PRINT December 1994

John Rajchman talks with Rem Koolhaas

REM KOOLHAAS IS THE DUTCH architect who came to the U.S. in the ’70s to find in Manhattan an unwritten manifesto—part Surrealist, part rationalist—for a metropolitan “culture of congestion.” His Delirious New York, of 1978, sounded a new note in architecture, urbanism, and the manner in which they might be related to one another. It was at odds with urban planning and “renewal,” out of sync with both a European “contextualism” and an Asian “critical regionalism.” Yet it would lead Koolhaas to what many now recognize as some of the most significant architecture to have emerged in the last half-century. That is why Koolhaas’ current show at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Terence Riley, has been so eagerly awaited. At last old New York gets a look at this work.

In addition, Koolhaas is about to release a brick of a book entitled S, M, L, XL, which details what he and his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (O.M.A.) have been trying to do since Delirious New York. Mixing projects with analyses, diaries, fables, cartoons, and a manifesto (“Bigness” appears in full alongside the following interview), and equipped with a running dictionary of a strange new language, the book tells a tale, a great contemporary architectural odyssey—the story of the thinking and seeing that inspired the work on view at MoMA, the story of how this architect came to “think big.” The book is itself a singular creation, built up by accretion from diverse components at a scale that discourages any single overarching view, obliging one instead to find one’s own ways in and out of it. It is an XL book, going off in many directions at once. The complexity and density realized through Bruce Mau’s multilayered design are relieved by a “light” tone and style, a sense of experiment and “gay science.”

A leading concept is “Bigness.” Koolhaas says that past a certain point, sheer size surpasses what can be contained within classical principles of organization, altering the very nature of architecture, its aims and aspirations. He declares that such Bigness is the most basic result of the past 150 years of building, and, following various phases of modernization, has spread almost everywhere, attaining megaproportions that stretch and distort the very idea of the city. Yet we have lacked an adequate conception of this condition. Despite our fancy new theories, we have yet to grasp what it is; despite our fancy new architectural styles, we still have no idea of what it might yet look like. Bigness remains as much as ever a question mark, and a cause of “big mistakes.” For we seem to have lost, or given up, the sense in which architectural design is more than a simple matter of decoration and style; it is a way of seeing things unseen in our condition, of releasing other new possibilities in our ways of being. We have retreated into “deconstructive” formalisms or “wired” fantasies of cyberpower, and left the real world to such things as the professionalized, atrium-obsessed, surreal “disurbanism” that calls itself “post-Modern.” To see and conceive Bigness is to change our habits of thinking. After the failure of Modernism and of urban renewal to grasp and intervene in the constitutive processes of the city, we must learn how to “think big” again. To this end, O.M.A. would mobilize a sort of “war machine”—it would engage an ongoing struggle with developers, politicians, engineers, government agencies, and professors to introduce the fresh air of a new kind of urbanism, a new way of thinking about cities, which analyzes specificities while multiplying possibilities in the manner of Nietzschean “gaiety.”

Koolhaas’ “Bigness” is not Promethean, then; it is quite unheroic, even indifferent or impersonal. It is not “colossal” or “sublime,” it is labyrinthine, and the point is not to find a way out but rather to find new ways of moving about within its complexities and specificities, reinventing and reassembling its paths. Bigness is thus an uncontrollable condition we can diverge or displace from within—not an ideal, not a master plan—and that is why it denies what much of our urbanism has supposed: that we might actually make cities. In the fantasy that we can do so, Koolhaas finds a congenital hubris.

“To think big” is to check architecture’s usual “megalomania” to control or plan everything, and to work instead with unnoticed possibilities in a situation we realize we can’t completely master. It is to accept that cities are clashes of forces with unpredictable outcomes, loose assemblages from which new things and new connections derive, as if by alchemy. It is to start to think in terms of the “events” that our urban (and even dis- and posturban) condition thereby releases, the peculiar points—what we might call the urban “virtualities”—at which cities start to become other than they are. Only then will we be able to see the real questions Bigness poses. For despite our sociologies of “modernity,” we have yet to grasp the drama, the consequences, the possibilities of the successive “modernizations” that have spread Bigness across the globe, as now through Asia on the most massive scale ever; for all our nice nostalgias for “public space,” we have yet to confront the questions of the new kinds of sociality this condition makes possible; and for all the hyped futurism about “virtual” infrastructures, we have yet to get a fix on the “real virtualities” of the specificities with which Bigness confronts us.

What things are then connected with the concept of Bigness? How does it cause us to think in new ways? That is what I thought it would be useful to sit down with Rem and ask. In the resulting interview, he tells of a new, dynamic kind of “abstraction” that consists in thinning or “litening” a generic urban condition that is already with us, an abstraction that does not extract geometric forms or general types out of impurities or particularities but that rather, through great effort, scrapes into existence light new singularities and holds them in tension. —JR

JOHN RAJCHMAN: S, M, L, XL isn’t chronological, isn’t organized by type of building or divided into public and private projects. Instead it comes sorted into sizes. The relevant concept of size is introduced in the middle of the book, in the manifesto “Bigness, or the Problem of Large,” dated this year, where one reads that a “theory of Bigness” was already implicit in Delirious New York. But when and how did this theory become explicit, the object of a manifesto and a principle by which to present your work?

REM KOOLHAAS: It was a very slow, inarticulate dawning, and I’m not even sure that I’ve fully captured it now. There was a very slow awakening to first the existence, then the potential, of Bigness. I have to say that it was actually the practice of architecture—very rarely intellectually stimulating, because of its very difficulty—that gradually imposed a realization upon us: projects like Zeebrugge, the TGB, Karlsruhe, Lille, all had as a common denominator a large scale, accumulations not only of one big program but of clusters of diversity, and a political importance that required making very visible statements and changing conditions emphatically. All these were external forces that forced us to realize that “something” was going on. Delirious New York describes the same sort of problem, but in terms of a movement that died, or did not survive the lucidity or clarity or propaganda of Modernism. I was surprised by its return. For me, Bigness is a concept that accumulates a cluster, a cloud, of issues. The combination of those issues is liberating for architecture, and maybe for other domains. It ends the obsession with history and context. By reintroducing the notion of teamwork—inevitable on that scale—it also liberates one from the narrow identification of a single architect with “his” or “her” object; it makes it less personal. It is artificial, and therefore asserts an implicit adhesion to the process of Modernization, without necessarily opening a polemic about Modernity. It also permitted us to polemicize with my generation of architects, with deconstructivists, in the name of real complexity and real specificity. It allowed us to explore new definitions of collectivity after the demise of the public realm—public man—eroded by the onslaught of the media, pressures from the virtual, multiple privatizations, the end of the street, the plaza, etc. Bigness also liberates us from the obligation of the “general,” which in retrospect may be the greatest weakness of Modernism—its inability to deal with, to accommodate, to theorize, the specific. But it is therefore a limited manifesto, or a “weak” manifesto. It does not prescribe, but it identifies a number of possibilities. Bigness also becomes the manifesto/blueprint for S, M, L, XL itself as an accumulation, a sequence of mutually enlightening/reinforcing/ contradictory specificities.

JR: You say Bigness alone instigates a “regime of complexity” in which “programmatic elements react with one another to create new events.” How does this differ from the sort of complexity Robert Venturi called “the difficult whole,” or Colin Rowe the “collage”?

RK: Let’s start with collage. Collage is simulated complexity: instead of a Mondrian-esque composition of slabs, you imagine a Piranesian composition of fragments. It is composed, controlled, limited—it’s a purely visual complexity. The fact that it is antiutopian still doesn’t make it political. It is very close to deconstructivist architecture. I think Venturi, in the ’60s, was one of the first to sense that “the whole” was becoming problematic, that it is based on a series of denials and repressions. The quality of his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was to unleash those repressions. But he called it a “difficult whole,” not an “impossible whole,” and in the ’70s and ’80s the entire notion of the whole was denigrated, fragmented to the point of nonexistence. In that context, a theory of Bigness should maybe talk about the “new whole”—the whole after the crisis of the whole, a whole based no longer on exclusion or homogeneity but on cultivating the uncontrollable—a whole that does not pretend to control beyond the range of a single perspective.

JR: That brings up the matter of the influence of French theory. You’re fond of repeating that its effect on architecture has been to tell us that we are not whole (Jacques Derrida), not real (Jean Baudrillard), and not there (Paul Virilio)—an untenable result. Does that mean we should just go back to traditional notions of holism, reality, and place in architecture? In what ways does Bigness change our thinking here?

RK: No. These theories were for architects an alibi not to deal with the essential, inherent definition of architecture: to make. What is both the beauty and the agony of a given profession or discipline like painting or architecture? They are like lead balls chained to the leg of a prisoner. Their essential contents are given and almost impossible to dislodge, mutate, exchange. Painters have painted since the cave man, and still put down paint. Architects still build. What Baudrillard, Derrida, and Virilio did was to offer the mirage of a miracle exit, an escape from the lead ball: “Architects, leave no traces, be Luftmenschen.” But no, I think it’s more exciting to work with and on the lead ball, patiently, like a prisoner who plots his escape: scrape lead off with a teaspoon.

JR: In this situation it strikes me that some concepts from Gilles Deleuze may be of use: the idea of an “open” or “complicated” whole prior to totality or simplicity, a sense of intense zones or “envelopes” of the real prior to what is thought possible, and the vision of an abstract, “ungrounded” movement that doesn’t go from one place to another but, in Deleuze’s words, “passes between points, ceaselessly bifurcating and diverging, like one of Jackson Pollock’s lines.” Indeed there seems something almost “rhizomatic” about your vision of out-of-control Bigness. When did you first come across Deleuze, and how did you react?

RK: When I first came across Deleuze—maybe six or seven years ago, through conversations with Hubert Damisch—I started to read the books and almost immediately closed them because of their uncanny analogies, their incredibly free-ranging speculations. I closed them, clearly, out of fear of becoming Deleuzian and a sense that maybe it was already too late. Now I have read them in small doses. It’s the anxiety of influence.

JR: To deal with this uncontrollable yet open—this “rhizomatic”—sort of Bigness, one must go, I gather, beyond what you have called “merely visible,” faux, “decorative” sorts of order and of disorder. What about the urban and architectural “cuts” of Gordon Matta-Clark? How did you react to them?

RK: I was fascinated by Matta-Clark. I thought he was doing to the real world what Lucio Fontana did to canvas. At the time, the most shocking, exciting aspect of his work was maybe the glamour of violation. Now I also think that his work was a very strong, early illustration of some of the power of the absent, of the void, of elimination, i.e., of adding and making. I never really thought about it but maybe some of the notions of the TGB, where tunnels are drilled out of the volume of the building, go back to his operations.

JR: In what ways do you then propose to link design, not to decorative collage or deconstructive disorder, but to “real” programmatic specificities?

RK: Especially now that some of our most important cultural programs—the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, say, or London’s new Tate Gallery, or ZKM in Germany—are inserted in existing structures, you see everywhere that there is no connection between form and program, not even between “age” and “the new.” Most program is so malleable that it can invade any accommodation. That is both a relief and a legitimation of a malaise. In spite of that awareness, with incredible insistence, people keep proposing specific configurations as if they have to be “this” way. For me these usually re-present incredible banalities. Program “put in its place” dies, like a caged animal.

The potential of Bigness is that specificities through their simultaneous presence in a single container, and through the manipulation of vicinities, sequences, separations, blockages, etc., can be unbound, become more fluid, more wild.

JR: And is that how you see Bigness affecting visual organization—things like perspectival distance and transparency? Does Bigness introduce or require a new “regime of seeing”?

RK: In a way, perspective is a system to preempt surprise; it makes you think you know what you’re seeing. Today, visually the only certainty is that all bets are off. The new urban space is just a plane on which either big objects or lite tissues coexist according to rules of politics, of money, of infrastructure, but no longer, ever, according to rules of the eye or of perception. Anything can be anywhere. Surprise is the norm, but it comes in doses, spread out as in L.A., distended so that it doesn’t become unbearable. Thanks to our continuing perspectival indoctrination, though, all this so-called “chaos” is outrageous yet delightful. Maybe that “automatic” assumption will end some day. Just as we had a period before perspective, we may have one after.

JR: How does Bigness then transform the way we see and think about “public space”?

RK: It both proclaims the death of public space and finds new ways of accommodating the collective. The public realm has been surprising resilient under the onslaught of the masses, the car, the media, etc. The only thing it did not survive was its attempted resurrection. (Please note that public art died with it.)

JR: In what ways does Bigness fit with the Modernism/ post-Modernism division? What do you make of European neo-Modernism? Could that term describe your own work?

RK: European neo-Modernism is a very unradical movement that now tries to adopt/adapt the language of Modernism to context, forgetting that seemingly the whole point of Modernism was the break from context. To the extent our work is identified with neo-Modernism, which I cannot always deny—it is a weakness—I have made my affinities within Modernism clear by comparing Gerrit Rietveld to Mies van der Rohe. The abstraction of Rietveld—let’s say, the Schröder House—is a Romany caravan of sublimation. Everything is reinvented, reformed, but still there. Mies is more dangerous: nothing is left when he’s “done” with a subject. It’s incredible at the end of the 20th century how, on every level of discourse—populist (green), rightist, artistic—the strategies of dissociation and rupture create deep unease, as if the present were so wonderful that each change could only be a deterioration. These strategies frighten. But anticontextualism is also a matter of scale: a home that proclaims “fuck context” may he simply inept.

JR: “Fuck context”—that’s the basic rule of Bigness; Bigness is about tabula rasa. You see European contextualism and Asian regionalism as unable to deal with Bigness, as though we needed other concepts of place than those of “context” or of feng sui and genius loci. Is the only fate of the context that Bigness fucks, then, to be turned into tourism, Disneyfication, or else disappear?

RK: There is a fatal connection between context and falsification. The initial “discovery” of context certainly implies either “consumption” or “reproduction” or some other form of falsification. At the same time it’s clear that “tourism”—this everexpanding volume of greed after experience—is never going away. It is like locusts; whatever our instinctive contempt for Disney—and its necrophilia is appalling—we have been ridiculously negligent about trying to invent possible receptacles where, in the most abstract and nondamaging way, they might be accommodated. In that sense, one day EuroDisney may save Paris just as La Défense once did.

JR: You write of how we are approaching a “generic” urban condition (which, in S, M, L, XL, you show with grainy photos of Singapore in the rain) in which cities lose their specificities, as though all were approaching a condition of interlocking airports that might be anywhere. What kinds of innovation or singularity can arise in such an unspecific state?

RK: What invention can appear in the generic? I predict a rehabilitation of abstraction in a much more drastic way than in early Modernism—a deliberate shedding of character, a minimalism, a rediscovery of the beauty of the purely quantitative over the geometric.

JR: In your piece on postcolonial Singapore, you analyze that island city as a sort of compendium of the various “ideological” urban plans available. As such, it may supply a model for China, where the stakes are staggeringly large—in the next forty years, China plans to move a population the size of the U.S. and Russia combined into urban areas old and new, where, it is said, if cars are used, an oil crisis will ensue. You say that Singapore is “managed by a regime that has excluded accident and randomness.” In such a regime, what happens to your proposition that “only Bigness can sustain a promiscuous proliferation of events in a single container”? How does such “promiscuity” apply to “the new Asia”?

RK: Good question, John. There are many answers. You could say, as in Singapore, that at the end of all this control there is still a city that has an unaccountable weirdness; it is bizarre, interesting. I’m not writing that piece as an accountant, describing and reconsidering controlled procedures, but rather to document the persistent unpredictability that is the outcome of each attempt to establish a regime of control. Control only expands the edge of chaos.

A general reason to write about Singapore was to document a way in which modernity is now a notion hijacked, appropriated, and claimed by Asia exactly at the moment when it seemed to be both depleted and discredited “here.” Through this hijacking, modernity has been resemanticized and has acquired new meanings, which so far are least visible to us who have lived longest with its embers and don’t believe they can ever be reignited. But what we think of as debased has become brand new.

Singapore is maybe a stamp for China, but a miniature state cannot be the model for the largest nation on earth, whose modernization may be the most dramatic chapter . in the history of mankind. From Singapore, though, you can draw conclusions: history will disappear; the tabula rasa will be the norm; control will be episodic, proceeding through enclaves, so that it won’t generate an overall coherence; the skyscraper—Bigness—will be the last remaining typology. You may be able to say in retrospect that the rule of Bigness—“the promiscuous proliferation of events in a single container”—will have applied to the Bigness that is China.

JR: In what ways is your “theory of Bigness” then a manifesto? How does it help say what ought to be done, the kinds of design strategies to be pursued, the kinds of urban spaces to be imagined?

RK: In Delirious New York I asked myself how to write a manifesto in an age disgusted with them. I think that, with a kind of post-Modern ingenuity, I wrote one that annexed, usurped, laid claim to the evidence of Manhattan retrospectively—undoing the basic shallowness of the manifesto, which is its inherent lack of evidence. The “age” is still disgusted with manifestos. I guess this book is a second “post-Modernism,” an attempt to do a manifesto this time by imagining how the specific can he reclaimed—seemingly a contradiction in terms in the case of a manifesto that talks, almost by definition, about the general.

JR: In discussing a very beautiful and striking project you did in Yokohama in 1991, you talk about “lite urbanism.” Later, in an essay from this year that asks “Whatever Happened to Urbanism?,” you return to the idea, connecting it to a new, lighter way of thinking about cities. What is “liteness,” and how does it relate to “Bigness”?

RK: Maybe you can say that liteness is the residual field between individual Bignesses. It is clear that cities have undergone a permanent, spectacular process of thinning. Their configuration has become progressively meaningless, their substance increasingly insubstantial, their programs atrophied, secularized, banalized, and nonspecific. The city has become vacated, as if Gerhard Richter had taken a Rembrandt and scraped it. That is “lite.” But in this condition there is a new potential: a Nietzschean frivolity. Bigness takes over some of the serious and displaced responsibilities. The public realm is now a forest of elevations.

JR: Is “liteness” then part of a new kind of thinking about the city? Is to think big to think lite?

RK: No, or at least not always. The melancholy “beauty” of Bigness is that it can perform the “old” tasks of architecture in a new way in an unrecognizable context.

The exhibition “Thresholds/O.M.A. at MoMA: Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture” will remain at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 15 January, 1995. It will then travel to the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, and the Wexner Center, Columbus, Ohio. Koolhaas’ book S, M, L, XL will he published in February by the Monacelli Press, New York. Monacelli has also recently republished Delirious New York.