It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
The end of the skyscraper as we know it: from CCG to CCTV
In 1979 Charles Jencks described Rem Koolhaas as ‘rationalism’s gravedigger’ and ‘pied piper of a team of global city enthusiasts’ who see architectural history ‘as man’s self-imposed imprisonment within walls and skyscrapers … an unwritten dream that Koolhaas wants to record and intensify.’ [Charles Jencks, ‘Irrationeel rationalisme. “The rats” sinds 1960’, Wonen-TA/BK no. 12, 1979, p. 24.] Delirious New York had just been published. In this retroactive handbook Koolhaas presented the skyscraper as the star of a ‘theatre of progress’ and claimed that ‘in the twentieth-century metropolis architecture becomes an instrument whereby people can redesign themselves.’ [Rem Koolhaas, quoted in Hans van Dijk, ‘Rem Koolhaas interview’, Wonen TA/BK no. 11, 1978, p.18.] In the 1980s Rem Koolhaas was the number one modern paper architect. His economy of representation (‘which is geared to inventing only that which has still to be invented’) [Rem Koolhaas, quoted in Koos Bosma, Hans van Dijk, ‘Interview met Rem Koolhaas’, Archis no. 3, 1989, p. 43.] expressed itself in designs bristling with (modern) references. He was also pondering a book analysing the status quo of Paris, Tokyo, Atlanta and Singapore, ‘not a book about the modern city, but about The Contemporary City. I’m only interested in the current reality/state of cities.’ [Rem Koolhaas, quoted in Koos Bosma, Hans van Dijk, ‘Interview met Rem Koolhaas’, Archis no. 3, 1989, p. 43.] That particular book never materialized. [Koolhaas did write a fictional conclusion to that study, ‘The Generic City’, the first sentence of which ran: ‘Is the contemporary city like the contemporary city – “all the same”?’ In: OMA, Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Mau, S,M,L,XL, Rotterdam (010 Publishers) 1995, pp. 1238-1264.]
In Content (the book), Koolhaas gives an account of the battle between modernization, architecture and the contemporary city while also pinpointing, in analysis and design, where architecture and urban planning’s potential to contribute to the formulation of culture (European, Chinese, global, consumer culture, and so on) really lies. The skyscraper is an architecturally and urbanistically useless weapon in this battle because, Koolhaas contends, ‘the skyscraper has become less interesting in inverse proportion to its success. It has not been refined, but corrupted. …The intensification of density it initially delivered has been replaced by carefully spaced isolation.’ Koolhaas’s conclusion is simple: ‘Kill the Skyscraper’. This slogan for the urban modernization of Beijing 北京 is the net result of 32 years of reflection on the causal connection between architecture and urbanism and on their contribution to modern metropolitan culture. Initially seen by Koolhaas as parallel concepts, later on as antagonistic and solipsistic, in Content they achieve symbiosis. Throughout, the skyscraper has occupied a pivotal position between urbanism and architecture, which I analyse here at three different moments: the vision of The City of the Captive Globe (CCG) in relation to Delirious New York, the essay ‘Singapore Songlines’ from S,M,L,XL in relation to The Contemporary City, and the CCTV project and ‘Beijing Preservation’ in relation to the future of the modern city. The chronicle of a preannounced assassination.
The City of the Captive Globe
1972. Together with Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas designs The City of the Captive Globe, a conceptual ‘fast-forward’ of the life, death and eternal rebirth of the metropolis. The image is a timeless and placeless grid in the middle of which is a half-buried globe. In Koolhaas’s terminology a grid is a ‘dry archipelago’ in which every ‘block’ is an island. The islands are breeding grounds for ideologies and are populated by designs by the likes of Le Corbusier, Mies, Dalí and Leonidov. The Rockefeller Center and Twin Towers are there, too. The accompanying text spells out how architecture, organized and erected in high densities, contributes to the development of culture: each block is the basis for an ideological laboratory that lures the masses inside with the result that the architecture representing that ideology grows. Eventually every ideology either fails or ejaculates. [Rem Koolhaas, ‘Delirious New York. A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan‘, Rotterdam (010 Publishers) 1994 (orig. 1978), p. 294.] This ejaculation, which is not granted to all ideologies, impregnates and satisfies the globe which swells and in so doing carries forward the perpetual gestation of the metropolis. The excitement of this skyline, argues Koolhaas, is quick and continuous. The metropolis as perpetual motion. Koolhaas sees the reality, confirmation and potential of this mania that unites the modern with the eternal in a ‘culture of congestion’ borne out in New York:
The City of the Captive Globe was a first, intuitive approximation of the architecture of Manhattan, drawn before later research for Delirious New York would substantiate many of its conjectures. [Rem Koolhaas, ‘City of the Captive Globe: an explanation by Rem Koolhaas’, Architectural Design no. 5, 1977, p. 331.]
The three methods (grid, lobotomy and schism) that underpin The City of the Captive Globe also determine the combination of architecture, ideology, culture and metropolis in Delirious New York. There architecture and metropolis connect pure formalism (the exterior) to pure functionalism (the interior), the result of a contest of desires in which the spirit of the age and unspoken ambition are reinforced. The space between the islands makes for a spectacle of congestion and proximity that serves to increase the visual intensity of the projected evolution. Of the public domain there is not much to be said: people voluntarily accept confinement within skyscrapers so that the dry archipelago remains a neutral binding agent at ground level. The metropolitan architecture erected on these islands is (and in my view this is the bottom line of every project, every analysis and every design of AMOMA/Koolhaas) the representation of ‘the entire culture and especially the way in which architecture can still contribute to a formulation of a culture instead of to the definition of itself’ [Rem Koolhaas, quoted in Franziska Bollerey, ‘Het ideaal van de metropolis’, Beeld no. 4, 1987, p. 10.] – by growing in high densities, by satisfying, by disappearing and by replacing. Ad infinitum.
This idea about the relation between architecture and metropolis provided the blueprint for all the 1980s analyses and designs by OMA/Koolhaas. Koolhaas shrugged off the retroactive label this earned him by introducing an active component in The Contemporary City (1988-1993). Koolhaas’s ambition was to explore those contemporary cities which lack any recognizable architectural or systematic approach. His motivation? ‘I find that amazingly large areas of the world are right now in a state of development without recognizable connection to the profession I know.’ [Rem Koolhaas, quoted in Skala no. 21, 1990, p. 32.] Koolhaas wanted to be the ghostwriter of the contemporary city, to seek explanations, make analyses and elevate the global impossibility of planning to a personal mantra against that planning. The architect’s only contribution to this world is dedication to the ideology of metropolitan architecture. Plus the recreation of the world in accordance with the image of The City of the Captive Globe: ‘So the city of the future, and in fact even the city of today, constitutes not a whole but an archipelago of different enclaves, where ideological values could be installed in limited, strong, and specific places, but with no pretence at being universal.’ Inside this city the architect is a hero, a hero who stands firmly in reality and contributes to the formulation of its culture: ‘The architect has to be capable of reinventing, of adapting himself to the new conditions. This is not necessarily utopian.’ [Rem Koolhaas, quoted in Lotus no. 84, 1995, p.121.]
1995. In the essay ‘Singapore Songlines’ (from S,M,L,XL) – subtitled ‘Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis… or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa’ – the contemporary metropolis appears as a collection of cardboard elements where artificiality reigns both inside and out. In Delirious New York the artificiality had taken the form of an ‘irresistible synthetic’ that was confined to the interior of the skyscraper, but now it is taking over the surface area, as a ‘synthetic carpet’. The surface area ceases to be neutral and instead acquires identity and ideology so that it starts to compete with the architecture. In Singapore this was due to a modernity that between 1965 and 1995 had spawned a haphazard infiltration of architecture into the urban fabric: ‘urban renewal, but without tabula rasa; a new beginning, but not from scratch.’ [S,M,L,XL (see note 5), p. 1034.] The upshot is an urban condition in which everything is forever doomed to temporariness. ‘It makes Architecture impossible.’ [Ibid., p. 1075.] Each change in this ideological skyline is slow, static and unexciting.
What is lacking in Singapore is geometrical stability and vision, preconditions for connecting the neutral with the unrestrained, or the desire for stability with the need for instability, as the Manhattan grid does. The consequences are commensurate. On the batik-patterned carpet that makes up the ground surface, architecture is erected as a temporary semantic signifier. Synthetic carpet + Potemkin = Singapore. After Le Corbusier’s tragedy of modernity, Singapore is a parody of modernity that results in an empire of semantics. ‘The “finished” Barthian state,’ writes Koolhaas, referring to Roland Barthes, ‘is grasping for new themes, new metaphors, new signs to superimpose on its luxurious substance.’ [Ibid., p. 1077.] Koolhaas’s notion of the relation between architecture and metropolis is conceptually clear: the skyscraper neither impregnates nor satisfies the urban culture, rather it internalizes. The atrium is the empty heart of the skyscraper that sucks the masses inside and cripples them ideologically, and skyscrapers are placed so far from one another as to render them urbanistically ridiculous and programmatically redundant. They become desolate and impotent phallic icons. The public space between them is not a dry archipelago but an artificial morass, a synthetic condition that plays an active in role in the urban dynamic.
Modernity is thus stripped of its ideology and contribution to progress and replaced by a postmodern pastiche that indiscriminately fills and refills the centre of Singapore, thereby dashing any chance of contextual sensitivity. ‘But how can buildings be sympathetic to their environment if there is no environment?’ Koolhaas wonders. [Ibid., p. 1079.] Solipsistic skyscrapers and synthetic urbanism are the results of applying to Asia a Western modernity – a modernity that has stopped thinking about the city and architecture and that clings stubbornly to its phallic image.
According to Koolhaas, this separation between city and architecture can only lead to insidious proliferation or metastasis. The skyscraper no long plays a pivotal role or contributes to urban culture and has instead become a virulent cancer that will spread modernization throughout the Asian continent. ‘Projecting outward from Singapore, an asymmetrical epicenter, there will be new Singapores across the entire mainland. Its model will be the stamp of China’s modernization.’ In The City of the Captive Globe, the world was presented as a ‘breeding ground’ for architectures, in ‘Singapore Songlines’ it has become a ‘morbid growth’. Both terms allude to life, the one at the beginning, the other at the end. Describing the lure of that modernization from the Asian perspective, Koolhaas notes that: ‘Singapore represents the exact dosage of “authority, instrumentality, and vision” necessary to appeal.’ A vision that Singapore is concocting for sale to China.
In numerous architectural offices in Singapore, whose names few of us have ever heard of, China’s future is being prepared. In these countless new cities the skyscraper is the only surviving typology. [Ibid., p. 1087.]
After S,M,L,XL Koolhaas fulminated against this metastasis, carried out oncological research in China, sought solutions to the impasse in which the city, architecture and architect found themselves and articulated the antagonism between urbanism and architecture thus: ‘It is less a matter of different disciplines than of different fundamental attitudes. One [urbanism] tries to raise potentials; you form combinations and links, sense things and interpret programmes, thus increasing possibilities. The other reduces possibilities, selecting, limiting and defining them, and thus blocking them. That is my profound aversion to architecture. …And the city becomes an accumulation of these deliberately empty containers, programmatic voids and undefined sites to a degree never before experienced in the history of mankind.’ [Rem Koolhaas, quoted in Hans van Dijk, ‘“The architect is obliged to be an honourable man”. Interview with Rem Koolhaas’, Archis no. 11, 1994, pp. 20-21.]
Since The City of the Captive Globe, Koolhaas’s architecture of the city has been a city of architectures, to some extent parallel to one another but also influencing one another. The confrontation with reality (The Contemporary City) led to an antagonism between metropolis and architecture. With The City of the Captive Globe in mind, what Koolhaas desires is symbiosis. Architecture is only meaningful if it contributes to a formulation of a culture rather than a definition of itself. Generating artificiality might perhaps be worthwhile, contributing to its preservation is not. Architectural stability prevails, everything grinds to a halt, whereas the urban reality is one of change, modernization, progress, creativity and growth. In the written texts of this period, Koolhaas poured out his heart about everything that was wrong about architecture. The warnings reverberated through Junk Space, The Generic City, The Enemy and Crib Death.
2004. With the article ‘Beijing Preservation’ in Content, Koolhaas gets involved in the debate about the urban modernization of China, a country where urban planning is the symbol of modernization but which is at the mercy of the vagaries of the construction market. The research that went into Pearl River Delta (2001) was a necessary step in understanding the culture and laying bare its motivations, possibilities, expectations and underlying views on architecture and urbanism. The ‘Go East’ mantra of Content is intended to contribute to that culture. In the combination of the design for the headquarters of Chinese state television network, CCTV, and the idea behind ‘Beijing Preservation’, Koolhaas’s analyses of and designs for architecture and urban development come together in one operational plan. The project is both an attack on the skyscraper and an argument in favour of an urban modernization project.
There is a historical parallel here: the CCTV project in Content is to China what the Rockefeller Center in Delirious New York was to Manhattan. The latter was an architectural high point and a symbol of the greatness of Manhattan culture. There, on a city block, a building was erected with ‘the simultaneous existence of different programs on a single site, connected only by the common data of elevators, service cores, columns and external envelope … the very medium that denies the need for congestion as condition for desirable human interaction.’ [Delirious New York (see note 6), p. 197.]
Koolhaas’s intervention in China is CCTV project, a formalist–functionalist architecture, not phallic but vaginal, one that contributes both to the modernization of communist culture and to the definition of architecture.
‘An explicit ambition of the building (CCTV) was to try to hasten the end of the skyscraper as a typology, to explode its increasingly vacuous nature, loss of program, and refuse the futile competition for height. Instead of the two separate towers of the WTC, there was now a single, integrated loop, where two towers merge. [Rem Koolhaas, Content, Cologne (Taschen) 2004, p. 44.]
Koolhaas’s battle against the skyscraper is in essence neither formal nor programmatic. In Content the skyscraper attains its exhilarating high point in Mies’s Seagram Building and the Twin Towers, but when it comes to the contemporary project of urban modernization, Koolhaas suggests that the thing has been in the hands of the enemy too long, those whose use of the skyscraper hastens the demise of the city through lack of formal refinement and urban density. The desire to rethink the future of the city results in the public domain – the ground surface – being given a prominent role in Content. This must not, as in Singapore, be abandoned to the artificial. In Beijing 北京 the public domain must make a fundamental contribution to urban life as a ‘Central Business District Carpet.’
In Koolhaas’s view the proliferation of towers contributes little of value to contemporary Beijing 北京: ‘In Beijing, you have these needles and they collect their own little pathetic communities while breaking down the larger community around them. It’s an incredible squandering of the potential for exchange. It creates isolation right in the center of the city.’ The Koolhaas/AMOMA proposal unites architectural and urbanist theory: ‘I think you can invent new forms that are about street life. That’s what interests me: to maintain the specificity of this city.’ How does he want to do this? Not by relegating modernization in Beijing 北京 to the sprawl of the periphery, but by dividing the central city into different zones with different urbanist and architectural turnover rates so that the city is in a permanent state of modernization, and every block is a pivot in the urban culture: ‘The contrast between past and present will become more relative – “older and newer” will share a permanent interface. …It also means that new architecture could appear anywhere, and that new “building” would be distributed instead of concentrated in predictable “extensions”.’ [Ibid., p. 465.]
The geometrical stability lacking in Singapore is made possible in Beijing 北京 by the introduction of the ‘point grid’. The resulting image is highly reminiscent of The City of the Captive Globe where, in a permanent state of excitement about the possibilities offered by modernization, preservation is coupled to construction. The City of the Captive Globe is lifted out of the placeless and timeless idea and projected onto Beijing 北京, an exercise that leads Koolhaas to the conclusion that planning is possible after all: ‘Preservation and construction are in fact twin phenomena, not opposites. This could be part of a single “planning” discipline that ultimately decides the duration of any construction…’ [Ibid., p. 461.]
Kill the skyscraper
So is ‘Kill the Skyscraper’ an interesting way of achieving symbiosis between preservation and construction? For someone who once thought in terms of an antagonistic relation between urbanism and architecture, yes. But this demand for alternative forms can easily lead to a metaphorical approach, to buildings that are the metaphorical reflection of their content, that reunite the functionalist with the formalistic. The skyscraper had quite deliberately separated the two. As such, the significance of ‘Kill the Skyscraper’ relates not only to its role in the reconciliation between the city and architecture, but also to our general view of the divorce between functionalism and formalism.
With ‘Kill the Skyscraper’, Koolhaas renounces the skyscraper as a formal and ideological promoter and generator of urban culture. But that does not mean that the modernization of the city has now reached a point of no return. Although it is true to say that thinking about the city has reached an impasse, leading to antagonism and solipsism, this can be countered by formulating a new ambition and by drawing up a blueprint for the development of the contemporary city. The need to come up with a way through this impasse is greatest in the Chinese context.
Statistically, the Chinese architect is already the most important in the world: (s)he will build the most. Burdened by speed and obligation, without the intellectual infrastructure to rethink the project of modernity, (s)he is in an impossible situation – changing the world without a blueprint. [Content (see note18), p.453.]
It goes without saying that Koolhaas and AMOMA are prepared to deliver that blueprint. The urban modernization of Beijing 北京 provides Koolhaas with both an architectural icon and a planning strategy. And the two support one another. Preservation and modernization go hand in hand and are designed to propel the city into a permanent state of progress. Koolhaas and his ‘global city enthusiasts’ see contemporary urban modernization as a deed of everlasting, self-imposed cultural change that finds expression in its architecture. Once again the city aspires to become a theatre of progress. Although the juxtaposition of a series of speculative ejaculations is attractively and seductively formulated and justified by Koolhaas in his analyses and designs, one wonders whether this self-imposed Sisyphean task will result in urban and architectural satisfaction.
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