The architecture world has an Old Haircut Problem.
Time after weary time, design discourse as a whole is seized by a sense of looming embarrassment. Looking back on its own fairly recent history, it concludes that everything has in fact been very bad—and must therefore be blotted from memory. The cycle is painfully predictable: early modernists reject the Beaux Arts, only to be rejected in turn by late modernists, who are rejected themselves by postmodernists, and so on down the line. Each generation of architects and critics has its mullet, and when confronted with the photographic proof they hang their newly coiffured heads in shame.”Thank god we don’t look like that anymore,” they think.
Currently on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is an exhibition of some of the most outstanding old-haircut pictures the architectural community has ever seen. The style is Clinton-era flipped-out chop bob, embodied here by the figure of Rem Koolhaas. Emerging in earnest in the 1990s, Koolhaas has reigned for much of the past three decades as architecture’s most influential living actor and metaphor, a hierophant of density, data, and delirium. Now, in collaboration with the Guggenheim’s Curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives Troy Therrien, he has created Countryside: The Future, a magpie assortment of charts, replicas, maps, videos, and robot effigies of Stalin that purports to give visitors a glimpse of the changes currently being wrought on the world’s less-peopled places—areas supposed to have been ignored, up to now, by scholars and practitioners engaged with the built environment. Koolhaas’s pastoral turn is meant as a bookend to his longstanding theoretical project, showing that Rem’s old hyper-urban, zany-futurist, everything-goes playbook still has life in it.
“Of course I still like the city,” said Koolhaas, addressing the crowd at the show’s opening function in late February. Certainly he ought to: the architect, founder of global mega-firm Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), still spends most of his time in Rotterdam, New York, São Paolo, or wherever his wide stable of clients happens to take him. The inspiration for the show seems to have been Koolhaas’s spending his “summer and winter holidays,” as he explained, rusticating in Switzerland. There he witnessed such startling changes as cheapo McVillas sprouting up beside historic farmhouses, and retired German physicists taking up farming. Something was afoot, he reasoned: this looked like a case for Detective Rem.
It is very easy to make fun of all this, and it only gets easier as the show goes on. From wall texts that make facile observations about “antiquity,” to gee-whiz installations of grow boxes and other technology already familiar to most, to examinations of conditions in rural Kenya that smack just slightly of colonialist ethnography, Countryside invites a thorough critical pants-kicking. And it’s gotten it: too much information, too little rigor, and too much presumption on the part of show organizers have earned it a pretty scathing reception in most quarters—from Twitter, to prominent critics like New York’s Justin Davidson, to prominent critics on Twitter such as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, who deemed it “complete BS.” Especially for the out-of-town visitor, safariing up Museum Mile with tykes in tow, the show’s maze of poster board will seem a strange complement to one of the city’s major cultural institutions, as though Frank Lloyd Wright’s gracious ziggurat had been rented out for a job fair. Even defenders of the exhibition would have to confess that the show is deeply flawed, and that much of the criticism is justified.
Much—with one very fat asterisk. The negative consensus surrounding the show has reached sufficient mass that one can now put it on the couch. At its psychic root, all the criticism appears to converge at one point: Koolhaas himself, and the methodology he represents. Countryside is driven by the same analytical apparatus that Koolhaas first previewed in his 1978 book Delirious New York, and that came into its own in 1995’s S, M, L, XL (written with Bruce Mau), the de facto bible for practice in a then newly-globalized profession. What is being attacked is not just the show itself, but an entire intellectual atmosphere—along with almost everything that came in its wake, amounting to thousands of projects built by hundreds of firms in cities all over the world, designed over the course of some twenty-five years. In short, the discourse is at it again, running away from some lamentable choices it would sooner forget. That alone might make the Guggenheim show merit a second look, and in this instance it would seem doubly prudent. After all, Rem could end up having the last laugh. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
“This will be an architecture that generates its own successors, miraculously curing architects of their masochism and self-hatred . . .” These words from Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, were written by Koolhaas (along with then-collaborators Madelon Vreisendorp, Elia Zenghelis, and Zoe Zenghelis) in 1972, part of the budding designer’s thesis project at London’s Architectural Association. Recycled as the introduction for S, M, L, XL, the essay shows just how early Koolhaas had begun to strike out on his singular path. It only took another quarter century for the rest of the profession to come aboard.
What Koolhaas was outlining in such gnomic, antic pronouncements was an alternate vision of the 20th century. Infused with what Salvador Dalí called the “paranoiac-critical method,” the architect—the son of a prominent Dutch filmmaker, and originally a filmmaker himself—spun berserk fictions out of the modern urban landscape, dissecting real-life histories of buildings and cities and then reconstituting them, through drawings and collages and dream-like surrealist essays, into architectural Bizarro Worlds. Delirious New York, with its semi-speculative accounts of 1920s athletic clubs and river-born swimming pools and Rockefeller Center, was the first fruit of this lifelong project. But it took S, M, L, XL for its full implications to be felt.
Alongside OMA’s completed projects (not many, at that point), the nearly fifteen-hundred-page book squeezed in reams of ideas, facts, figures, and observations from Koolhaas’s life as a wandering architectural minstrel, operating as a firsthand account of globalism in its infancy. “I am an information addict,” its author declared. “I want stimulus, and I want it now!” Here was an actual prescription for practice: a call to apply the paranoiac approach to the whole storm of sensory input on offer in the digital age, and then not just to imagine the potential results but to build them. Even more important than any of its individual dicta—which were, in any case, deliberately contradictory—the book served up a certain affect, a freewheeling, ludic embrace of contemporary life.
Put squarely, in philosophical terms, the book was pure unvarnished accelerationism—albeit sneakily so, since it did not announce itself as such. Its most famous formulation, actually coined by Koolhaas over a decade earlier, spells it out: “This architecture relates itself to the forces of Groszstadt [metropolis] like a surfer to the waves.” For metropolis, substitute capital, and the whole essence of Koolhaasism comes into focus. Hitting bookshelves about eighteen months before Frank Gehry unveiled his Guggenheim Bilbao, S, M, L, XL was the museum’s theoretical counterpart, the paradigmatic pace-setter for the architecture of neoliberalism. OMA itself would produce some of the prominent exemplars of the age of “iconic buildings,” as critic Charles Jencks termed the fin de siècle moment, including the Möbius strip–like CCTV Headquarters in Beijing and the multi-planar madhouse of the Seattle Central Library. But while the individual projects are often more thoughtful (not to mention more ingeniously functional) than many of the period, they were mostly the work of younger associates rather than Rem himself, and at any rate were never quite as influential as his ideas alone. It was those ideas that equipped architects with the intellectual alibi they needed as they designed opera houses for oil despots and ultra-tall high-rises for plutocrats.
Flash forward to two weeks ago, and Rem is in a tight spot. After he finished his opening remarks at the Countryside debut, one especially dogged Q&A’er pressed him as to whether he had adequately addressed “the role of corporations” in bringing about the heady future heralded by the show. Koolhaas ducked and parried with admirable dexterity, but the problem remains. In booth after booth at the Guggenheim, images of the American Midwest, its vast center-pivot irrigation patterns stamping the landscape; of the Fukushima Test Field, a robotic experiment site created on land destroyed after Japan’s 2011 Tsunami; and of truck-bound Americans “rolling coal,” burning the black stuff en masse as a form of right-wing anti-eco protest, all speak to the nightmarish political and environmental corner into which the world has disastrously painted itself, thanks to a decades-long faith in the power of global capital. Koolhaas and the Guggenheim seem to offer all of this up as eye-popping spectacle. The architect’s main personal contribution is a huge room filled top to bottom with questions of his own creation. One of them shows Rem’s value-free wave-riding at its most virulent. “Is the destruction of the world,” he asks, “doomed to remain a minority taste?”
The Koolhaasian moment in design began to fade, as one might expect, with the coming of the 2008 global economic crisis; since everything in architecture takes longer than in any other field, the full-on rejection is only getting underway now, but already the accelerationist paradigm has been replaced by another: a meliorist one, eco-conscious and modest, international in outlook but more focused on firms working within their communities, especially those in developing countries. Instead of jet-set glamour and authoritarian mass, the architecture that pervades is committed to small gestures and a sense of the local. For evidence, look no further than the roster of recent recipients of architecture’s vaunted Pritzker Prize—dominated by lesser-known practices with socially-minded portfolios, rather than big-name starchitects designing glitzy museums. The trend was reaffirmed only yesterday, with the announcement that the award would go to Ireland’s Grafton Architects, a collaborative office that has pursued an architecture of conscientious lyricism while deliberately shunning the limelight. The wheel has indeed turned.
The problem is that this turn, as with all such turns, is not wholly satisfactory of itself. As architecture critic Reyner Banham once said, “The only way to prove you have a mind is to change it occasionally,” and in looking back to the haircuts of architecture past, a little mortification may be therapeutic: surely there is no progress without critique. But the crises besetting the world in 2020 are sufficiently dire that there is room to wonder whether the earnestness, can-do conviction, and moral rectitude of some of Koolhaas’s most ardent contemporary critics might come up well short of their expectations. Quite apart from the fact that the profession, in its current temper, still leans heavily on groundwork created by Koolhaas (in its use of data in particular), the Countryside show exposes a few key flaws in the prevailing architectural meliorism. The mullet, in other words, may be on the other head.
Toward the very top of Wright’s spiral, the show’s curators have placed two images that signal the main thrust of Koolhaas’s argument.
The first is a photo, the interior of a data center in the desert: a gridded catwalk lit in dramatic red, surrounded by ganglia of wires and circuits, totally devoid of action or sunlight or living occupants of any kind. This is the posthuman landscape—eerily beautiful and terrifying, a science-fiction future that is already upon us.
The second image is a blown-up reproduction of a 17th-century print of The Hague. Amazingly, even at that early date, city and country are already being combined in a total architectural confabulation, with a grand allée cutting through the barren coastal dunes. This, of course, was typical for Holland, a country created ex novo out of the salty shallows of the sea and maintained via levees, dykes, and a remarkably egalitarian political order that helped operate them—and that endures, in many respects, up till today.
Koolhaas, the cosmopolitan European, has been taken to task for condescension, coming upon the ex-urban wastes and claiming to have “discovered” a new world. But perhaps only someone who grew up in a place made entirely out of mud and democracy could look on, with such peculiar froideur, as the artificial slowly overtakes the natural. Even where the Countryside presents information already available elsewhere—the habituation of gorillas to human tourists in Rwanda; the emergency plan that supplied Qatar with milk after it was blockaded by Saudi Arabia; new forms of town life in central China, with farmers occupying high-rise apartments and commuting to work—its presentation is notable for what it achieves in the aggregate, a thesis not so much understood as felt. Koolhaas, after all, has always been a bricoleur: Delirious New York was not “original,” except in its cumulative effect. (In this case, Koolhaas and Therrien were also scrupulous about crediting their sources and contributors, university students and faculty and designers around the world who were present at the opening and who led, by the curators’ own admission, their respective projects with relative autonomy.) There is less opportunism here, and more message, than meets the eye. If Countryside: The Future seems to many people like a bloody mess, well, so’s the future of the countryside.
Koolhaas’s enlistment in the neoliberal consensus was not always a given, and while he is careful to maintain his non-committal poker face in his new campestral phase, the sense of hysteria is more palpable than ever. This is not Robo Rem: environmental catastrophe is recognized as such (in the “question” room, a video displays alarming and captivating visuals of planetary weather anomalies) as is corporate skullduggery (billionaire clothier Douglas Tompkins gets called out, both for union-busting and for papering over it with pseudo-eco philanthropy); more importantly, an air of rising anxiety is conjured, and with it a particular emotional response that is not mere equanimity. It is a harried pessimism—a “bright” pessimism perhaps, to recall the rubric of a 2014 Triple Canopy symposium—still delirious perhaps, but by no means deluded.
What to do with this pessimism, with this hysteria? Koolhaas, like many of his European starchitect comperes, was colored by the banner year of 1968, and emerged from it with a profoundly dour view of revolutionary moments. Enabler of neoliberalism he might be, but it was still his cultural insight (along with Gehry’s formal genius) that unstuck the architecture world from its navel-gazing, early-90s rut. It is safe to say that no revolution has ever begun on East 88th Street, and the lack of bona fide solutions in Countryside: The Future may seem like something of a cop-out by the standards of Rem’s own influence. The exhibit’s representational gimmickry—Playmobil toys; farm-themed fashion shoots; Cultural Revolution posters paired with EU policy papers—has suffered by imitation, appearing in a thousand grad-school hallways and biennial annex shows. But this has always been Rem’s way: not pretty pictures of how things ought to be, but dorkiness in the service of mind-expansion.
What would the architecture profession as a whole think about were it dosed with Rem’s mind-expansion drug? For starters, it could try taking doom, decline, and the absence of progress seriously, cutting back on its credulity and its positivism. It would (and this is paradoxical, given that we’re talking about Koolhaas) slow down and entertain any number of troubling scenarios, only some of them to do with climate change. It might even ask if architecture were advisable, or even possible, after the Paris Agreement. To extrapolate all this from Countryside may be too generous; but then again, if architects wake up tomorrow and find—not withstanding their activism and carbon-neutral neo-humanism—that the world looks eerily like Countryside’s mixed-up pan-techno dystopia, they can always say Rem told ‘em. And when the wheel turns again, as it will, design discourse will do as it has always done, attempting to atone for its recent sins by turning to some long-neglected element in its history. So did the early modernists, looking back to the austerity of the Greeks; so did the Brutalists after them, extolling the virtues of the Romanesque. Rem, like his Countryside, belongs to the future.