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From Bauhaus to Koolhaas

By Katrina Heron

Fifty-two-year-old Rem Koolhaas, a renowned Dutch


architect and co author of S,M,L,XL, the book whose
weight everyone is still talking about (6 pounds, The
Monacelli Press), is only now making his American
professional debut - he's been commissioned to redesign
MCA headquarters and its 420-acre Universal Studios lot
in Los Angeles. But Koolhaas's fame as an iconoclastic
visionary has been growing since the publication, in 1978,
of Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for
Manhattan (2 pounds, Oxford University Press), which
looks at urban life in this century as a fluid, largely
chaotic "culture of congestion" over which architects can
assert virtually no lasting control. And who would want
to? Not Koolhaas. His love of the urban condition is
surpassed only by his mania for the unknown, the
untenable, the unmanageable, and the untried.

Wired: Is architecture behind the times?

Koolhaas:

Architecture has been defined in terms of one activity, and that


activity is adding to the world. A few years ago I realized the
profession was as if lobotomized - it was stuck conceiving of itself
only in terms of adding things and not in terms of taking away or
erasing things. The same intelligence for adding ought to also
deal with its debris. It's a very depressing phenomeon that we
can deal with decaying conditions in the city only by inventing
weak attempts to restore them or to declare them historical. It
would be much more powerful and creative to use other tactics,
such as taking away something and then building something
entirely new. One of the ambitions of S,M,L,XL is to extend the
repertoire, which also includes, for instance, not doing anything,
or asking somebody else to do something - both of which are,
curiously, things that an architect never does.

Maybe because they're not overly appealing options from a


business perspective.

But I am not modest, and the ambition to do this is not modest,


either. The largest domain in which that sensibility to extend the
repertoire is present is the virtual domain, and it's kind of leaving
architecture behind.

Where do you see the future of architecture going?

With globalization, we all have more or less the same future, but
Asia and Africa feel much more new. I've been doing research in
China recently, investigating cities that emerge suddenly, in eight
years or so, seemingly out of nothing. These places are much
more vigorous and representative of the future. There, building
something new is a daily pleasure and a daily occurence.

You're doing a big project in China now, aren't you?

Yes. Its working title is City of Exacerbated Differences. It is in


the Pearl River Delta. It's not a single city but a region inhabited
by a cluster of very diverse cities such as Hong Kong, Shenzhen,
Guangzhou, Guangdong, Zhuhai, and Macau. Together, they may
represent a new model of the megalopolis in the sense that their
coexistence, their functioning, their legitimacy is determined by
their extreme mutual difference.

What are you learning there?

We've been looking at the average time that goes into designing
a building in China and the average number of people who work
on it. We discovered that in the area we were in it takes 10 days
- and it's three people and three Apple computers. And it's a 40-
story building. Others are done in two days. The work definitely
becomes more diagrammatic, but maybe more pure at the same
time.

It would also seem likely to produce a less hospitable


environment.

I disagree. People can inhabit anything. And they can be


miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I
think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that's
both liberating and alarming. But the generic city, the general
urban condition, is happening everywhere, and just the fact that
it occurs in such enormous quantities must mean that it's
habitable.

You make it sound like no one's in charge.

Architecture can't do anything that the culture doesn't. We all


complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are
completely similar. We say we want to create beauty, identity,
quality, singularity. And yet, maybe in truth these cities that we
have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides
the best context for living.

So generic is not a dirty word?

Well, Singapore has succeeded, over the last 40 years, in


removing any trace of authenticity. It is a culture of the
contemporary. And many Asian cities are like this now, seeming
to exist of nothing but copies - in many instances bad copies - of
Western architecture. But actually, if you look closely you can
perform another reading - you can see, for instance, that these
copies are dealing differently with layering and with problems of
density.

S,M,L,XL - why make a 1,344-page book about anything? Some


people have said the book's physical bulk is a deliberate retort to
the outpouring of "weightless" digital information.

Yes and no. What's interesting is that the book form itself has
been threatened by a succession of media - film, TV, now
electronics. It has survived, but each of these media has
profoundly influenced it, changed its nature forever. So, in its
physicality, S,M,L,XL is counter, but in its conception, it is
analog: it is "against" the other media, but at the same time
unthinkable without them.

So it wasn't simply your famous love of "Bigness"?

S, M, L, XL - I am passionate about every scale. But in the '70s


and '80s, while the world was in the process of enlarging,
architecture was subdividing; there was a self-marginalization, a
fanatical attention to detail, even a language that was
splintering. Bigness already existed, as the outcome of inventions
such as steel and air-conditioning, but engineering was still being
considered a mere afterthought and not a necessary complement
to architecture. And in fact there seemed to be absolutely no
conceivable connection between architecture and the driving
forces in society. So the reason to consider Bigness was to find a
way to align architecture with the bigness of the new climate.

You've also said, "I like thinking big. I always have. To me it's
very simple: If you're going to be thinking anyway, you might as
well think big."

[Laughs.] That's also part of it.

Are you thinking Bigness on the MCA project?

There is an enormous, deliberate, and - I think - healthy


discrepancy between what I write and what I do.

Do you have an idea of how the project will develop?

It's too early to say, but what interests me is that Universal City
is a site of production - films are actually being made there - and
of consumption - a vast theme park, hotels, et cetera. The
"work" legitimizes the "pleasure." And since moviemaking is the
driving theme, there is the suggestion of ever new additions to
the canon. In that sense, Universal is fundamentally different
from a place like Disney, where a fixed repertoire of ancient
inventions is endlessly, morosely recycled. This project has to,
and can, symbolize real vitality, real creativity.

For a long time, you didn't believe that building was the
necessary outcome of designing, and in fact you've built only
about 20 projects so far.

S,M,L,XL is deliberately seamless about this, trying to present an


absolute equivalence between unbuilt and built, because in a way
I think it's a moot point. Of course, it can be very inspiring to
build things. But part of the goal of the book was to explore
architecture that didn't come to fruition. I was also interested in
showing the implications of failure - showing both the
calculations and the miscalculations of projects.

The most romantic example of this is the story you tell about a
house that the young Mies van der Rohe was commissioned by a
wealthy woman to build. After having him design and construct a
1:1 scale model in canvas she abandoned the project. The story
seemed to make a deep impression on you: "I suddenly saw him
inside the colossal volume, a cubic tent vastly lighter and more
suggestive than the somber and classical architecture it
attempted to embody. I guessed - almost with envy - that this
strange 'enactment' of a future house had drastically changed
him Š was this canvas cathedral an acute flash-forward to
another architecture?"

Yes! The impact on me was in the fact that the "cancellation" of


the house was more dramatic, more important almost, than its
realization. It's a sensation that later, as an architect, I became
intimately familiar with.

If "the culture of the 20th century is the culture of congestion,"


what will the culture of the 21st be?
The culture of dissemination, dispersal.

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