PRINT November 1998


Rem Koolhaas is identified with an architecture that addresses the city, or as he would say, bigness. He is probably better known to the art world for S, M, L, XL (1995), the fat brilliant book he did with Bruce Mau. Koolhaas is an architect much admired for his thinking, one about whom one speaks dramatically and justifiably of great buildings not built (the TGB in Paris, the ZKM in Karlsruhe, the MoMA in New York). But he and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) are anything but paper architects. If their finished buildings seem obscure to Americans, it is because there are none for us to see, save the small, constantly modified interior of the Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York. But new OMA projects are springing up in the States and elsewhere: IIT in Chicago, the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, the Song-Do New Town master plan in Korea, and Universal Studios’ headquarters in Los Angeles. Whoever you are, go see them all. They are not just buildings; they announce something more.

OMA buildings pose a physical challenge to the existing conditions of rhetoric. They do not present themselves as words or images; if anything, they resist becoming images. When it comes time, as it must, to transfer them onto the pages of books and magazines, they do not collapse well into the two-dimensional space of the still picture. Perspectives and projections, whether photographic or drawn, do not express these buildings. But then, straight lines have become, and perhaps always were, false clarities. When Koolhaas was interviewed by John Rajchman in these pages [AF, Dec. 1994], he spoke of perspective as nothing more than a system to preempt surprise and imagined out loud a period after its demise. By now we need not imagine it. Consider, for instance, the extralarge delta of developing cities west of Hong Kong or simply the relentless scanning of an electronic screen. At the end of S, M, L, XL, Koolhaas named this entire unrolling landscape the Generic City. He said it was marked by the advantage of blankness.

Blankness? Do not think of it as the negative space of nothing—a hole—but rather as a nothing embodied by material—a shining wall, a face, a sheet of paper, foam. Such a blankness extends far beyond the city. Imagine a blankness after geometry—pointless, an unsettled something, a depth. It is contained and then released in OMA’s new house in Bordeaux.

The new house has three levels, which appear as a set of stacked rectangles, the bottom one embedded in the side of a hill. A transparent level of glass sits on top of it and then, above both, a great container of concrete stained the color of clay. Koolhaas talks about the three levels as having different conditions, two dense conditions on either side of an empty one, the middle level existing, unframed and glassy, open and somehow magnetized. He speaks of this glass level as being not in any way defined by architecture and as having no mass. The upper level must be supported by a large, mirrored stainless-steel column housing a spiral stair and by a large black beam that extends outside like a bracket. A lone gray I-beam laid across the roof stabilizes the upper mass and cables any stress to the ground. But the three conditions take precedence over their relatively small supports and seem to exist without them. Think of these conditions as archaic: two parts earth, one part light. The light varies. A low winter sun will cross right through the glass level; the higher summer sun will be blocked by the overhang. Even so, the glass box always seems exposed, overexposed. Certain of its walls can literally be moved aside. When they are, the room itself is lost, not just to light now but to air.

Small, in Rem Koolhaas’s vocabulary, is not a scale reduction of medium, large, or extralarge. Small takes up its own particular problem, that of holding a few specific people, usually—as in this case—a family, together between walls, neither people nor walls self-sufficient. Walls find their raison d’être in the slower, clumsier tempos of everyday life. This is an architecture premised on fairly plotless scenarios filling the levels of light, air, and nothing, a realm structured really by durations and sensations. When a room is lost, it is lost not just to air but to these intensities.

Walls dissolve in the house in Bordeaux. They can be transvalued or they can cease to exist from the start. They are broken by stairs and, perhaps most importantly, by a 3 x 3.5 meter plane, a hydraulic platform that rises and falls the entire height of the house. The father of this family is confined to a wheelchair and the platform, which holds his desk, had its initial logic in giving him completely free access. The platform moves upward along a three-story-high bookcase; at the top level it moves along a wall hung with a large Life-Head by Gilbert & George. But in and of itself the platform has no walls; it is a room without walls, a totally implicit floating box that finds its end in the clearest of skylights exactly the size of itself. The sun always falls to and over it through whatever dynamic of voids the platform has opened up, like a lens shaft, a vertical dynamic of blankness. The glass level crossing it provides a horizontal one. An infinitely varied, intense, and luminous sensation overtakes the house. One could speak of this effect as a bloc of sensation. There are many reasons why one should.

The bloc of sensation is one of Gilles Deleuze’s abstractions, a way of speaking directly to something seen in Cézanne, a picture of a wall in a broad mountain valley filled with a light so dry, so bright that all planes shimmer, all spatial relations blur.1 The bloc of sensation expresses pictorial impossibility, a state between paint and motif, a state of expressivity, of internal vibration, what we know as classic Cézanne. Mont St. Victoire can only be mythical. We have known for a long time that it exists in a state of becoming. Deleuze himself calls that becoming a house.

To see a bloc of sensation in play in the house in Bordeaux is not to translate it wholesale into a philosophical image, or vice versa, but only to see another aspect of blankness unfold. Koolhaas has taken the frames off the bloc of sensation; you might say that he has made a house unhouse it. That is why no image can really hope to hold or communicate the difficult currents of light in the house in Bordeaux, or its pools of tranquility, or its time, its net, its manifold, its strength. The house embodies the complexity of the spaces coming into being after perspective: spaces of charge not necessarily electronic; spaces of dissolve not necessarily optical; spaces that go small as well as large and extralarge; spaces that, without any inspiration from computers, dematerialize the old ideas of how to take possession of them. Spaces that grow old as well as new.

Molly Nesbit is a contributing editor of Artforum.


1 Gilles Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 167.