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“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….”
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 …