Kool Houses, Kold Cities

Even if you don't like to shop, go to the
intersection of
Broadway and Prince streets in SoHo to witness, and become part of, the spectacle
of Prada's recently opened flagship store. The design by Rem Koolhaas is
architecture at its most electrifying (and electrified) brilliance. Rumored to
have cost $40 million, or approximately $1,700 per square foot, Koolhaas's
renovation of the bottom two stories of the now-defunct SoHo Guggenheim -- work
that Miuccia Prada and Koolhaas fatuously claim will help to "redefine the
experience of shopping" -- is crackling with innovative ideas, outrageous
compositional gestures, and high-technology theatrics. It reaffirms the Pritzker
Prize-winning Koolhaas, founder and chief architect of the Office for
Metropolitan
Architecture (OMA), as our greatest contemporary architect (at least in terms of
vision, virtuosity, and flat-out creativity).

Walk into this relatively typical SoHo brick-and-cast-iron building and you
are greeted by deliberate cacophony: zebrawood floors and a pixilated wallpaper
mural of brightly colored retro images and patterns recalling those that have
made Prada's clothing emblematic of the excessively rich. In front and to your
left is a glass-enclosed, room-sized circular hydraulic lift -- the kind that
mechanics use to elevate your car -- that displays a row of dainty embroidered
sweaters neatly stacked on a shelf. Looking beyond, you get an idea of the
retailing netherworld into which this lift descends, as Koolhaas has removed a
1,650-square-foot section of the ground floor in order to expose the basement
level below. Slipped into the voided space is an indoor auditorium with zebrawood
stadium seating that cascades down to the lower level, which connects to a
luxuriously waving wall lilting its way back up to the opposite side of the
street-level floor. Embedded into the "wave" is a flip-out stage for fashion
shows,
theatrical events, musical performances, and who knows what else.

On the display floor opposite the entrance, mannequins encased in aluminum mesh
pose on squarish platforms that are suspended on motorized tracks from the
ceiling. A mixture of cut-rate and luxury materials, typical of Koolhaas's
architecture, is everywhere apparent. Lime-green, unpainted gypsum encloses
display spaces filled with pricey merchandise; sleek panels of Privalite Glass
edge concrete floors -- dressing-room walls that toggle from transparent to
opaque
at the step of a foot switch.

The Prada store suffers from the OMA's usual problems: sloppy detailing,
two-dimensional imagery (in this case, the mural) that is inadequate to the
brilliance of the spaces, and stunningly inattentive craftsmanship. In short, it
neglects aspects of architectural design by which Koolhaas seems bored. Still,
the resplendence, the borderline obscenity (on which side of the border is
debatable), the fawning critical response, and the exuberant public reaction to
the store confirm that Koolhaas's architecture -- not just as architecture but as
a
substantial cultural phenomenon -- deserves careful, sustained deliberation. And
this is something that it rarely gets.

Koolhaas may be our greatest contemporary architect,
but the
nature and volume of his production indicate that he wants to be more than that.
He plays the game of cultural critic and theorist, visionary, urbanist, and
shaper of cities for the globalized, digitized, commercialized world of the
twenty-first century. If we don't begin thinking critically about what he's
doing,
how our cities look and function might greatly reflect his influence -- and what
we
get might not be what we want.

For Koolhaas, designing, theorizing, and making architecture is done
relentlessly and at breakneck pace. Here is a man who in 1993 spent 305 nights in
hotels, and who published more than 2,000 pages of architectural theory and
manifestos in the year 2000 alone (this while running architectural offices in
Rotterdam and New York City). Koolhaas recently finished the Guggenheim in Las
Vegas; he also completed studies for a whole new town in Korea as well as a
project for a new European transportation hub -- a little "airport city" on an
ocean island for the Dutch Schipol Airport authority. He is currently working on
the Dutch embassy in Berlin, major additions to the Los Angeles County
Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the main branch
of the Seattle Public Library, and a multiform theater for Dallas. He is
additionally designing master plans for the Brooklyn Academy of Music and its
immediate neighborhood (in collaboration with Diller and Scofidio) and for a new
section of Almere, a suburb of Amsterdam.

By virtue of his media empire, of his teaching at Harvard and other top
schools, and of OMA's recruitment of talented architecture students from around
the world, Koolhaas has achieved an almost cultlike status among a generation of
architects and architecture students. He became the darling of the avant-garde in
1978, when he published Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for
Manhattan.
Still in print, DNY is a surrealist-inspired, wittily
illustrated celebration of architectural modernism and, more broadly, the
cultural phenomenon of modernity in what Koolhaas believed was the world's
greatest metropolis. When the book was published, the world of architecture was
deep in the throes of postmodernism, a misnamed antimodernist movement that
revered traditional architecture, the historic fabric of the city, and
small-scale developments. Yet Koolhaas admitted in his essay "The Terrifying
Beauty of the Twentieth Century" that maybe all his arguments about the vibrancy
of the contemporary city "are in the end mere rationalizations for the primitive
fact of simply liking asphalt, traffic, neon, crowds, tension, the architecture
of
others, even." Shortly after the release of DNY, Koolhaas established the
OMA -- architecture for the metropolis.

In the subsequent two decades, Koolhaas has helped to reorient architecture
away from postmodernism by navigating a different path through modernism's legacy
than that of the International Style (think skyscrapers on Sixth Avenue), which
had been so vilified when Koolhaas first started developing his ideas about
design.
To be sure, Koolhaas learned from the modern masters, Le Corbusier and Ludwig
Mies van der Rohe. He also absorbed ideas from other, disparate sources. From the
work of the great Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto, he came to appreciate the
surfeit of haptic stimuli that comes through assembling many different
materials. From pop-art-inspired critiques of the International Style by
insurgent modernist architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson, he
learned to celebrate the commonplace and the contemporary city. From surrealist
painting, with its flagrant rejection of minimalist abstraction, he came to his
penchant for the witty, the unexpected, and the grotesque.

The ideas Koolhaas developed in DNY and thereafter first achieved
solid form in 1991, in the breathtaking Villa Dall'Ava on a hillside in a Paris
suburb. A riff on Le Corbusier's famous Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, the Villa
Dall'Ava was a small home for a refined, architecturally autodidactic Parisian
couple with the determination to move architectural culture forward. A good
portion of the ground floor is transparent, edged in glass-panel walls that open
to a garden in back; the roof has a lap pool on axis with the Eiffel Tower.
Koolhaas loved the irony of a transparent and figuratively weightless ground
floor
supporting a heavy, if ever so elegant, sliver of a swimming pool that, in a
second ironic twist, floats on top of the house. He solved stringent zoning
requirements and an idiosyncratic domestic program (almost no kitchen) by
creating a house that promotes voyeurism within the family while shutting out
prurient neighbors. Like Aalto, Koolhaas brought together many different
materials; but unlike Aalto, who reveled in luxurious textures and hand-carved
teaks, Koolhaas delighted in the honky-tonk materials of the street:
exposed concrete, corrugated plastic, steel. The Villa Dall'Ava (like its recent
successor, a house in Bordeaux finished in 1998) is suburban yet stunningly
urbane -- a historical meditation on modernism that points the way to its future
evolution.

In a number of concurrent and subsequent projects, most of which were not
built, Koolhaas worked on breaking apart and recomposing the horizontal layers of
space between typical building-floor slabs in order to emphasize, in
architect-speak, designing in section (imagine slicing a building in half and
then designing vertically as well as horizontally). Into a gridded, rectangular
prism, Koolhaas would drop egg-shaped voids and chutes of light, and he would
fold entire floors into ramps that started as one floor and became the next. In early
public
projects, such as his competition scheme for the Bibliothèque nationale in
Paris, such techniques let a building offer spatial and visual experiences on the
inside that were not obvious from the outside, which appealed to Koolhaas's
passion for surprise. ("I've always been interested in shocking people," he
avers.) Later, even when he started flamboyantly expressing his sectional
theatrics through his facades -- as with his Educatorium at the Technical
University in the Netherlands (1997), in which a slanting concrete floor supporting the school lecture hall folds in a curve over onto itself to
become the room's ceiling -- his buildings continued to afford a series of
unexpected spatial moments meant to evince the vibrancy of the contemporary
metropolitan experience.

This formal strategy of stretching the possibilities of the sectional aspects
of design, an approach that Koolhaas has been developing since the late 1980s,
is perhaps his most important contribution in architectural terms. There are
moments in the work of Le Corbusier that are harbingers of Koolhaas's. (There's a
wonderfully dynamic instant in Le Corbusier's Villa la Roche-Jenneret in Paris
where one stands on a third-floor walkway and looks down through two levels of
banded space, with a bridgelike room one level below and a foyer on the ground
floor.) But Koolhaas takes the idea further, making whole buildings into problems
of sectional space. (As a measure of Koolhaas's influence, younger firms such as
MVRDV and UN Studio in the Netherlands -- some of whose principals once
worked for Koolhaas -- and Diller and Scofidio in the United States have adopted
this idea as their own.) In Koolhaas's Kunsthall in Rotterdam, for example, a
building that was finished in 1992, you can walk up a ramp and look to one side
to
see people's feet at the level of your head, or stand in a ground-floor gallery
and look up at shadowy images of people walking in the gallery above.

Such experiences constitute some of the best moments at Prada: At the basement
level, Koolhaas has extended the store beneath the sidewalk, paving the ceilings
with glass block so that as you try on shoes or sweaters you can hear, and look
up to see, people exiting from a subway station onto the sidewalk above your
head. In a Koolhaas building, public spaces are often not enclosed. Just as in
public moments of being in a city, you voyeuristically survey others while
conscious of being surveyed.

As Koolhaas earned larger and more prestigious commissions, the attentions
that he had lavished in his writings on very large buildings and on urban design
were rewarded. For an architect infatuated with the metropolis, Koolhaas's
insistence on his aptitude to solve the problems faced by the contemporary city
is hardly surprising. It is also entirely within the modernist tradition. In 1995
he published a compendium of his architectural designs and essays: S, M, L,
XL,
the title conveying the different scales at which the OMA worked. In it,
and even more so since, Koolhaas has set his sights on the realms of L and XL. He
joined the faculty at the Harvard Design School in 1995 not to teach design, as
most architect-pedagogues do, but to direct his Project on the City. This annual,
yearlong group-thesis project studies and conceptualizes contemporary urban
phenomena such as the rapid development in the economically liberalized regions
of China, urban changes in the former communist world, and the impact of global
retailing on contemporary cities of all kinds. (The study of China was
recently published as the book Great Leap Forward, and the
examination of global retailing as the Harvard Design School Guide to
Shopping
.)

Koolhaas is greatly disturbed by architecture's growing irrelevance to our
contemporary built environment. He insists that if the profession is to survive,
architects need to take seriously the kinds of spaces and urban developments that
constitute the bulk of today's built environment -- and that many progressive
architects either deplore or ignore: big-box retail, shopping malls, generic
office towers, and so on. He has confronted his colleagues with the preciousness
of their profession and exhorted them to insist upon a larger say in the
structure and look of today's built environment.

What would a Koolhaas city look like? As in his architecture, so
in his urbanism: He calls for architects to embrace the existing environment
(whether urban, ex-urban, or suburban; whether garish, disorderly, or
monotonous) and try, in the words of the Smithsons, to "drag a rough poetry" out
of this everyday life.

Koolhaas's first full-scale attempt at master planning was Euralille, a
transportation hub and urban complex in Lille, France. The French government
hired him in 1989 to create the master plan for, among other things, a new high-speed train station near
the city's center that would connect France to Belgium, Germany, and the
Netherlands; Lille was to be the first stop in Europe out of the Chunnel. The
development -- which includes a convention center designed by Koolhaas and a
train
station, business offices, retail shops, public services, and housing designed by
other architects, whom Koolhaas helped to select -- was intended to link downtown
Lille to its suburbs and to stimulate an economic renaissance in this region of
northern France.

Koolhaas used the Euralille commission to propose what he claimed was a new
paradigm of urbanism, which, he said in 1992, "must not rest on order and power"
but "must incarnate uncertainty." Like his architecture, today's metropolis
should thrive on disjuncture, discordance, opposition, ambiguity, and everyday
funk. Thumbing his nose at the preservation-minded contextualists, Koolhaas
maintained that architects and urbanists should promote forms in the same
vicinity that "have no architectural relation whatsoever to one another."

Koolhaas's critique of contemporary urbanism is correct, timely, and
important, and aspects of his ideas are appealing. It is refreshing that he
revels in modernity and modernism, especially in light of the nostalgic,
antimodernist, reactionary urbanism that has so dominated urban planning circles
for the past 20 years. Moreover, it is indisputable that architects need to take
seriously a wider range of contemporary building types, no matter how ostensibly
unappealing. The problem is not Koolhaas's critique but rather his proposed
solution. In essence, he replaces one reactionary set of urban principles
with another. The very same qualities that make Koolhaas's
architecture -- especially his houses and smaller-scale public buildings, such as
Prada -- so stunning become desolating when executed on a very large or, worse
yet, urban scale.

Koolhaas's Euralille turned its back on the city's old center, which by foot
is less than 10 minutes away: A highway visually severs the pedestrian-scaled old
city from the "bigness" -- one of Koolhaas's favorite words -- of the new
development. Euralille, Koolhaas asserts, is scaled to be seen from a moving
train or a speeding automobile. "What is important about this place is not where
it is," he said, "but where it leads, and at what pace -- in other words, is
to what extent it belongs to the rest of the world." Koolhaas designed the
general massing (but not the interiors) of the shopping mall-cum-housing
development, which stretches monotonously like a beached whale along 350 meters
of a street. Such megastructures, which Koolhaas is reprising in his master plan
for Almere, constitute "the only architecture capable of accommodating a
heterogeneous proliferation of events [characteristic of today's metropolis]
within a single container."

The approach to urban composition that Koolhaas took at Euralille -- and
takes again (with minor alterations and a very different program) at Almere --
does
not vitalize or revitalize the metropolis. It kills it. No matter how much
today's world differs from yesterday's, no matter how many high-speed trains,
fast-moving automobiles, and video monitors populate and enliven a city, when you
get out of your moving vehicle, you remain imprisoned in the unchanging container
of our lives: the human body. And whatever else a successful city may be, it
needs to be attuned to the scale of the people who use it.

Koolhaas wouldn't be the first talented architect to fall flat when working in
an unfamiliarly large scale. But it would be letting him off too easy to suppose
that a lack of experience is all that prevents him from handling large
conurbations with the same finesse that he does his houses or his small-scale
public buildings. It's the social and phenomenological principles with which he's
designing that are wrong.

We've seen an urban strategy of radical disjuncture before: in Houston, where
local governments have consistently blocked any substantive zoning regulations,
resulting in ostentatiously large corporate skyscrapers abutting the poorest of
neighborhoods. At an urban scale, embracing disjuncture and the commonplace does
not spell radicalism or progressivism; it spells consensualism and conservatism.
Wielded as an urban policy rather than as an occasional design tool, it amounts,
politically and economically, to laissez-faire urbanism, the public realm be
damned.

Koolhaas has proven that taking cheap, everyday materials and massaging them
into the domiciles and leisure spots of the cultivated and wealthy can produce
wonderfully imaginative and fresh environments. But when he uses the same
materials in a megastructure, paying little attention to craftsmanship or
detail, he creates environments that look depressing and cheap. The aesthetic and
psychologically transformative process on which the power of Koolhaas's work
depends is thus lost.

Koolhaas wants to build huge, multipurpose buildings and to design cities, but
at the same time he eschews permanence, a concept he finds retrogressive and
embarrassing. This may be a good sales pitch to municipal governments or
businesses pinching pennies, but as a design strategy it disregards
architecture's traditional social responsibility to take part in the
cross-generational conversation that contributes to a truly vital metropolis. The
enduring pied piper of the avant-garde, Koolhaas can say that his design
strategies "don't feel complacent inside" because at the original scale in which
he conceived them they aren't. Yet while they lead to architecture that is
vibrant and inventive, they produce urbanism that is cloddish and mundane. And as
a set of urban-design principles, they make unfriendly, almost dehumanizing
environments that also perpetuate some of the worst aspects of the status quo.

Can Koolhaas find a way to jettison his urbanism and keep his architecture
vibrant? It's hard to predict. In the meantime, go to Prada -- or, for that
matter,
to any other Koolhaas building you can find (smaller is better) -- and enjoy the
provocative drama of contemporary architecture's living paradox.

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