Rem Cycle

Michael Wang on a Rem Koolhaas talk

Left: New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Right: Architect Rem Koolhaas. (Photos: Benoit Pailley)

“REM,” AS ARCHITECT REM KOOLHAAS is known in architecture and design circles, knows how to draw a crowd. Tickets to his New Museum–sponsored talk last Wednesday at NYU’s Kimmel Center, the keynote address to the heavily publicized “Festival of Ideas for the New City,” disappeared well before the event. (Heard on the blogosphere: “That guy sells out venues like Lady Gaga.”) And so it was a surprise to show up to a remarkably civil occasion—with plenty of seats to spare. “It’s a real insider event,” the gentleman seated to my left whispered, peering at the architecture- and art-world-heavy front rows: Marina Abramović, Jerry Saltz, Cynthia Davidson, Eva Franch Gilabert, Tony Vidler, and New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni. The museum’s director, Lisa Phillips, took the podium and set the stage for the Dutch architect’s triumphant return to the city that inspired his first urban theories in the 1970s. But when she gestured to the picture windows looking toward Fifth Avenue, “one of the greatest avenues in the world” (and the site of some of Koolhaas’s early research), the automated blinds of the Kevin Roche–designed auditorium had shut out the view. The building itself, symbol of NYU’s corporatization of downtown, had literally drawn the curtain on Koolhaas’s beloved “Manhattanism,” doubling the disappearance of Gotham’s “culture of congestion,” in favor of what Koolhaas himself has described as a “narcissistic” historicism. The city is “delirious no more,” Koolhaas observed several years back.

Roche’s postmodern pastiche, however, provided the perfect backdrop to Koolhaas’s address on the “future of memory,” a challenge to think beyond stage-set architectural reference or tourist-friendly reconstruction to find new strategies that marry preservation to destruction. In what seemed to me to be a wry update of the mandatory Acropolis shot that opens every musty architecture lecture, Koolhaas gave us the crumpled cement casts at Pompeii: an “involuntary act of preservation.” Instead of architectural monuments built for eternity, frozen moments of everyday life offer a “messier” picture of the past. Ensuing slides tracked the growing trend of Disneyfication (preservation as good economics) and offered other possibilities for preserving the palimpsest of the past, architectural and otherwise. “Twelve percent of the earth’s surface, including the oceans, is now subject to some form of preservation”—a difficult situation, Koolhaas was quick to note, for eager architects. Using recent OMA projects as testing ground for his theories, Koolhaas also didn’t shy away from mining his own architectural past. Familiar Koolhaasian figures (point grids, barcodes) reappeared as strategies not for building but for selective preservation. He even offered up his own design for a house in Bordeaux as a kind of bureaucratic limit case: It was classified as a historic landmark at the moment of completion.

Left: Anthony Vidler, dean and professor of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union. Right: Rem Koolhaas.

Koolhaas reserved a good half of the presentation for his discussion of the state of the contemporary art museum: a space both for preservation—the reuse of former industrial buildings—and for erasure: the clearing out of functional details in favor of the “neutrality” of the white cube. His frustration with the situation was clear in his account of the competition to retrofit an old power station into what has since become Tate Modern. “Artists,” the would-be designers were told, prefer spaces with “minimal architectural intervention.” After inviting several highly polemical architects to participate, “they were telling us ‘back off.’ ”

When the Q&A began, Koolhaas returned to the theme of the museum with a question of his own. “Are there any artists in the room?” he asked, to uncomfortable chair-shifting. After a self-described “artist-architect-philosopher—and-a-feminist” offered herself up, Koolhaas turned to Abramović seated in the second row: “Marina, you are an artist. Is there a sense of panic with the ever-expanding space at your disposal?” Abramović addressed, of course, the MoMA atrium, a space she had attempted to “fill with energy, something immaterial.” She then went on to reiterate the Tate’s party line on artistic taste. Architectural spaces, Abramović complained, “have so much decoration, so much stuff, you cannot see the work.” “And,” she added, perhaps to counter Koolhaas’s tacit assumption that all the artists in the room might think alike, “I’m not a feminist.”

In what almost seemed like a planted question, collector Dakis Joannou asked simply whether Koolhaas “would have demolished the Berlin Wall.” Koolhaas referred all the way back to his own thesis work at the AA in London, where he presented “the Berlin Wall as a piece of architecture.” The project was the inspiration for his first major design (with Elia Zenghelis): Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, in which a wall becomes the site of the city. “To get rid of the [Berlin] wall,” Koolhaas leveled, “was a primitive, triumphalist gesture”—anything but the “scientific” destruction of existent urban fabric that he had just proposed. But for Koolhaas, too, preservation is, on some level, personal. “I cannot take my grandkids, even my kids, to where the wall was,” he lamented. “You cannot see it anymore.”