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The Master of Bigness

Philippe Ruault
The cantilevered overhang of the CCTV building in Beijing; from the Barbican’s ‘OMA/Progress’ exhibition

The best of Koolhaas’s three lost museum schemes was for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which asked him to bring coherence to its jumble of dated 1960s Space Age–style pavilions. He immediately envisioned a drastic but brilliant solution: he called for the architectural equivalent of cutting the entire complex off at the ankles, leaving the footprints of the existing galleries and circulation routes intact, and then covering everything inside the oblong periphery of the multi-acre site with a gigantic bubble roof that suggested an inflatable tennis court shelter.

In one bold stroke, LACMA would have gained the unified and monumental civic presence it has always lacked. Instead, like the Whitney, the LA museum turned to Renzo Piano, the default-mode master of predictably safe and supposedly timeless institutional modernism. Alas, Piano’s incremental boxes (the compromised Broad Contemporary Art Museum of 2003–2008 and the warehouse-like Resnick Pavilion of 2007–2010) have only exacerbated LACMA’s organizational mess.

Apart from his short-lived Vegas display space, Koolhaas’s only executed art gallery remains his Kunsthal of 1987–1992 in Rotterdam, a temporary exhibition facility with flexible galleries arranged around a squared-off helix of interior ramps that lead visitors almost effortlessly from level to level, without the now-ubiquitous escalators that give so many contemporary museums (including Taniguchi’s MoMA) the air of a shopping mall. Koolhaas used this same low-tech internal circulation for his largest work in the US, the Seattle Central Library, which was enthusiastically received upon its completion in 2004.

Koolhaas’s Seattle project perfectly demonstrates his fundamental disdain for a major preoccupation of bien-pensant architects since the 1960s—“contextualism,” or designing a building to fit in with earlier structures near it. Given the dreary array of banal 1960s and 1970s high-rises that surround the entire city block dedicated to the new library, one can second his belief that it would have been futile to make any accommodating gestures toward such a negligible setting.

Wisely, he devised a blockbusting composition: an angular pile-up of prism-like glass layers wrapped in white-painted, diamond-patterned steel latticework that forcefully establishes itself by ignoring everything around it. In continuation of a modernist tradition that began with Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox’s Crystal Palace of 1850–1851 in London, the open, soaring, light-flooded interior of the Seattle Central Library provides a majestic public space that suggests that the activities taking place within it are of singular importance to the community—something that architectural neoconservatives have wrongly insisted lies beyond the emotional capacity of the modern design vocabulary.


Koolhaas is inexorably drawn to the architecture of state power, and is fascinated by earlier architects attuned to power regardless of its source. None of the great twentieth-century masters was more assiduous in his willingness to work for clients of any political stripe, from Communists to Nazis and all stops in between, than Koolhaas’s idol Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But whereas Mies’s design genius might excuse much guilt by association, it is hard to fathom Koolhaas’s perverse fondness for Wallace K. Harrison, a modestly accomplished establishment Modernist known mainly as the Rockefeller family’s de facto court architect.

Harrison’s in-law relationship to the Rockefellers gave him initial entrée, and he went on to oversee several gargantuan commissions under their sponsorship, including the collaboratively designed United Nations Headquarters of 1949–1952, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts of 1959–1969 in Manhattan, and the Empire State Plaza of 1959–1976 in Albany, which he designed (at the behest of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller) with his longtime partner, Max Abramovitz. Koolhaas—who mounted a quixotic exhibition honoring the aged and démodé Harrison at New York’s avant-garde Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in 1979—has been particularly intrigued by the architect’s hypothetical X-City of 1946, proposed by the real estate developer William Zeckendorf for the Manhattan site later donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to the UN—a configuration resurrected by Koolhaas in Eurolille’s dated enfilade of slab-sided high-rises.

Prada Transformer/OMA
A rendering of the tetrahedron-shaped Prada Transformer building in Seoul, South Korea, designed to be rotated depending on use and completed in 2009; from the Barbican’s ‘OMA/Progress’ exhibition

As for his own relations with power, Koolhaas harbors no discernible qualms about abetting a state-controlled propaganda agency of the current Chinese dictatorship. Following the example of architects from time immemorial, he has gone where the work is, and during the past decade that means China, where his major projects include the Shenzen Stock Exchange of 2006–2011, a monolithic, Miesian tower surrounded by a projecting “base” hoisted six stories above ground level by massive diagonal struts.

What is likely to remain Koolhaas’s most controversial commission is now nearing completion in Beijing: the 4.2-million-square-foot China Central Television Headquarters, begun in 2004 and now at least three years behind its original estimated occupancy date, with an estimated cost of more than $800 million. (A disastrous 2009 fire, which destroyed the OMA-designed hotel next to the giant structure, was largely responsible for the delay.)

The CCTV building brings to mind a twice-as-large, deconstructed version of Johann Otto van Spreckelsen’s Grande Arche de la Défense of 1982–1989 in Paris, one of the most visible, if least distinguished, of the grands projets initiated by President François Mitterrand. (Significantly, OMA lost the 1991 competition for an extension to La Défense, the office building district created just outside the city limits to spare central Paris from high-rise development.)

Despite their striking disparity in size—the CCTV structure is 768 feet high, the equivalent of a seventy-story tower, while the Grande Arche is the equivalent of only thirty-five stories—both are approximate cubes that inscribe a vast void within their clearly defined outlines. But whereas Spreckelsen’s slab-sided squared-off arch is dully static, the vertiginously off-kilter CCTV headquarters is a tour de force of high-tech engineering, orchestrated by Cecil Balmond of the London-based structural consultancy Arup.

The glass-and-metal-skinned Beijing behemoth is basically a pair of slightly inward-leaning L-shaped towers on two opposing corners of a vast square, and joined at the top by a breathtaking right-angled cantilevered overhang that imbues the composition with gravity-defying bravado. The horizontal and vertical elements interconnect in a continuous series of eight segments, a snakelike circulation system quite unlike that of any other office-and-broadcasting facility.

With a plethora of bizarre new architecture engulfing them, baffled Beijingers have devised a new architectural lexicon recalling the wry coinages long perfected by witty Berliners, who, for example, have dubbed the glass dome of Norman Foster’s Reichstag renovation of 1992–1999 die Käseglocke (the cheese cover). Thus the two-legged CCTV colossus has become colloquially known as da kucha (big pants crotch). In trying to preempt a sarcastic nickname of this sort, officials wanted to get locals to refer to the CCTV building as zhi chuan—knowledge window—a pretentious choice that backfired because of its close homophonic echo of zhi chuang—hemorrhoid.

But whatever moniker people adopt, one can predict that they will be beguiled by the highly unusual and equally controlled tourist route that is being built through the CCTV nerve center. Visitors will be able to navigate the premises in one nonstop loop while never disturbing day-to-day activities, a sure-fire public relations coup that will confer a bogus semblance of transparency on what of course is anything but an open operation.

CCTV arises amid the urban free-for-all of Beijing’s Central Business District, a chaotic cityscape that makes 1980s Houston seem like Haussmann’s Paris. To counter that urban miasma, Koolhaas (and his design partner for this project, the German architect Ole Scheeren) applied a strategy explicated in Koolhaas’s 1994 manifesto, “Bigness, or the Problem of Large,” which enumerates five “theorems,” some of them evident in the Beijing scheme:

1. Beyond a certain critical mass, 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….
2. …Issues of composition, scale, proportion, detail are now moot.
The “art” of architecture is useless in Bigness.
3. In Bigness, the distance between core and envelope increases to the point where the façade can no longer reveal what happens inside. The humanist expectation of “honesty” is doomed….
Where architecture reveals, Bigness perplexes; Bigness transforms the city from a summation of certainties into an accumulation of mysteries. What you see is no longer what you get.
4. Through size alone, such buildings enter an amoral domain, beyond good or bad.
Their impact is independent of their quality.
5. Together, all these breaks—with scale, with architectural composition, with tradition, with transparency, with ethics—imply the final, most radical break: Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue.
It exists; at most, it coexists.
Its subtext is fuck context.

Such morally laissez-faire attitudes infuriate Koolhaas’s detractors, who see him as pandering to the basest market-driven impulses in a world that has largely abandoned the social vision of the early Modernists as either pragmatically impossible or impossibly utopian. As if to endow his free-floating Realarchitektur with legitimate parentage, he has championed a reappreciation of the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who during the full flood of socially responsive design in the 1960s and early 1970s were similarly denounced for what some saw as their all-too-willing embrace of commercialism, epitomized by their incendiary study Learning from Las Vegas (1972) and its codification of the American roadside vernacular.

A rendering of the planned Dubai Renaissance high-rise building, on hold indefinitely; from the Barbican’s ‘OMA/Progress’ exhibition

Venturi and Scott Brown’s position, however, was no unprincipled acquiescence to capitalist imperatives, but a resigned acceptance that these are conditions that all present-day practitioners—even high-style architects—must deal with, like it or not. A similar uproar greeted the 2001 publication of The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, a comprehensive analysis of retail design that emerged from a course that Koolhaas taught at the university and focused on today’s all-pervasive global consumer economy.

Two other books have emerged from similar studies led by Koolhaas as part of his Project on the City at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he has been a visiting professor since 1995. Investigating what he has described as “a new type of metropolis that we have called a ‘city of exacerbated difference,’” Koolhaas and his students have focused on such immense ad hoc conurbations as five rapidly expanding cities in China’s Pearl River Delta (Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzen, and Zhuhai), subject of Great Leap Forward (2002), and Nigeria’s biggest city, analyzed in Lagos: How It Works (2008).

These seminars are based on Scott Brown and Venturi’s now-famous 1968 Yale course that led to Learning from Las Vegas. But whereas they and their class gathered data by driving along and photographing the Strip, Koolhaas has admitted that he and his team were too scared by Lagos’s chaos to exit their vehicle, and instead rented the president of Nigeria’s helicopter to survey the city by air. “What seemed, on ground level, an accumulation of dysfunctional movements, seemed from above an impressive performance, evidence of how well Lagos might perform if it were the third largest city in the world,” he later wrote. Traffic jams became occasions for people to make sales.

Some critics consider both his subject matter and methodology de-haut-en-bas slumming. As George Packer wrote in The New Yorker in 2006:

That impulse to look at an “apparently burning garbage heap” and see an “urban phenomenon,” and then make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all.

In much the same way that artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami have appropriated ideas put forward by Andy Warhol and taken them to extremes the originator could scarcely have imagined, so has Koolhaas proceeded from Venturi and Scott Brown’s premises and transmogrified them in ways that can seem like grotesque parodies rather than sincere homages. There can be no doubt whatever about Koolhaas’s once-in-a-generation talent. What remains in question is whether his seeming indifference to progressive values will make future observers wonder why this cultural potentate was so reluctant to confront Chinese oligarchs with the same fearlessness he once marshaled against captains of capitalism on American museum boards.


The Master of Bigness’ July 12, 2012

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