Saturday, September 17, 2011

Transcriptions: Koolhaas v. Eisenman

In 2007, The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) hosted a conversation between Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenmen with Phyllis Lambert, the organization's founding member and famous patron of architecture, in the role of moderator. Mirko Zardini, the current director of the institution introduces the topic of Urgency and asks what this means to Rem/Eisenman/Phyllis.

Here is my excerpted -and paraphrased- transcript of the conversation [you can access the full video via OMA's their Vimeo/Videos Channel.]


Peter Eisenman [Grandfather of Digital Architecture]: 
I'm a grumpy old man. What is this computer on the podium? How do I make it go? I dont get it...

Rem Koolhaas [Disciple of Manhattan]: 
Stop being such a North American. I realize I am speaking to a Canadian Audience, and let me tell you collectively, that that perspective is where you all go wrong. That applies to you especially Peter.

Peter Eisenman:
While you may be an apologist for dictators, and worse, for modernism, at the end of the day, at least neither one of us is Leon Krier. That man is the physical embodiment of evil in this world.


On the occasion of a conversation between Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman at the CCA moderated by Phyllis Lambert, Mirko Zardini suggested that the pair discuss the topic of urgency. From this rather ambiguous prompt, these two highly articulate and ancient avante-gardists develop a conversation about lateness and atrophy within the culture of architecture and the Global West.

Koolhaas lectures first. He speaks of a growing discomfort with architecture's collective inability to critically engage the built environment under the aegis of the market economy. He speaks of a production of A-list and B-list architectural spectacles that clash with each other, each one attempting to shout over the next. In a situation like Dubai, the entire skyline becomes cluttered with a thousand singular manifestations of individual narcissism. Rem indicates that it is urgent is for architects to put distance between themselves and their diminished status as pandering entertainers and producer's of spectacular effect in the service of the global marketplace. He attempts to reaffirm a combative commitment to the generic. He puts forward recent work (post CCTV) in which his office is pursuing a harsh and anti-expressive monumental architecture which recalls the sublime effect of Ledoux and his immensely scaled symbols of rationalism. We approach a terror of the sublime in the architectural projects of Ledoux which was previously reserved for the categories of natural phenomena and religious experience. Koolhaas similarly intends his work to open up a space that intensifies and exposes the energies of globalization  in a way that begins to channel feelings similar to the spaces that Piranesi invokes in his Carceri series. For Koolhaas this is a social sublime.

The argument is characteristically compelling and slippery. His interest in the generic corresponds to an attempt to pull back from his star status and to be taken seriously as an urbanist. Koolhaas has long been trying to resuscitate urbanism as a field. For him it is urgent for architects to recover urban design competencies (abandoned at least in North America with the demolition of Pruitt Igoe).
His argument for the generic recalls strategies of Group Form al la Josep Luis Sert or Collective Form a la Fumihiko Maki. We might recall that Koolhaas's training under O.M. Ungers. In Koolhaas's case, the projects rely on his clear talent for using architecture as a weapon for delivering massive shock on an urban scale through the configuration of this collective form - in a way that attempts like a physician to recalibrate a failing body through surgery, or similar to the way that a shock can catalyze an entropic ecological system - for Koolhaas the object of these techniques is metropolitan and social. But it is important to recall that Italian Corporatism and the Fascist experiment drew heavily on the same aesthetic strategies of anonymity, future shock and violence - and that the avante-garde strongly allied themselves at least initially with the aesthetics of politics that coalesced into the fascist state.

We can argue that OMA's work is a reaffirmation of urban strategies that date to the Roman Territorial Expansion and the use of the grand project to produce or deform urban space and territory - cross reference this with Ungers' version of Urban Bricollage. For Rem, this sort of strategy is an attempt to architecturally address the rapid modernization/urbanization happening in some parts of the world outside the traditional stomping grounds of Americanized Democracy - in which the Chinese state is making cities from scratch. Rem has been arguing for a long time that it is important for architects to be a part of this process. His use of bigness to shock and to produce symbols and icons in urban space via architectural means are very primitive tools. These are simple blunt objects that while effective, are well suited for the temperaments of governments that resonate with the territorial ambitions of the ancient Roman state. For all of Rem's sophistication and subtlety, a project of OMA still operates like a monument to its client. It is effective because it is the primordial gesture of the big man waving his dick around. This is an act that people easily recognize universally. When it is in the service of a liberal institution (like a public library), this becomes quite endearing, because liberal institutions are famously timid at the present moment. It is also endearing because OMA builds great monuments. The problem emerges, so the argument goes, when Rem (or by extension any Western architect) builds monuments for clients that the Western European/Americanized world objects to on moral grounds - such as an organ of state propaganda. Rem has actively pursued an ethical strategy of engagement with these emerging non-western powers (we might specifically talk about projects in Dubai and China). This is a position that Eisenman finds abhorrent. It is of course at this moment that Koolhaas repeatedly retorts with characterizations of North American ethnocentrism to defend himself from his critics.

With the caveat that it is somewhat absurd for Eisenmen to be attacking the morality of Rem considering his own labor practices, Eisenmen's argument for refusal and slowness is also consistent with the roots of both of these men in post-68 spirit of the radical anarchist left (Italo-Marxism, Autonomia/Workerism, Provos, Superstudio, etc). Within the architectural avante-garde the politics of refusal became the mode of fighting capitalism. Where the earlier generations of radical modernist architects were married to the ideologies of socialism and the reform of the built environment, the '68 generation reacted against the politics of social management. They interpreted architecture as an instrument of political control and attempted to attack the institutions of architecture and urbanism as symbols of power. What the Italians realized better than the French and Americans was that people must find their own power counter to the hegemonic power to which they were objecting. Ultimately what '68 delivered was an aesthetic liberation which was easily and swiftly co-opted as the new language of capitalist reaction (branding, aura, the information-economy, dematerialization of discipline into soft control). The avant-garde then relied on a strategy of difficulty in their aesthetics to prevent the assimilation and consumption of their work by the capitalist economy. The libidinal new left was of course highly confused with more traditional forms of morally rigid Marxism. This societal moment and confusion coincides with and heavily informs the early critical work of both Eisenman and Koolhaas.

Eisenman's early work resonates with this desire to frustrate the easy functioning of the semantic apparatus assembled around the architectural object. He empties the meaning out of the architectural elements that compose a house and treats them as the morpheme's of architectural grammar. Through a series of syntactic transformations inspired by Chomsky's experiments in generative grammar, these basic units of architecture are combined into grammatical fragments and larger structures. By surpressing a decision-making process based on utility, Eisenman sought to imbue his architectures with qualities of resistance. This posthumanist position sought to decenter the iconography of the house and to incite a contested relationship between the inhabitant and her space. This difficult position echoes today in the future-primitivism of Sou Fujimoto and the characterization of the nest and the cave as to archetypal forms of dwelling. By valorizing the cave, which is a found object, over the nest, Fujimoto is similarly rejecting the idea of a dwelling specifically tailored to the actions of dwelling. The argument is that a relationship in which the specific manner of appropriating a space for functional use is not pre-ordained in the form. Fujimoto asks the question: can one design a cave? One answer is found in concept of the indexical architectural object of Peter Eisenman.

The early work of OMA focused instead on the possibility of architecture to influence social behavior. Instead of chopping up and recombining the coherent but semantically overloaded formal elements of the architectural object, OMA sought to chop up and recombine coherently separated and distilled functions into layered arrangements. This recombination took inspiration from the violent recombinations of bodies in surrealism. Koolhaas recalled the Comte_de_Lautréamont's description of a young boy as appearing "as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!". Koolhaas interpreted the intensely neutral gridded assemblage of Manhattan as a surrealist device of recombination in which the elevator scrambles the social programs of physically proximate but highly unrelated activities and inhabitations of space. Koolhaas compared this effect to the theory of Architecture as Social Condensor articulated by Soviet Constructivists such as Moisei Ginzberg.

Both Eisenman and O.M.A. founded their theoretical projects during a moment of crisis in modernist (Western) culture. [though beyond the scope of this essay, we might consider the consequences of the theoretical rivalry between Colin Rowe and Ungers who were the primary mentors to Eisenman and Koolhaas respectively in the theoretical differences between their proteges - the recent writings of Pier Vittorio Aureli and K. Michael Hays would be a strong point of departure for this topic.]  In a way each of these positions was strongly political at its time of inception. But..

To listen to Eisenmen speak is frustrating when he is face to face with Rem. He lacks the rhetorical power and subtle manners of the Dutch master - especially when he ventures into political territory. One of the more gratifying moments comes when he asks Rem if his proposal for La Villete (which is the famous source of the Landscape Urbanist concept of  "Irrigating the Landscape with Potential") no longer holds value for him - considering his neglect of the landscape in favor of the 'generic'. This, for once, puts Rem on the defensive, forcing him to explain that he is not stupid and that he knows that La Villete is among his best work - even if a focus on landscape has been lacking in recent work.

But what we must also note is the extreme failure of the leftist wager in '68 (the early 70's in Italy).

Within a faltering market economy, who will purchase public works on the grand scale? Koolhaas is one of a dying breed of architect [at least as he would have it] who works almost exclusively in the public sector in a 20th century way. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he has been actively trying to grapple with the flows of global capital and power and to "surf" these dynamics. But he is clearly dissatisfied with the sidelining of the architect as a public figure/intellectual. His solution of pursuing autocratic clients has become a trope within the architectural conversation.

Eisenman briefly touches on a concept of figuration and of an intricate and indexed series of processes which relate figure and field in the architectural/urban object of production. This theoretical admixture of the partial figure is central to the current discourse which remains highly on topic - see Stan Allen and Marc Mcquade's Landform Building. This conceptual territory is highly related to the experimentation within Causa Locuta, but this brings us back to one of the major subtexts in the conversation between Eisenman and Koolhaas: that of the ethical relationship of the bond between architect and client.


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