PRINT December 1994

The Where There: Traveling Lite

This summer, author Douglas Coupland met Rem Koolhaas in Paris. Together they traveled to Lille and then through Belgium and on to Rotterdam and Amsterdam. As they went, Coupland kept these alphabetized travel notes.

Why are we afraid to dynamite our disasters? Is it not possible to retrofit this Cartesian gulag into something a bit more hip? Can it be Blade-Runner-ized?

Belgium (1)
The world’s first drive-thru nation.

Belgium (2)
Tintin comes from Belgium. He has no history or religion or parents or politics or fixed residence or class identity. He’s a role model for the 21st century.

Cartel Modernism.

See Moulinex Modernism.

Collapse of Ideology
Europe has had a harder time with the collapse of ideology than North America. “Total global consumer democracy” has never been a heretical thought in North America.

Computer Code
As everyone’s too poor to put up new buildings, computer code may well end up being the only architectural legacy of the ’90s.

Edge Cities
Top Ten U.S. edge cities by number of workers/jobs:
1) South Coast Metroplex/Irvine, Calif.
2) Schaumburg area, Chicago, Ill.*
3) O’Hare Airport area, Chicago, Ill.
4) Interstate 80/ 287, N.J.
5) Dallas Galleria/ LBJ Freeway area, Dallas, Tex.
6) Santa Ana Freeway. Anaheim, Calif.
7) Sorrento Valley/Torrey Pines/UTC, Calif.
8) Santa Clara, Calif.
9) King of Prussia/ Route 202, Pa.
10) Century City/ Beverly Hills, Calif.

*Schaumburg is larger in terms of jobs than the city of Philadelphia (courtesy of Joel Garreau).

The punch line of EuroDisney is: has anybody checked out Paris lately? Paris already is EuroDisney and Parisians aren’t even cognizant of the fact. Disney’s right-wing, bottom-line, poll-driven, Burbank-style kulturpolitics are essentially the same dynamics that inform Parisian culture. As well, both Disney and Paris possess a historical inventory of almost crushing weight.

Paris is a theme park of itself. Où est le T-shirt shoppe?

The mythology of Europe—a sense of synthetic optimism.

European Styling
It used to mean chic and exotic. Now it means slightly goofy and vaguely impractical.

Federal Express
I see their vans. At night in our dreams we all route through Memphis while we sleep.

California can only dream of Europe’s glamorous new freeways—fantastic 100-m.p.h. conveyor belts running between nodes like Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt—one car per delivery truck. Switzerland has been reduced to a cloverleaf.

The Future (1)
It’s happening far faster than we thought it would—we’re at that point in the charts we used to see in school, where the line on the y axis shot toward infinity.

The Future (2)
In a hotel room late at night I keep on watching just one more rotation of CNN hoping for a catastrophe to break the monotony.

Oddly, despite the encapsulations of gloom offered by CNN, the future seems to be working again.

Everyone dresses at the Gap now. Some Gaps are more expensive than others, but they’re still Gaps.

Helter Skelter
In France I kept on thinking of Chris Burden’s Medusa’s Head sculpture from the Los Angeles “Helter Skelter” exhibition: an exhausted world, devoid of hinterlands, scarred by railroads and roads.

Ikea were in Canada for decades before they began their U.S. assault. It was amusing to watch the way they tried to promote themselves as “Euro” and chic when every Canadian knew that Ikea stuff is, well, semidisposable—“stage of your life” furniture, stuff you had in college before you moved on to adult furniture.

International Style vs. Internationalization
Koolhaas: “Internationalism does not necessarily mean that a new international homogeneity is emerging.”

Cartesian XYZ space.

Lenin’s Corpse
Just because Lenin’s technically not living doesn’t mean he can’t endorse products or have lines of merchandise. Where is CAA? Lenin is big and babe, he’s hot. Psssssss. . . .

Lille (1)
Lille is this nowhere city that just happens to be one hour by TGV train from London, Paris, and Amsterdam. It’s the main station where the train comes out of the Channel Tunnel. The station sign simply says Lille, Europe. The “France” part is dispensed with altogether.

Lille (2)
I asked an employee of Koolhaas’ studio, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, what it was like to live in a “nowhere” place like Rotterdam. She said she prefers living in Lille because it feels slightly more “where.”

Los Angeles
Western Europe is now Los Angeles in disguise.

Malibu Barbie
We were driving in a small fiery-red rental car, like a Valentine’s-day candy on wheels, upholstered inside with acid-washed-denim fabric—a Malibu Barbie car, a car for posthumans. Rem’s own car, the Maserati, was in for repairs in Amsterdam.

Maserati back from repairs, Koolhaas parked it in front of the Hotel Pulitzer and didn’t worry about parking. That’s the thing about owning an expensive car—you’re not just buying a car—you’re buying real estate.

Moulinex Modernism
The kitchen counter made monumental.

Natural Disasters (1)
A car passenger from Florida said Europe felt like a crypt because it never had natural disasters to clean things up a little. We were driving through Flanders at the time—huge blue highway signs saying FLANDERS.

I mentioned that Europe does, you know, somehow manage to toss in a war every four decades or so.

Natural Disasters (2)
I thought of Northridge earthquake images of collapsed freeway ramps and contorted CalState parking lots. I had a really bad idea for a really bad off-Broadway play, Island: fate maroons six strangers on a rubble-strewn San Fernando Valley I-5 freeway island where they heal each other’s lives while awaiting paramedic and CNN helicopter relief.

I like nowhere-type places because they’re invisible and history hasn’t ruined them yet.

Orange County Modernism
The final expression of Modernism: glass-skinned volumes whose shapes are generated by computers programmed to max out local zoning-law restrictions.

Through a twist of fate I ended up at the Hilton. I opened my curtains and wham!, there was the Eiffel Tower, splat, right in my face. The city didn’t feel at all real. It looked like an acetate backdrop from an Oprah location shoot, or a backdrop from The Facts of Life Visit Paris. I kept waiting for Blair, Natalie, Jo, or Tootie to phone from the next room over.

And then when I really tried hard to think of the Eiffel Tower as “real” I just got depressed because there was all of this silly ornamental rusted iron stuck all over, and I sympathized with all the Parisians who wanted it torn down after the 1889 exhibition. Why couldn’t Paris have been bombed just a little. It would be a much more interesting city as a result.

Pompidou Center
See: Moulinex Modernism.

Pruitt Igoe (1)
The black and white images of Cartesian collapse burn inside our heads.

Pruitt Igoe (2)
We all grew up with the Pruitt Igoe pictures in our heads. But what if they’d retrofitted it—put ramps and pipes and conveyor belts from building to building, partially took apart another, grew vines over one, and left only the elevator-shaft spine of another (painted in stripes) as a totem to oversee the remains? See: Albany.

Rolling Stones
In 1968 hippies vandalized Glenmore Elementary School. They broke windows and spray- painted PAINT IT BLACK outside my own particular classroom wall.

At that same time, I suppose, thousands of miles away in the rues of Paris, similar hippies—“the 1968 Generation,” including Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas—were doing much similar things on a larger scale. In my mind this group has had a lot to answer for ever since.

Seismic Upgrading
I am always shocked when I visit non-seismically-active places like New York or Pennsylvania and see free-ways and buildings that would collapse like playing cards at anything over a 4.5.

Sixth Avenue
The concrete manifestation of obsolete ideologies: Mies van der Rohe towers full of Jack Lemmon–and–Shirley Maclaine everypeople generating snappy ad strategies.

Their products no longer seem flawless. Is there a crisis in Japanese quality control? What’s happened? This is one of the disturbing aspects of the ’90s: deregionalizaiton of quality control.

Koolhaas: “In Japan there is . . . a systematic avoidance of any contents. And that is very exciting: incredible buildings that are about nothing.”

White House (Russian)
I remember how much fun it was watching this pristine chunk of Brezhnevian Statism being hammered to bits (sandwiched between ads for Soloflex on CNN). Part of the spectacle’s fun came from knowing that the building would never, ever be fixed—that Russia has lost all systems for architectural healing that this monument to chaos would remain automonumental.

World Trade Center
Contaminated by history.

Douglas Coupland’s latest book is Life after God (Pocket).