Rem Koolhaas on the horror of consumption
Rem Koolhaas' London lecture as part of Architecture Week last week focused on the 'drastic effect on architecture of its continuous engagement with shopping', which he seems to view with a mixture of fascination and horror. It has not stopped him designing a series of new flagship shops in America for Prada. On the other hand, as he announced in the finale to his lecture, the next two years of his Harvard research programme will be dedicated to communism, or what one might call 'anti-shopping'.
Koolhaas described how, on a recent visit to Russia after a 30 year absence, he had been shocked to realise how far we've moved towards 'assuming the absurdity' of the ideals of brotherhood and material equality on which the major Russian cities were modelled. In contrast, the whole world has embraced a global economic ideology fuelled by the Yen, Euro and Dollar - or what Koolhaas calls the YE$ system, under which each individual 'has to support an average 30m 2of shopping space', as a personal burden. Consumption has become so intense that it has to be met by an equally intense level of continuous production.
Yet, claims Koolhaas, architecture has almost completely disregarded this condition of modern life - in the same way it has denied and repressed the significance of technology. He is concerned to show 'how a domain that we don't take seriously has penetrated every cell of being, of architecture.'
Koolhaas summons up the evocative image of the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion, now partially converted into a shop. 'In the name of architecture it was reconstructed, resurrected, ' he declares, but in the process architecture has been ridiculed. By contrast, the architecture of a building such as the Bilbao Guggenheim was conceived from the outset as a response to the needs of consumption. 'It happens to be a masterpiece, ' says Koolhaas, but it is an inevitable result of the conditions of the globalised economy.
Koolhaas has coined the term 'Junk Space' to describe a kind of architecture which daily increases in its monumentality and its claims to symbolism. But Koolhaas suggests the obsession with materiality, space and form is 'old-fashioned', and that there are other ways to explore complex organisational systems which exist in the domain of the virtual.
In order to pursue this line of enquiry, Koolhaas has set up a new, 'mirror-image' practice alongside OMA: AMO, which stands for nothing. It seems clear that his real interest is in organisation, rather than materiality or form, and he speaks of his 'infinite embarrassment' at being obliged to accept this year's Pritzker Prize at a ceremony in Jerusalem, in a setting 'completely dominated by matter.' One wonders, then, what might come out of a current collaboration, on a project in New York, with Herzog and de Meuron, a practice whose work has been so strongly defined by an ongoing investigation of materiality.
Rem Koolhaas delivered his lecture, Start Again, at the AA in London, and live on the Internet.
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