* (and love Rem.)
Renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas spoke this evening in Beirut about issues affecting not only the contemporary architect, but just about anyone who’s ever lived in a building. He lamented the state of the profession and of the modern city, where even “starchitects” are relegated to designing glass skyscrapers divorced from their historical and social contexts.
He supported his critique with graphs and tables that actually mean something (and were not just collections of lines, figures, and other half-baked data), arguing that even emerging cities like Beijing suffer from too much introversion (the quality of being private) and too little introspection (the quality of thinking). Cities are caught in a dilemma of preservation (today a 20-year-old building can be qualified as “heritage”) and hyper-modernization (he shows a photomontage of skyscrapers in the desert landscape, a caricature that sadly applies to many more cities than immediately obvious).
In reaction, Rem Koolhass and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) designed the China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV) in Beijing by almost literally turning the modern skyscraper on its side. This was a bold move that underscored his controversial and much-criticized refusal to be involved in the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the city about which his Delirious New York remains a seminal manifesto more than 30 years after its publication.
Rem is an architect who sounds like anything but an architect. Not once during his two-hour talk did the phrase “bird’s eye view” escape his lips. His approach is one that is piecemeal, that celebrates celebrity not for its own sake but for the influence it can wield on today’s urbanists and architects to realize that the modern city is losing its livability, as public space continues to be drawn and quartered into smaller and smaller private parcels.
He denounced the absence of architectural manifestos from Europe in the last ten years, at a time when the world needs a new architectural revolution the most. He pleaded (as I do) for the return of an architecture of simplicity, one that embraces its surrounding, not turns its back on it in a pretentious show of bigger-is-better-ism.
“I am a tortoise, the city my shell — it shelters me, and I must bear its weight.”
That’s not Rem Koolhaas, but an overly romantic Architecture student fifteen years ago. However today with renewed hope, I heard those long-gone words echo in his.