Rem Koolhaas in the Berlage

On February 7 in a packed Berlage Institute – it’s about time they got round to making a decent lecture theatre there – Rem Koolhaas delivered the final lecture in the Projective Theory series that started with Peter Eisenman on October 11 last year.

Given that Koolhaas thinks of the Berlage as his back garden, we weren’t in for a real presentation but simply some ‘collected material’. It began in very serious fashion. Who starts a lecture by showing a picture of the Parthenon? He does. It turned out to be an ironical jab at Peter Eisenman and Jef Kipnis who, claims to Koolhaas, argued for a return to architecture in order to save the discipline in their lectures at the AA and the Berlage respectively. Koolhaas also followed Bob Somol and Sarah Whiting in the now almost customary practice of first offering some remarks to Alejandro Zaera Polo.

Just in case you missed it, in the now utterly unreadable periodical Archis – sorry, er, in Volume – the Dean of the Berlage wrote a highly readable piece in which he recalled a press presentation for the Yokohama terminal held by his office FOA. They were standing in front of a roomful of people who gradually understood less and less of the architects’ academic explanation of the building. Thank God he’d brought along a picture of the Hokusai Wave. A huge sigh of relief and understanding was heard around the room when he told his audience that this was actually the inspiration behind the port building. Similar analogies and image references proved extremely effective in the presentation of the United We Stand tower designed by United Architects to replace the Twin Towers in New York. Just like the Barcelona Castellers: united we stand. And all the buildings for the Olympics in London are arranged like muscles in a park.

Bob Somol congratulated Zaera Polo on his article by saying he (Zaera Polo) had just written the latest book by Charles Jencks on iconography. With the Dean not in attendance, Sarah Whiting limited herself to the comment that it’s remarkable at the very least that a building is only good when it looks like something else and hence finds its identity outside architecture.

Koolhaas also wants to venture beyond architecture. Unlike the one Peter Eisenman belongs to, his generation is ‘privileged’ because it operates amidst globalisation and the privatisation of the public sector. No better way to express it, claimed Koolhaas, than with ¥€$. ‘And if you unleash ¥€$ on the old architecture (the Parthenon) you get Gehry in Bilbao.’ And that’s not an option of course. While Eisenman and Kipnis find the language of architecture itself to be important and want to develop it, and while Zaera Polo develops a sort of ‘decoy language’ in order to communicate with the public (the non-architects), Koolhaas wants to keep as far as he can from the architectural side of architecture as possible. He wants to emphasise the non-architectural side. In other words: the public, economic and social side, and also new media and politics. Whereas Eisenman wants to be an intellectual within architecture, OMA/Rem Koolhaas wants to be a public intellectual.

In order to study how to get away from the architectural side, Koolhaas together with Hans-Ulrich Obrist is interviewing the last living Metabolists (’the only non-Western avant-garde’). To date, Kisho Kurokawa is an example of how it could be with his weekly TV programmes, playboy image and role as ambassador of ‘Japanness’. OMA itself has been brought on board as advertising agency to salvage the European project. Besides the proposal for a flag and logos, the exhibition The Image of Europe has been devised and designed.

Getting involved in politics and advertising is apparently what Koolhaas means by emphasising the non-architectural side of the profession. His political ambitions were already clear in a piece in Content in which he outlined what he would do as Minister of Foreign Affairs for Europe. And then there’s his proposal to set up a Power Lab within Harvard as a counterpart to the MIT Media Lab. Luckily, he continued with a number of razor-sharp observations:

– that there’s an impasse in how both urban design and architecture are represented

– that in Europe we stopped thinking about the city at the very moment that urbanisation really gained momentum in the East

– that the city is looking more and more like a resort (the palm island off the coast of Dubai), but that ‘we’ didn’t design it

– that everything is becoming authoritarian

– that even one of the most lyrical artists (Christo) now makes authoritarian art, since his gates only serve to emphasise the existing pathways through Central Park

– that the Labour Party campaign in England is unpleasantly similar to Nazi symbolism in terms of form and colour, and that perhaps it’s not just the image that is authoritarian

– that everything must be ‘safe’ and that there’s therefore absolutely no room for secrecy, adventure, bad luck or danger

– that so much is prohibited, from fences to vehicles and from advertisements to window cleaners on ladders

– that film stars, pop stars, sports heroes, artists and even scriptwriters now earn much more than architects

– that the budget for constructing a building has dropped dramatically over the past hundred years.

When Koolhaas was finished Zaera Polo once again explained why he thinks it’s essential for architects to develop a new language in order to communicate with non-architects. Koolhaas thinks that architects are still able to communicate and he still opposes the distinction that Kipnis and Eisenman want to make. He was then eager to know what occupies the Berlage students. Do they still look at Venturi? After some urging, one student stated that they were very interested in activism and ideology, although exactly why remained unclear. But perhaps the crux of this lecture was a passing remark by Koolhaas about the lecture given by Ignasi de Solà-Morales at the Anyhow congress in Rotterdam in 1997. De Solà-Morales made a brilliant connection between Fluxus (the art movement to which Wim T. Schippers, among others, belonged to for a while) and something he called ‘Liquid Architecture’. Not in praise of even more blobs, but to bring on board Dada, the Nouveaux Réalistes and the Situationists and to arrive at an architecture that would do nothing except facilitate maximum freedom with possibilities for coincidence, adventure, secrecy and even danger.

Perhaps that explains Koolhaas’s fascination with the corporate Japanese ‘nothingness’. Architecture without anything, even with a ‘non-neutrality’. Let’s hope he continues to get involved in the architectural side of the profession and makes many more conscientious buildings.