Rem Koolhaas In New York: Pump Up The Volume

More is more to the Dutch designer, who embraces bigness as a point of departure

These days, the bigger the building, the uglier it seems to be. And bigger has become inevitable: We live in an era of ever-expanding shopping malls, corporate towers, and office parks, their size inversely related to their architectural quality.

Are architects to blame? It's a fair question. These are the professionals we've entrusted to build structures that improve, or at a minimum, do not damage our cities. But architects often don't get a chance to make good on such commissions: Developers consider design quality too elusive to quantify, too extravagant to subsidize. Many dismiss the architect's input as hazardous to the bottom line.

Rem Koolhaas, a Rotterdam architect whose work is on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art, turns this notion upside down: He embraces bigness, in fact he wrote a manifesto about it.

This manifesto is found on a wall near the entrance to ``O.M.A. at MoMA: Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture.'' In it, Koolhaas admonishes architects and museumgoers to accept supersize buildings and change the criteria for good design.

He explains that megasize structures are beyond the bounds of architecture. Developers are creating buildings so massive that they cannot be experienced as easily understood entities. He says that it's useless to look for an ``honest'' relationship between the interior and exterior, or to expect these hulks to relate to our standards of good or bad; moral issues about design don't apply here.

``Their impact is independent of their quality,'' Koolhaas proposes. ``Bigness is no longer part of the urban tissue. It exists; at most it co-exists.''

Where do these disclaimers lead us? Do big buildings (and those who stand to profit by them) have their way by virtue of their size? An architect would be naive at best, fraudulent at worst, to renege on his or her duty to promote the good and improve the bad. These moral issues are endemic to the profession; they flare up whenever new building technology changes the scale of construction. Some 70 years ago, we confronted a crisis more acute than today's, an ethical crisis that begat the Modern architecture that Koolhaas emulates.

Master plan for Euralille

Koolhaas's embrace of Bigness might amount to nothing more than a repeat of the dismal city-within-a-city schemes built 30 years ago. Consider his master plan for Euralille, an 8.6 million-square-foot mixed-use center that comprises a shopping mall, offices, a high-speed rail station, hotels, housing, a concert hall, and a convention center by Koolhaas.

The design seems ideal for trade shows, but its skyscrapers, lined in a row, have chilling affinities with the monoliths at the Albany Mall in Albany, N.Y., a 1960s paragon of modernism at its most vapid. To Lille's advantage, however, Koolhaas is tranforming an inauspicious site into a lucrative mini-city. But this scheme would be deadly in less-rugged locales.

The exhibit will be most people's first encounter with Koolhaas. He's been a respected figure in academia for years. In 1978, he wrote ``Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan,'' and emerged as one of the profession's most intelligent provocateurs. This book seems a preamble to his veneration of Bigness. (``Delirious New York'' has been re-published by Monacelli Press, New York. Another book, ``OMA - Rem Koolhaas: Architecture 1970-1990 is available from Princeton Architectural Press, New York.)

Terry Riley, chief curator of architecture and design at the museum, says that Koolhaas gleans ``the residual graces of the metropolis, the most evident of which is the city's unrelenting artificiality.''

Danger of being left out

I saw Koolhaas's fascination with Bigness firsthand, when he was an awards juror for Progressive Architecture magazine. After sifting through rejected portfolios, he pulled out some horrific projects slated for East Asia. All were too vulgar to win an award. But Koolhaas was intrigued; he explained, that these portended the wave of development that architects needed to address, lest monstrosities like these be built without them.

When Koolhaas submits his own projects for design competitions, he doesn't hesitate to break the norms of good design. He has proposed warped floors for a university library; he would give a museum a 10-story-tall fly tower for moving exhibits and make it a focal point for visitors.

The latter is part of his project for the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany (1989). Koolhaas entered a similar scheme in the competition for the National Library of France in Paris (1989). Libraries could be autonomous structures - a giant spiral, a twisted extrusion, and egg-shaped pods - within a cubic envelope.

The one building in the exhibit that has been built, the Rotterdam Kunsthal (1992), turns out to be a tactful addition to the city. The glazed box that encloses the Kunsthal is bisected by ramps and steps. The circulation pattern is ingenious, a route that brings outdoor pedestrian traffic within the periphery of the museum. Might the megastructures that Koolhaas predicts be as articulate as this promising overture? All his disclaimers nothwithstanding, Koolhaas implies, with the Kunsthal, that big buildings needn't be Cyclopean. He has alerted architects about the challenges of building large. Now it's up to them to turn Bigness into an advantage.

* The exhibit continues in New York through Jan. 31. It reopens at the Canadian Center for Architecture, Montreal (Feb. 21 to April 21, 1995) and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (May 6 to Aug. 13, 1995).

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