“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.
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.
But there is more to Koolhaas’s fondness for turning the outside in than a taste for japonaiserie. I think it offers the key to his architectural vision. Like some other contemporary architects, such as Frank Gehry and Philippe Starck, he has revived Surrealism. When I visited the Kunsthal, Koolhaas’s arts center in Rotterdam, completed in 1992, there happened to be a show there of Surrealist art. One of the works was Magritte’s famous painting of a painting of a brick wall, hung on an identical brick wall (La seignée, 1939). Another was Delvaux’s picture of a nocturnal city (La ville rouge, 1930), made up of oddly tilted perspectives and a disconcerting clash of materials: marble, brick, and terra cotta.
I took another look at Koolhaas’s curved ceilings and sloping floors, and at his use of corrugated iron and Italian marble and industrial plastic, and at the hollow tree trunks inside, and the garden laid out on a steel ramp outside, and the clouds painted on one ceiling, and the sculptured camel on the roof, and the river of stones in the garden, leading to a pond of flowers. Behind the simple, rational facade of the Kunsthal lies a hint of madness, of subversive bizarrerie. You might not like the cheap materials and the deliberately shabby finish. You might resent having to cross a raised floor of meshed steel, which could seriously injure a woman in high heels and cause bits of dirt to drop onto the people walking below. But you cannot be indifferent. Like a Luna Park, or indeed a city, the Kunsthal shocks and jolts. That is precisely the point.
In Delirious New York Koolhaas uses Coney Island to explain the origin of “Manhattanism,” the delirium of modern urban life. The architects of Coney Island—Tilyou, Thompson, and Reynolds—“invented and established an urbanism based on the new Technology of the Fantastic: a permanent conspiracy against the realities of the external world.”5 That is Koolhaas’s vision of the modern city. It is why he loves New York, Los Angeles, and especially Tokyo. It is what he built on a medium scale in Rotterdam, and is now working out on a huge scale in Hollywood, where he is designing the new headquarters for MCA at Universal City, with a theme park, company housing, restaurants, a gigantic car park, and a stacked tower of entertainment venues, which he likens to the Tower of Babel. He speaks gleefully about the fake studio street there called City Walk. This street is now a popular playground for young people, who go there to hang out. A movie-set street turned into a part of the city: it has a surrealist ring.
It all seems a long way from rational, Calvinist Holland. Magritte and Delvaux were of course Belgian, not Dutch. But there is an element of Dutchness to which Koolhaas feels attracted. The Japanese, with their rock gardens and their dwarf trees, may be the miniaturist masters of artificial nature, but the Dutch have created nature on an extra-large scale. Much of the west coast of Holland is artificial, claimed by man from the sea. The sea was always an ambiguous adversary: it promised adventure, the chance to sail away and discover the world, but it was also liable to sweep entire towns away in a night, as it last did during the great flood of 1953. It gave people a sense of impermanence. At any moment you might have to start building all over again. One of the marginal entries in S,M,L,XL reads:
DUTCHNESS: To its first generation of patriotic eulogists, Dutchness was often equated with the transformation, under divine guidance, of catastrophe into good fortune, infirmity into strength, water into dry land, mud into gold.
But now that the dikes have been finally closed, and the sea, one hopes, conquered forever, the Dutch may have lost their appetite for transformation. They are more interested in conserving what they have: postcard-pretty villages, flat green fields, old market towns, and the architectural wonder of Amsterdam—choked by traffic and covered in graffiti, but a wonder nonetheless. After decades of building hideous suburbs of concrete slabs, Dutch planners are more careful about “context.” Grand projects are subject to revision by local politics, conservationism, claims of traditional authenticity, and financial thrift. Koolhaas hates the official suspicion of freeways and car parks and high-speed trains. He prefers streets “with moving cars, honking horns, people crossing at traffic lights, even pushing through” to the deadly hush of pedestrian zones.
This kind of urban delirium is never planned, however, or designed, but typical of chaotic old cities. Koolhaas wants Dutch planners to build a new metropolis in the west or south of Holland, turning the old historic cities into a peripheral circle around the new capital, “like a chain of touristic jewels.” You wonder how much spontaneous urban chaos would survive in these touristic jewels, and how delirious the new metropolis would be. Elsewhere, as we shall see, Koolhaas expresses doubt that in future cities there will be any street life at all.
Koolhaas has a way with words, which includes a facility for obscuring difficult questions by enveloping them in rather glib statements. He finds it “crucial that the tradition of reinvention, which may be the most fertile, progressive Dutch tradition, is itself reinvented.” Sounds good. But what precisely does he mean? What is to be reinvented? You cannot reinvent chaos or spontaneity. But you can give it scope, by an architecture that doesn’t pretend to offer any lasting solutions but allows people to use it in any way they like. That seems to be Koolhaas’s point about bigness. Holland is, at any rate, hopelessly unsuited for the extra large. It is in every sense a small country. So Koolhaas has followed another Dutch tradition. He continues to do what Dutchmen impatient with the cramped context of their nation have done for centuries. He crosses the ocean for adventure. That is how New York was founded. It is how he founded it again.
If Manhattan hadn’t existed, Koolhaas would have had to invent it, so perfectly does the combination of grid and fantasy, bigness and surrealism, business and the bizarre, fit into his urban ideal. Because of its naturally limited space, Manhattan has had to reinvent itself over and over, but its urban dynamism has to fit the geometric pattern of the grid. (Perhaps that is why Mondrian felt so at home in New York.) And by growing higher and higher, the outside of New York buildings could no longer reflect the varied activities they contained. Towers in fancy dress of neo-this or neo-that concealed hives of work and play. As Koolhaas put it in Delirious New York, each building “strives to be ‘a City within a City.”‘ But instead of uniformity, this “truculent ambition makes the Metropolis a collection of architectural city-states, all potentially at war with each other.”
What Koolhaas celebrated in his first book was not some fixed identity of Manhattan, such as, for example, the skyline, but the sheer density of human activity inside the Cities within the City. He saw Coney Island as the genesis of this, not just because of its fantastical nature (the Midget City, Dreamland, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon), but because pre-war Manhattan, like the amusement park, was driven by commercial hedonism, by hardheaded businessmen manipulated by adventurous architects in a crazy marketplace. Koolhaas’s heroes are such architects as Raymond Hood (McGraw-Hill Building, 1931), who understood that, in Koolhaas’s words, “Manhattanism is the only program where the efficiency intersects with the sublime.”
For a man who likes to dismiss context, and boost the idea of permanent reinvention, Koolhaas is an imaginative and passionate historian. He cherishes history, but in an unconventional manner. He is interested in precisely the things most people reject, such as the mistakes of our fathers. As a student he did a study of the Berlin Wall, and found it of architectural interest, because of the human dramas it spawned and its sheer diversity as it snaked through urban jungles and pastoral fields. His own style was influenced by the now unfashionable modernism of the 1950s and ’60s. He once wrote:
An architectural doctrine is adopted to be inevitably replaced, a few years later, by the opposite doctrine: a negative sequence in which each generation can do nothing but ridicule the preceding one. The effect of this succession of yes-no-yes is anti-historical, because it reduces architectural discourse to an incomprehensible string of disjointed phrases.6
One of the most arresting historical ideas in Delirious New York is the reversal of modernist values in pre-war and postwar Manhattan. To put it crudely, modernism was a dogma to pre-war European architects but a business opportunity to Americans. While the likes of Raymond Hood were creating their Babylonian pleasure domes in New York City, Europeans like Le Corbusier were taking modernism beyond the pleasure principle into a zone of pure rationalism. Le Corbusier thought Manhattan was not modern enough; he saw the skyscrapers in their Gothic, Renaissance, Tuscan, Beaux-Arts, Art Nouveau, Tudor fancy dress as adolescent fantasies. Typically, Koolhaas cites Salvador Dali as one European who understood the poetry of New York.
After the war, however, the combination of efficiency and delirium that made Manhattan unique had disappeared. The architectural visionaries who had got the businessmen to pay for their dreams had left no dogma or ideology. So European rationalism took over and the curtain walls of cheap skyscrapers went up with a ruthless disregard for the sublime. In the words of Koolhaas: “The postwar architecture is the accountants’ revenge on the prewar businessmen’s dreams.”7 So what was a poor Dutch architect to do? He headed east, to that far continent where Dutchmen have turned before to escape from the European context and follow their dreams of adventure.
Koolhaas designed his first Asian building in Fukuoka, in southwestern Japan, in 1991. It is a beautifully conceived block of integrated courtyard houses which, to judge from the photographs, looks more Chinese than Japanese, from the outside at any rate. According to Koolhaas it was inspired by the layout of ancient Roman towns, as well as by experiments by Mies van der Rohe. Their design is that typical Koolhaas combination of intimacy and flexibility. Courtyards, grass-covered roofs, and huge windows give the houses a sense of space and of nature blending with the building. If you like stark, clean, modern design (which is in the Japanese tradition) you would want to live in them.
Visiting Japan, Koolhaas was struck by “the vastness and shamelessness of its ugliness.” Most Europeans share that reaction. But unlike many Europeans, Koolhaas saw merit in it, just as he saw possibilities in the Berlin Wall. For it is its juxtaposition with ugliness that makes beauty, or as he prefers it, “the sublime,” so stunning. In a way, modern Japan follows Koolhaas’s surrealist principle of mixing kitsch with beauty, shoddiness with fine finish, sophistication with banality, cheapness with luxury. It shocks and jolts.
To immerse oneself in a Japanese city, with its motels modeled after Disneyland castles, its underground shopping malls filled with fountains and artificial birdsong, its giant videoscreens on top of office buildings showing commercials with samurai selling rice wine or personal computers, its chrome and glass high-rises built around bonsai gardens, its German beer halls and Zen temples, can be a surreal experience. A popular tourist destination near Nagasaki consists of a newly built “old” Dutch town, constructed around a replica of the royal palace in The Hague, complete with an eighteenth-century Dutch garden which never existed in Holland itself. It is a theme park meant for people to visit, and live in. You can see why Koolhaas is fascinated by Japan. Context has become meaningless. Apart from a few neighborhoods in Kyoto and Nara, traditional authenticity, in the sense of conserved antiquity, which Europeans prize so highly in their own historic cities, is almost entirely absent in Japan, or indeed anywhere in East Asia. Japanese have had to rebuild their urban environment, because after 1945 there was virtually nothing left of the old.
And yet I should think the Nagasaki “Dutch” village is precisely the kind of city planning Koolhaas would argue against, for it is an attempt to create a phony context, based on a phony tradition. The fake Dutch houses and the bungalow suburbs built around the theme park have not attracted many Japanese who actually want to live there. The point is not that the fake tradition is Dutch and not Japanese, but that a model town is the opposite of a truly urban environment. (So is that studio street in Hollywood, but then nobody lives there.) The phony village is in complete contrast to the big, ugly, urban jungles, such as Tokyo, Osaka, or Fukuoka, which Japanese have managed to make so supremely livable.
Even when cities were not destroyed by fire, earthquakes, or war, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have been remarkably sanguine about tearing down old buildings and building new ones. Old Singapore has virtually disappeared, old Shanghai and Peking are swiftly disappearing. This is partly a question of commercial greed, partly of expediency, and partly of habit. Chinese culture was passed on through its literature, not architectural monuments. Cities were not built to last forever. Japanese cities of paper, bamboo, and wood could not possibly have done so. Now the same combination of commercialized fantasy, business sense, and technological efficiency that went into pre-war “Manhattanism” is at work in East Asia. And just as people in the West were busily condemning postwar modernism as a failed experiment, Asian architects, consumers, and developers were embracing it with gusto. Cheap, high-rise buildings are sprouting like forests from Singapore to Seoul.
Koolhaas writes well on Singapore, which he takes as seriously as he once took Manhattan. He subjected Singapore to the same quasi-archeological analysis. And he came up with Singapore as the model for what he sees as the “Generic City” of the future: a city divorced from context, based on nothing but efficiency, with history reduced to a token theme park (in the case of Singapore, a recreated Chinatown), a city of hotels and shopping malls, with nature represented by golf courses or simulated by indoor gardens in air-conditioned atriums. To a self-confessed global man, addicted to jetting around the world, the idea of a city based on speed, efficiency, and mobility, a city built like a giant airport, a megalopolis of atriums and multi-story car parks, might seem like a kind of utopia. But there is something nightmarish about it too.
Koolhaas knows that, but he is not so much interested in judging Singapore as in understanding it. He wants to deal with the modern world as he finds it. He is not a utopian architect with a political vision of the ideal city, or society. He doesn’t think architects are capable of building ideal cities anyway, any more than politicians can build ideal societies. Koolhaas, in one of his typical metaphors, likes to think of himself as a surfer on the waves of history. “The force and the direction of the wave are uncontrollable, it breaks, the surfer can only, in exploiting it, ‘master’ it by choosing his route.”8 His skepticism about the predictability of the future is commendable, but anti-utopianism has its limits too. For a refusal to make political judgments puts one at the mercy of the strongest, whose intentions are not necessarily benign.
I am not especially keen on Singapore myself. But I can see why modern public housing, shopping malls, and office towers seem to be less alienating there than in Europe. (The US, I suppose, lies somewhere between Asia and Europe in this respect.) The sheer density of Asian city life, the crowds, the hurly-burly of non-stop shopping make new city centers in Asia more tolerable than over-regulated, placid European urban malls. Singaporeans, like other East Asians, are almost all newly rich, and have barely emerged from colonial humiliation. Modernity to them means power and wealth; traditional houses on stilts, old shophouses, and all the other physical remnants of an older way of life mean poverty and backwardness. Western tourists and a few Asian intellectuals might regret the destruction of the old context and identity, but most people have other things on their minds. And given a certain amount of freedom, Asians are quite capable of creating their own context, which is why the Generic City doesn’t really exist: Tokyo doesn’t look like Singapore, or Bangkok like Hong Kong, despite the common liking for chrome, glass, plastic, and pizza parlors.
There is, however, another side to the wholesale modernization of Asian cities, which Koolhaas touches upon, without dwelling on it. This is the matter of coercion. “The Generic City,” he writes, “has a (sometimes distant) relationship with a more or less authoritarian regime.” This is clearly true. The radical transformation of Singapore—“a test bed of the tabula rasa,” as Koolhaas calls it—would not have been possible without an authoritarian regime. Nor is the current destruction and construction of, say, Shanghai possible without coercion.
The results can be disturbing. Poor people living in the more or less squalid conditions of central-city districts may not care much about authenticity, or fret about their identity, but there is a context from which most of them don’t want to be liberated: the neighborhood, where they can walk to the shops, chat with the neighbors, drink at the corner cafe. It is not just sentimental to deplore the way people in Chinese cities are bussed away to distant suburbs so that corporate buildings can be built on the sites of their former homes.
Soon only the rich will be able to afford to live in central Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Tokyo. Koolhaas’s prediction that “the street” in the Generic City “is dead” may turn out to be right. He says this without regret or approval, and notes that public space will be located more on our cybernetic superhighways and TV screens than in our city squares. Perhaps. But if he is serious about reinventing urban life, he will have to address political questions, as well as technological ones. Surfing is not always good enough.9
There always has existed a devil’s pact between architects and dictators to carry out radical projects. In fifteenth-century Italy great chunks of old cities were destroyed by military engineers and despotic princes. Their thinking was not so different from that of Lee Kuan Yew and his architects: modern efficiency and social control were the thing. Baron Haussmann’s razing of old Paris to make way for wide boulevards and other grand projects was done in the same spirit. Of course, much of what we think of today as typically Parisian—the Paris identity, so to speak—is the result of Haussmann’s radicalism. To create new cities, Generic or otherwise, you often need coercive power on your side. These days that means corporations more often than princes, but the methods used are not always less harsh. A popular way to remove inhabitants from their old homes in Tokyo during the 1980s, when the corporate building boom was at its height, was to hire gangsters. First the thugs would offer money, then threaten to use force, and then, if that didn’t work, use it. The buildings went up, and up, until the bubble burst, and the developers went bankrupt.
Koolhaas cannot be blamed for such practices. Nor does he advocate the destruction of old cities. But it is well to be aware of the temptations of coercive power, when you hear an architect expanding on the fascination of the tabula rasa. It is also easy to imagine the temptation for a European, bored and stymied by the constraints of the Old World, to see the US and Asia as great tabulae rasae. I asked a colleague of Koolhaas’s at the OMA office in Rotterdam about Koolhaas’s ideas on building a new capital city in Holland. And I was told that Holland was much too democratic for such a plan to succeed. Too many interests have to be taken into account, too many voices heard.
There is, I think, an element of hyperbole in Koolhaas’s visions anyway. His theory of the Generic City is a polemic against European cultural conservatism. In fact, his description of Singapore is not without ambivalence. He admires the boldness of building a brand-new city, but describes the result as a “Potemkin metropolis.” This air of unreality, of a “city without qualities,” is a universal problem of modern architecture. It may be liberating, but when modernism is reduced to pure rationalism, it is the liberation of death. As Koolhaas himself admits:
We can make things, but not necessarily make them real. Singapore represents the point where the volume of the new overwhelms the volume of the old, has become too big to be animated by it, has not yet developed its own vitality. Mathematically, the third millennium will be an experiment in this form of soullessness….
What Koolhaas is advocating, then, it seems to me, is not the destruction of old cities to replace them with clusters of hotels and shopping malls. His argument is that old city centers will become unlivable, if they are not revitalized by the shock of the new. The double act of making a fetish of the identity of old cities while adapting them to modern life puts them under intolerable strain, for there is only so much you can do to make an old city new while disguising that you are doing so. Besides, it has the perverse effect of robbing them of authenticity, of making them into fake antiques. In Amsterdam, for example, more and more houses are being demolished, except for the old facades, which are grafted onto new buildings like masks. And the sprawling peripheries of old cities are denied an urban identity because they remain just that: the despised environs of the historic metropole, which alone represents “the city.”
That explains Koolhaas’s vision of a new Dutch metropolis. Making the old city centers peripheral, you take the load off them and allow them to breathe. At the same time new architecture should be less apologetic, more bold in its modernity, in a word, more urban. Koolhaas is content to leave old cities alone. He is stimulated by the wastelands of cities, the neglected industrial zones, bombed tabulae rasae, and derelict suburban blocks. That is why he likes Rotterdam more than Amsterdam, and London or Berlin more than Paris. Bomb sites can be turned into new cities. Dereliction can be made beautiful. His most interesting project to date can be seen in what was one of the most wasted, peripheral cities in France: Lille.
Until recently, Lille was a melancholy dump. The textile and mining industries that once made it prosperous had collapsed, and two world wars left horrible scars. The old city, vieux Lille, was a dilapidated, crumbling wreck of a place, too depressed to be romantic. Lille was a town to avoid. Then the keen French and the more reluctant British finally completed the cross-channel tunnel, or Chunnel, closing the gap between the Continent and Britain. This opened up endless possibilities, especially for an architect who likes to think of space in terms of transportation: air miles, rail links, freeways. If the tracks of the TGV (super-fast train) from London to Paris to Brussels could go through Lille, the geography of the city would change. No longer just an urban dump in France Nord, Lille would be little more than an hour away from Paris and London, a European hub of constant movement.
The city government of Lille managed, through some deft political footwork, to get the TGV route, and Koolhaas was given his first extra-large project in 1989: the master plan for turning one million square meters within walking distance of old Lille into a complex of hotels, restaurants, department stores, offices, parking garages, a congress center (Congrexpo), and a new railway station. It was called Euralille. Only in France, with its tradition of strong government, would a politician—in this case, Pierre Mauroy, mayor of Lille and former French prime minister—have had the wherewithal to push such a scheme through. Koolhaas himself designed Congrexpo, which resembles a space-age football stadium, a huge oblong building that contains a network of halls, car parks, and other public spaces. Jean Nouvel designed the commercial center. The station was designed by Jean-Marie Duthilleul. The office tower built on top of the railway tracks in the shape of a giant armchair is by Christian de Portzamparc, and Marie and François Delhay did the hotel.
On a walk through Euralille I came across a large group of Japanese architects, taking notes and gawking at the shopping centers, car parks, movable station roofs, office complexes, and walkways with the excitement of provincials in the big city. They were from Tokyo. And this was Lille! The astonishing thing about Euralille, and this is really the point, is how this modern development, including of course the TGV itself, has revived old Lille. Nobody lives in Euralille. It is a place to work, eat, buy, or stay overnight, a transitional city, full of commercial activity, but no neighborhoods. Old Lille, however, is now a thriving area of fine, renovated houses, excellent restaurants, attractive, well-stocked shops, and also of squares and streets teeming with life. A bold, big, modern architectural development has revitalized a dying old city. And new Euralille didn’t even have to be ugly to show off the beauty of old Lille. What is striking about Euralille is not its bigness, but the intricacy and complexity of its design. The different, autonomous parts are so intertwined that the whole looks magnificent in the vast, webbed, human way of a Gothic cathedral.
Beauty is perhaps the best-kept secret of this Dutch architect, who claims to feel most at home on airplanes or in anonymous modern hotels. Sitting comfortably in his elegant London flat, he told me a story about a Japanese photographer he admires, called Araki Nobuyoshi. Araki’s photographs of nude girls tied up in cheap motels, or of Tokyo streets, cluttered with the plastic rubble of modernity, are taken in a deliberately throwaway style, as if they were snapshots by an obsessive amateur. Many are technically crude, purposely vulgar. But Araki has a secret, which only a few people are allowed to share: a hidden collection of beautifully made, technically polished, exquisite photographs. Araki, said Koolhaas, can make a garbage bag look beautiful. The same could be said of Koolhaas himself.
November 28, 1996
Rem Koolhaas: Conversations with Students (Architecture at Rice Publications, Houston/Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1996), p. 12. ↩
Delirious New York was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1978, and reissued by Monacelli Press in 1994. ↩
Conversations with Students, p. 12. ↩
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. ↩
Delirious New York, pp. 61-62. ↩
Jacques Lucan, OMA-Rem Koolhaas: Architecture 1970-1990 (Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), p. 36. ↩
Delirious New York, p. 285. ↩
Lucan, OMA-Rem Koolhaas, p. 37. ↩
Koolhaas is more critical in practice than in theory. He said in an interview that he had turned down many projects in China, because he did not approve of the crude destruction and construction boom taking place there. This interview appeared in the Spanish journal El Croquis, No. 79 (1996). ↩