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The Sky’s the Limit

S,M,L,XL (Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large)

by Rem Koolhaas, by Bruce Mau, edited by Jennifer Sigler, photography by Hans Werlemann
Monacelli Press, 1,344 pp., $75.00

1.

Never trust an architect. If you see one, toss a dime onto the street; he will bend over. Give him a kick, and carry on walking.”

—Gerrit Komrij, Dutch poet

During the sixth century before Christ, King Nebuchadnezzar built a city in Babylon. It was the most fabulous city in the world, with walls thirty meters high, and terraced gardens, and temples, and, of course, the model for the biblical Tower of Babel itself, ninety-one meters in height and ninety-one meters wide, the biggest, tallest building ever made by man. By the time Herodotus saw the city, a hundred years later, it was already in ruins, conquered first by the Persians, then by troops led by Xerxes. Of the great tower he saw just the bare remains.

The Babel story has come to us as a biblical parable of hubris, of the vain attempt of human beings to act like gods and build toward Heaven. It is also a story about the diversity of languages, and the loss of comprehension, when we lose the ground under our feet and think the sky is the limit. As the Tower grew higher and higher, God turned to the Celestial Council and said: “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” In Babylon, the Tower was known as Babi-lu, the “Gate of God.” The Jews called it Babel, which is close to bilbul, the Hebrew word for confusion.

Tales of architectural hubris, ending in destruction, are poignant, because they are about human folly, to be sure, but also about the power of dreams. Many dictators like to be architects, and too many architects have liked dictators. Designing the ideal city is an ancient ambition of utopian visionaries, from Plato to Le Corbusier. But visions of Heaven on earth can easily end up looking like Hell, which is why architects often are hated with a passion reserved for few other professions. We have to live in their flawed dreams. And yet their enterprise remains a source of endless fascination, because architecture, perhaps more than any other art, demonstrates both the grandeur and the fragility of human aspiration.

Rem Koolhaas, the architect, has grand ideas about how to build modern cities, and they are discussed, imitated, analyzed, praised, and criticized all over the world, but he is not a utopian thinker, and he has a shrewd idea of the architect’s limitations. Architecture, he said in a lecture at Rice University, “is a dangerous profession because it is a poisonous mixture of impotence and omnipotence, in the sense that the architect almost invariably harbors megalomaniacal dreams that depend upon others, and upon circumstances, to impose and to realize….”1

Yet there is more than a whiff of Babylon about Koolhaas and his work. He is so deliberately peripatetic, commuting between Europe, East Asia, and the US, sometimes in the space of one week, so utterly borderless, so fiercely suspicious of native identity, that he is almost a caricature of cosmopolitan hubris. As an architect, he is fascinated not by Paris, Rome, or Amsterdam, but by Manhattan, Tokyo, and Singapore. He has become obsessed by the notion of bigness, of Extra Large. Sheer size, he believes, creates Babylonian complexities that no architect can hope to control, and that is precisely the beauty of it; skyscrapers and other outsized buildings contain so much human activity that they become autonomous cities in themselves. Confusion, in a way, is an asset. Koolhaas is an aficionado of “Babel-like multilevel car parks,” “proto-atriums,” and “mixed-use towers.”

His latest book, which, like his earlier Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan,2 is fast acquiring cult status, is a Tower of Babel of a book: thicker than a Bible (Old and New Testaments), heavier than a dictionary, denser with signs, meanings, texts, and images than Times Square. As he put it to me, over a nice cup of English tea in his quiet, uncluttered apartment on a genteel Victorian street in North London: “It is the kind of book you cannot really produce any more. Yet we produced it.”

We” includes the Canadian designer Bruce Mau, whose contribution is visible on every page, since this is a designed as much as a written book. And credit is also given to OMA, Koolhaas’s office based in Rotterdam. OMA stands for Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which is, in the author’s own opinion, “a very pretentious name, compared to which almost any realization may be found wanting.”3 This is typical of Koolhaas. He has the modesty to be aware of his own megalomania. S,M,L,XL is a perfect example of his theory of bigness. “Beyond a certain critical mass,” he writes, “a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.”

The book is made up of many autonomous parts: autobiographical sketches, architectural plans, some built, many abandoned, philosophical asides, historical anecdotes, photographs, cartoons, city maps, and a kind of personal lexicon in the margins consisting of random jottings such as (I choose at random): “GLOBAL: I think of myself being global. I see myself participating in global activities: sitting in jets, talking to machines, eating small geometric food, and voting over the phone.”

It is an absurdly grandiose piece of work. But it is also one of the wittiest, most original, stimulating documents I have read on any subject for a long time. For the parts do form a whole. Koolhaas is one of the few architects who can write about architectural theory lucidly, with a sense of humor. Some of his ideas may be wildly over the top, but they make you think again, about cities, politics, art, and culture. Koolhaas is important, because he has come up with a bold defense of modern architecture at a time when architecture is often timid, defensive, even reactionary—at least in Europe. His enthusiasm takes you to some unexpected places: Atlanta, Fukuoka, Singapore, cities where they still build as if there is no tomorrow—or yesterday.

2.

Rem Koolhaas was born in 1944 in Rotterdam, the eldest son of a famous Dutch writer called Anton Koolhaas. From 1952 to 1956, he lived in Indonesia, which he thinks might have given him a taste for Asian city life. He graduated from high school in Amsterdam, worked as a journalist, made experimental films, wrote scripts in Hollywood, studied architecture in London and New York, taught at Columbia and UCLA, and made his name writing Delirious New York. This was followed by competitions and commissions in the Netherlands, and later in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Japan. OMA was founded in 1974, and influenced a generation of Dutch architects. The typical school of OMA building has a curved roof, sloping floors, and the look of an elegantly designed industrial plant. Typical school of OMA people are steeped in Koolhaas’s ideas, and even diction. I got a taste of this at the OMA office in Rotterdam, when I asked a member of the staff if the common use of cheap industrial materials was based on aesthetic or economic considerations. The man sighed, in the way Marxists used to sigh when confronted by people who were yet to see the light. “We don’t use the word aesthetic,” he said. “It is a question of program and utilization.” Oh, I said.

Holland is not a country that inspires people to think big. Dutch architecture, old and new, is notable for its lack of Babylonian pretentions. Unlike the British in India, the Dutch left no monumental buildings in their colonies either. There is a Dutch phrase, often quoted to sum up the national attitude toward art and life: “If you behave normally, you are quite mad enough.” Modern Dutch architecture can be elegant, but is rarely mad, or indeed extra large. The greatest twentieth-century architects, such as Berlage, Oud, or Rietveld, shared Mondrian’s genius for compact, rational design; no Lutyens-like frivolity, no Gaudí-like fantasy, no Sullivan-like towers, but clean grids, modest dimensions, and straight lines. Most of Koolhaas’s Dutch work, despite his fondness for sloping roofs and floors, still echoes this tradition.

His low-income housing project in the north of Amsterdam, completed in the 1980s, is a model of Dutch sobriety. Built on a former dock site, with a view of the harbor, the IJ-plein project consists of rows of five-floor apartment blocks, a school, a supermarket, and various other neighborhood facilities, separated by a strip of lawn from another series of slightly taller dwellings. It is an early work, done cheaply, but there are already typical Koolhaas touches. What looks at first sight like a set of dull housing blocks, and a stretch of grass, is actually a small self-contained neighborhood. School, shops, playgrounds, lawns, and streets are woven together in such a way as to encourage social life. What could have been a suburb is something more like an autonomous town. And although it was built only a decade ago, it has the atmosphere of an old Amsterdam district: neighbors chat outside their doors, children play soccer in the street, and so on. No architect can design atmosphere; it is made by the people who live in it. But Koolhaas’s project has the scale and flexibility that allow them to do so. It is an early indication of Koolhaas’s interest in cities rather than just buildings.

The odd thing, given his theoretical predilection, is that Koolhaas has yet to build a skyscraper.4 But he can be very good on a small scale. He has just finished designing a tiny gallery in New York (Lehmann Maupin on Greene Street)—his first completed project in the US. Also this year he designed a public lavatory in the Netherlands, with splendid Delft-blue photographs on the walls—“the most expensive toilet in Holland.” In 1988, he built a house for friends in Rotterdam. The photographs in S,M,L,XL show a steel and glass box, with glass walls and sliding doors divided in panels of clean, straight lines, much like a three-dimensional Mondrian grid. But there is something strange about this house, something more Japanese than Dutch. In the middle of the house is a patio with mobile walls, which can be rearranged or disappear altogether, like the paper sliding doors of a traditional Japanese house. And the floor of the patio, above a gym, is made of glass. The effect is one of flexibility and transparency, a feature of many Koolhaas buildings, S, M, L, or XL. The other effect of the flexible, translucent patio is that you can feel both inside and outside. The border between dwelling and nature is deliberately blurred.

  1. 1

    Rem Koolhaas: Conversations with Students (Architecture at Rice Publications, Houston/Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1996), p. 12.

  2. 2

    Delirious New York was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1978, and reissued by Monacelli Press in 1994.

  3. 3

    Conversations with Students, p. 12.

  4. 4

    He is currently working on a truly Babylonian project in Bangkok: a kind of city in the sky called Hyper Building, which will take a century to build.

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