The 1990s saw the end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China, the dot.com boom and the expansion of neoliberalism, globalization, the Internet and the “New Economy.” Capitalism had won, and growing enthusiasm for its ability to raise living standards, promote democracy and advance technology increasingly squelched what little remained of mid-20th-century critiques of its crueler consequences. Instead, corporate ideologies co-opted countercultural revolutionary songs and slogans from the ’60s to cheer on ’90s-style reengineering for the information age, marketing individualism and commodifying dissent. 1 Did architectural discourse similarly morph 1960s radicalism into 1990s icon-making during this period of rising faith in free markets and digital technology? What happened to architectural criticism in an era that saw the end of welfare as we knew it in the U.S. and acceptance of the widening gap between rich and poor as an unfortunate but necessary by-product of modernization and a healthy economy? Was it only in the ’90s that Rem Koolhaas could ride this global socio-economic restructuring and emerge as one of architectural culture’s leading avant-gardists while at the same moment celebrating capitalism?
Equating capitalism with modernization and change, Koolhaas identified early on how global capitalism created dynamic, highly speculative urban conditions that were transforming the contemporary city. As he pointed out in his acerbic writings of the time, these same forces were destabilizing and liberating architectural thinking from staid preconceptions, providing an audience — and a market — for the kind of radical, iconic buildings being designed by his Rotterdam-based practice OMA. This powerful combination of ’60s irreverence and ’90s relevance catapulted Koolhaas to star status; it also revealed the inevitable contradictions in trying to marry art and capitalism, radicalism and pragmatism, icon-making and city-making. Nonetheless, over the decade, his writings and designs contributed significantly to shifting design discourse away from critical theory toward post-critical, non-judgmental research, and from autonomy toward engagement — albeit engagement largely with the elite beneficiaries of the New Economy, now often described as “the 1%.” From our contemporary perspective, it is thus worth asking: What is Koolhaas’s legacy vis-à-vis progressive practice?
Let’s begin with one of the durable descriptors of the era. “Irrational exuberance,” as Robert J. Shiller notes, has come to epitomize a heightened state of speculative fervor. 2 Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale University, explains that the phrase famously originated two years into the dot.com boom, in a December 1996 speech given by Alan Greenspan, then chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, at the American Enterprise Institute. After recounting the debates about the bank’s power and the various indicators by which it determines whether to tighten or loosen monetary supply, Greenspan stated: “When industrial product was the centerpiece of the economy during the first two-thirds of this century, our overall price indexes served us well.” 3 He then asked: “What is the price of a unit of software or a legal opinion? … How do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions …?” 4 As Shiller emphasizes, the question itself had a powerful impact, leading immediately to a slump in stock markets worldwide. Yet the phrase has stuck; it was evoked when the technology boom went bust in March 2000, and again in 2008 when the housing bubble burst and the market crashed, triggering the Global Financial Crisis.
“Irrational exuberance” seems to me an apt introduction to an understanding of Rem Koolhaas in the ’90s and beyond; it foregrounds his great success in navigating the intersection of the pragmatic corporate sector, on the one hand, and the “delirious” and volatile realm of desire and possibility, on the other. Keenly aware of these inherent contradictions, Koolhaas revels in their creative friction. A compelling contrarian, he excels at flipping our expectations. He uses his timely positioning of “bigness,” shopping, and “the ¥€$ regime” in order to promise “a realignment with neutrality” and to liberate architects from the socially conscious obligations of the past. 5 Instead of critiquing capitalist society, bolstering the civic and the public, or ministering to the needs of the impoverished, he justifies the idea that architects, even if not especially avant-garde, are now free to serve the market. Koolhaas is not alone in these tendencies, but his essays and projects of the ’90s smoothed the way for the parade of “starchitecture” object-buildings that followed. They also spurred his protégés to embrace the idea of the post-critical and the speculative. 6 In effect Koolhaas has encouraged his followers to shed the crippling shackles of critical theory and pick up a surfboard upon which to ride the shock waves of the new economy. 7
A self-proclaimed soixante-huitarde, Koolhaas was a 24-year-old journalist and scriptwriter living in Paris in May 1968, when student protests and labor strikes brought the French economy to a standstill. He witnessed, though did not participate in, the marches and violence that sought to reform the rigid national bureaucracy, persistent class discrimination, low working-class wages and unequal access to universities. But rather than internalizing the lessons of class struggle, Koolhaas developed an acute resistance to the restrictions of planned societies and a commitment to promoting individual freedom. That fall he enrolled at the Architectural Association in London.
Education at the AA was then informed by a rich anti-establishment mix, ranging from Archigram techno-pop to Superstudio parodies to affordable housing for the tropics. In 1970, Bernard Tschumi — another 24-year-old fresh from Paris where he too had observed the ’68 riots — joined the faculty and began to teach a course, “Politics of Space,” introducing students to the French Situationist and post-structuralist critiques of the discipline’s complicity with corrupt capitalist society. Tschumi’s students read the avant-garde literary journal Tel Quel, and learned about the post-’68 transformation of the École de Beaux Arts — about the student sit-ins and the construction classes held in forced occupations of banking offices where discriminatory loan practices were discussed. 8 Design was dismissed as irrelevant to the more important matter of reforming the overly technocratic structure of the state. Modern functionalist planning, which was allied with bureaucracy, was deemed — à la Jean-Paul Sartre — to be alienating. Via the writings of Henri Lefebvre, Jean Baudrillard, and Guy Debord, students were taught to challenge capitalist rationality and the commodification of everyday life, and to resist the complacency of the society of the spectacle.
Tschumi was fascinated in particular by the 1920s-era anti-establishment writings of George Bataille. A rebellious surrealist, Bataille had cited architecture as the source of the repressive social order, arguing that “great monuments are erected like dikes, opposing the logic and majesty of authority against all disturbing elements: it is in the form of cathedral and palace that Church or State speaks to the multitudes and imposes silence upon them.” 9
For Koolhaas, his definitive “Bataille-soaked” moment came toward the end of his AA studies, when he documented and analyzed the Berlin Wall:
In the early seventies, it was impossible not to sense an enormous reservoir of resentment against architecture, with new evidence of its inadequacies — its cruel and exhausted performance — accumulating daily; looking at the wall as architecture, it was inevitable to transpose the despair, hatred, frustration it inspired to the field of architecture … Were not division, enclosure (i.e., imprisonment), and exclusion — which defined the wall’s performance and explained its efficiency — the essential stratagems of any architecture? In comparison, the sixties dream of architecture’s liberating potential — in which I had been marinating for years as a student — seemed feeble rhetorical play. It evaporated on the spot. 10
Bataille’s writings influenced both Tschumi and Koolhaas to seek to liberate architecture from itself, to destabilize and deconstruct the discipline’s will to order space and society. 11 In their design projects in the ’90s, both architects pay particular attention to ramps, spaces of movement, and sculpted voids — indeterminate, unprogrammed sites for transient events. Both employ montage, text, and translucent materials in order to de-emphasize formal boundaries; and perhaps most innovative of all, both promote programmatic instability in order to counteract architectural rigidity. Tschumi articulated this strategy in terms of what he described as cross-programming, trans-programming, and dis-programming. 12 Koolhaas has focused more on counterposing monolithic exterior forms with interiors populated by highly diversified spaces and activities. Expanding beyond the design of buildings, Koolhaas and OMA established a research wing, in 1999, called AMO; according to the firm’s website, their services now include media, politics, renewable energy, and fashion. For Tschumi, the point has been to create an architecture against architecture. 13 In similar fashion Koolhaas has referred to a “post-architectural modernity,” 14 to “after-architecture,” 15 and to his “search for ‘another’ architecture.” 16
In the search for “another” architecture, Koolhaas traveled to New York City. There, instead of the imposing and oppressive language of church or state, he found a crowd-pleasing, market-based modern architecture unburdened by either the moralizing functionalist rhetoric that had accompanied the Bauhausian dreams of a classless society, or the 1960s critiques of the spectacle society. His 1978 book Delirious New York documents with evident delight what he called “Manhattanism” — as he saw it, an entrepreneurial blend of fantasy and pragmatism (which has indeed inspired much of his own design work). In the book, Koolhaas shows how the city has come to embody capitalist rationality through the regularity of the gridded streets and gridded facades, the integration of elevator technology, and the technical precision of the Rockettes kick line, while at the same time it has responded to the surreal, diverse, and often erotic desires of the metropolitan collective unconscious — especially as revealed in the fantastical artifice of elite interiors, in dramatic skyscrapers and Salvador Dali interventions. In Delirious, Manhattan’s un-theorized, un-planned genius is presented as the resolution of these contradictory dynamics, as their intensification into a dense, socially liberating “culture of congestion.” 17 As the book jacket proclaims, Manhattan, from the beginning, has been devoted to the most rational, efficient, and utilitarian pursuit of the irrational.
Through detailed histories and speculative psycho-histories of period architects and building projects, of the grid, the skyscraper, Coney Island, Rockefeller Center, and the United Nations, Koolhaas lovingly portrays a non-reductivist architecture and urbanism at once modern and romantic. He argues that both the buildings and the city are the results not of top-down artistic or political dicta but rather of the market’s ability to elicit and respond to desire. Thus Manhattan has produced “an architecture that is at once ambitious and popular … a shameless architecture that has been loved in direct proportion to its defiant lack of self-hatred, has been respected exactly to the degree that it went too far. Manhattan has consistently inspired in its beholders ecstasy about architecture.” 18 Tellingly, the threat to this ecstatic culture of congestion is embodied by the villain in the story: Le Corbusier and his rationalist “towers in the park” proposals. In a nod to his contemporaries, Koolhaas asserts that Le Corbusier was thwarted by over-reliance on theory and inadequate attention to the importance of metaphor and the unconscious in the development of Manhattan.
Indeed, Koolhaas argues that the more artificial and surreal the city has become, the greater the role of the unconscious in making sense of it. Here he offers Salvador Dali’s Paranoid-Critical Method as a tool that can enable a “delirium of interpretation” and counter the unprovable certainties of Cartesian rationality. For Koolhaas, the PCM serves both as a method for resolving market dynamics with the fabrications, grafts, and urban ambitions that characterize his own design work, and as an indirect parody of the critical theory of the era.
With Delirious New York’s not-so-subtle critiques of the increasingly insular and unpopular realm of avant-garde “architecture for architects,” Koolhaas differentiated himself from both the high-modern minimalism of ’70s corporate design firms and the theoretical gymnastics of the Oppositions crowd. And his ongoing countercultural strategy has evolved to critique what he calls the “exhausted” purist doctrines of architecture culture. By the 1995 publication of his massive monograph S,M,L,XL, rather than presenting his work as an autonomous art, he instead foregrounds the competing realities of client-based practice in a capitalist economy. 19 His point is not simply to shock; although he does, and does so again in 2003 with the follow-up catalogue-as-tabloid Content. Rather his point is to recognize architecture as the contradictory confluence of art and commerce, fantasy and pragmatism, the pretensions of creative omnipotence and the realities of clients and constraints. And while such a position was radically out-of-step with the structuralist and post-structuralist discourse of his peers in the ’70s, it set him up beautifully to work with high-profile clients like Prada, the Guggenheim, and Universal Studios in the ’90s.
The trope that holds together the contradictory forces in his design projects is another legacy from Delirious New York: the metropolis. Teeming with ambition, modernity, and difference, metropolitan culture, in the Koolhaasian perspective, functions as a modernizing force; and the architect has consistently sought out its latest manifestations around the globe. When he and three partners set up shop in 1975 — that is, in an era when cities were emptying out and post-modern historicism was ascendant — they went against the grain by calling their practice the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. And right from the start, in the spirit of Bataille, OMA has rejected what it sees as the rigid, repressive, and divisive order of architecture in favor of the fluid, dynamic, and productive disorder of the capitalist, market-driven metropolis. This is most evident in how the firm’s projects — from individual buildings to urban plans — interweave diverse programs as a way to induce the culture of congestion. But they break from Bataille — and from the culture of critique — in their ultimate embrace of the power of capitalism to drive change.
The New World Order and the New Economy
Ironically, just as the Berlin Wall launched Koolhaas’s critique of architecture, it was the demolition of the Wall in 1989 that amplified the relevance of his ideas. Another accelerant was Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of Chinese markets in 1992 with the exhortation: “Enrich yourselves!” Not only was capitalism triumphant; the spirit of ’68 was defeated. Marxist agitators and labor unions were seemingly swatted away by the rising neoliberal consensus that favored free markets. Appeals to the idea of “the public good” were challenged, increasingly swept away by privatization and an emphasis upon “individual responsibility.” In the New World Order, discussions of social justice and social equity between developed and developing nations were increasingly dominated by questions of market access and economic liberalization. For those in “the new economy,” digital access to information would, it was believed, lead inevitably to markets characterized by infinite growth and the end of business cycles. Markets were deregulated, state-owned enterprises were privatized, free trade agreements flowed, and globalization was heralded as the path to progressively improving living standards. The journalist Thomas Friedman advanced what he called the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” observing that no two countries with a McDonald’s franchise had ever gone to war against one another. 20 The World Trade Organization, the Maastricht Treaty, and NAFTA promised to expand peace and prosperity by facilitating the trade of goods and ideas. In the process, they also expanded the size and power of cities and corporations. And along the way Koolhaas was one of the few architects to call attention to the implications of this massive economic and political restructuring for the profession of architecture. His contribution was to theorize the virtues of what he labeled “Bigness.”
In 1994, just as his 800,000-square meter Euralille project and groundbreaking 1,346-page monograph S,M,L,XL were coming to completion, Koolhaas wrote three essays. Collectively, they excoriate his profession for inadequately coming to grips with the New World Order’s massive investments in urbanization, generic cities, and big buildings. 21 But rather than serving as a rallying cry to better direct investment and shape the metropolis, the essays argue for the irrelevance of architecture and urbanism, for the disciplines’ inability to influence society. Dismissing “illusions of involvement and control,” Koolhaas instead proposes variations of “go with the flow,” and he positions himself as the lead surfer on the post-1989 wave of modernization that was constructing a New Europe. 22
After several near misses in European design competitions in the early 1990s, his first big commission was Euralille. A business center, shopping mall, and convention center, created as part of a new high-speed rail station with international connections, Euralille straddled the highway and rail lines on the periphery of Lille, France. In addition to describing the project in several publications, Koolhaas wrote “Bigness or the problem of Large” to articulate a theory — and start a public relations campaign — for bigness of this scale. Although literally referring to big buildings, Bigness indirectly extends to the big business, big government, big firms, and big money required to make them. In other words, Koolhaas, the hip soixante-huitarde, was throwing in his chips with the authoritarian establishment. And although he maintained some of his rebel street cred by bandying the phrase “fuck context” and heaping derision on his peers, he argued that the rest of the profession needed to follow his lead in order to restore the credibility of the field. 23
Was this Koolhaas at his most contrarian? Or was this merely preemptive justification for his next phase? For anyone who had become concerned, in the ’90s, by the increasingly inflated scale and predominance of big-box stores, mega-malls, and edge cities, Koolhaas’s choice of topic was right on target. But his claims for the benefits of Bigness were surprising, if not downright unconvincing. Accepting the inevitability of large-scale development, Koolhaas extols — optimistically — how Bigness “instigates a regime of complexity,” “a promiscuous proliferation of events” that generates “programmatic alchemy” between diverse elements and inspires the creation of new possibilities. 24 Recognizing another “Bataille-soaked” opportunity to undercut the authority of architecture-as-exclusion, he further claims that the “art” of architecture is useless in the context of Bigness, and that Bigness competes with and preempts the city itself, ultimately surrendering the field to a scraped, tabula rasa “after-architecture.”
Koolhaas likes the tabula rasa, the identity-less vacant lot, “those nothingnesses of infinite potential.” 25 They are emblematic of the bulldozing that is inherent to modernizing the metropolis; they also evoke the neoliberal celebration of capitalist “creative destruction.” 26 Don’t stand in the way of progress! Koolhaas continues to defend Bigness even when the “after-architecture” it produces is what he terms the Generic City. As he writes in his second essay from 1994, “The Generic City is all that remains of what used to be the city.” 27 Emphasizing its unhealthy qualities, he says: “Compared to the classical city, the Generic City is sedated, usually perceived from a sedentary position … The serenity of the Generic City is achieved by the evacuation of the public realm … Its main attraction is its anomie. 28
He likens the anonymous interchangeability of buildings in the Generic City to mass global migration, and speculates that they are more welcoming to new immigrants than dignified medieval city centers with their strict behavioral codes and air of exclusion. 29 Sprawling Atlanta, Disneyfied European historic centers, the instant cities of Asia: all are examples of the Generic City. And despite his low opinion of these examples, he argues that modernization, like Bigness, demands and perpetually reproduces the Generic City. In the globalized world, everything is accessible, everything is information, everything is generic. 30 The ever-expanding metropolis has outgrown the capacity of the urban center to remain central. But instead of lamenting the loss of identity, Koolhaas provocatively suggests that this expansion liberates the periphery from second-class status: “What if we are witnessing a global liberation movement: ‘down with character!’” 31
Having thus underscored the uselessness of the “art” of architecture in the market-driven Generic City of Bigness, Koolhaas next targets the planning profession. In “What Ever Happened to Urbanism?,” he criticizes the sterile efforts and “lost battle” of urbanists to either plan or control the unfolding metropolis. He is especially dismissive of the postmodernists and New Urbanists.
Pervasive urbanization has modified the urban condition itself beyond recognition. “The” city no longer exists. As the concept of the city is distorted and stretched beyond precedent, each insistence on its primordial condition — in terms of images, rules, fabrication — irrevocably leads via nostalgia to irrelevance. 32
For Koolhaas the key issue is not whether the development patterns of the historic center or the periphery are good or bad. 33 Similarly, he never really questions the costs or benefits, the winners or losers, of modernization and global capitalism. He accepts these as given; and in the process he discredits all prior architectural and urbanistic thinking. Mainly he is interested in establishing the relevance of modernization and its perpetual instability and dynamism; and he argues that instead of trying to shape the forces of modernization, the best that architects can do is ride the wave. Instead of trying to fix the damage left in the wake, he scans the horizon for the next wave. Instead of empowering communities to envision and administer their future, he calls for a “Lite Urbanism,” the design equivalent of deregulation. 34 And much like the Wall Street campaign for banking deregulation, Koolhaas bathes Lite Urbanism in liberatory and progressive rhetoric, while ignoring the risks of abuse inherent in restless mobile capital and short-term interests.
If there is to be a “new urbanism” it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form; it will no longer be about meticulous definition, the imposition of limits, but about expanding notions, denying boundaries not about separating and identifying entities, but about discovering unnameable hybrids; it will no longer be obsessed with the city but with the manipulation of infrastructure for endless intensifications and diversifications, shortcuts and redistributions — the reinvention of psychological space. 35
In 1996, Koolhaas accepted a tenured position at Harvard University; there he set up a research project focused on the mutations of the contemporary city. The ’90s work of the Harvard Project on the City was eventually published in three big books from 2001 and 2002: Great Leap Forward, The Harvard Guide to Shopping, and Mutations. More recent studies have concentrated on Lagos, Moscow, and Beijing. Collectively, the publications aim to address the “theoretical, critical, and operational impasse” in urbanism by “introducing a number of ‘copyrighted’ terms, which represent the beginning of a conceptual framework to describe and interpret the contemporary urban condition.” 36 More spectacle than substance — like some of their subjects — the big books are jam-packed with photographs from the fieldwork of Koolhaas’s thesis students as well as graphic displays of data, statistics, timelines, and maps; they also include short historical and analytical essays. Criticism is largely absent. Less polemical than his earlier publications and much more reliant on graphic evidence, the books corroborate his observations on Bigness, the Generic City, and the seeming invulnerability of global capital to architectural intentions or critique. One big difference is that Koolhaas is starting to shift focus from the New Europe to the emerging global markets.
China’s Pearl River Delta was his inaugural subject: The Great Leap Forward might have been titled Delirious Shenzhen. Documenting the phenomenal pace of modernization resulting from China’s experiments with special economic zones along the Pearl River Delta, the 800-page book chronicles the surreal delights produced by the new market economy. The format is immersive but hardly comprehensive. Readers are treated to descriptions of the city’s 500 twenty-four-hour golf courses, the world’s longest waterfront promenade, the theme park at the center of the city, and the parking garage that after six months became inhabited by many different programs. Contradictions are the sine qua non of urbanism for Koolhaas, and so Great Leap Forward documents “the city of exacerbated differences,” focusing more on money and program than on the sprawling physical pattern.
In his lectures on this work, Koolhaas seems less able to maintain the book’s tone of journalistic neutrality. He clearly relishes the seemingly absurd juxtapositions of activities and the dizzying kaleidoscope of the Chinese city as unauthorized event. Although critical of the repetitive and shoddily constructed housing complexes, he finds the dynamism and unpredictability of real estate development in the socialist market economy “a source of freedom.” 37 This is modernization at an unprecedented speed and scale, and Koolhaas is thrilled by the chaotic ferment created by the sudden infusion of state and foreign capital. Yet Great Leap Forward is remarkably silent on the conditions of the factory workers upon which the amazing new market depends.
This omission is telling, for the economy of contemporary Shenzhen — the first Special Economic Zone, or SEZ, in the People’s Republic — has been based upon export-oriented production similar to the maquiladoras of Mexico or the Export Production Zones of Indonesia, and thus reliant upon a vast supply of cheap and non-unionized labor to produce everything from bootleg compact disks to electronic components for multinational corporations. And although workers in Shenzhen have gained more rights in recent years, and many have improved their living standards, the system remains strict: local laws are suspended in the SEZ, and governance and justice are administered by the corporations. Thus it would be a mistake to equate the new participation in free trade with the spread of personal freedom. Yet while Great Leap Forward celebrates the freedom of developers, planners, and architects, working at a feverish pace to create the new cities, it remains apparently blind to those who labor in the Asian sweatshops.
If Great Leap Forward focused on globalizing real estate, the second tome in the series, the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, gets down to the nitty-gritty; with evident enjoyment, it takes seriously a subject that the architecture elite has snobbishly dismissed — and in the process “disqualif(ied) designers from participating in the twentieth century’s biggest contribution to urbanism.” 38 As the frontispiece announces: “shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity” and “one of the principal — if only — modes by which we experience the city.” The Guide then documents in exhaustive detail the ways in which retail has penetrated our lives and places (including airports, museums, and churches); it also documents the explosion of data on consumer transactions, the rise of branding, the logistics of store expansion, comparative building types, and so on. By and large, the information is presented factually, with little probing or critique. The proliferation of vacant space, for instance, is presented as a crisis for the industry, but there is no related critique of the phenomena of over-retailing and the impact of dead malls on communities; nor do the authors explore how the design of these buildings might either hasten their obsolescence or encourage their reuse. Nor is there any real analysis of the increasing consumerism of diverse societies, or of the implications of the book’s provocative thesis: that shopping is our last public space. The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping seems to accept the status quo as inevitable, a fait accompli beyond challenge.
So given all the research documented in the big books, we might well ask: Is Koolhaas interested in transgressing the logics he exposes? On the one hand, he more or less single-handedly brought to the discipline’s attention the burgeoning metropolitan landscapes produced by the evolving global economy of the late 20th and early 21st century: Atlanta’s consumerist sprawl-scape, the rapidly urbanizing Pearl River Delta, the informal economies of Lagos, the invasive nature of shopping space. While most architecture publications, university lecture series, and museum exhibitions remained focused on singular building designs or theories produced by celebrated individual architects, Koolhaas injected the discourse with high-profile, too-big-to-ignore spreads on the larger globalizing world beyond. Koolhaas’s books have provided valuable and compelling documentation of the impact of mobile capital on the new — and economically linked but physically segregated — landscapes of consumption and production. 39
Koolhaas has also gone much further than most architects in framing his work in terms of global, social, political, and economic contexts. Content, the catalogue to a 2003 exhibition, parodies his celebrity status by imitating the format of a tabloid magazine filled with sensational articles. The cover depicts President George W. Bush (wearing a hat made from McDonalds Freedom Fries), Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il (as part cyborg), and President Saddam Hussein (as Rambo), all positioned in front of OMA’s design for the CCTV tower in Beijing. The cover also trumpets such mock headlines as “Perverted Architecture,” “Sweatshop Demographics,” “Big Brother Skyscrapers,” and “Homicidal Engineering.” Inside, articles about OMA projects are interspersed with numerous advertisements for Prada — one of OMA’s repeat clients — as well as Gucci and eBay; some of the ads appear to be fake. A timeline of the “¥€$ Regime 1989 – 2003” tracks the performance of the Dow Jones Index, the rise and fall of political revolutions, and the production of architectural icons; cynically, the introduction notes that “Architecture contributed a surprising sequence of masterpieces to this drunken party …” 40 All the while the saturated format bombards the reader with the graphics of commercial advertising, even as the “content” speaks to issues of art and culture.
Architecture has always been both an art and a business, and instead of privileging one or the other, as most architects do, Koolhaas embraces the creative contamination of both spheres. Whether the results are subversive or ambivalent can be debated; but has any other contemporary architect so forcefully had his finger on the pulse of global development patterns and directed attention to the role of capital in design? 41 And yet despite all the full-bleed photographs, all the data and detail, the charts and essays, his research projects, especially those featured in The Harvard Project on the City, contain remarkably little assessment or analysis. This refusal to criticize seems not simply a reactionary response to critical theory or to his own early career in journalism, with its ethos of disinterested reportage. So perhaps the big books have been intended not so much to make the insular architecture elite more aware of the larger world, but rather to make the larger world more aware of architecture? Perhaps, inspired by Dali’s Paronoid-Critical-Method, the former scriptwriter is betting that the best way to get the world’s attention is to hold up a mirror. Rather than formulating esoteric architectural ideas in language understood only by other architects (an occupational hazard), Koolhaas aims the lens on what’s happening in the world beyond architecture. He doesn’t draw a flattering picture, but nor does he alienate or criticize. And so he emerges as well positioned to assist his subject in becoming more appealing. Indeed, he emerges as the only architect willing to take that risk since, as he says repeatedly, architecture and urbanism have failed to address the dynamic needs of the larger world. But, as in a mirror, the reflection that Koolhaas’s works — his buildings — portray is more au present than avant-garde.
The logics that Koolhaas is interested in transgressing are not those of the larger social, economic, and political world. In fact, he argues that most of the utopian efforts of architects have been disastrous. 42 Rather, the logics he is interested in transgressing are those internal to architectural and urban discourse. Koolhaas rejects the proposition that architecture can aspire to lead society toward a better future; he insists that at best architecture can mirror the flux of the larger world in unprecedented designs and processes intended to defy predictable societal relationships. His architecture holds out the possibility that new, social configurations might emerge — but also that they won’t. Heavily reliant on new technologies and forms, his buildings provide the New World Order with the appearance of progressive change without the need for any real commitment. “I see ‘Architecture’ as an endangered brand,” Koolhaas has said, by way of justification, “and I’m trying to reposition it.” 43 His buildings, like his books, rebrand avant-garde architecture as spectacle.
Rebranding the Avant-garde
What are we to make of Koolhaas’s endorsement of commercialism? He wasn’t the only ’60s radical to become a ’90s capitalist. In One Market Under God, the political and cultural critic Thomas Frank sums up the ’90s by telling the story of “Deadheads in Davos” — the narrative of how former counterculture folks and corporate leaders found common ground in the shared the belief that markets create organic connections between people and that governments are fundamentally illegitimate. 44 In Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, the New Yorker writer John Seabrook tells similar tales of the merging of high-brow art and literary culture with low-brow commerce and money. In 1994, Tschumi began urging architects to “accelerate capitalism.” 45 By this time both he and Koolhaas were ensconced in tenured positions at Ivy League schools. Both had been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in prestigious one-man shows and published in big fat monographs; and inevitably both were referred to as “avant-garde.” One might interpret their enthusiasm for capitalism as a disingenuous move by two counterculture heroes, a way to justify the mainstream in which they so comfortably found themselves. Alternatively, it might reflect their discovery in the 1990s that destabilization — one of the great legacies of the counterculture — turns out to be best accomplished by venture capitalists, big business, and mobile money markets.
In any case, Koolhaas has positioned himself (much more overtly than Tschumi) to spin the interdependencies between architecture and the New World Order. And his success at eviscerating conventional notions of avant-gardism has been remarkable. In theory circles, as the ’90s and the millennium ticked to a close, a new generation followed Koolhaas’s lead, declaring the “end of the critical project” and lauding the virtues of being post-critical. 46 Michael Speaks has described the shift as a move away from theory-based concerns for truth toward intelligence-based concerns for doing and action. 47 This has been manifested in various not especially coordinated ways — a revived interest in pragmatism; the notion of projective practices; digital design and fabrication; diagramming and/or datascapes as the basis of design; and the landscape urbanist focus on evolving processes. Koolhaas’s influence pervades all of these tendencies, in the de-emphasis on theory and formalism and the heightened interest in research, experimentation, performance — most of which are, ironically, internally focused on disciplinary advances rather than externally focused on events in the broader world (let alone on advocating for social change).
In the profession, the more conspicuous legacy of Koolhaas’s rebranding can be seen in the proliferation of large, avant-garde icon buildings which serve to declare the client’s participation in the New World Order and the designer’s participation in the global economy. The trophies of globalization have evolved from high-design corporate banks by high-profile corporate firms — notably Sir Norman Foster’s HSBC Bank Headquarters in Hong Kong — to edgy cultural facilities such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, to a daring state-owned media company like Koolhaas’s CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. In the competitive global game of trumpeting one’s progressive cachet, each new entrant tries to raise the bar and the budget. This is all very far removed from the 1980s when “critical architecture” was expected to incorporate some aspect of resistance to capitalist totalization, compromised though such resistance might be. 48 Today, avant-garde architecture, big capital, and authoritarian states have found very cozy forms of mutual support. At the global scale, the resulting buildings have successfully signaled the emergence of new players in the global economy. But at the local level, rather than challenging the class structure or economic power of the status quo, the new generation of high design increasingly serves to distinguish its elite patron-class from the status quo of the man in the street.
OMA’s design for CCTV’s 10,000 employees and thousands of daily visitors exemplifies the complexities and contradictions of the avant-gardist embrace of Bigness and spectacle. In a district of skyscrapers, CCTV draws attention by rejecting both the tower and the corporate campus typologies. The main headquarters is twisted into an asymmetrical upside-down U-shape; the Television Cultural Center is L-shaped. Both occupy a 20-hectare, four-block site in Beijing’s expanding Central Business District, which is not-so-centrally located on the Third Ring Road. Remnants of the residential hutongs that once filled the site remain visible, but will soon be replaced by an award-winning, SOM-designed network of walkable green boulevards, expanded transit ways, and numerous new sites for commercial high-rises. Plans call for the plinth of the CCTV to connect to the CBD’s forthcoming boulevards, to a route for public tours, and, via escalator, to the subway station. But as the headquarters and production facilities for China’s state-run television (with capacity to broadcast 250 channels), the buildings are also heavily secured. The main building sits behind guard booths and security fences along the two primary streets. Bermed gardens for employees — designed to resemble Piranesi’s Campo Marzio dell’Antica Roma from the public observation deck above — further distance the building from the streets and local environs. Partly a witty allusion to the imperial tendency to collect foreign architectures, the gardens also read as the sort of landscape buffer typical of fenced-off suburban office parks. As such, they manage to make a walk around the building feel not only unwelcoming, but surprisingly boring. CCTV’s shape-shifting forms and daunting seventy-five-meter, thirteen-story cantilever make for stunning views from within and from a distance; they are least engaging from the sidewalk.
This is a surprise, coming from the author of Delirious New York and a scholar of cities. Years ago Rem Koolhaas taught us to appreciate the richness of the culture of congestion, the tight interlocking of the public life in the street with the private lives in the skyscraper interiors. But at CCTV he trades Manhattanism for the internalized programmatic promiscuity of Bigness and the old city-killing model of the Corbusian “towers in the park.” 49 In a self-fulfilling prophecy, he argues against addressing the street because the political life that it once supported no longer exists. 50 He treats the existing street as “residue” and conceives of CCTV not as in the city, but as a city — perhaps the greatest flaw of Bigness. Bigness not only re-establishes architecture as an agent of exclusion, it negates any possibility of fostering inclusive congruency.
In the end, CCTV is a spectacular object simultaneously rational and irrational, exuberant and withdrawn, monumental and unstable. Sadly, the one contradiction it doesn’t resolve is the choice between icon-making and city-making. Ultimately it rebrands architecture and avant-gardism in service not to the culture of congestion but rather to the society of the spectacle.
Is the larger legacy of Koolhaas and the ’90s the reframing of architecture not as a source of authority and order but as an accommodating mirror to the authority and disorder of the market? “Neoliberalism has turned architecture into a ‘cherry on the cake’ affair,” said Koolhaas, in a 2011 interview with Der Spiegel. “I’m not saying that neoliberalism has destroyed architecture. But it has assigned it a new role and limited its range.” 51 Is the role of the avant-garde to cozy up with big capital to produce architecturally daring and socially unambitious icon buildings whose collective impact can be likened to what some have called an “architectural petting zoo”? 52 In the emerging markets that Koolhaas targets, this may well be the case. But where capital is scarce and markets suffer from the bursting of irrationally exuberant bubbles, architects and urbanists are finding other highly creative means to advance agendas overlooked by the starchitects, including proactive improvements to the city. This may be one of the contradictions of capitalism.