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Cronocaos: Heritage and heresy

Change and chaos are natural parts of the human psyche. How can we reconcile this with the desire to preserve, asks Jay Merrick

The Royal Academy Forum, Future Memory talk Preservation/Destruction: OMA – Cronocaos took place on 28 March 2011

‘Sic transit gloria mundi’: thus passes the glory of the world, wrote the Catholic monk Thomas à Kempis, in 1418. The transit of architecture through time, physically and memorially, is richly protean subject matter: any reaction or theory about the effects of time, nature and the mind on buildings instantly mutates, or wobbles like mercury in the palm.

About 12 per cent of the world’s surface – including portions of sea and landscape, and 1.8 per cent of the built environment – is subject to preservation orders. Rem Koolhaas and OMA believe heritage values, and our perception of them, have become hyper-chaotic: it’s an ideal and highly marketable subject matter for Modernists for whom compulsive research is a therapeutic buttress against the complex demands of the free market.

Speaking at the Royal Academy Forum on Future Memory, OMA’s Ippolito Pestellini and James Westcott reprised various thrusts of the practice’s Cronocaos installation at the 2010 Venice Biennale (AJ 01.10.10). There, OMA announced, ‘We are trying to find what the future of our memory will look like… our obsession with heritage is creating an artificial, re-engineered version of our memory… the ambition of the global taskforce of “preservation” to rescue larger and larger territories of the planet, and the – corresponding? – global rage to eliminate the evidence of the postwar period of architecture as a social project… we show the wrenching simultaneity of preservation and destruction that is destroying any sense of a linear evolution of time.’

Not quite. The future of our memory is unknowable; contemporary buildings are creating artificial, re-engineered versions of a chaotic present; there is no ‘global rage’ about socially concerned architecture because shopping is more totally, and subtly, enraging; and simultaneities of time are a long-established given in our lives: see, for example, any Medieval cathedral (and Marvin Trachtenberg’s fascinating book, Building-in-Time, Yale, 2010), Constant Nieuwenhuys’ anti-capitalist city, New Babylon, and Reservoir Dogs.

The info-visuals shown by Pestellini – overlapping graphs, grids and stamp-sheets of images – seemed predictably complicated. But he raised interesting issues, as did Simon Thurley, director of English Heritage. Through Unesco, said Pestellini, the past was becoming a tool for touristic development, even as our ability to conflate past and present values of place and architecture becomes increasingly blurred: ‘Historical fakes are preserved as if they would represent history… Dresden is a complete fake… We live in a very romantic moment, which is not about real memory… preservation is so difficult that it has less to do with proper historical methods. It’s more about the imagination.’

OMA’s approach to large-scale heritage conservation is to apply re-patterning to urban fabric. Their idea to demarcate portions of La Defense district in Paris to be ‘scraped’ clean and rebuilt periodically is dynamically interesting; less so, their proposed patternings of old and new in Beijing in the form of grids, stripes and Rodchenko-like zonings. Why not a series of overlapping outlines of SpongeBob Squarepants?

Heritage is experienced from different personal positions of time, place and emotion; the clichés of a remembered colour, smell, quality of light or a single small detail, are actually rather compelling. Is it a subtle essence or atmosphere of the past that we crave, rather than starkly arbitrary presentations of heritage substance? Thurley suggests our interest in heritage is ‘something that’s inbuilt in the psyche of the human race’.

The artists Jane and Louise Wilson were present, and their images of wartime gun emplacements on the French coast reinforced Thurley’s idea of an atavistic craving for remains. The sombre bunkers, fractured or overgrown, defy purely historical definition: they have become Ur-objects that repel dates and purposes; they are indescribably memorial, yet also metaphysically of the future.

However old and new are re-collaged by architects, they will remain a contiguous fusion of the obvious and the fugitive. And as we gazed at the visuals of OMA’s scheme to convert a Venetian palazzo into a department store, with red escalators veering across its central courtyard, this truth, at least, was beyond doubt.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent

Above Four incarnations of the Reichstag in a century, one of the slides from OMA’s Cronocaos installation at the 2010 Venice Biennale

Cronocaos exhibition slides:
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