Lunch with the Critics: Cronocaos

Our resident critics visit “Cronocaos,” an exhibition curated by OMA/Rem Koolhaas at the New Museum in New York City, first shown at the 2010 Venice Biennale. The focus is the “increasingly urgent” topic of preservation, which OMA argues, via texts, charts, maps and photographs, is a growing “empire” with dire consequences for the built environment and the architectural profession. Lamster and Lange toured the show, then adjourned to a nearby café for iced coffee.

“Cronocaos,” by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, exhibited May 7 – June 5, 2011, at the New Museum. [photos by Alexandra Lange]

Alexandra Lange: I feel suckered that this show makes me angry. First Nicolai Ouroussoff’s review in The New York Times made me angry with its credulity. Now that I have seen the exhibition for myself, I see of course — that’s the point. “Cronocaos” is a manifesto and a provocation, and it is for small, emotional people like me to say, But! But!

But as a manifesto and a provocation, “Cronocaos” paints the field of preservation with such a broad brush that it’s unrecognizable. If in New York, right now, the Landmarks Preservation Commission can barely close the barn door at Manufacturers Hanover Trust after the Bertoia sculpture has exited the building, then can preservation really be a growing “regime”?

Mark Lamster: I found the exhibit to be a compelling work of provocation, and often at odds with itself, which is par for the course. In one panel we find Koolhaas bemoaning our “breathtaking” intolerance for modernism and its utopian agenda, and in the next advocating for the creative destruction of all urban buildings over 25 years old so that we won’t be “at the mercy of unsolvable problems forever.”

AL: Or, in another case, he is worrying about what the scale of industrial spaces (like the Tate Modern or Dia:Beacon) is doing to art, while at the same time he once proposed a great crystalline roof to knit together the disparate buildings at LACMA. An idea that his protégés — the so-called Baby Rems — have been applying to cultural projects all over the globe ever since. For Koolhaas this is the ideal approach to renovation and expansion projects because it allows him to have it both ways: to be an architect (“we who change the world”) and to preserve the authenticity he sees being destroyed by his colleagues (like Richard Gluckman or Norman Foster) with their minimalist renovations and glass domes.

Compelling, maybe, but I like a little more internal consistency in my manifestos. It is a bit like a crank’s slideshow. “I hate New Urbanism. I love Cabrini-Green.” And for one of the originators of architectural “scientism,” the anti-preservation infographics are weak.

‘The rise of the market economy has meant the end of the architect as a credible public figure. Since Philip Johnson in 1979, no architect has appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. Starchitects accepted a Faustian bargain where they became more prominent, but their role less significant …” [photo by Lian Chang]

ML: I give him a bit more credit than “crank.” Koolhaas remains architecture’s most gifted crafter of maxims, catchphrases and quotable quotes. “Minimalism remains the preferred mode of conspicuous consumption.” “Preemptive mediocrity has become our dominant expression of respect for history.” “The rise of the market economy has meant the end of the architect as a credible public figure.” All of these, if not entirely true, do throw into relief ideas that we might take for granted or choose not to confront. But I agree with your criticism about the infographics, which are weak from a design standpoint (Where’s Bruce Mau when you need him?); they are also intellectually flawed. “Bestowal of heritage status triggers drastic increase in tourism,” proclaims one of these panels, but it is unconvincing. Correlation should not be confused with causation.

: Another example is the panel in which the spread of “demon preservation” internationally is “proved” by the existence of DOCOMOMO chapters. I hear echoes of Delirious New York in these maxims, but they lack the dream-like and image-based power of “Manhattanism” or “culture of congestion.” He’s trying too hard to get out ahead of the next wave of architectural thought — our post-boom retrenchment — and it feels as if he can’t come up with a visual as powerful as those drawings in Delirious — the cover image of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in bed together.

The only maxim in this new show that you can’t easily pick apart (because really, minimalism is the “preferred” consumption mode for only a tiny subset of the world’s millionaires) is the one about “presumptive mediocrity,” which is superimposed over a photograph of a New Urbanist “Main Street.” But is it really preservation that provokes faux-historical architecture? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It all depends on the philosophy of whoever is writing the landmark laws. Koolhaas is right that we need a wholesale reconsideration of what preservation means for the 21st century. But that we are now considering the preservation of artifacts closer and closer to our own time is not a problem — it is an opportunity.

ML: I do agree that the vitriol against preservation is misplaced. There’s a conflation of different types of preservation here, and I’m not sure they need a single theorization. In order to arrive at his calculation that 12-percent-of-the-world-is-preserved, Koolhaas includes land that’s been set aside for ecological reasons. If we restrict the discussion to the built environment, that number becomes much smaller. In his introductory wall text, Koolhaas describes preservation as a set of “regimes we don’t know, have not thought through, and cannot influence” — but that’s disingenuous, if not entirely false. Preservation is a hot-button political issue, publicly debated, and at least in most Western democracies citizens can influence it very intensively through political action. The reason we have preservation is because we fought for it, politically. The idea — and it’s becoming pervasive — that preservation restricts development (in particular the low-income kind) and limits architectural creativity is bullcrap. It’s bullcrap here in New York, and it’s certainly bullcrap in East Asia, where there is little brake on construction (including the Rem Koolhaas variety).

AL: Yes, indeed. I am always optimistic about the potential of new architecture, but the idea of cleansing Chicago’s Loop by eliminating the last 50 years of architecture in order to give today’s practitioners more to work with is terrifying. Architects: I love you, but I don’t trust you. In his New York Times review, Ouroussoff makes it sound as if the equal and opposite point of this exhibit were the selective destruction of one generation of new architecture, that of the 1960s and ’70s. I agree this is a problem. Preservation, like architecture, operates within cycles of taste, and Brutalism currently looks “ugly,” as “Cronocaos” puts it, to many people and many cultures. But it might look very different in 20 years, and the disappeared work of Paul Rudolph might be mourned like Penn Station. The very name of this exhibition, nowhere exactly defined, suggests a fear of timelessness or time-jumping. It seems to me that preservation could as easily be the solution, not the problem.

[photos by Alexandra Lange]

ML: I’m hoping it won’t take another 20 years for us to fully appreciate the work of the ’60s and ’70s, and there is, in fact, a movement now to celebrate this work not as “Brutalist” but “Heroic,” which I fully endorse. There are great visceral pleasures to be found in our concrete castles!

But as for the name, “chaos” is an apt descriptor for this show, although perhaps not entirely as intended. It lacks cohesion, it’s infuriating, it’s all over the place — a kind of mapping of Rem’s nimble mind. You compared it to Delirious New York, but I think it’s closer in spirit to S,M,L,XL and its various progeny (Lagos and Shopping) in its intellectual flights. I also find the presentation — hanging boards in a repurposed kitchen supply store — a nice antidote to the slick presentations we’re used to seeing from architects. Whatever you think of the ideas, they’re right there in your face, unadorned, scruffy at the edges, and demanding your attention.

AL: As I am sure you realize, the scruffy presentation and lame charts are all part of the faux-insurgent pose. “Poor me, if only you would stop preserving rainforests and brownstones I could get some world-changing work done.” I guess that irks me more than it does you. The exhibition is certainly a catch-all for a lot of ideas, most of which are worth considering. So maybe I am not such a sucker after all? But I want to say to all the folks eagerly ripping the OMA sheets off the exhibition walls (it is the underlying soundtrack to a visit): Caveat emptor! Don’t get caught up in the sweep of the rhetoric simply because Rem is one of the few to bring it. Let your eyes roll.

Alexandra Lange & Mark Lamster, “Lunch with the Critics: Cronocaos,” Places Journal, June 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Justin Davidson

    06.03.2011 at 13:19

    I'm definitely with Alexandra on this one. Among the rhetorical turd nuggets in the show: "Can dilapidation be preserved?" Um, like at the Colosseum? or Western ghost towns? Yes of course it can! Koolhaas alternates between gnomic overstatements of the obvious and disingenuous conflations. How can you take seriously a prophet who jams the protection of the Everglades under the same preservationist rubric as gussying up an old stone house and turning it into a B & B, or reversing 50 years of decay at the (unprotected) UN buildings? What unified theory could possibly account for all three? And what principle makes it cogent to fulminate against preservation in one breath and bemoan the destruction of the modernist (or brutalist) legacy in the next? That's not being provocative - just intellectually dishonest.

  • mark lamster

    06.06.2011 at 09:26

    justin: thanks for reading. i'm not sure alexandra and i (and you) are that far apart on this one, but it seems like you and your editors might be, at least according to the highbrow and brilliant quadrant of this week's approval matrix....

    perhaps with rem you need a graph where brilliant and despicable are not at opposites.


  • gretchen

    06.06.2011 at 10:21

    i went to this show on the night it was free, and, boy, was this a gigantic steaming mound of mumbo jumbo. the same things that rem was going on about in 1996 when he first started his rise to popularity/trendiness and, after many cheaply made projects later, he is still on the same bruce mau design looking nonsense? you would think a new generation of young fools would not take the bait.

  • Justin Davidson

    06.06.2011 at 10:25

    @Mark - Yep, I know about the matrix. Someone else beat me to it.

  • Mick Ricereto

    06.06.2011 at 20:31

    I only have this debate/review and Ouroussoff's review to go by (not seeing the exhibit), but my feeling is Koolhaas is suffering a case of architectural generation gap. His chosen palette is the built public realm, and this complicated fabric and non-linear mess is at odds with his social, intellectual and aesthetic agenda. Yes, much late mid-century architecture was an experiment and many associate stark, 60's work with architecture's famous social failures. But should it all come down by association with Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green? If any Albert Speer buildings were extant, should they have been ripped down too? (I might be extending myself a wee bit there).

    I agree with Lange about our generation not understanding or appreciating Brutalism, but instead recognizing it is worth preserving as an artifact of our social and built history. We don't melt down every old LP of artists now out of fashion, now that we have newer music, right? We save enough of what we think is important. An interesting parallel is happening in Baltimore in front of our eyes - the mid-century "Formstone" phenomenon of 2" faux-stone facades over original red brick is being removed en masse throughout our old row-house neighborhoods. (See Concrete Castles the documentary or Tin Men for a fun swipe at 50's Baltimore Formstone salesmen). Brick is back in style, of course, but should we allow every single Formstone facade to come down? How do we convince a private owner of a "significant" Formstone-clad home to preserve this piece of folk/architecture/social history? Koolhaas may want to convince the public otherwise, but I believe even the bizarre Formstone facades will be missed if we don't have the vision to preserve some of them now.

  • Tom

    06.12.2011 at 15:24

    Incoherent ramblings from a provacateur architect whose special talent (besides self-promotion) is the creation of buildings at once noxious and obnoxious.