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The Master of Bigness

OMA/Progress

an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, October 6, 2011–February 19, 2012
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OMA
A rendering of the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm, OMA, in partnership with the engineering firm Arup. Begun in 2004, the building is now largely completed but has yet to be occupied.

1.

With his prodigious gift for invention, shrewd understanding of communication techniques, and contagiously optimistic conviction that modern architecture and urban design still possess enormous untapped potential for the transformation of modern life, no master builder since Le Corbusier has offered a more impressive vision for a brighter future than the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. To be sure, there are other present-day architects also at the very apex of the profession who do certain things better than he does. Robert Venturi is a finer draftsman and a more elegant writer; Denise Scott Brown has a more empathetic feel for the social interactions that inform good planning; and Frank Gehry displays a sharper eye for sculptural assemblage and a keener instinct for popular taste. But when it comes to sheer conceptual audacity and original thinking about the latent possibilities of the building art, Koolhaas today stands unrivaled.

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Kenji Ekuan
A collage rendering of the Metabolist Kenji Ekuan’s Dwelling City, 1964; from Project Japan

Through his Rotterdam-based practice, the Office for Metropolitan Archi- tecture—OMA—and its research-and- development division, AMO, Koolhaas has conceived some of the most daring schemes of the past four decades, ranging in scale from mammoth undertakings like Euralille of 1987–1994 (the reconfiguration of the northern French city of Lille with a new high-speed railway hub, commercial center, and convention hall) and De Rotterdam of 1997–2013 (three interconnected mixed-use towers that will be the biggest building in Holland) to exquisite smaller structures including the Casa da Música of 2001–2005 in Porto, Portugal (an ark-like concert hall), and the Netherlands Embassy of 1997–2003 in Berlin (the finest work to rise in the German capital since reunification).

The full range of Koolhaas’s building career was on view at London’s Barbican Art Gallery this year in a sprawling and exhilarating exhibition entitled “OMA/Progress.” Designed by the Brussels firm Rotor, the installation conveyed the messy vitality of the OMA aesthetic through staccato text and vibrantly overloaded visual effects. The retrospective featured a nonstop, random projection of all 3.5 million images stored in OMA’s database, which made it impossible for any one person to see its contents in toto, a characteristically Koolhaasian conundrum.

The Barbican show—which included colored printouts casually pinned to wallboards or taped to the floor, huge unframed floorplans suspended from the ceiling, and rough-looking models strewn about—had the pleasantly disheveled air of an architectural office the morning after an all-night charrette to meet a competition deadline. Unlike some firms of its stature, OMA continues to participate in such contests, which many architectural stars avoid as beneath them and a waste of time and money.

As Le Corbusier did, Koolhaas knows that the power of presentation, verbal as well as visual, is a crucial (and perhaps the decisive) element in the realization of the building art. Following the great Swiss-French master’s profitable example, Koolhaas has produced several hugely popular books, including two perennial touchstones among the young: Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978) and S, M, L, XL (1995).

Koolhaas’s latest volume, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks… (written with Hans Ulrich Obrist), pays tribute to the Metabolists, the mid-twentieth-century Japanese architects at the forefront of that country’s rebuilding after the devastation of World War II, led by the elder statesman of non-Western modernism, Kenzo Tange. This heavily illustrated and engagingly discursive oral history was undertaken in 2005 (the year of Tange’s death at the age of ninety-one) to record the testimony of the surviving Metabolists, and it is destined to become a definitive reference.

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Kiyonori Kikutake
A collage rendering of the Metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake’s Stratiform Structure Module, 1972; from Project Japan

In common with all of Koolhaas’s publications, one can readily detect that Project Japan actually concerns the author and his own interests as much as its ostensible subject. In this case, the Metabolists’ obsessive fixation on futuristic megastructures—stupendous agglomerations of superscaled buildings and integrated urban transport and other infrastructure meant to extend over many square miles, sometimes atop shallow bodies of water like Tokyo Bay, none of which were fully executed—has long been shared by the Dutch architect, who like his older Japanese counterparts in the Metabolists group has sought ingenious ways to overcome the severe geographic constraints of his tiny, sea-bound, and populous homeland.

2.

Artists of genius generally wish to appear as though they emerged fully formed, and Koolhaas is no exception. A scion of the Dutch avant-garde cultural elite, Remment Lucas Koolhaas was born in Rotterdam in 1944, at the onset of the Hongerwinter (hunger winter), that final ordeal of the five-year Nazi occupation of Holland. His polymathic father, Anton Koolhaas, was an esteemed journalist, author of beloved fables about anthropomorphic animals in the manner of Kenneth Grahame and George Orwell, and the scenarist for two Academy Award–nominated documentaries.

The elder Koolhaas was also an ardent advocate of independence for the Dutch East Indies. In 1949 the Netherlands granted autonomy to Indonesia, and three years later Sukarno, the new country’s first president, invited him to run a cultural program there, whereupon the writer moved his family to Jakarta. That four-year immersion in a third-world society—“I really lived as an Asian,” the architect has reminisced—was a central factor in fostering his uncommonly broad worldview, which gave him a distinct advantage when the globalization of architectural practice began to accelerate as he hit his professional stride decades later.

Following his father’s example, the young Koolhaas initially turned to journalism and screenwriting. In 1963, when he was eighteen, he began working for De Haagse Post, a right-liberal weekly published in The Hague, where he designed layouts and wrote on a wide range of political, social, and cultural topics. He later cowrote an ultimately unproduced movie script, Hollywood Tower, for the soft-porn director Russ Meyer, auteur of such camp classics as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965).

There were other family influences as well. Koolhaas’s maternal grandfather was Dirk Roosenburg (1887–1962), a vanguard architect in whose studio the boy made some of his earliest architectural drawings. Roosenburg’s best-known work was the Philips electronics company’s Lichttoren (light tower) of 1920–1928 in Eindhoven, a concrete-and-glass Art Deco office-and-laboratory building internally illuminated throughout the night like some twentieth-century Pharos—just the sort of romantic Modernism that Koolhaas evokes in his most imaginative speculations.

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Seattle Public Library
The reading room of the OMA-designed Seattle Central Library, completed in 2004

After studying at the experimentally oriented Architectural Association in London and later at Cornell (where he sought out the influential theorist O.M. Ungers), Koolhaas became the prime mover behind the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which he founded in 1975 with the Greek architect Elia Zenghelis (under whom he had studied at the AA) and their respective spouses, the artists Madelon Vriesendorp and Zoe Zenghelis. Koolhaas has a domestic life not unlike that portrayed in Anthony Kimmins’s film comedy The Captain’s Paradise (1953) by Alec Guinness, who plays a ferryboat skipper who shuttles between a wife and a mistress in separate ports. Vriesendorp makes her home in London, but since the mid-1980s her husband has lived in Holland with the Dutch designer Petra Blaisse, who has collaborated on several OMA projects, including the interiors of the Seattle Central Library of 1999–2004. (The Koolhaases’ daughter, Charlie, is a photographer who did the principal illustrations for Project Japan, and their son, Tomas, is a cinematographer who is making a documentary film on the architect titled Rem.)

Vriesendorp created the most celebrated image in Delirious New York, which first brought her husband to international attention. The painter’s architectural fantasy Apres l’amour depicts an apparently postcoital Empire State Building and Chrysler Building lying side by side on a rumpled bed. In between them is what looks like a discarded condom but turns out to be a deflated Goodyear blimp—a sly reminder that the Empire State’s spire was originally intended as a dirigible mooring mast (an idea abandoned as too dangerous.)

Beyond such provocative erotic metaphors—the antithesis of the coolly technocratic renderings that typified postwar corporate modernism—what makes Delirious New York so unforgettable is its author’s deep insights into the psychohistory of urbanism: the ways in which the often unacknowledged or unexpressed ethos of a city is embodied in its architecture. Koolhaas’s almost cinematic exploration of Manhattan’s subconscious architectural mystique had an especially tonic effect on the collective civic consciousness when it first appeared, just three years after the fiscal crisis of 1975 brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy. Even at Gotham’s lowest ebb, Koolhaas never lost sight of the imaginative heights this greatest of metropolises could yet again attain.

3.

An entire book could (and in due course undoubtedly will) be written about Koolhaas’s spectacular trio of failed American museum proposals immediately before and after the millennium: an expansion of the Museum of Modern Art (1997) and an addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art (2001–2003), both in New York City, and a reconfiguration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2002). (In 2001, he completed the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at the Venetian casino-hotel in Las Vegas, but that small branch gallery, a consortium between the eponymous art institutions in New York and St. Petersburg, closed in 2008 after it lost too much money.) Koolhaas’s inability to either win or complete these three high-profile assignments in the most conspicuous architectural category of the past several decades says much about the frequently confrontational nature of his vision.

In the limited competition for the MoMA job, ten invited participants (among whom Koolhaas was by far the best-known) were asked to present broadly conceptual ideas. His irreverent scheme included two elements that irreparably offended the search committee’s amour propre: he proposed transforming Philip Johnson and James Fanning’s sacrosanct Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden of 1953 into a sunken plaza not unlike the Rockefeller Center ice-skating rink. Even more insolently, he would have surmounted a seven-story addition atop Johnson’s 1964 wing with a billboard emblazoned “MoMA, Inc.”

Had the nonagenarian Johnson, a big fan of Koolhaas’s, not been in his dotage and thus out of the selection process, he likely would have defended such bad-boy tactics as precisely the reinvigorating shock MoMA needed to jolt it back to its revolutionary roots. But absent the crafty old power broker, the merits of Koolhaas’s scheme were overlooked and the job—which had been assumed to be his for the asking—passed instead to Yoshio Taniguchi. His decorous but chilly design, which combines the dismal immensity of an airport terminal with the disorienting placelessness of a convention center, fulfilled the Dutchman’s sardonic prophecy about the once-pathbreaking museum’s increasingly corporate character. Though Koolhaas’s impudence could be interpreted as professional suicide, one still cannot help but marvel at his critical bravery.

Four years after the MoMA debacle, the Whitney turned to Koolhaas in another attempt to add to Marcel Breuer’s stubbornly unexpandable Brutalist monolith of 1963–1966. During the 1980s, Michael Graves had produced three increasingly unsatisfactory versions of a pompous Postmodern enlargement that would have engulfed the original building in a welter of fussy classicizing polychromy, which was dropped after strenuous community opposition. Koolhaas’s far more radical plan called for a curved superstructure to be inserted behind the landmarked brownstones adjacent to the museum, an appendage that would have risen up and hovered over the Breuer building like a monstrous cobra. The Whitney abandoned that nonstarter after two years of even more vocal neighborhood protest.

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