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Comments (56) Posted 04.09.07 | PERMALINK | PRINT

William Drenttel

Koolhaas and His Omnipotent Masters


CCTV
Central Chinese Television (CCTV) Headquarters, April 2008. Photo by Jakob Montrasio

According to Rem Koolhaas, there are three seminal events in the history of architecture: Samson tearing down the house of the Philistines in 1100 BC, the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 AD, and his design in 2006 AD of the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Obviously, this is a reductionist view of history — and the kind of hyperbole one expects from a manifesto in Wired Magazine. But this is no manifesto: instead, as Koolhaas himself recounts the story, he chose between working on NYC's Ground Zero and the Beijing project based on a fortune cookie he was given at a Chinese restaurant — in it, the goofy prognostication "Stunningly Omnipresent Masters Make Minced Meat of Memory."

The story of a single cookie presaging the most important building in China is, quite simply, bizarre. It may be a romantic notion, but most of us still want to believe that great architecture is made on a napkin, the source of inspiration being anything except hard work. (According to Paul Goldberger, the design of Koolhaas's Seattle Public Library can be traced to a single diagram.)

The idea that one of the world's leading architects would glorify "making minced meat of memory" is beyond comprehension.


Rem Koolhaas, illustration (reconfigured) from the "Beijing Manifesto," Wired Magazine, 2007.

But manifestos often sound like nonsense. As Allan Chochinov of Core77 has written, they often "reek of dogma and rules. ...they appear (or are written so as to appear) self-evident. This kind of a priori writing is easy, since you simply lay out what seems obviously—even tautologically—true." The Beijing Manifesto of Rem Koolhaas is no exception:

In the free market, architecture = real estate. Any complex corporation is dismantled, each unit sequestered in place. All media companies suffer a subsequent paranoia: Each department — the creative department, the finance department, administration, et cetera — talks about the others as "them"; distrust is rife, motives are questioned. But in China, money does not yet have the last word. CCTV is envisioned as shared conceptual space in which all parts are housed permanently, aware of one another's presence — a collective. Communication increases; paranoia decreases.

It's one thing to build the building. But isn't Koolhaas sounding like an apologist for the corruption and extreme capitalism of Beijing? His manifesto seems to embrace the language of Mao for a media conglamerate that is one of the the great powers in the People's Republic of China, and the source of much of the censorship in that country. According to Koolhaas's thesis of Forward Compatibility: "China is characterized by the need to spread opportunity and information rather than protect manufacturers and other established interests. It could use its dominant position, the force of its numbers, its economic power, and its central government to lead the world into a digital future." What would lead an architect of Rem Koolhaas's standing to voice such propaganda? Perhaps Koolhaas is simply taking advantage of the pervasive authoritarianism that is still the Chinese norm. Design approvals? No problem, when everyone serves at the pleasure of the Party! He almost seems to be luxuriating in the absence of the nuisance of the free market.

Sadly, his apologia seems vaguely reminiscent of the post-WWII trompe l'oeil of Leni Riefenstahl: the heroic language necessary to justify heroic art. "In communism, engineering has a high status, its laws resonating with Marxian wheels of history." It's easy to get lost in, or angry at, such Wired-Magazine-grandiloquence. Or as Paul Goldberger observes, "Koolhaas has always been a better architect than social critic."

There are numerous examples of Koolhaas producing flawed social commentary to rationalize his architectural conclusions. George Packer, a seasoned on-the-ground journalist writing in The New Yorker, tells of Koolhaas visiting Lagos, Nigeria with his Harvard graduate students. They were all so terrified by the chaos, degradation and poverty that they were incapable of getting out of their cars (undoubtedly Range Rovers), or leaving their hotel for any length of time. Only by flying over the city in a helicopter (rented from the Nigerian president) were they "granted a more reassuring view" — at which point Lagos was deemed to be splendid as an urban model. As Packer observes, "The impulse [by Koolhaas] to look at an 'apparently burning garbage heap' and see an 'urban phenomenon,' and then make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all."

The truth, though, is that the CCTV building is stunningly beautiful. End of story — except that Koolhaas didn 't stop there. And here, the architect — master of rhetoric that he's become — asks the very question that most confounds his critics. "Was it merely a landmark, one more alien proposal of meaningless boldness? Was its structural complexity simply irresponsible?"

MoMA-koolhaas.jpg
OMA in Beijing exhibition, MoMA, 2006. Photograph by Iwan Baan.

In the OMA in Beijing exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the viewer is overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the CCTV enterprise. "A selection of architectural drawings from MoMA's collection will situate the project as one of the most visionary undertakings in the history of modern architecture." Whew! So from MoMA we get outright hero worship instead of any type of critical dialogue. And The New York Times reviewed the exhibition with a fawning piece by Robin Pogrebin titled, "Embracing Koolhaas's Friendly Skyscraper." (One is reminded, of course, that neither MoMA nor The New York Times Company selected Koolhaas for their own New York City headquarters.) The most striking curatorial intervention in the MoMA exhibition is the inclusion of the famous Mies van der Rohe drawing, Glass Skyscraper, elevation study, 1922. Koolhaas has aligned himself with Mies van der Rohe for a long time because he was the most modern of the moderns: reductive, universal, abstract. Koolhaas even speaks of "a return of Miesian Puritanism about steel."

The CCTV building has now reached fourteen stories, and we can easily anticipate the photographs of Chinese workers scaling the steel structure, much like the Lewis Hine photographs of steel workers building the Empire State Building, mostly Mohawk Indians "known for their agility and courage in working on steel beams far above the city below." So far, however, most of the construction photographs we see are devoid of workers, steel being the hero. ("Quite impressing amount of cranes and steel" [sic] reads a typical photo caption.)

Maybe the real hero worship around Koolhaas's architecture should be reserved for the engineers who have poured so much steel into this structure. For perspective, the World Trade Towers (completed 1970-72), each with 110 floors, required 200,000 tons of steel for 13 million square feet of space, or 31 lbs/sf of steel.

CCTV, at only 55 stories, requires 123,750 tons of steel for 4.8 million square feet of space, or 51 lbs/sf of steel. The punch line is that CCTV is the architectural equivalent of a gas-guzzling SUV. A structural engineer might talk about pounds of steel per square foot as a measure of a building's structural efficiency. CCTV has a beautiful structural design considering what it is required to do, but any engineer, I believe, would describe it as a "heavy" building. By comparison, the World Trade Towers were a super tall, extreme structure and they were still 40% lighter than CCTV. There is a lot of extra steel (20 to 30 lbs/sf) in the CCTV structure simply to resist overturning because of the weight and stress of its free-floating bridge, even assuming contemporary code and seismic requirements.

The issue is simple: all this steel is there to support a design conceit, albeit a beautiful one, of "an eye catching megastructure which looks like it ought to fall over." Rory McGowan, the ARUP director of the collaborating structural engineers, "admits that the structural gymnastics have a purely aesthetic justification."

koolhaas304.jpg
Madelon Vriesendorp, Après l'amour, c.1976. From Delirious New York by Rem Koolhass, 1978.

Much can be said of the architecture of Rem Koolhaas. It can be "raw, confusing, impersonal, uncomfortable, oppressive, theatrical and exhilarating." I keep coming back to the word, "exhilarating." It has been that for me since I saw the Empire State Building post-coitus with the Chrylser Building in his first U.S. exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1978. I just wish "the most visionary undertaking in the history of modern architecture" had strived for something more than a bridge of steel in China.

In the end, all the political discourse and self-serving manifestos mean little. We are left to judge this building as a piece of architecture built in 2007, in a climate of growing awareness of sustainability. Building a project of this scale with so much extra steel to support an aesthetic expression seems like a missed opportunity, if not something completely bordering on civic negligence, especially in China, one of the countries which necessarily must embrace sustainability soon. Imagine if Koolhaas had used this opportunity to build the lightest, most green building in the world? Imagine if he had marshalled all of his rhetorical verve and diplomatic savvy to argue for the critical importance of such architecture? Instead of responding to fortune cookies, Rem Koolhaas could have changed the world.
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Comments (56)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

While I think there are a number of problems with this article, I'll just address one thing: There's an undertone of the idea (not often unheard in America) that Westerners shouldn't help China advance in any way until the Chinese government cleanses itself of corruption and improves its human rights record. And on the flipside, this attitude assumes that any Westerners working or profiting in China have the agency to use their position to influence the course of Chinese history and culture. These assumptions are largely counter-productive; China is a very old country with a history and culture much more established than the USA, and given its 1billion+ population, it will continue to be a highly-coveted market.

I am a proponent of sustainability, and I think there are a few fair criticisms here. But why should we in America suggest that China "necessarily must embrace sustainability soon" when, given how much we consume as a nation, our president's refusal to commit the USA to the Kyoto treaty, and our costly dependence on oil, we can't even do it ourselves?
manuel
04.09.07 at 09:19

Mr. Sir,

Wow!

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran
04.09.07 at 10:07

Wonderful article. However, is a rather large amount of extraneous steel really that relevant to the question of sustainability as far as a building of this scale is concerned? The question is more ideological than practical, and it appears neither Koolhaas nor his 'omnipotent masters' are very concerned with it. I'm okay with that- the Chinese wanted monumentality, and they got it. Koolhaas may have missed an opportunity, but he was never going to be the one to take it up, either.
Ishmael
04.10.07 at 12:14

"the kind of hyperbole one expects from a manifesto in Wired Magazine."

haha...spot on, spot on.
Glen
04.10.07 at 01:08

Koolhass has always been an apologist of some kind. He's a noted suburban apologist and lover of the kind of mannered sprawl of Atlanta. This is his schtick -- he's a Corbusier of the contemporary era. Whether he believes what he says or its just part of the act is hard to say. Nor does it really matter. It's what "great" architects do. It's part of what keeps them in the press. He's mugging for the camera, as it were.

As for Mr. Moran's thoughts, I agree to a point, there is a difference between western and eastern notions of the individual and human rights that is deeply rooted in religion. But it may very well be exploitive for the west to make profit off of what clearly wouldn't past muster here -- just because it does somewhere else. This is the conundrum of globalization -- whose standards do you hold yourself to.
DC1974
04.10.07 at 08:50

Sir: Some additional insight please, or perhaps more specific advice for Big Bad Rem. Maybe his inability to effect more sensitive practices is because he of weak moral character or simply not realizing how powerful he may actually be.

Please, some stories about how you used your position as valued consultant to effect business practices and create positive environmental, social or economic change when consulting with organizations such as Olympia & York (that's a lot of properties you could have helped make green), or 20 different Procter & Gamble brands (lots of chemicals and disposable products, I bet).

Did you encourage Krystal Restaurants that healthy menus might reduce heart disease in African Americans (their target demo in most population centers) and increase brand loyalty? Did you push for clear lists of ingredients and nutritional data so that consumers could make the most informed choice?

miss representation
04.10.07 at 05:38

Sir,

The writer is apparently ignorant about the fake fortune cookie story guilty of a stunning misreading of the Content book. Koolhaas is not glorifying "making minced meat of memory". The first letters of Stunningly Omnipresent Masters spell SOM who are the architects who ended up largely controlling the WTC redevelopment and in fact have made minced meat of memory. Koolhaas was making a statement that the WTC competition was too charged, the players too vascilating, and failure too certain to be a good idea for OMA to participate.
John
04.10.07 at 07:50

DC1974 was referencing "manuel" in his post, not me.

However, after re-reading this article at lunch today I have to add:

WOW-EE ZOW-EE KUNG PAO-EE!!!!!

They should have just made it into a big dollar sign: "$." Or whatever the Chinese equivalent is. And then wrapped it with a giant paper fortune (ala Oldenburg) which reads: "YOU WILL SEE THE END OF CHINESE COMMUNISM. HAPPY TIMES TO FOLLOW, SOON." "LUCKY NUMBERS: 20 06 19 22 55 51."

Going out for Chinese now. God bless Capitalism!

VR/
Joe Moran
04.10.07 at 08:32

Manuel,

I would not take the suggestion that China needs to embrace sustainability soon should be taken as one coming from America to China. It should be universal.

I am Chinese and I have been many Chinese cities. I have seen the effects of unsustainable development. I have breathed air so thick with smog that you can feel it going in.
Wynn
04.10.07 at 09:30

Thank you for the comments.

Manuel, you are certainly right that it seems unfair for an American to suggest that China clean up its act when America, under the present administration, is so hostile to global climate change and sustainability. However, if Rem Koolhaas had competed for and won the Ground Zero project, I suspect I'd be making the same criticism — that his rhetoric was supporting whatever it took to get his building built, even its opposite, the defense of life, liberty and the pursuit of justice in America under the Bush Administration. The critique of his manifesto aside, I stand by my point that the building should be judged as a piece of architecture in 2007 — whether in China, or in America.

I want to thank John for pointing out that the fortune-cookie language of "Stunningly Omnipresent Masters..." is, in fact, an inside joke attacking David Childs and SOM. I missed this allusion. I guess I should apologize to Ren Koolhaas for not understanding that his manifesto was really an attack on a fellow architect and not something we should take seriously as a piece of writing.

Lastly, what am I to say to Miss Representation, who has delved deeply into my own non-sustainable design work between 1977 and 1990. Long before sustainability was an issue, I wish I had seen the future. I sincerely apologize. It will take years of good works to make up for my sins.

William Drenttel
04.10.07 at 10:03

In another vein, check out this tale of attempting to attend a lecture by Rem Koolhaas, and other architectural excursions, by Richard Eoin Nash from 2002.
William Drenttel
04.10.07 at 10:23

Geoff Manaugh of BlgdBlog sent me this interesting interview with Ole Bouman, who runs a magazine with Rem Koolhaas called Volume (Bouman also runs the Netherlands Architecture Institute). The interview contains this quote:

"I think in the whole discussion around the CCTV Building you see this tension between chauvinism and internationalism, between western interests and the interests of globalization in general, and many other dialectics in the debate being played out through that specific building. That's why the building is so interesting. As a metaphor, it represents much more than just the fact that it is built for an institution of Chinese power by a powerful western architect; it also reveals something that has to do with the dynamics of our culture — and where architecture can do that, then architecture is gaining in legitimacy."
William Drenttel
04.10.07 at 10:37

William: the idea that you owe Miss Representation an apology for past sins is, in the bitter words of Adolf Loos, "enough to make a cat laugh." Her notion that one has to have led a spotless, blameless life in order to legitimately criticize anything is so inane that it is hard to know where to begin....hey, how about St. Paul? Wasn't he "converted" on the road to somewhere?
lorraine
04.10.07 at 11:24

Both of the Rem Koolhaas buildings I have experienced, the early Rotterdam Kunsthall and the more recent IIT building, were impressive feats of architectural imagination, some of the best and most memorable architecture I have seen. I also enjoyed the madness of Delerious New York. Clearly there is an architectural intelligence at work. I do not think that Koolhaas' intelligence is being questioned in this piece.

I do think Drenttel's critique is reasonable, notwithstanding his past sins. It is as he says afterall 2007, not 1977, Drenttel does not have literal blood on his hands (to the best of my knowledge) and the issues of this day and this moment in time, and the buildings that are created at this moment in time, deserve critical questioning.

Perhaps it is ultimately useless to judge any object of aesthetic power by purely temporal sustainable criteria that afterall could change in time. Perhaps CCTV is such an object that can not be so judged. I do not know for sure as I have not experienced it.

But, it is equally problematic, indeed narcissistic, to refuse to engage or debate the issues that are shaping place in China in favor of a purely architecture for architecture's sake appreciation. Is it hubristic and imperialistic to suggest from the point of view of the experience of the West that the Chinese, as well as other economically developing regions, do not need to repeat the assumptions and mistakes of the "developed" world?

Koolhaas at this point in time seems stuck in a type of dialectic, based upon a Marxist view of history, that always allows for brilliant but linear analytic concepts, that certainly propel the rich socialability of his architectural spaces but do less to propel the socialability of societies. This last objective has been thought to be an impossible task for architects ever since the collapse of modernism. But architecture remains always a type of public provocation. What does CCTV provoke? I think it is reasonable to ask this question, deliver this message, and not be killed.

Koolhaas always betrays his postmodernism in the relativism of his words and thoughts. Notwithstanding my own belief that architecture's ground has shifted very quickly in recent months, that the concerns of a technology driven architecture of fetishized objects by fetishized personalities is quickly becoming boring, if not boorish, to both the public and fellow architects, the queries of the young architects in Beijing who questioned Koolhaas' CCTV design seem to optimistically forshadow a shift towards a set of different concerns than Koolhaas' supersmart riding of the wave of global branding.

Sustainability is just one cog in this shift. Another key big deal perhaps is democratization, digital or otherwise, and it is cruel indeed to imagine what type of collective spirit, vibe, and control is truly engendered and symbolized in a CCTV headquarters, full of very smart people, singularly networked into their country and the world, telling, or not telling as the case may be, the story of a regime that has the deaths of tens of millions of lives as its direct heritage.

Perhaps the architect Koolhaas can't help but project a bit of distancing irony, black humor, and cynicism in his words, and perhaps in the future we will see the building only as a pure object to enjoy, but for now I think CCTV and Koolhaas are fair game for those who aspire to a more transparent and sustainable future, and an architecture that represents these aspirations, whether in China, or the rest of the world.
John Kaliski
04.11.07 at 01:06

I'll let the following positive light color my view of the economics of global politics.

It could be nice to see what kind of actions might help a nation with huge industrial growth attain "sustainability" (does it even exist?).
Think of it as research.
We can learn from investing in the implementation of experimental technologies; in energy, in architecture, in product design, in printing. China is probably the most capable, affordable research partner we could get. If they choose to let us invest our skill and capital in attempts at profitable and environmentally positive business, let them have the reward of a clean homeland.
Nobody is really sure how to make a business both sustainable and profitable, so since until a few hours short of 650 days from the time of posting, the political climate in this country seems unlikely to support this sort of experimentation, let's do it where we can. Maybe we can learn something that can be applied to clean up our own act.

As far as the building as a piece of architecture in 2007, I feel it is a poor resolution to a flawed concept. Koolhaas's work of late and the fact that he would allow his motives would be expressed, even in jest, as a fortune cookie message both point to what a silly sensationalist he is. He and Karim Rashid are both simply awful. I hate having to explain to lay-people that I never want to be that kind of designer.
Ever.
Nick
04.11.07 at 01:37

Koolhaas has voiced a desire to "kill the skyscraper" with the CCTV building. What will happen, as Mr Drenttel has gestured towards but not stated, is that the CCTV will kill Mr Koolhaas. The CCTV is the culmination of a delirious logic, a logic which was always already in the act of perpetual masochism and, eventually, self-destruction. A provacateur beyond reproach, Koolhaas has, wittingly or not, distilled every latent paradox (opposed to Venturian contradiction) of his within this monstrous structure - a collection of irreconcilable half-truths, the detrius of an iconoclast run amok in a world moved beyond the comprehensible dualisms of his youth. It will deconstruct itself irreversibly and, what will be revealed? The emperor (of self-referential 20th century architectural discourse, of which Koolhaas is the apotheosis) has no clothes.
BAPE
04.11.07 at 02:47

Lastly, what am I to say to Miss Representation, who has delved deeply into my own non-sustainable design work between 1977 and 1990.

Don't Feed The Troll
(Though it was pretty amusing seeing the sheer age—conveniently unmentioned in the original accusation—of the work in question.)

Beyond any questions of sustainability and politics, my immediate reaction to the building has always been that it's structurally incredible, and that they better hope they got it right. I can't even imagine what would happen if the bridge decided to snap off one day. I'm sure there are all sorts of sensors built in that would almost surely prevent a catastrophic failure, but even the possibility of it coming up would have major ramifications.
Su
04.11.07 at 05:22

Why would Miss Representation be a troll, and Su not? Both names mean nothing to me. But at least Miss Representation has a weblog expressing a pretty consistent view. She (or he) is therefore more real to me than this boy (or girl) named Su.

Moreover, Miss Representation's post was interesting, putting the whole article in perspective. While Su's post is just a 'what if' fantasy, adding absolutely nothing to the article.
gandalf
04.11.07 at 06:45

Gandalf(if that's who you really are...), you or anyone else so curious may contact me directly if you'd like to discuss my confidence on the matter of my reality. This irrelevant little thread ends now.
Su
04.11.07 at 09:36

Thanks to Gandalf for acknowledging a blog that predates Design Observer gives me at least a smidgen of legitimacy.

As to defending work completed in 1990 as being 'before sustainability was an issue' well, is that said ironically?

Do I really need to spend five minutes on Wikipedia to determine the founding dates of such institutions as the Whole Earth Catalog (1968), the Audubon Society (1905), Greenpeace (1971), or the Nature Conservancy (1951) to prove that, oddly enough, some people were concerned about the environmental impact of their professional work before they, um, were hired by said organizations?
miss representation
04.11.07 at 04:58

It's interesting that you note Paul Goldbergers remark that Koolhass is a better architect than social critic - opinion often has it the other way around. Me? Well i have to admit that I'm often a fan of both.

I guess OMA polemic is developed within and for projects with specific purpose: to raise the design stakes and ratchet up the dramatic tension to a near hysterical level. It functions as a mechanism to extend logics of a brief to a perverse end (and brings the client along too). And architectural perversity is exactly where OMA like to work. It is probably also a critique of (or an attempt to escape) the quasi-functionalist logic that supports much architecture (very often completley spuriously). Koolhass' spuriousness is quite precise: the polemic intentionally has a tangental relationship to the real world - Delirious New York is the model for all of this.
anothersam
04.11.07 at 05:31

Michael Bierut
04.11.07 at 06:08

It's probably unreasonable to expect Koolhaas to change his spots at this stage. His best buildings have frequently involved tricksy structural solutions, engineered in every case in a collaboration with Cecil Balmond of Arup. Tricksy, that is, not "innovative". Balmond's attitude to structure is rather mystical and concerned with appearance rather than reality. For example, the idea of the Villa at Bordeaux is to displace and stagger the four vertical supports, sliding one column so far outside the building's footprint that it must operate in tension rather than compression -- it is replaced by a cable anchored in the ground. This is a brilliant rhetorical trick, a bit like an elaborate aphoristic figure of speech. However, Balmond's integrity made him reveal (in his book "informal") that for reasons of safety, the cable was structurally redundant. Not only is it for show, it's practically "false" structure.

On the other hand, the most brilliant structural engineers do tend to work with great ingenuity and economy, but this economy itself tends to result in simplicity, in coolly classical forms rather than the rhetorical punchiness Koolhaas wants. I'd say Tim Macfarlane and Jorg Schlaich represent the best of this kind of work at the moment. Schlaich Bergermann have done a lot of interesting ecologically conscious work, but it's safe to say that it wouldn't interest Koolhaas architecturally.
Theo Honohan
04.11.07 at 06:15

Koolhaas is a world class verbal and graphic pamphleteer and polemicist, a role that carries over from his days as an architectural insurgent. The key question is not whether he is provacative and entertaining, but whether his polemic is a desirable foundation for architecture. He doesn't appear to have a value system for design that goes beyond provocation, irony,and disdain, and his built work shows it, as interesting as it is. Visit a Koolhaas project that has been open for a year or two after the hype has died down and you'll see.
mark yoes
04.11.07 at 07:58

Miss Representation: are you really, really saying that one can only raise the subject of sustainability if one's actions have been focused by the environmental crisis since 1970? (and I take it that also means no hamburger, no fossil fuels, no garbage, etc., etc.)? Really? Either it must just be torture for you these days, since so many people are talking about sustainability who are so clearly Johnnie-come-latelies (maybe even born after 1970!); or, you are just taunting the author of this post over nothing. Which would it be?
lorraine
04.11.07 at 07:58

I was only a couple months shy of 1970, so no, it doesn't incense me to see people of my generation talking about sustainability. Having been doing it most of my life, I was only pointing out that claiming a revelation that, oh, graphic designers bear as much culpability as architects (and, in fact, probably more) as regards environmental sensitivity or its lack in 1990 rings a bit hollow.

In the article above, there one of j'accuse moments is about the amount of steel used in construction of the CCTV project, which is proved by solely one statistic -- the amount of steel used in the construction of the WTC, a project that may well have been under-sized; for this see any number of detailed posts John Young of Cryptome made shortly after the attacks. I'd be curious to see what its replacement will consume, relative to the original and the CCTV structure. And what the average ratios are in American construction.

Before this bldg was announced, I'd hazard the most offensive project Koolhaas was responsible for vis-a-vis material waste would have been the useless SMLXL, abetted enthusiastically by Bruce Mau, another recent convert to issues of sustainability.

Given the durability of buildings and transience of the bulk of printed materials graphic designers produce (annual reports, anyone?), applying the cudgel of environmental waste to attack a very small segment of practicing architects -- the stars -- (Koolhaas has only built, what, 40 buildings in a 30 year career?) is very thin critical practice.

Far better to spend some time talking about developers such as Olympia & York (Eaton Center, right? and Canary Wharf) on the commercial side, and other abominations on the residential (Toll Brothers, et al), who, using mechanized design and production techniques (to say nothing of their abhorrent land use practices) encouraged changes in building materials production over the past 50 years. The introduction of EIFS (Dryvit to the layman) to home construction is easily ten times worse than the sum total of Koolhaas's career.

The accusation of Koolhaas as charlatan is an easy one to make (I've made it myself). Come on, everyone publish a full client list, and let's see who has the cleanest hands; everyone, dust off your Nuremberg Defense! China is an easy target, but where do y'all print these days?

If you want in interesting conversation about critical dialog and political practice, why not discuss poor Richard Rogers, forced to grovel because he deigned to criticize a design project easily as reprehensible as CCTV, and one to surely have a more significant cultural and geo-political impact?
miss representation
04.11.07 at 08:37

cctv uses about twice the weight of steel per square foot as a conventional high rise steel frame building. You could build an extra 4,000,000sq. ft. project. with what cctv uses just to prevent overturning...I would argue that it is a reasonable stat for discussion. From an environmental standpoint, 100,000 tons of steel is significant.From a broader viewpoint, this is an architect who wields self-justification like a chain saw. He can take it. Its the ethics, stupid.
mark yoes
04.11.07 at 10:02

Just in terms of this last comment, and the criticism of the amount of steel used in general, I don't think it's a particularly good idea to judge architecture on this basis, any more than it would be to judge design on the amount of paper used. Maximum efficiency in all things could lead to some pretty boring architectural spaces and some pretty dense reading. Architecture is so much more than a building to house people or businesses. The impact that it has on a community or a nation, psychologically or economically is too complex to be able to really break down and say "this is worth [x] in terms of an ecological footprint," or whatever. That's not to say that anything goes, or that architecture mindful of the environment and resources isn't desirable, but I think you have to give people latitude in order to create interesting work. I would need to hear more about the energy the building takes to maintain it, and the other materials used before being outraged by it.

I live in/near a city that, like Beijing, had a recent boom in architecture. Almost unheard of in a city of our size (small but not that small), Vancouver had a huge tract of prime real estate undergo a complete makeover in the past 20 years. Unfortunately for us, we got no monumental architecture. Not one building, not one space along the False Creek front is of any particular interest whatsoever (although a very interesting "green" building is planned, or under construction downtown). Aside from the fact that it's all alarmingly new and has changed the view of the city, there is nothing there to be proud of or intrigued by, or to take visitors to see. It was a mindblowing waste of an incredibly rare opportunity, and that to me is a tragedy far greater than an excess of materials in a single stunning building.

And while I got a good laugh over Koolhaas's perhaps rose-tinted view of the non-free-market working space, there is an interesting thought in there about how most corporations function and interact, and what effect that might have on space planning. So while it is amusing to think that Koolhaas might rather enjoy designing for The Borg, it is also intriguing to think what form that might take. (Also, I'll bet dealing with Communist Party bureaucrats is no damned picnic.)
marian bantjes
04.12.07 at 03:06

Rem Koolhaas may have thought that "(S)tunningly (O)mnipresent (M)asters Make Minced Meat of Memory" and he may have some poor feelings towards David Childs, an SOM partner long known for his Machiavellian genius, but it is interesting to compare SOM's most ambitious effort in China to his. I was stunned at both the technological and formal beauty of this building when I read about it, perhaps others are as well.

One irony here is that the SOM building was designed for a tobacco firm perhaps suggesting that tweaked symbolism abouth clearing the air is possible even within a complex situation such as China where more people smoke, and perhaps die of lung cancer from cigarettes than in any other nation. Unfortunately the building may not be realized as designed but at least SOM is trying (SOM, not withstanding their efforts at Ground Zero, has a pretty phenomenol record of innovation in tall buildings with regard to programming, form, structure, historic importance, even branding, etc. - full disclosure - I worked there twenty years ago, did not much hanker to the place after four years and moved on, but do realize what a powerful and formative experience it was). SOM does not write as good manifestos as the Remster but I wonder if in the long run history will show they have just as many homeruns as the far gabbier Mr. Koolhaas.

I aso deeply respect Marian Bantje but I would encourage her too to dig a little bit deeper into the ecological footprint issue before dismissing the present opportunities of sutainable design. While it has been published in many forms, architects, have become increasingly aware in the last five years that, "buildings use massive quantities of raw materials, and consume nearly half of the energy used in the U.S. and 70 percent of the electricity generated. In fact, research shows that buildings are bigger resource hogs than the pollution-spewing cars and trucks that clog our nation's arteries " (from the AIA website no less, now that is truth in advertising!). Amercian and European architects are often quick to condemn China's rapid assimilation of automobiles and automobility but blithely ignore their perhaps greater contribution to the very pollution problem they complain about. I think this is an ethical issue, and my memory at least does not let me loose this thought lightly, and while you do have to give people lattitude to "design", and there is good design and bad design, architectural design is more than delight, it is also as the old saw goes commodity and firmness as well.

Now this is off track but since Marian brought it up I think it worth describing. Vancouver, is considered in most planning and urban design circles to be if not the most significant, one of the most significant examples of a city in the world that has dealt with growth smartly and created a smartly livable city that people from all over the world, inlcuidng China I suspect, visit and learn from. My previous comments on this post, referring to a shift in sensibility, was referring precisely to places like Vancouver where the whole that is being created is much greater than the sum of its parts. I know I was blown away when I saw what was then the nascent blooming of this city ten years ago and I have been wanting to get back ever since. I am not sure that greatness in terms of cities has as much to do with landmarks as some designers and planners assume and feel further that in the future this will be even more so. Nevertheless I look forward to Marian showing me what an architecturally dreary place Vancouver is the next time I visit.

I would also like to learn more about Ms. Representation's Richard Roger's story. I thought his problem was lending his office to Palestinian support groups for which he was forced to appologize to maintain a commission for the Javits Center in New York. This was a case of dubiously applied ethics and morals too. Maybe he has even more groveling to do then I realized. Nevertheless, I too question Representations' dogged insistence on the persistence of original design sin. I am not sure it is healthy (or ethical) to throw all of us over forty types into design jail for the sin of being born before 1970. Rather then paint these things in ideological terms I tend to see them in professional terms and in this regard at least it is safe to assume that it has taken the forty years since the Whole Earth Catologue was published for the design professions as a whole to catch up. They have, with a vengence in the last couple of years, and this is why the hue and cry over CCTV, Nairobi, blithe claims that memory is meaningless, etc., all ascribable to the Dutch Master, seem increasingly dubious to his increasingly doubting design peers.



John Kaliski
04.12.07 at 04:15

Poor Criticism
I'm wondering how comments on OMA's practise can still be so klischee-driven and oversimplified. As if we all agree that capitalism is very bad and the chinese regime even worse and architects with social responsability should simply condemn that. As if we should talk about architecture in terms of amount of steel that has been used for the construction and green buildings would be the best solution to save the world. Could anybody of this design-critics put more intelligence into journalistic research in order to avoid what has often been reproached to Rem Koolhaas: using polemics in order to create some noise.
Rainer Hehl
04.12.07 at 09:50

I would counter that architecture historically and factually has become an increasingly social art form answerable to an ever larger vox populi with ever broader concerns and demands that issues of present times be addressed ever since the French enlightenment took God out of the architects hand and replaced it with a pencil. Koolhaas' 1960's inspired notion of folding the street into buildings has allowed him to create some powerful buildings but at the same time his distanced approach to local concerns, interest in globalism, and eschewing of memory, whether for personal or ironic purposes, has increasingly left a trail of grand conceptual concepts that have been perceived as flawed as they move towards implementation (a case in point his LACMA proposal). This does not mean he can not produce brilliant buildings, he can and does, it simply means that the rhetoric that his driven his buildings and urbanism is increasingly subject to scrutiny, criticism, and debate by an increasingly expanded field of critics and citizens and that some of the work in this debate raises questions as large as some of the concepts and that some of the concepts are ultimately sunk by their own faulty rhetoric.
John Kaliski
04.12.07 at 11:34

John: I don't know if you saw the profile of Howard Rubenstein in the New Yorker (couple weeks back). That's the source of my 'groveling' description. If he really did just lend his office space, that's a lot of backtracking. And if actually did more, and took a principled stand against a truly disgusting example of design, and had to come up with this lie as a calculated CYA gesture, it's doubly worse.

I'm sticking on the environmental point because a good third of the original post focuses on resource consumption. Surely you older designers who chewed up trees with aplomb aren't exceptionally guilty (as per the Nuremberg defense), but you are perhaps guilty of environmental NIMBYism -- to wit, having seen the light later than perhaps was truly moral makes you a bit more shril (and it is that; the data were available at the beginning of your career -- Koolhaas could have chosen to emulate Paolo Soleri or Bart Prince or Steve Badanes -- all names readily available to me back int the environmental darks ages of the 60s). I fully expect to see a dramatic transformation of Koolhaas in a few years, one's he's done with his raping and pillaging projects.

My overall point is not that you older folks ruined the planet. We all share that bill equally. I just think the two major theses of this post are ill-considered, as a matter of argument and target. Herzog & de Meuron are a much better for this item: more projects, worked for Prada more, more projects in China, never really speak to the ugly realities of the funding for much of their work (sure, that's helluva winery, but where did the owner make their money? Not selling wine, that's for sure). If anything, they pander to their masters for more than Koolhaas ever did.

And, for shame John, you know the stats on building construction. The AIA reps the majority of architects, and it's the invisible hacks who churn out spec office space and perimeter business centers who produce those buildings that have such a large ecological footprints. You can say many things about 'starchitects' but if you ran an analysis, I would bet they have, on balance, smaller footprints, if only because they command greater fees, have better engineers, and typically suggest design solutions that appear to be resource intensive, and need to attend to that in the design stage. The building manager of Koolhaas project is as worried about energy bills as one on a Foster project.
miss representation
04.12.07 at 11:44

A small amendment: I meant to type 'the 80's' above. I wouldn't want Steve Badanes to think I had access to a time machine.
miss representation
04.12.07 at 11:48

I would encourage her too to dig a little bit deeper into the ecological footprint issue before dismissing the present opportunities of sutainable design.

There's absolutely no doubt that my knowledge of such things is sketchy at best, but please note I was talking about the focus on the use of steel, and in particular the comment regarding the millions of extra space that could potentially be accomodated with that amount of steel. That is what I consider a limited way of looking at architecture. I absolutely do not dismiss the opportunities for sustainable design, but I do think the yardstick for great architecture has to encompass more than the building materials used.

Nevertheless I look forward to Marian showing me what an architecturally dreary place Vancouver is the next time I visit.

Absolutely! Drop me a line and I will show you around; or perhaps you can show me. Vancouver is a terrific city to live in, and I'm aware, and proud of the urban planning that has evolved over the past 50 years or so which has prevented us from destroying a naturally beautiful place. However, it is still architecturally bereft, and while the city functions quite well there are very few places that I can think of to go or take visitors to say "isn't this a wonderful space/building? It was designed by [x], it does [this] and let me show you around ...". I wouldn't call Vancouver dreary, but I would call it uninteresting. As noted earlier, there is an interesting green project under way (and I'm sorry, I just can't remember what it's called—a brief googling failed to turn it up), that I have high hopes for being a place to take people. It's not tall, and it's not weird, but from what I saw of the renderings and read about its design, it will be engaging.
marian bantjes
04.12.07 at 12:56

i agree that it would be a dreary world in which architecture was judged only by its weight.
mark yoes
04.12.07 at 05:45

I agree that if the only criteria was weight then the argument is forced. However I do not think the original post nor the subsequent comments supporting the post were just about weight. Weight supported a weightier argument.

The thesis is about the hubris of the manifest claims of the master builder in relationship to the consequent beauty of the object in relationship to the condition of its cultural and timebound setting. For me the key question is at what point does the provocateur become the tool? At what point does an architecture that seeks to upset the balance actualy contribute to the balance of power? This is fair critical game whether the architect is Imhotep, Trajan, Michaelangelo, Stanford White, Albert Speer, Bruce Graham, or Rem Koolhaas; always has been always will - it is part of what makes architecture a political as well as a formal art. Koolhaas in his writing chooses to play this game and Koolhaas claims his building somehow reduces paranoia - "CCTV is envisioned as shared conceptual space in which all parts are housed permanently, aware of one another's presence - a collective Communication increases; paranoia decreases". Should I take this seriously? The building will reduce paranoia? How do we know the building will not simply be a better means of controlling the workers that toil within? Who wants to contribute to this and why? Who is unbalancing who in this game? Who has the advantage? Koolhaas always plays these rhetorical games in his writing and in his best buildings the social aspect of the fluid spaces does create a kind of informal urbanism that is wonderful but at other times the language and the claims are somewhat juvenile. CCTV may be a case in point where the illogic points to weightier problems. I hope to see the building some day and stand in that very big looking plaza space and feel the meaning of the space and note whether or not I feel uplifted or diminished. Maybe it works, maybe it does not, in either case it is reasonablke to ask the question, particularly if we are burdened, as I freely admit to be, by some desire for progress and the promotion of the collective good (as opposed to the good of the collective).

Miss Representation, I respect the enthusiasm of your youth, and yes there was nascent environemntal consciousness in the 60's and 70's (indeed there was a solar energy movement in architecture in the late 40's as well!) but you are challenged to prove that the eco-situation in the 70's and 80's was the same then as it is now. I do not think it is shrill to suggest that the available information, the means of tranmitting that information, the law (both local and international), engineering, systems, materials, monitoring systems, achievable efficiencies, science, and imperataves of environmentalism were vastly less organized, developed, and accomplished in olden tymes. There is a world of difference between SOM's Guangzhou tower and Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti even though they share some mutual concerns.

While many may be unbelieveing with regard to AIA's self-criticism (to use a somewhat Maoist notion), it does represent a deep shift in the profession's sense of itself and the role it is being asked to assume with regard to building. I find this shift challenging for it portends that the way in which buildings are made as well as evaluated will increasingly shift towards a performance type of evaluation (not unlike cars) and it is this that I think Drenttel was alluding to in his post. There is an increasing interest in high performance in architecture, as well as appeal. Why Koolhaas is so late to this game as is readily admitted in Miss Representation's post is anyone's guess since many of his Pritzker peers, including Mayne, Rogers, Foster, Meier, Piano, Murcott, etc. do not have any difficulty being star architects and moving forward with environemtal issues. One can argue that these are weighty matters and one should not be too quickly dismissed for bringing them up in the context of an iconic tower that the architect himself makes great claims for.

Finally, I can't wait to get to Vancouver and participate in a discussion of how architecture is more than landmarks - I will bring a long list of things to see.



jkaliski
04.13.07 at 02:20

If don't appreciate some finer points of modern architecture, in consequence I may also lack appropriate reverence for it's A list names ... Still, inquiring minds do want to know: Is it a wonky salute to Stonehenge? A stylized Chinese character? Does the shadow of the V in the roof line trace a particular and meaningful line on the streets below in the light of the full moon on Chinese New Year?

Averaged over the life expectancy of a building, the amount of steel and glass that goes into it is I think and insignificant largely irrelevant consideration. The day-to-day consumption of energy is of course, however, my guess is that neighbouring buildings are probably quite profligate in their consumption of energy, so I'd accept that the building is going to be an improvement. That's beside the point. No matter how efficient you are, if you build something that shouldn't be built, every ounce of materials is wasted.

Not that this building should not be built, after all -- It's not just another glass-box office tower, but a glass-box office tower stuffed into an oddly shaped box. The building is simply not attractive, and to be about style for the sake of style? Different to be different... Not much different from the empty calories of a frilly new Easter bonnet -- Except an advantage enjoyed by viewers of Easter bonnets is that no matter how lovely or gaudy one is, you only have to look at it for a day or two. In this way, it is, I think, the opposite of good design. Particularly for a prominent public building. All images I've seen of it are from the same angle as shown at the head of this article, where essentially, it looks like an angular donut. Rotate it 45 degrees to the right and, if the renderings are drawn correctly, and I have to assume they are, it is a radically backwards-slanted letter 'z'.

There is something very unsatisfactory about that, as with what you'd feel looking at half a bridge that ends abruptly halfway across a river. Nice as a sculptural statement, perhaps but only if there is something that explains or resolves the implied instability. It poses a visual question about balance and purpose that goes unanswered.

Are exterior walls not vertical simply because, given enough steel, some good engineering and buy-in from the client, you can build walls at any angle you like? I don't think that's a good enough reason to impose such a large and improbable building on the people of Beijing. Will they think back with affection on the monotonous architecture and shapeless olive-drab hats of the Cultural Revolution as they look up uneasily at the over-hanging upper floors?

Just a thought.


Russell Mcg
04.13.07 at 05:53

"Take the word green. Substitute the last letter with a 'D.' What do you get?"

From Marketplace.

VR/

Joe Moran
04.13.07 at 10:51

Finally, I can't wait to get to Vancouver and participate in a discussion of how architecture is more than landmarks - I will bring a long list of things to see.

I sincerely hope you plan on looking me up. I absolutely agree that architecture is more than landmarks, more than square-footage, more than the materials used to build it. As I mentioned earlier it is very complex. My criticism of this whole steel-business has been simplified to the point where it appears that I am under the impression the CCTV building was being critiqued on that point alone; I was merely concerned with what seemed an unusual emphasis on it. When I hear people talking about maximizing square footage or worrying about parts of a building snapping off, I do roll my eyes.

I am very in favour of environmentally responsible architecture; I am even more in favour of architecture which brings people together physically and emotionally. To this end I am not opposed to monumental architecture, or strange architecture, or grandstanding architecture, if it creates a space where people want to go. I am opposed to mundane, cookie-cutter architecture designed to fit the maximum number of units in a given space which is ignorable at best, and often, at worst, designed to have an approximately 50-year lifespan. (Talk about recyclable: Vancouver has hundreds of 20-yr old buildings rotting into the ground ... now that's cradle to grave.)

Leaving the lengthy topic of Vancouver behind, my opinion of the CCTV building is that it looks interesting; I would definitely go see it if I were in Shanghai; I would look forward to standing under the massive overhang without any fear of it falling on me; I would expect to find many other people in the square below, possibly get into a discussion about the building not dissimilar to the one we're having now; and if the interior is as interesting, pleasant, and well used as Seattle's Public Library, I would be dying to go inside and look around. And if it turns out that the entire project is a gobbler of resources in materials and energy beyond the excessive use of steel (which at this point I consider a fair tradeoff for the structure), then I would consider that sad, stupid, and a waste of opportunity as well as energy.
marian bantjes
04.14.07 at 12:15

John: I don't know your age, or when you went to school, but when I was in school Morphosis was doing things like Kate Mantilini and gilding their renderings with gold leaf (and when has Meier ever done a building that wasn't an HVAC nightmare?). I'm not sure Thom Mayne's conversion is all that impressive either.

At at the same time, I was having arguments with both friends who were partial to 'high design' without much consideration for environmental efficiency, and a sizable portion of my class who found our entire educational focus to be invalid because of insufficient consideration to those issues.

That you argue that the 80's, or 70's, were eras when people weren't directly engaged in environmental issues doesn't tell the whole story. For some, then, the watershed of Silent Spring was only a trickle?

It's not like I was born on a commune -- I grew up in a dying industrial town where people fought tooth and nail to protect the factories that belched orange smoke into the sky each morning.

So if you y'all were highly educated professionals operating in the center of your professional universe (New York and LA) in the 80's, and operated so blithely, only to argue for a radically changes climate (no pun intended) a geological blink of an eye later, well, shame on your for continuing to paste over your failure. I'm sure Clinton is real sorry about Rwanda now, right? It's not like anyone was trying to tell him he was missing something.

That doesn't mean I'm trying to draw a moral equivalence (though I suspect some may). I just think it's pretty specious to say in 'well, it was different in the 80's' because many of us still remember the 80's.

Sure, this seems like a mighty big tangent, but, again, the only two charges I can find in the post above is 1. Rem is working for a client that cannot be defended morally (note the Godwin's Law invocation, practically above the fold), and 2. His building insufficiently attuned to environmental issues.

On the first point, I ask anyone here to post a detailed accounting of how they accrued the wealth (being a relative term; I don't expect y'all to be millionaires, but this isn't the Sudan either) they have, and how it is currently sustained (investments, private property and such), and let's see where the blood starts and stops (for myself, it's small by any account, but it's also a lot of financial services clients, and I'm not excusing that -- but nor am I casting the first stone), and on the second, I'm not sure one raw number, completely out of context, is an accurate measure. (Even though New York has a lot of building consuming a lot of resources, our footprint is still a third that of the average American).

And if none of that is convincing, approach the argument from a different direction: of all the firms listed here as good or bad, moral or amoral, would any have turned down this commission?

When is the last time any of you turned down a commission on moral grounds? And told the client in those terms (me, I turned down a sub prime lender, and got a lot of grief from partners; and once walked away from a prop trading firm; in neither instance did I tell the prospect I has issues with their business practices)?
miss representation
04.14.07 at 01:58

My original critique in this post does not suggest that Rem Koolhaas is morally reprehensible for designing this building in China. Rather, it is his rhetoric in defending the building that I called "beyond comprehension" — too much of it being just manifesto nonsense. It is his own language that casts the building within the politics of China, and it is this language that I am questioning. No where did I suggest that he, or any other designer, not work for the Chinese government, or that such work cannot be defended morally. These are words being put into my mouth.

For the record, anyone who posts here, anyone who cares about architecture or sustainability or how design is discussed within culture or political discourse, does NOT have to provide detailed accounting of how they accrued their wealth, or how it is presently sustained. On this site, we are not trying to find out "where the blood starts and stops." These words suggest that one cannot talk about contemporary design or sustainability without first establishing one's bona fide credentials for sustainable purity. This is a scary thought — too reminiscent for my tastes of other historical efforts that shut down intellectual discourse.

To critically discuss the published writings of an important designer is not snark, and it is not a personal attack. This is a building worthy of analysis and criticism; and certainly Koolhaas is an important enough architect to merit consideration beyond fawning press and exhibitions. There will be those who disagree with my interpretation of Koolhaas's own language about what his buildings mean and accomplish, and their comments are welcome.

It is interesting how many comments have mentioned the CCTV design in other terms. "I hope to see the building some day and stand in that very big looking plaza space and feel the meaning of the space and note whether or not I feel uplifted or diminished." In writing this piece, I wondered how I would feel some years from now then I visit this building, perhaps with my children, and "stand under the massive overhang without any fear of it falling on me." Will CCTV be so beautiful and uplifting that my concerns about its sustainability, looking back, will feel small or silly. Perhaps.

In 2007, though, these questions still seem worthy of discussion.
William Drenttel
04.14.07 at 10:49

when has Meier ever done a building that wasn't an HVAC nightmare?

No doubt we all could be better at what we do and I certainly hope that I am a better architect now than I was when I graduated in 1982 (you can approximate my age from that!). One of the things some of our posters are a bit fuzzy about is the recent work of Richard Meier and Thom Mayne. They should perhaps take a look at the Sandra Day O' Conner Courthouse in Phoenix by Meier or perhaps look at the new GSA building in San Francisco by Thom Mayne. While both of these architects did not particularly espouse eco-interests twenty-five years ago they both seem quite up to date with the issues now and always willing to learn and evolve as architects. Neither of these architects seem to have any trouble relating environmental issues to their aesthetic and they are not waiting for ten years from now.

I agree that the issue here has less to do with the specific design of the CCTV building (regardless of its tonnage which is fair game) which no one has dissed on purely aesthetic grounds alone but the superciliousness if not silliness of the language which cloaks the effort. I feel it is fair to question whether 1) this language leads to unintended design results and consequences and/or missed opportunities, and 2) whether the language in its multiple layers or sarcasm and cynicism, even as it provokes (which is perhaps useful) does not also pressage consequent gaps in the design process and results. In both cases, with regard to this specific building, for me the answer is yes, there is a gap between the language and the form and the gap, given the political and social framework of the times, is uncomfortable - for me.

When I peel away all the arguments for and against CCTV, the one I find the most odd and unsettling in this thread is the notion that the career and work of any professional is fixed by the moment they were first educated. I hope no one is suggesting that Bill Drenttel is Albert Speer and I certainly would not suggest that Ms. Representation is Leni Reifenstahl because she once worked for a prime lender. Drawing these types of comparisons I feel is very problematic but should probably be left to a different blog. I always thought that a key goal of any education was to provide first and foremost lifelong learning tools so that one could continuously adapt to new times and new information within the contxt of some frame of standards, ethical and otherwise. There is a lot of new information and tools with regard to sustainability that are out there and are being very widely adapted by the architecture profession as a whole. Just as I would not be interested in going to a doctor who had stopped learning in 1980, I would want to choose an architect whose sense of the profession is both cognizent of history and continuously growing. The idea that any of us as designers are fixed in time is unsettling from a philosophic viewpoint and the notion that designers should feel a sense of shame either as individuals, professionals, or as a profession for continuosly reinventing themselves and their professional pursuits and interests is anti-professional, if not quite anti-intellectual.
jkaliski
04.15.07 at 05:29

If my fortune cookies were that insightful, I would make more decisions based on them.
Paul
04.15.07 at 08:39

On a lighter note, check out "Rem Traceur" by Sarah Dunbar, produced at the MIT School of Architecture.
William Drenttel
04.16.07 at 10:45

Colin Davies, in his book "The Pre-fabricated Home", takes a peculiar stand. His conclusion appears to be that fake brick (plastic, vacuum formed sheets?) and fake oak (stained, foam castings?) are architecturally acceptable. Now, I argue the opposite, believing that material should be honest and, while it might represent forms normally assigned to other material, it should not generally mimic materials, particularly those associated with other forms. The distinction requires elaboration later in this writing. Suffice to say that this writer has no problem with Michelangelo's David.

Also, Davies asserts this position a few paragraphs deep into his Conclusion. In other words, after reading the entire work, all the while slogging through his generalizations of all architect's prejudices and motivations, he somehow arrives at his comments regarding rules about honesty of expression and how they ought to be quietly ditched. No laying of foundation. No consistency of position, except for that of a fairly uniform dislike of architects; go figure.

Now, admittedly the topic "honesty of expression" has been kicked around in the name of authenticity for quite a while, and will not be resolved here. I find more critical at this time, and in need of debate, the School of Anything Goes.
Would there be fertility for Davies' comment, had that school not made such headway in recent years, in the name of Kool?

It should be noted that Professor Davies' argument follows the recent trend to reverse design principles of visual arts as taught, for example, by the Bauhaus. The School of Anything Goes might have a champion in Davies. Perhaps designers, anxious for attention, feel that "l'enfant terrible" is a quicker route than the effort required for a tried and true portfolio. Are we now destined to suffer a period of architecture as trick; eye catching topsy-turvy glitz, consumed and eliminated like so much fast food? Glitz in support of the nihilist idea that architecture should, like fashion, reflect the times, good or bad including its fads; its practitioners apparently having missed the fact that certain art forms might make more suitable mediums with which to reflect and critique the zeitgeist. Did we really need a real life, honest to God, Humana building? Couldn't our culture have survived nicely with a drawing? That situation not unlike the circumstances one finds oneself in after waking up after a particularly debauched evening and having to slink home in one's bedraggled finery. No, Virginia, one should not simply do anything, and yes, pray for the wisdom to know the difference.

It seems to me that our newly-found technical omnipotence should inspire in all endeavors, a commensurate renaissance of reason.
longtooth
04.16.07 at 11:49

I'm still thinking about the statement that 1977-1990 was long before sustainability was an issue. The first Earth Day was 1975 and the oil embargos were before that so someone just wasn't paying attention from 1977-1990. There are architects who have been practicing sustainability through all of it. Sustainability has been an issue that was ignored by most in this country until recently. It certainly existed. The Chinese were the ones to institute a population control by limiting births--however controversial or practical--they did something. If we'd all been paying closer attention sooner this whole discussion would be a moot point. As it is in Europe where this is the norm, not the exception. We are late to the game and need to catch up.
How this affects design is a hot potato. Some see sustainability as a limit, others see it as mutually exclusive from high design, while others embrace it as the basis of all good design (my category). Talking about how much steel is used in this building is certainly in line with a design discussion, whether it is the deciding factor of whether it's good or not, that depends on the values of the observer and that varies.
The definition of good design is mutable and depends on the values of the observers, so this answer will change over time. There's good reason we have "test of time" awards - meant to even out the cyclic changes in taste, economic times and building uses. For any building to pass a test of time it must be adaptable or be so good at its funtion it will never become obsolete or so beautiful occupants are willing to adapt their needs to the building. I find architects words often muddy the waters of their designs and usually would benefit from saying little or nothing. I don't need to hear their words to experience their work. I just have to go visit.
Kim
04.18.07 at 01:15

You should say; the controlled demolition of the WTC towers and WTC7.
Jim
04.19.07 at 12:16

"It seems to me that our newly-found technical omnipotence should inspire in all endeavors, a commensurate renaissance of reason."
[Posted by: longtooth on April 16, 2007 11:49 AM]


um.. - Isn't there some sort of Newtonian law about the balance between 'newly-found technical omnipotence' and 'commensurate renaissance of reason'. When one goes up the other goes down.

Russell Mcg
04.19.07 at 10:43

I'll join Russell Mcg here: I think (just judging from the images, of course) that the building is ugly. It's the worst of Old Modernism pretending to be redeemed by being a little off-kilter instead of purely rectilinear. That sure makes a big diff.

Also, and more important, as a human/urban thing, it's appalling. Would you sentence workers to spend their working days in that thing? How about asking people to walk across that plaza? Does it help create humane spaces and places? Does no one remember Jane Jacobs' line about "towers in a park"? Still holds -- who cares if they're tilted or cantilevered? They're still steel and glass towers in parks. Didn't work the first time around (actually encouraged people to flee cities), and won't work this time around either.
Michael Blowhard
04.20.07 at 04:52

I think a comment of mine (with some good links) just got lost. Anyway, Rem is or isn't a great "designer" (whatever that is) and the building is or isn't "beautiful") whatever that is. But how do his buildings work out in practice? Here's a Seattle critic who initially liked Rem's library there reconsidering the place. Verdict: "Dysfunctional."
Michael Blowhard
04.20.07 at 05:26

I was re-reading some of the comments, and became increasingly amused in the way that we are actually discussing, ad nauseum, a building which requires 50 plus pounds of steel per square foot, simply to maintain its composure. It isn't so much that it doesn't deserve to be debated, but rather that the debate yields such imprecise logic, and yes, to some extent, cowardice. One must suspect how Mr. Koolhaus himself is incredulously amused at having gotten away with it.
longtooth
04.24.07 at 12:07

Aside from John, has anyone here actually sized a steel member for construction? I slept through my statics class. It wasn't ad nauseum to try to resolve whether of not material efficiency was the best critical yardstick to use, and if the numbers bandied about represented an accurate picture of said efficiency.

You want structural and environmental inefficiency? Build a wood frame, detached house with clapboard siding. Structural members are so over-sized it's absurd, the it's incredibly porous. What's the R-value of Winterhouse Studio up in bucolic CT these days?

Doesn't anyone find it odd, sickeningly ironic, or something, that the building hoisted up as an avatar of environmental efficiency was roundly criticized by the entire critical community for decades on pretty much every measure and was the symbolic and literal target of ire for a substantial swath of an antagonist culture?
miss representation
04.24.07 at 01:57

Just posted some thoughts on the CCTV project... check it out.

http://progressivereactionary.blogspot.com/2007/06/cctv-progress.html
progressive reactionary
06.06.07 at 06:05

A follow up to recent visitors. Bill Drenttel asked a direct question about anonymity and personal information (which is directly relevant to my comments above) in follow up to this thread and I've posted a response there (sorry, they don't provide links directly to comments).
miss representation
01.02.08 at 04:44

miss representation here is the link to your comment.
http://www.designobserver.com/archives/030925.html#144

Carl W. Smith
01.02.08 at 06:14

Koolhaas' conference at Ecological Urbanism: http://klaustoon.wordpress.com/2009/04/09/koolhaas-at-harvard-ecological-urbanism-i/
klaus
04.14.09 at 07:32


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William Drenttel is a designer and publisher, and editorial director of Design Observer. He is a partner at Winterhouse, a design consultancy focused on social change, online media and educational institutions, and a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.
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BOOKS BY William Drenttel

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 2
Allworth Press, 1997

Looking Closer 1
Allworth Press, 1994

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