The Hague

MVRDV

Stroom Den Haag

The focal point of this show by the architectural firm MVRDV was a large projection of Pig City, 2001, a computer simulation of a giant tower for the industrial breeding of pigs. While some advocate a return to more natural modes of farming, MVRDV pushes ahead in the opposite direction, promulgating its favorite method: stacking things on top of each other, thus making the most of the limited space available in Holland. The exhibition also included an updated version of the firm’s installation MetaCity/DataTown, 1998/2001. To view this work, one must stand in the center of four screens placed at right angles to each other, on which computer-generated images are projected. Together these form a constantly moving panorama of Data-Town, the model city (or MetaCity) whose design is ruled by a set of statistics on area, population density, and so on. Engulfed by MetaCity/DataTown, the viewer finds himself flying Peter Pan—like past conical mountains, over plains, past abstract buildings, and through forests (stacked in several layers, naturally). One is also confronted with an immensely high “curtain” made of metal tubes to which windmill blades have been attached at regular intervals.

The very idea of a skyscraper for pig breeding is so unrealistic that one can’t help feeling that the project isn’t really meant to solve the agricultural problems in the densely populated Netherlands, but rather, that it is intended to underscore MVRDV’s status as masters of what might be called the data sublime—an updated version of Kant’s mathematical sublime, which presents the subject with something so vast as to be beyond its powers of comprehension. MVRDV’s world is not only vast but also enchanted: Things often happen there as if by magic. In Pig City, the pig skyscraper seems to create itself, its elements appearing consecutively out of thin air. This gives a view of its inner workings while enhancing one’s sense of awe. In MetaCity/DataTown, rectangular pieces of farmland come floating through the air in a kind of apocalyptic storm, only to land in a neat grid that indicates the different uses for which the land is intended—areas for chicken farms are indicated by enormous eggs and much smaller chickens. We appear to have entered a space where the normal rules of physics have been suspended. Thus MVRDV infuses the data sublime with the unsettling suggestion that the world is animated and that technology is the contemporary form of magic.

In Pig City, the landscape ends up being dominated by a metropolis of countless identical pig skyscrapers. The result is certainly compelling, but MVRDV’s aesthetics work better in a computer-generated universe that in the real one: The three-dimensional studies in stacking things that were also shown (KM3/3D City, 2000-2001, in collaboration with the Berlage Institute, Rotterdam) lack that digital magic. MVRDV gives the impression that it wants architecture to become pure information. It seeks salvation in the virtual in order to escape the limits of architecture and share in the mystique traditionally granted to visionary artists. But the fact that aesthetic categories associated with Romanticism and Surrealism (the sublime and the uncanny) are relevant to the analysis of (MetaCity/DataTown suggests that the clean new data space can be the setting for a return of the repressed. Far from freeing architecture of the past, virtual space can be a perfect haunt for old specters.

—Sven Lütticken