View Full Version : Koolhaas - 'Delirious No More'

June 8th, 2003, 03:29 AM
Koolhaas, who first made his name with the book "Delirious New York", has both lost major competitions in New York recently, and had the plug pulled on his Whitney expansion has unfortunately not to this date constructed a single building in New York (Prada interior design, not withstanding). This is too bad. In spite of the rumors, OMA insist they are not closing their N.Y.C. office (Though Koolhaas himself is no longer Principle of the New York OMA office, which is now run by Joshua Ramus).




Delirious No More


By Rem Koolhaas

New York is built, from 1850 to 1933, in a single spurt of imagination and energy. The first prototype of the modern metropolis, Manhattan is turned into a laboratory to test the potential of modern life in a radical, collective experiment. A free-form coalition of developers, visionaries, writers, architects, and journalists intersects with popular expectations to make the city an extreme and exhilarating democratic machine, one that is able to process all newcomers into New Yorkers.

Its genius is to create a universe parallel to sober and abstract European modernism -*to imagine life in the metropolis as a deeply irrational experience that uses sparkling-new technologies to exacerbate desire.

From 1913 to 1932, the speed of building is convulsive: Woolworth, Chrysler, Empire State, and finally Rockefeller Center. New York's instruments are not necessarily architectural masterpieces, but apparatuses for reinventing city life. They create both a density that astronomically expands the repertoire of programs, events, and overlappings and a smoothness that urban life has never before known.

The Depression slows this regime of architectural delirium. In 1933, King Kong's agony on top of the Empire State Building is a provisional climax: New York's revolutionary moment is over by the time of the talkies.


After World War II, buildings become "important." Each is the work of an individual architect rather than a collective. In the next 20 years, only a handful are realized: Lever ('52), UN ('53), Seagram ('58), Pan Am ('63). At the same time, Robert Moses' highways, bridges, and tunnels allow the populations accumulated by previous generations to escape to the burbs. He also organizes the 1964 World's Fair. The results appear lackluster, like a fair that could have been held anywhere.


In 1972 (president: Nixon; mayor: Lindsay), the World Trade Center is finished. No one likes it. The towers are abstract and structurally daring; their interiors entirely column-free, 10 million square feet of real estate carried on two cores and two envelopes. The towers dominate Manhattan's skyline but don't participate in it - twinning is their only genius.

1972 is a turning point: The towers are delivered at the exact moment New York's passion for the new is spent. Along with the Concorde, they are modernism's apotheosis and its letdown at the same time - unreal perfection that can never be equaled.

New York is not doing well. It is old now. It has a long past; it doesn't want to be a machine anymore. It worries about context and humanism. Hung over from the '60s - Malcolm X killed in '65, Andy Warhol shot in '68 - the city is basking in an aura of danger. It can no longer be governed; only the forbidden is well organized. Its repertoire is reduced to extremes. New York becomes a hunting ground. Separate crises - financial, social, drugs - merge into a cocktail that only hedonists enjoy. In 1973, Governor Rockefeller introduces draconian drug laws. McDonald's opens its first Manhattan franchise. In 1974: the first Gap. Plato's Retreat opens in '75; Studio 54 follows in '77 and acts as Manhattan's epicenter - the splendors and miseries of a metropolis compressed to the scale of a disco. Also, the city almost goes bankrupt.

1977 (presidents: Ford/Carter; mayor: Beame) is New York's annus horribilis: the blackout, the Son of Sam summer, a helicopter rotor blade crashes into the streets from the top of the Pan Am. But it is also the year of its definitive comeback: A blast of self-love pulls the city out of its doldrums. New York is rescued by a double whammy of denial, a heroic non sequitur: the "I <3 NY" campaign (created by Wells Rich Greene with Milton Glaser) and Liza Minnelli's "New York, New York" (composed by Kander and Ebb). The campaign mobilizes disbelief to fight disbelief; the song overpowers urban anxiety through loudness, introduces the high kick as a euphoric goose step.

"I <3 NY" is a prison. Its logo, like a brand, diminishes the virtual space of the city. New York's shrinkage is reinforced by the regime of Ed Koch, the new mayor. His "How'm I doin'?" reflects a city that obsessively measures its own pulse. Danger becomes vibrancy. A global city turns "world class."

In this state of narcissism, Manhattan's architects and developers begin to clone and rip off the most obvious features of the city's pre-WWII architecture. Boxes sprout spires; art deco becomes the new new. A tectonic pornography - over-dimensioned displays of excitement, each relentlessly pursuing its own release, an architecture of money shots.

An ecology of lawyers, dealmakers, zoning experts, and enablers grotesquely inflate the arcane complexities of "getting things done" and intimidate any outsider into helpless surrender to their intricate cynicism. "Union or nonunion?" That is the question. A Mafioso Hamlet.


The popular press and the US government turn against the United Nations -*depicted as an accumulation of shady foreign diplomats running up millions in unpaid parking tickets, molesting call girls with impunity, protesting innocence behind dark glasses. In 1984, like a slumlord, Washington stops paying the UN's maintenance fees; the cornerstone of New York cosmopolitanism becomes a political punching bag.

In a neat lockstep with Reaganomics, what is not brutalized from the outside is eroded from the inside. The art system, with its voracious appetite for authenticity (and, later, "edginess") consumes whole districts, leaving acres of gallery space that can effortlessly morph into shopping districts or university precincts.

What determines art's size? If the average painting was 6 square feet in 1940, by the '80s it has expanded to 40. Sculptures inflate at the same rate. Installations are measured in rooms, even entire buildings. What already exists is more sexy than what is recently made. The greater the (New York) architect, the smaller the conversion. Architects' fragile egos are boosted by a corpocultural axis that intimately unites the art world's sincerity with the corporate world's integrity in a very contemporary marriage.

In 1982, the world's first billboard-sized crotch shot triggers the emasculation of Times Square: white briefs against filth. The idea of the first cleanup is hatched. The 42nd Street Development Project follows in 1985. A master plan by Philip Johnson lingers, but in 1993 (president: Clinton; mayor: Dinkins), four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the idea returns as "42nd Street Now!" Disney announces the restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater.

Giuliani becomes mayor in 1994. He presides over the Wall Street bubble, the media bubble, the Internet bubble, and the art bubble, and he instigates a law bubble of his own. Giuliani's is a regime of enforced quality of life. The police become a cadre of roving, computerized flaneur, ridding the streets of surprise to deny criminals access to victims. The city becomes safer for some, more dangerous for many others. "Zero tolerance" is a deadly mantra for a metropolis: What is a city if not a space of maximum license?

In 1996, a new zoning law orders the removal of sex-related businesses from Times Square. Comfort has become an essential human right, security a Faustian gambit - surrender freedoms to gain the illusion of certainty. Liberals condone the suburbanization of New York.


From now on, the most important city in the world is dominated by the tower from which first dangled an ape. What is the connection between zero tolerance and the cult of Ground Zero? In any case, the disaster resurrects Giuliani's depleted persona.

New Yorkers surrender to empathy. The tragedy of 9/11 inspires a mood of collective tenderness that is almost exhilarating, almost a relief: Hype's spell has been broken and the city can recover its own reality principle, emerge with new thinking from the unthinkable. But politics interfere. In spite of Bloomberg's pragmatic sobriety, the transnational metropolis is enlisted in a national crusade. New York becomes a city (re)captured by Washington. Through the alchemy of 9/11, the authoritarian morphs imperceptibly into the totalitarian. A competition for rebuilding Ground Zero is held, not to restore the city's vitality or shift its center of gravity, but to create a monument at a scale that monuments have never existed (except under Stalin).

On March 17, at 9:30 am, the winning architect rings the bell of the New York Stock Exchange. At 8 pm, the president issues his ultimatum to Saddam, the "displaced" author of the WTC disappearance. At midnight on March 20, the war starts. At 8 am, at a breakfast meeting in lower Manhattan, the "Master Design Architect," an immigrant, movingly recounts his first encounter with liberty.

Instead of the two towers - the sublime - the city will live with five towers, wounded by a single scything movement of the architect, surrounding two black holes. New York will be marked by a massive representation of hurt that projects only the overbearing self-pity of the powerful. Instead of the confident beginning of the next chapter, it captures the stumped fundamentalism of the superpower. Call it closure.

June 8th, 2003, 12:59 PM
Do you detect a hint of bitterness? *

"Delirious New York" was a great book. *It made me look at the city differently; this article does not possess the same kind of revelation or enlightment, but I do share some of Koolhas's disillusionment (I don't share any of his hyperbole).

Funny how interchangeable Koolhaas and Muschamp can be. *I still think they're being too hard on Libeskind's design.

June 8th, 2003, 07:30 PM
I would be bitter too.

October 24th, 2011, 06:56 AM
45 Minutes With Rem Koolhaas

By Justin Davidson

Rem Koolhaas, the globe-trotting architectural philosopher and provocateur, is impatient for his daily swim. We meet in front of NYU’s Coles Sports Center, a place he has chosen mostly for the pool but also because he enjoys the way two architectural universes face off across Mercer Street. To the west, I. M. Pei’s concrete Silver Towers rear up, massive and austere. To the east, everything is Village quaint.

“I like the strange insertions of modern architecture,” he says. “And I like that it’s not quite Soho.” Conversing with Koolhaas is like interrogating an oracle. He utters wordy, sweeping aphorisms in a deadpan monotone, mixing astuteness, paradox, and ridiculous overstatement. “Architecture now, in spite of its visual richness, is actually simplistic and sedate,” he tells me. I let that roll around my mind, which starts frothing with counterexamples, but before I can articulate a challenge, he’s moved on.

“Most of us work almost exclusively for the private sector,” he laments, referring as he usually does to himself and a few gold-plated peers. But doesn’t his most flamboyant and controversial building, the twisted-pretzel headquarters of China’s government-run TV broadcaster, contradict that generalization? “Yes, in China, even the private sector is actually the public sector,” he says. “That’s one main reason to work there: You’re dealing with something more than private ambition.”

Sitting between us on our bench is the bricklike Project Japan: Metabolism Talks, a book of interviews that Koolhaas and the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist conducted with the Japanese architects who formed the Metabolism movement in the sixties. It’s the kind of visually stuffed, exhaustively researched tome Koolhaas has specialized in since his 1978 opus Delirious New York, but this book feels more wistful, less optimistic. It’s hard to miss its hint of envy for the Metabolists, a collective of architects with a state-*approved mission to modernize their country and a clear sense of how to forge a contemporary style out of national tradition.

“I miss that cohesiveness,” he says. “Now there is zero communication among architects. We’re all doing our own thing; none of it is even remotely connected to the traditions of our own countries. There’s nothing Dutch about my architecture. We are constantly competing against each other, and winning a competition can make the difference between five years of work and … nothing. It’s difficult to remain lucid and friendly.”

Koolhaas insists he’s not complaining about the frivolousness of contemporary design, or the loss of shared artistic beliefs, or the prevalence of plutocrat clients, and certainly not about the bizarre demands of being lionized. “The word celebrity and the word architect are basically incompatible. I know it’s come to pass that some of us have become famous, but it’s a temporary condition, a strange pact: We get a lot of attention, but we’re taken less seriously. Journalists seem mostly interested in what brand of shoes I wear.” (Here, I involuntarily look at his feet. Nice shoes, I think, but I can’t bring myself to ask the question.)

Koolhaas is both a creator and an iconoclast, an architect who for a couple of decades has managed to be both radical and furiously in demand. The buildings he designs with his less attention-getting colleagues at Rotterdam’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture can be brilliant and mystifying at the same time: The Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal, sits in the middle of a square, like a melting iceberg, advertising itself more than the concerts inside. “We’ve been toning down the volume,” he says. “We’re doing buildings that are almost discreet.” He mentions the relatively demure tower for Rothschild Bank in London, which is nearing completion and looks as if the topmost segment has been removed and replaced incorrectly.

He also has no problem with the fact that he’s never had a building actually go up in New York. “Architecture is not really the issue, here,” he says. “The whole system is so strong and the geography so unique that any one building doesn’t matter much.” Is it possible, I suggest, that New York simply doesn’t really need Rem Koolhaas? For the first time in nearly three-quarters of an hour, his lips laboriously arrange themselves into a smile. “It’s a surprising conclusion, and I wouldn’t want to confirm it,” he answers. “But I can’t deny it either.

“Okay, I have to swim now,” he concludes, and lopes lovingly into a building so undistinguished that NYU plans to tear it down.


October 24th, 2011, 11:39 AM

" ... a building so undistinguished that NYU plans to tear it down."

The fact that a building IS distinguished doesn't seem to cause NYU much pause when considering its future course.