PRINT September 2004


Rem Koolhaas

THE IRONY OF Rem Koolhaas’s monumental 1995 S, M, L, XL was the relative paucity of the architect’s realized work in any of those sizes. The book had a mirror-world quality, as though the former journalist, waiting for the accrual of his reputation and for a favorable economy, were anticipatorily remaking the world in print (and blueprint). S, M, L, XL dwarfed the tomes of many a more-built architect. It’s as if the book were the building.

Eight years on, Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has found itself with an expanding global portfolio of built works, so it’s with a whiff of whimsy that Content, a “product of the moment,” should be presented not as a coffee-table paean to their constructions but as a “dense, cheap, disposable” pulp novel/magazine that’s bound to give bookstore clerks filing paralysis. The hijinks begin straightaway: It’s not merely that the first few pages of this Taschen art “book” are ads but that their content seems to perversely play on the topics discussed later. One ad, for Prada, shows a street vendor hunched over a blanket of bootleg handbags; another, by the Nigerian government, announces, “Lagos: Center of Excellence.” They could almost be parodies: The first, some in-joke about aura and use-value culled from Koolhaas’s anthropological brand work for Miuccia Prada; the second, a particular howler in light of the book’s later mention of Nigeria’s standing as the world’s second most corrupt society (after Bangladesh).

Content is, thankfully, more than mere self-promotion—it includes an intriguing piece on cold-war propaganda in Africa, an expedition to utopian-era Moscow, and a worthy interview revisiting the authors of Learning from Las Vegas (1972). But the book ultimately feels like a frenzied series of embattled dispatches from an age of architectural anxiety. Here is Rem, standing in the historical shadows of the Seagram Building, lamenting the lapsed stature of architecture: “When we were invited by the grandson of the tycoon who commissioned Mies to emulate that effort less than 50 years later, the budget per square foot was one fifth of the earlier building. Had architecture suffered an 80% loss of (self) worth?” Here is Rem at the Illinois Institute of Technology, throwing Miesian cocktails on the streets of Chicago: “Mies needs to be protected from his defenders. . . . Is the magician responsible for the lack of intelligence of his believers?” Koolhaas magnanimously allows himself to be roasted occasionally, if only to further the mystique. One article chides: “Now, be frank. . . . Weren’t you disappointed by the Prada book, more a blown-up PR handout than the self-aware volume one expects from an accomplished writer and brilliant designer?” The most thrilling outing is Koolhaas’s own “Junkspace,” a ten-page tour de force whose frantic, elliptical koans are among the most emblematic renderings of the age I’ve seen. (Koolhaas’s words perfectly capture the sensation I had standing in Las Vegas’s Venetian Hotel, lost amid the Carrara marble, the faux canals, and his failed Guggenheim space: “The more we inhabit the palatial, the more we seem to dress down. A stringent dress code—last spasm of etiquette?—governs access to Junkspace: short, sneaker, sandal, shell suit, fleece, jean, parka, backpack.”)

In a passage concerning the 1995 building study for a new headquarters for Universal Studios Hollywood (then just acquired by Seagram), Koolhaas finds what might be an underlying logic for OMA: “Where in ’54 a building could be a ‘portrait’ of a known entity, forty years later it needed to be a device that was able to create a degree of wholeness from a permanently changing cluster of ingredients and latencies. A building was no longer an issue of architecture, but of a strategy.” And so what strategy for architects? OMA generated its own spin-off wing, AMO, which would augment the design of Prada stores by unpacking the Prada brand and which could architecturally treat entities like Wired magazine as situational contexts (in a fascinating statistical analysis, AMO tallied the most frequently used words in Wired—for instance, “next,” “most,” “first”—and found that the publication was proclaiming a “revolution” every three months, on average). As AMO puts it, “those issues that had informed the eventual design of the building could, freed from the pressure to generate an architectural solution, perhaps find more effective solutions in other, faster or more flexible media . . . from pure research to website conception.”

If OMA spent the first part of the past decade constructing ideas, and the latter half buildings, Content finds the firm plying the terrain in between. Most new and future projects, not surprisingly, are in Asia. The East is a career, said Disraeli, and Koolhaas seems to agree: “The average age of the American board is now 70, the average decision maker in Europe 50; but in China the architect is surrounded by 30 year-olds on Promethean ozone. Through its usual cocktail of design and default, the architect’s compass follows.” It’s not just that there’s money in China. But as architect Toyo Ito notes, even if China has not figured out what the symbolism of its new architecture should be, it expects architects to create those symbols. Disillusioned by the West, symbologies in hand, here comes Koolhaas, Chairman Now. OMA’s much-heralded, biggest-ever project is the headquarters of CCTV, China’s national television station, in Beijing, which surely must represent the denouement of all Koolhaas’s strategizing: to create the symbolic center of a universal medium that is at once everywhere and nowhere; in a dizzying context of rapid urbanization, emergent modernity, and political ambiguity—all through a design that rigorously engages the closed loop of image production and consumption that television now represents. A specter haunts this manifesto, however: If OMA no longer considers the book a stable-enough vessel for its architecture, how will the future read its buildings?

Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).


Rem Koolhaas (ed.), Content (Cologne: Taschen), 544 pages.