Rem Roars Back
 -by Lynn Becker

Rem Koolhaas confounds his critics with a new book and a dazzling Seattle library
(originally published in slightly different form in the Chicago Reader, June 4, 2004



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Rem Koolhaas didn’t stay dead for long. Just last fall, the Dutch architect looked like roadkill, as his Student Center at IIT opened to (misguidedly) mixed reviews, and a one-by-one, water torture drip of cancellations ended in over a billion dollar in high-profile projects for Universal-Vivendi, the Whitney and Los Angeles Museums of Art, and New York hotelman Ian Shrager being tossed into the dumpster, leaving in their wake a series of sour statements from Koolhaas that seemed to express little more than a basic disgust with his American experience.

Now, however, Koolhaas is back. He’s both author and ringmaster for his new book Content , successor to 1996’s S,M,L,XL, an irreverent 500 page-plus explosion of ideas and images. And his new public library, just opened in Seattle to rave reviews, is already staking a claim to being one of the most significant buildings of the new century. Next week, Koolhaas, along with Joshua Ramus, who’s also design partner for the Seattle library, are scheduled to reveal plans for a new theater in Dallas. Things change.

Lincoln once said, “We must disenthrall ourselves” and no one since has taken it more to heart than Rem Koolhaas. As a critic and as an architect, his hallmark has been to break free from a conventional way of looking of things that too often becomes an excuse for not seeing. His first book, Delirious New York celebrated the explosive density of the city Gerald Ford had told to drop dead not long before. The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, an anthology produced by Koolhaas and his students, stopped treating our obsession with buying things as a sideshow pastime, and recognized it as probably the single most powerful force today in shaping both architecture and general culture. Long before the outsourcing of jobs and soaring trade deficits became a subject of everyday headlines, Great Leap Forward – also from Harvard under Koolhaas’s direction - provided a massively detailed and cogent overview of how booming industrial expansion in the Pearl River Valley was helping to turn China, almost overnight, into a global economic superpower.

Don’t be misled. They may sit heavy in the hand, but these are not your grandfather’s works of scholarship. They’re all about the thrill of discovery and an almost pathological drive to communicate the greatest density of information in the most compelling way, even if it means pushing graphics to the point of OD. There are photos of buildings, in abundance, pictures of naked people, graphs in formats Powerpoint wouldn’t dream of. Irony and parody abound. The quality of writing is very high, in sometimes surprising ways. In Great Leap Forward, Stephanie Smith’s diary of encountering the people and customs of the new, development-crazed Dongguan City in southern China, offers the compelling and evocative observation of a first-class novel.

In Content, one essay contrasts, on facing pages, reproductions of paintings by Vermeer - and the stories of their subjects - with photos and stories on the contestants from the Dutch version of “Big Brother.” Koolhaas’s buildings appear as a series of gleefully malicious cartoon caricatures that pop up throughout the book like the old "Spy vs Spy" in Mad magazine. “I’m not sure if this is a book or a magazine,” says the male half of a conjoined set of cartoons representing his Guangzhou opera house. “Actually, I find the tension between the two super-interesting,” responds his mate.

Content’s essays and speculations, interspersed with ads for Gucci and Volkswagen, let us know what Koolhaas’s firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has been up to the last seven years. For Koolhaas, every new project begins with intensive research. Whether it winds up dead or alive, a good story is left behind, and those stories form the nucleus of Content. The stories about the failures are often the more illuminating, and sometimes sardonically funny.

Although Koolhaas is not known for his environmental sensitivity, when it comes his books, he’s not above recycling from his older, more specialized – and much more expensive – volumes. (Content: $14.99; Great Leap Forward, $49.99.) "Miestakes" an his struggles with preservationists over the way his student center at IIT subsumed Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's classic 1951 Commons building, is reprinted from the catalogue for 2002’s "Mies in America" exhibition. It’s accompanied by five pages of new photos, and a full, unexpurgated page of the Michael Rock icons used throughout the Student Center (they’re the dots that make up the supersized graphics of Founders Wall portraits and the picture of Mies in the glass door of the entrance) that includes variations that didn’t make the cut at IIT, including the infamous “swirly” icon depicting one student dipping the head of a second, upended student into a toilet. The lecture Koolhaas gave at the school last fall on architect Moisei Ginzburg and the current decaying state of 1930’s Constructivist Soviet architecture in the new market-driven Russia, originally a presentation at the Venice Biennale, is also included.

The book incorporates much of the material from the June, 2003 issue of Wired magazine edited by Koolhaas, including his farewell essay to New York, originally titled, “Delirious No More.” His description of Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center proposal -five new towers rising around two huge holes in the footprints of the destroyed buildings – as “a massive representation of hurt that projects only the overbearing self-pity of the powerful” that “captures the stumped fundamentalism of the superpower ,” seemed little more than sour grapes when originally uttered last June. Today, in the wake of the Bush administration’s obtuse and murderous floundering in the Iraq and Middle East, it seems eerily prescient.

Content includes over seventy different essays and sections, by Koolhaas and over 40 other contributors. Included is “Black Metropolis: Life and Death in Bronzeville,” from Chicago architect and UIC professor Ellen Grimes, a
timeline-like tracing of the Afro-American presence in the city beginning with the arrival of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable in 1779. Grime's piece recounts the evolution of the huge, segregated “black belt” along four miles of south State Street, and its rise and fall, cresting with the “Great Migration” around World War I, which saw the black population double and Chicago become the jazz capital of the nation after Storyville, the New Orleans red light district whose clubs were home base for many of the best musicians, was shut down as part of wartime mobilization. She recounts how the development of IIT helped in the erasing of much of the original Bronzeville – to build Mies’s Crown Hall, The Mecca, a building dating from 1891 that was one of the first examples of low rise courtyard apartments, was razed as a slum. By the time Koolhaas got to his Student Center in 1999, it’s State Street site had long been reduced to a series of surface parking lots. And although Bronzeville is now undergoing a major revival, Grimes indicates that we may still not be home free. Hr concluding tale of relates how a basketball court along the Student Center’s State Street façade, originally intended as a way to invite Bronzeville residents inside, ultimately wound up as a grassy void.

Despite his recent successes in America, Koolhaas’s primary focus is on China, where he’s designing a $700,000,000 headquarters to centralize the operations of CCTV, the country’s television monopoly. In typical Koolhaas fashion, Content’s “Kill the Skyscraper” derides the work of American architects who have chased after the Chinese gold rush to build the type of traditional tower that “has not been invested with new thinking or ambition since the World Trade Center’s completion in 1972. Having made New York City an unbearable demonstration of architectural mediocrity, they continue their mission on a new continent.” Koolhaas CCTV project is to consist of two, sloping 40-story towers, placed at opposite corners of a massive site, joined by a low, L-shaped base, and a cantilevered structure at the top. “The towers press their overhanging heads together, as if each were wearied by the effort to remain upright,” writes contributor William B. Millard. All of Koolhaas’s buildings – the IIT Student Center is a good example -are about creating environments that encourage interaction, and the continuous loop of the CCTV building includes a circulation system that is horizontal as well as vertical, encouraging workers from all disciplines to interact with each other, and with the public.

“Go east!” is the current Koolhaas mantra. He sees the “backward-looking U.S.” falling into eclipse, as “the course of human civilization seems to go in the opposite direction . . . The fall of the wall, the new gravity of Eastern Europe, the emergence of China, the disarray of Japan, all launched an eastward momentum accelerated by 9’11 and America’s new preoccupations.”

Koolhaas is fascinated by the dynamism of China. “Statistically,” he writes in Content, “the Chinese architect is already the most important in the world; (s)he will build the most. Asia is modernizing at three times the speed of its predecessors – urbanization doubling every 20-30 years, but Europe and America are no longer thinking – not for themselves, not for others.”

When Koolhaas speaks of China, it’s with the same almost messianic fervor with which Bush talks about Iraq. “It is easy to imagine it going wrong,” Content tells us, “but essential to imagine it going right.” Last week, however, the London Times reported that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabo has stepped in to block construction of the CCTV tower. ““It will not be built,” the Times quotes a senior CCTV news reporter as saying, “Wen Jiabao made the decision personally.” The Chinese government is looking to get its overheating economy under control, and concentrate on the massive building program required in Beijing to support the 2008 summer Olympics.

So what do you when your promised land starts to show signs of fatigue and wants to take a breather? Both Koolhaas’s buildings and writings are all about states of becoming, of constant change. What mutations will this new setback produce?

Edited by: OMA-AMO / Koolhaas, Rem
Softcover, 170 x 225 mm, 544 pages; $14.99



© Copyright 2004-2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.