikes on the theme of “Bigness” seek to deflect criticism from the weakness of the situation in which he finds himself. The funereal tone of the inner sanctum was no accident in a period of dispersal and miniaturization, cheap CD-ROMs, the World Wide Web and Internet, mass home computer ownership and global communication so crucial to the “generic” city- media machine. Paradoxically the two largest Vertical Projects displayed were in a direct line of descent from the megalomaniac schemes of Boullee for a gigantic Bibliotheque National at the time of the French Revolution. Here all global information would be centralized, ordered by the state and disseminated to the people on a vast scale in a monumental setting. Totalitarian logic distrusted people and relied on a superior central intelligence to educate and to guide the general population like sheep, using terror if necessary.

The Surrealist’s joke of the “Musee Imaginaire,” a collective imaginative space of random juxtapositions based on the dream work of Freudian analysis, could be adapted to authoritarian traditions. The cult of imagery and hyper-reality could easily be manipulated to serve politicians and big business, massaging populations via the media to accept new visions of society or buy new products. Neither Surrealism nor Modernism was immune from this manipulative impulse. Salavador Dali opted for Franco and the Church, while Aragon and others became Communists despite Stalin. Meanwhile countless advertising agencies have drawn upon Surrealist works. Manfredo Tafuri in Architecture and Utopia demonstrated how the utopian and dystopian impulses became integrated into the process of capitalist, industrial-state production through the dream of a central controller, a single controlling imagination or point of view. The integrating element of Koolhaas’s surreal theater of operations is precisely the dream of controlling the imagination of the controller, through publicity images coordinating state and commercial planning (thus the inventory of ready-made projects devoted to post- Modern diversity, malls, office parks etc.). As a media artist the architect seeks control of the urban image, which has become a commodity at play in the marketing strategies of state or private developers attempting to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Koolhaas’s tomb to the unbuilt Vertical Projects at MoMA beautifully demonstrated his awareness of this difficult megalomaniac situation, while simultaneously trying to distance himself, subverting the normal devices of publicity to his own ironic and poetic ends, attempting an impossible demonstration of transcendent personal independence.

Grahame Shane

 

O.M.A./Rem Koolhaas, Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, Germany, 1991.

 

O.M.A./Koolhaas, Urban Ring, Yokohama, Japan, 1992.

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