Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Fundamentals of Rem Koolhaas


Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on ‘The End of History’ is widely credited with sealing the fate of the ‘historical thinking’, stripping the veneer off of any ideological alternative to liberal capitalism and crashing the meta-narratives of the 20th century into self-reflective panic. When Rem Koolhaas, the doyen of ‘S,M,L and XL’, was appointed curator of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, in his 70th year, one sensed a similar wave rising in ‘architectural thinking’. Presented as a choral research on architecture, ‘Fundamentals’ the title of this year’s Biennale by Koolhaas, Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, looked at architectures past, present and future. Firstly asking the national pavilions to explore the historic impact of the last 100 years of modernism in ‘Absorbing Modernity’. The present day is canonised in fifteen booklets on ‘Elements of Architecture’ that dominate the Central Pavilion as well, charting the impact of 20th century industrialisation on the built environment, where now escalators, lifts and toilets dictate the way architecture is programmed.

Architectural futures is tackled in the Monditalia where Italy is the empathetic host for testing and consuming culture, witnessed in 82 films and 41 architectural projects with space for first time participations from the world of  Dance, Music, Theatre and Cinema. For this Biennale the image of the architect and products of their sole endeavours – the ‘masterpiece’, is secondary, in place shared collaborations dominate, either technical, social or ideological such as neo advent-garde groups Superstudio, founded in Florence in 1966 whose ‘The Secret Life of the Continuous Movement’, shown at the 1978 Biennale, advanced towards symbolic representations of architecture where, “Architecture exists in time as salt exists in water”, where the only possible architecture, then is our own life.

It seems that to popularise architecture Koolhaas feels the need for the architect to disappear which has been a reoccurring theme in his oeuvre. As Bart Verschaffel states in, ‘The Survival Ethics of Rem Koolhaas’ on receiving the Rotterdam-Maaskant Prize in 1986, ‘it is a remarkable feeling, but I am not an I. Throughout my career I have only written the word ‘I’ once, and that was in the sentence “I am a ghost writer”. A ghostwriter is someone who does not appear on stage himself, but remains in the background and speaks in the name of someone else’. This statement is unexpected and perhaps even sounds suspect from someone who has grown into on the most famous and mediagenic architecture stars. Yet in that same 1986 speech, he heralded this ‘stardom’ as ‘a strategy’: ‘The mythology of the architect begs a reconstruction plan.’[1]

In the opening Biennale week debating, ‘5000 years of architecture and technology, what next?’, with CEO and inventor Tony Fidall of Nest Thermostats, Koolhaas, reflected on digital technologies desire to commodify architecture as well as predict and better human behavior. “I drive an old car and it frequently breaks down. Then I am asked to rent a new car that predicts my new speed and makes me behave better and be a better driver, almost all the aspirational words we use now include ‘better ‘ ‘more responsible’. what about transgression?” By referring to ‘In praise of shadows’ by Junichirō Tanizaki comparing Japanese homes to those in Europe, where in “household implements: we prefer colours compounded by darkness, they prefer the colours of sunlight”[2] Koolhaas asks, “why deny these challenging qualities that also hold beauty?” and are now needed to break the current global homogeneity perpetrated by digital technology.

Reflecting on the merits of the Nest Thermostat, Koolhaas posits ‘Well I have mixed feelings, I admire the intelligence and the use as a tool to be frugal and responsible but also a fundamental reluctance on my part to see architecture turned into products, and the relentless commercialization of architectural elements”. In response to Fidall’s assumpation that, “what you do will last for centuries – what I do ages quicker within the year”, Koolhaas reveals, “the exhibition on the one hand shows the huge decrease in flexibility of materials, but in terms of appearance we are in the same world of accelerated ageing” where, “confidence has crumbled, the permanence of architecture is a pathetic fiction now, even if buildings last 25 or 30 years it is a miracle”.

For Koolhaas, the Biennale is a mirror on his thinking and desire to challenge the popular myths, perpetrated by the modernist narrative of the architect maestro, the sole author of a permanent architecture, fortified by manifestos and classical references to ancien regime. Koolhaas shows us that what was a ‘gift’ for one generation is now a ‘given’ for another – a set change, no more than part of a performance. Famously credited with stating, ‘it’s not me, it’s made by OMA’ Koolhaas’s design approach, recently unpacked by Albena Yaneva in ‘An Ethnography of Design’ states, ‘Just as it is impossible to understand Rembrandt’s work without understanding the aspects of his studio practice along with his specific handling of paint, the theoretical treatment of his models and his relationship with the market, it is impossible to understand Koolhaas’s work without considering his design practice.’[3] Yaneva uncannily describes the Koolhaas contribution where architecture lies; ‘The entire OMA design work revolves around life as it is staged in the office; in model making, in the travels of the model, in studio events and situations of reuse. There, the architects are performers and spectators and architecture becomes part of the performance that we view’.[4]







[1] Verschaffel, B. The Survival Ethics of Rem Koolhaas: The First Houses by OMA. (NAi Publishers 2003)
[2] Tanizaki, J. In Praise of Shadows. p.46 (Japan Quarterly 1954)
[3] Yaneva, A. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design. (010 Rotterdam 2009)
[4] ibid p. 102

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