Date: Wednesday 29 November 1995
Venue: Lecture Hall
Rem Koolhaas presents his innovative and influential publication S,M,L,XL. Designed in collaboration with Bruce Mau, written as a kamikaze critique of the work of the OMA office, Koolhaas describes the book as an architectural novel which aims at modesty at a megalomaniac scale. Rem Koolhaas is a former student and tutor at the AA and founder of OMA. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2000.
REM KOOLHAAS: In a way, it is very cruel that after publishing a book of 1400 pages I am asked to give a presentation, because the book is in itself the presentation; everything I have to say now is completely redundant: is in the book. Every project is both defined in the terms of positive ambitions, but also in terms of issues to avoid. In our work, and also in this book, the catalogue of things to avoid has been at least as important as the things to include. We wanted to do a book about architecture which both undermined and reinforced architecture; a book which spoke openly about the meaning of many of our architecture, but at the same time, which did so at a modest scale, so maybe the main definition of the book is modesty in a megalomaniac scale. At this point, the most interesting presentation I can give is about the book and its intentions, although in some way I feel that I am also spoiling your fun, because it will make explicit some things that are deeply buried in depth of the book. I am exposing connections now that I would rather have prefered to remain hidden, for you to discover or to ignore.
The book is a series of fragments, it has the pretension of a novel, people have waited for it a long time, and I think have written it very quickly. I started in 1992, and, for those of you who know ‘Delirious New York,’ I named myself its ghostwriter (the ghostwriter that describes New York’s theory). The role of a ghostwriter is still the role I prefer the most, but there were two issues, first of all, my age, and second, the huge amount of work that we have undeniably produced, which imposed the issue of publishing this kind of work. I would still have prefered to be the ghostwriter, and to me the book is still a ghost-written book, but I felt it was also inevitable to make your own personal disclosures. One of them is that my father was a writer, and therefore, I am probably biologically programmed to be interested in writing. He died one week before I started the book, and maybe there is a connection between his death and a certain mission of this words. We wanted a book that changed of character every ten pages or something like that, a book that did not have a single appearance, a book that changed nature, character, identity and aesthetics at every possible moment. I felt that was very important to make a book that provoked other people to think about architecture, and about the conditions under which architecture is produced today. Therefore, the book contains a series of informations about the economy of our office: (showing a graph) to the left the beginning of the office in 1981, and the moment that we started the book is when the line started to decline acutely. In that sense, you could say that writing the book is also a critique of the office and also probably an act of aggression against the office, to some extent kamikaze. The conditions under which architecture has to be produced today are, strictly speaking, insane. These graphs give the corresponding frequency of travels, of nights spent in hotels, of the accumulated effort, so therefore there is a very blatant paradox that the more an architect is popular, the the less that he has to spend on architecture. We are all living with the consequences of that paradox, and it is not a beautiful sight in most cases. The more the work of an architecture office is disseminated in different areas, (by the way, 70% or 80% of our work is not in the country where we have our office), the more it becomes a logistical nightmare. Here (shows graph) you can see the up and down fluctuations of income, so running an office now is to try to even out a series of completely irrational mountain ranges, and therefore it is an almost impossible task. It is important to make those revelations, because the book is to some extent a critique of the office. It was written at a time of incredible financial difficulty, the difficulties are simply given here, I can say that our office almost died this summer, but at the same time there is an interesting twist of scenario. We started negotiations with a major engineering firm in The Netherlands, and we are now autonomous but completely enravelled in association with an enormous office of 700 people, who built roads, bridges and tunnels, and who expect from the association to cover the entire field from architecture to infrastructure.
This is our new office (photograph) in The Netherlands, we have a real lobby, and a real secretary, with a view towards the city of Rotterdam: a complete inventory of all the successes and failures of the past thirty years. The work of the office is intensely a collaboration. The book itself is a collaboration between Bruce Mau, a Canadian designer, with whom we had an intense collaboration, and he also had an editorial role. It is edited by Jennifer Sieger; and it also shows the work of the photograph Hans Werlemann, who has photographed most of our works. In a way, the book is a machine. There is on its left a column of citations, in alphabetical order. What is interesting is that the sources of the citations are not given until the end, so, as you are reading, you never know whether you are reading something important or not important. This is one of the ways in which we are trying to destabilize the whole issue of expectation, importance and unimportance, because, unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion in architecture in these terms. In the column of quotations, we sometimes quote works of art, on the left corner, and sometimes the words pull away and we just insert a work of art, that is not necessarily important in a particular project, but it is in terms of our own sources, and inspiration. Otherwise the book consists of a series of very different writings, and different styles of writing. For instance, there is a little story on the relationship between my mother and Mies van der Rohe: it is a very indirect relationship, in the sense that she once walked over the grass where Mies had constructed one of his projects in The Netherlands 1:1 in canvas, and when the client saw the building, she decided not to build it. (Shows drawing) You see that the building is actually of a very heavy stone, a classical building, so I have a theory about this canvas model: I think that Mies was very young at the time, twenty four years old, and the experience of entering to the canvas building, and being in this canvas temple, which in every sense was the contrary of what the building presumed to be, must have completely changed his architecture. Therefore it was not the house that Mies built, but the house that built Mies.
There is also a poem about Japan in the book, ‘Learning Japanese,’ which describes my first experience of working in Asia. Sometimes, a particularly dramatic episode is given, suppressed in terms of its emotions are simply recorded in the form of a chronology. Sometimes there are essays, like ‘Typical Plan’ about the fundamental knowability of the city today. Sometimes there is a cartoon, one of which describes a particularly gerish episode in the history of our office, in which I was humiliated by developers—this is frankly our revenge. There are more theoretical moments in the book, that are probably dubious, and open to criticism. Again, sometimes the graphic design contradicts the content, and sometimes the book becomes a book within a book, as in the history of the last thirty years of Singapore (in ‘Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis… or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa’). Sometimes the book is very brutal, by just describing brutal projects dealing with the kind of junk-like conditions of today in certain cases. Sometimes the book is very delicate, as where there is a description of an actual dream—that was actually a nightmare—of our first work in architecture. The book is designed in a way that plans are also read as text. In this case (image shown), (the plan of) a parking can also be a poem or a text, the surfaces of a building can have the same intricacy, maybe, as words. Context is now not only something physical, but also something that represents the incredibly stretching forces under which we live. The diagram is something in between a text and a project. The building is sometimes a diagram, but with less aesthetic qualities; and sometimes cartoons, like the Japanese cartoons, indicate in a flamboyant way the condition of architecture today, (shows cartoon) where you see inert containers (apartment blocks) on the two sides that open up to connect to a field of script-city, which I think that, in many ways, is an acute description of the city we live in. Sometimes the project itself becomes the musical partition, where, again, it is not clear what is words, or project. Sometimes the landscape has to be read almost as a text, as the manipulations of landscape have some similar qualities to it. Sometimes the skyline is the text, and sometimes the context is text. The book wants to deal with architectural objects in a different way, there is an almost repulsive focusing on things, objects or details in our architecture. Some of the photography is really about the experience, such as in the case of a house in Paris, where my dream was to publish it in a way that the house is never shown, but only the effects of the house on the context and also the views from the house would define its essential quality. The book has also other architects, sometimes architects I admire, or I am related to: Jean Nouvel in Lyon, (Christian de) Portzamparc in Lyon, Shinohara in Lyon… as it was important to break through the pristine cleanness and singularity of the architectural monograph. The book has some of my history, to the extent I thought it was relevant, maybe the most relevant of all was the first major project I did in this school (AA): the story of the Berlin wall. This was in 1969, there was still then an obligation to do summer survey; we had to go to a nice Tuscany villa and measure it, and I went—still motivated by a former journalistic instinct, but also by my emerging architectural instincts—to document the Berlin wall. In a true sense, I think that for the first time my tense relationship with architecture became clear to myself, an kind of reversion of the heaviness of architecture. The Berlin wall in its initial phases (shows photographs) is just a street wall, cemented close. Then you see the street walls taken down in and the wall becomes a zone: it is dematerialized. What fascinated me in this case is the aesthetic beauty of the lower image, how in its absence of mass it still had an incredible architectural impact. So, from that moment on, the absence of mass became almost an obsessive theme in our work. Then, in 1969-72, which was the time that I was in the school, it was still encouraged to be politically completely incorrect, and that was a liberty many people used: I was one of them. So, there was this study (shows images of his school project) which was basically inspired on the Berlin wall, which showed the kind of raw side, its condition running through the middle of London, where people had to back for admission, so that they would then be involved in the rituals of another city, and where the—this is wishful thinking, because I have never encountered it—voluntary prisoners of the architecture sang to the architecture that will forever enclose them. This is a fantasy of the architect: a grateful public. Some of the history of our own book on New York, and then the book makes revelations again about the difficulty or the impossibility—and on some occasions, triviality—of our architecture: in the house in Paris, there was one major issue that maybe took the longest of all, which is how to design the path between the entrance from the street and the entrance to the house. Random, arbitrary, or scientific, this was something that took at least four years to establish. The book has a number of hidden connections, in the poem of Japan, there is a description of Japanese forms of censorship; the Japanese have beautiful, and ingenious ways of censoring their sexual activity, of which maybe the most spectacular is maybe to suggest through its absence. (Shows one censored image) That image became the main inspiration of a project we did for the Bibliotheque de France, which is also based on the notion that the most important parts of the building can be those parts where the building does not actually exist and it is absent. The book is a way of showing a number of projects and of reconsidering them in new light. Maybe the first one that I would still consider extremely alive is the one we did in 1983 for la Villette, which was our first investigation of the importance of landscape, and its potential to carry duties that architecture no longer can carry on. I still think that this issue of the shift from urbanism and architecture to landscape will be one of the most threatening ones to architects, and will have the most drastic effect on the activity of the architect in the coming decade, or maybe even later, so it was a early intuition. The project we did in Rotterdam for a large library, maybe based on our first essay, was cancelled on the day that it was supposed to be the groundbreaking ceremony, which we considered a crime. The project for Jussieu may be resurrected in the imminent future because the French government was in difficulty. The book also talks about some of the moments of euphoria, one of the clear moments of euphoria was the building of the Congrexpo building (Lille Grand Palais, 1994) which, in itself, is an almost biblical effort in terms of labour, scale, and in terms of the simultaneous presence of five or six thousand people in one of the auditoriums. The book, in a very explicit way is about the way in which architecture is more and more influenced by direct collaboration with engineers, in some cases with Ove Arup. In a way, some projects really represent a merge between architecture and engineering. It is our intuition that from engineering may emerge a way of renewing certain aspects of architecture. The book is explicit about our discovery and fascination with infrastructure, something that replaces more and more the pretension of ordering, and organizing of urbanism. We see infrastructure more and more as an element and a device, a machinery that creates potential, which is then exploited in more or less erratic ways. We see the kind of strange leaps from innocent and childish diagrams to the interventions. The connection between the almost silliness of any initial architectural idea through the alchemy of the process of building is really a kind of wrestling with mud, until it turns into an actual urban form. We have tried to have almost cinematic sequences, which talk about the experience of a building, again, our resistance to the building as an object is so strong, buildings are designed not as objects but more and more as sequences in any case. In this sense I have to confess my other life as a scriptwriter, which has always has made me resistant to claim the world of movies as a source of inspiration, but I do think that the mechanics of making scripts and films, specially the element of voltage, play a critical role in the work. So, without saying a lot, I will show one of those sequences, where, as a test, we superimposed a section of ‘Waiting for Godot’ (Samuel Beckett, 1953) on the images, which was strangely effective.
What is also important is that the book is resisting the two intents involved in architecture at the exclusion of everything else. So at regular intervals, there are invaders of the outside world, in all its violence, and triviality (shows a photograph of the women who were in charge of the calefons, when the French franc fell 30% on one given day), showing how in an incredible way our faith is in the hands of completely ignorant, almost brutal, young men and women almost everywhere on the globe. A day like this can have a catastrophic or euphoric effect on the world of architecture. Still, an event that is important in terms of our mythology is the kind of viral process of architectural airports, which is in itself becoming more and more pervasive, and has seen the turning of every city into an appendix of an airport, rather than the other way round, that airports are becoming the new downtowns. Other events are around the absurd consumerism of random variety, like the cleaning of the sixtine chapel. Another crucial element of the book is, of course, the city, and our tortured relation with it; the simultaneous destructiveness and brutality, but also constructiveness of making the city. The most emblematic image of the city shows how a piece of infrastructure being erased, or a piece of infrastructure erasing the city: this ambiguity, I think, reveals that most of us have not settled on which side of this reading our sympathies lie. Because of that we are confronted with completely bizarre conditions. (Shows an image of Rotterdam in the early sixties and then one in the early 80s, pointing how in an interval of just twenty years, basically, any pretension of orthogonality or clarity is ditched, making room for a complete avalanche of picturesque arbitrariness, but in doses that, strangely enough, allow the city to survive). I think that the crucial issue that still we have not dealt with in architecture, is the most poisonous inheritance of the moderns, which is the willingness—not to say eagerness—to start from scratch. We are living and facing completely alarming demographics, maybe not so much in Europe, but certainly in Asia and South America and Africa, it is clear that for those demographics to be dealt with, certain parts of what exist have to disappear and be replaced by other parts. But, somehow, we are completely fixated by the evil of this image (shows a drawing of Plan Voisin), we have told ourselves, so unambiguously, that this image is completely evil that we have somehow discredited our profession in one action which is probably a crucial element of it, namely: how to start from scratch. In that sense, the book is a meditation on the notion of starting from scratch, it asks, in a competition for the extension of la Defense for instance, whether this tissue, simply because it is in Europe, and simply because it exists, deserves eternal life. The answer is clearly no, and therefore, there is the re-resurrection of the Corbusian notion—but in a very nervous and indirect way—of starting from scratch. Therefore, Atlanta is investigated as a city that certainly has no context anymore, which proliferates without some of the old conditions of centre. Besides, the investigation of the Asian situation, where at first sight we are probably tempted to just see a completely laughable proliferation of built substance of various kinds, usually ugly and incoherent. There are in fact examples that show that it is undeniably true, but I found also important to have a more subtle, and effective understanding of how Asia works. One of the things is the incredible coexistence, in a way that we do not know here, of every modern infrastructure with very invariable traditions. In that sense, part of the book is a meditation on the conditions of Asia today, and what Asian architecture means. (Shows an image of Singapore in 1964, produced by Asian architects, as an illustration of what the Asian city of tomorrow would look like. The Asians themselves found this image years ago, so the Asian modernity is developing now in spite of our own ambiguities and hesitations about modernity. I think there is an Asian modernity that is authentically Asian, but since it is manifest in the language of modernity, curiously invisible to us as Asian, or as authentic. Theoretically, the place where the new authenticity will be most visible is in the place that has most drastically transformed itself: Singapore, where, in the space of thirty years, its entire history has been extrapolated and replaced by what looks at first sight as a grotesque and decadent system of misunderstood Western aberrations, but which on closer inspection might be much more interesting and authentically Asian (shows a building of 1974). Also, shopping at the scale that Singapore provides, certainly represents a counterline: an activity that is still denigrated here, acquires maybe another force and power of conviction. As I mentioned before, the incredible emergence of landscape as the field where intentions can be inscribed in a much easier way than in urbanism or in architecture—simply because it is essentially two-dimensional, and because landscape is cheap and popular—allow us to see a shift in which urbanistic pretensions and ambitions are abandoned and replaced by a new care for the landscape and new responsibilities that are assumed by landscape. I was in a conference for Asian architects two weeks ago in Kuala Lumpur and one of the most fascinating things was that, in the city that has just finished the two tallest skyscrapers in the world, all the local architects were talking about the pavement and the ground. It seems therefore that the pavement and landscape are acquiring new importances, that certainly are related to our inability to devise a more modern urban condition. Maybe the Japanese cartoon (shown above) is also relevant, maybe landscape is what will fill and proliferate in this condition, and landscape can be used as a kind of new programmatic element that can be more convenient in terms of organizing architecture. (Shows images of Singapore in a cloud) Singapore shows inevitably the incredible domination of the vegetal over the architecture there, and how this idea of landscape as a screen hiding architecture and urbanism is becoming more and more realistic. Maybe the most provocative section of the book is called ‘The Generic City’, where, after trying to describe the American architectural condition in Atlanta—a European condition—I was trying to describe the Asian condition of Singapore. Finally, in a kind of nausea of specificity, I decided to reverse the question and see that I could write text which would be just true of every city now. We all complain that all cities are becoming alike; the thesis, or the question, that this text poses is that, if they are becoming alike, maybe is not an accident, but a deliberate shading of identity, which somehow has a liberating effect. This should also be seen in connection with landscape, and the emergence of landscape, and it is called the generic city, the city that could be anywhere, because, obviously, if identity is taken away, what remains is the generic. I think that more and more we are living a kind of shift from the specific to the generic, which can be explained in simple quantitative terms, for instance, the fact that the urban surface of China has to triple in the next twenty years: a clearly demented statistic that implies that no amount of imagination or specificity could ever hope to animate such quantities. Therefore the investigation and careful initial manifesto for the qualities of the generic will inventorise all its qualities.
I want to end with a lesson I learnt from the client for whom we did ‘Euralille’: Jean-Paul Baietto. When I was writing the book I was, in retrospect, astonished that this person had never said no, in spite of the incredible complexity of some of our ideas: building skyscrapers over railroads, exposing tunnels, exploiting infrastructure, etc, etc. He always sat carefully with his pipe and said, “yes, maybe”, and “yes, lets do that.” So I asked him, “why did you never said no?”, and then he said, “well, I can explain it to you. Today, to create something and to be successful in doing so, there are three pieces that are necessary: the first condition is that your enterprise is not universal, but specific, not general, but unique.” That was certainly the case, in ‘Euralille’, an area that had a limit and that was only focused inside this limit, and made no proclamations, no claims outside those limits. “Then, the second ingredient that you need is a compelling motive.” In this case, we had a compelling motive because it had to be finished together with a tunnel, so that the first train could run, and stop in Euralille at the same time. “And then, the third ingredient for success is that somehow, from this two givens, you create an equal ‘dynamique d’enfer’ (a dynamic from hell) where you intertwine and incorporate so many partners in the complexity of the project that they become like prisoners of a chain game, where not a single person can escape from the driving difficulty without bringing down the entire house.” In retrospect, I think that the ‘dynamique d’enfer’ was a very beautiful metaphor for the book, that also had no universal pretensions, it is, in a way, a kind of apotheosis of specificities and uniqueness, that are also presented as such. We had a compelling motive, that was to finish this book, even if we broke the thousands of deadlines, and you can imagine the complexity that we generated with everyone involved in this projection. Thank you.
[Some passages of the book are subsequently read. Questions follow.]
Transcription by María José Orihuela, Architect, MA HCT at the Architectural Association.
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