Views on OMA”s House of Music: Further Mental Exercises

Today it is announced that Rem Koolhaas is the 23rd Pritzker Prize Laureate. As a congratulation on our part we hereby publish an article by Rodrigo Cardoso on OMA’s House of Music in Porto.

The feelings aroused by the project of the House of Music can perhaps be put together under one category: they are excessive. The City Hall shows excessive pride, the 'intellectual elite' shows excessive excitement, the 'progressive' people show excessive love, the conservative ones show excessive hate.

The City Hall sees the House of Music as its symbol of progress, of success. A strong and visible building has always been the best way to symbolise and celebrate power. For our cultural elite, it is exciting to have the author of 'SMLXL' just glimpsing at them. Saying 'Koolhaas' has become a kind of keyword, which you use to show you are cultured.

For the ordinary conservative citizen, the House of Music varies between 'scandalous' and 'unhappy'. For some, it is a typical and very respectable problem of post-architecture. In the site where the 'object' will appear there used to be the warehouse where the famous Porto Trams and Buses were kept. The meaning of this building is still very strong for many people who travelled in public transportation year after year. The fact of seeing its facade going down and the Trams being displaced can be shocking. Saying, 'I will not look at it' was a solution for many to avoid contact with the future building.

For others the problem is pure conservatism. Like sheep following their shepherd, they cannot imagine any work in Porto, which does not refer to the historical buildings of the city. It is not a question of critical analysis of the context, it is a question of 'pastiche'. They ask for a nice fassade, which looks like the stone-based buildings of the partially 19th century Boavista Avenue, next to the site. As long as the 'mask' is kept, the rest (i.e. quality) is indifferent. For that matter, one could ask why not referring to the horrible shopping mall or to the wild speculative urbanism close by. What criteria do these people use to demand a reference to one moment of history over every other?

Many people are still ashamed of contemporaneity and forget that today will also be history tomorrow. Perhaps it would be fair if we were able to leave our heritage with the same courage and truth as others did in the past.

The first interesting thing about OMA's new concert hall in Porto is its capacity of existing without being there. Due mainly to the project's apparent radicalism and to a huge mediatic effort, the words 'house of music' are now in every mouth.

However, not only the words are popular. Today, the ordinary citizen is able to 'see' or to project the image of the future building into the construction site without it being there. In Porto, everyone knows what will happen in that site, everyone knows the shape of the new 'object', and everyone has an opinion about it.

There are some places, like Berlin, where one can feel a high potential, or presence, of an architecture which no longer exists (like the wall) or which never existed (like Mies' glass tower). In some other places, that potential appears in the possibility of future architecture.

Therefore, what we are witnessing in Porto is an interesting state of pre-architecture. Pre-architecture happens when the potential and presence of a building appear and act before the physical existence of the building itself. What we can see in Porto is that the building is not there yet, but people behave as if it is.

The pre-architectural strength of this building is enhanced by various other reasons. Parallel to the simplicity and directness of its shape, the radicalism of its concept, and all the mediatic effort around it, we must also take into count the context in which it appears (the city-wide Porto 2001 event), the site, imprisoned in all its history, and mainly the impressive void created by the construction site of such a building. What we have now is an enormous hole in the ground, in the centre of the city, in a place, which has always been full of something. Now its emptiness is stronger than its fullness ever was. OMA's notions of Bigness anticipate the amoral building, its imposition by size and not by architectural quality. There is however an extension to that idea: the building site of the House of Music fulfils the same criteria of imposition by size before the existence of the building itself. In this state of pre-architecture, a formless and immaterial Bigness appears, an amoral imposition of nothing but a hole in the ground.

Pre-architecture is mind-only architecture, it demands and enhances imagination and creativity. Post-architecture, on the other hand, deals with memory and collective imaginary.

Not every building is susceptible of achieving pre-architecture. There are buildings, which are always anonymous, others whose importance only starts when they are built, others which only achieve significance after they are torn down. In the House of Music, its significance has already begun and also post-architecture is already there, interacting with the future building. The meaning of the former tramand buses warehouse is still great for many people today, and its destruction has left memories, which the new House of Music will have to cope with. And it is exactly the state of post-architecture of the previous building in this site, which makes OMA's project so polemical and contributes for its achieving of pre-architecture.