Rem Koolhaas has been thinking about Big Brother and has come up with a new
concept: Big Vermeer. I imagined contestants marooned in very detailed interiors. Actually, the connection is more an art-historical musing: we want to see people doing things indoors, and in 1667 it was ‘A woman writing a letter’ whereas now it’s ‘A contestant in the diary room’. It is “an alchemy of transparency and daylight” which trades in intimacy. This is one of around eighty articles, features and graphic presentations rearranged into a book from their original place in ‘Content’, the magazine of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA-AMO firm.
There’s something ineffably cool about Koolhaas, that wiry and opinionated architect who is utopian and post-modern, who floats in “the amniotic fluid of global fashion” and who has designed many a dazzling project – see his in-construction fortune-cookie shaped, criss-cross silver design for China Central Television in Beijing. In his practice the idealism and breadth of a Mies van der Rohe or a Walter Gropius is fused with a political and social engagement with the world.
OMA’s previous statement book was ‘SMLXL’, a big, heavy, brick-like publication. Content is paperback and flimsy, colourful and kaleidoscopic. “Dense, cheap, disposable” as the editor says on page sixteen. “It is almost out of date already. Content is dominated by a single theme, ‘Go East’. It is an attempt to illustrate the architect’s ambiguous relations with the forces of globalization, an account of seven years spent scouring the earth – not as business traveller or backpacker but as a vagabond – roving, searching for an opportunity to realise the visions that make staying at home torturous. Content is, beyond all, a tribute to OMA-AMA’s [.] commitment to engaging the world by inviting itself to places where it has no authority, places where it doesn’t ‘belong.'” Koolhaas wants this book to be the equivalent of doing the splits in classical ballet: a moment, immobile, stretched between realization and speculation, as, I suspect, he believes architecture to be.
This book is a compendium, a glossy cabinet of idea, observation, wit from Rem and his associates. It has politics but no single viewpoint. It arcs from the U.S. west coast to Japan. It is various but always interesting like a particularly high quality global magazine.
It begins by cataloguing ‘urbicide’ – violence in urban environments – from the “subversion by mass transit” of Los Angeles to “cyclical construction, restriction, and destruction” in Jerusalem; West Bank and Gaza settlements. The articles here are urgent, sometimes playful, always serious. Koolhaas finds “the greatest concentration of Utopias ever known” in Moscow; the idea and practice of a museum is challenged in articles on LACMA (L.A.’s big all-round gallery) and the Hermitage in relation to the market influence; Prada is seen askance in ‘Prada Yada’ and other pieces. There’s a long and excited, er, presentation (full of maps and figures and ideas about the need to build a “Eurasian arc”) on the EU and its political possibilities. Koolhaas has designed a new flag which consists of all the EU national flags squashed into strips and presented from west to east: a kind of United Colors bar-code, a strong ‘ID’ to stand next to the US Stars and Stripes and the blue and white of the UN. Britain’s tabloids got hold of that one and The Sun soon launched an attack: “nutty”, “batty”, they said while reporting how “expert opinion” had deemed the flag to be “a deckchair.”
Elsewhere, we look forward to Expo 2010 in “Shanghai Exponential” and consider what makes a successful World Expo. London’s 1851 Great Exhibition showcased the advances of industrial revolution in all nations, and made a mark on popular imagination as did New York’s World Fair of 1939 and Osaka’s 1970 Expo: tying into Content’s theme of “going East”, the forthcoming Expo 2010 is seen as an opportunity to reorient the world’s idea of itself and its designs for the future. I particularly enjoyed a piece on libraries and the search for civic space – “The library represents, maybe with the prison, the last of the uncontested moral universes. The moral goodness of the library is intimately connected to the conceptual value of the book” – and the Koolhaas solution, in Seattle, is a large honeycombed building of huge spaces and screens showing the arrival and exit of books complete with a new “continuous ribbon” numbering system from 000 to 999 to replace the “much-compromised” Dewey Decimal.
Whether one likes the idea of a central Mixing Chamber and a Book Spiral or not, the energy and scope of his plans and ideas are exhilarating. Every regular user of public libraries can relate to the search for biblio perfection. My personal favourites are the beautifully lit Berlin City library and the pod-interior at Peckham. Turn the page and Content moves on to plywood minimalism, perfume flasks to mix your own male-female smells while on the go, and a short history of post-Berlin wall world politics (“The Second Empire”).
That’s not to mention the 1km high Hyperbuilding or “Red Radio”, the story of how Communists in the Sixties battled for Africa’s radio-waves in their belief that global revolution would start on the heart-shaped continent. And then the man who once wrote ‘Delirious New York’, writes about that city in decline, and instead gets delirious over Hanoi, Shanghai and Seoul.
Rem Koolhaus is ever the iconoclast – against the grain, outspoken, inspired. In the tradition of architects who write idiosyncratic and visionary books – Le Corbusier’s Towards A New Architecture, Robert Venturi’s Complexity And Contradiction In Architecture – the contribution of Koolhaas’ latest is in its wide-ranging attack, its fearless engagement with the world – fearless in that it accepts its own ephemeral place at one particular moment. This, then, is Content.