The end of architecture?
Rem Koolhaas is in danger of going off the boil. In his desire to become a major architectural player, his projects are becoming richer all the time, but conversely his theoretical writing seems to be on the wane. Back in the 1970s, Delirious New York was an undoubted masterpiece, probably the best and most influential architectural text of the past three decades. Koolhaas continued to pour out brilliant and controversial essays on contemporary urbanism, many of which were collected into S, M, L, XL, which otherwise let itself down by being little more than a practice brochure.
Now come the first two volumes produced by his urban research unit at the Harvard Graduate Design School, and a real disappointment they are. Their flatness comes not from the subject matter: Koolhaas still possesses the sharpest eye around, able to pick out the key emerging trends and debates. Volume one covers the rapidly growing neo-capitalist cities in the Pearl River Delta upwind from Hong Kong, while volume two analyses the phenomenon of shopping, which Koolhaas typically has claimed is the last public activity left to us.
The problem is that, having chosen these dazzling topics, Koolhaas clearly has little quality time of his own to devote to them, which means he has to devise different ways to get the research and writing done. This is where disappointment sets in fast. For the book on Chinese cities, the text is provided by the thesis work of M Arch students that Koolhaas taught at Harvard in the mid1990s. The use of slabs of text from inexperienced writers has major flaws, in that they are tedious to read and can only skim the surface of the subject.
Tellingly, a Chinese architect-academic, Qingyun Ma, is drafted in to contribute popup windows at regular intervals to let us know what is really going on - which begs the question of why he wasn't simply asked to write the whole text in the first place.
So while the volume touches on fascinating aspects of the new Special Enterprise Zones in cities such as Shenzhen and Zhuzai, it misfires in important ways.We are offered indulgent personal diaries and pseudoMaoist slogans, but far too little useful analysis. Furthermore, the statistics provided in the book all stop in the mid-1990s, which in terms of dealing with instantaneous, replenishable urban growth, gives it a curiously historical feel.
One topic hinted at but never developed, is the notion that China is building new doppelgänger cities to take over the function of older ones 'tainted' by Western colonialism.
Shenzhen lies in the shadow of Hong Kong; Zhuzai is close to Macao; and even venerable old Guangzhou (Canton) has Dongguan nearby to invigorate it. A similar situation can be found in Shanghai, where the Chinese authorities have built the bristling new financial centre of Pudong across the river from the old opium-financed buildings of the foreign enclaves.
What this suggests is a rivetting image of ideological urbanism, reminiscent of an Italo Calvino tale, but never explained here.
In the end, the book operates best as a collection of images of ultra-rapid urban growth, and the bizarre cultural hybrids that result when China takes up golf courses and the other paraphernalia of American suburbia.
While Koolhaas does not actually say this anywhere, one gets the sense that, after letting his students provide the text for the Pearl River Delta volume, he realised this approach was not working. For the book on shopping, various associates and external academics are drafted in to help. Koolhaas even produces a text for this volume himself, which although only 14 pages long, is by far the best section.
In it, he challenges architects with an assertion that the 'junkscape' of modern capitalist cities, the heterogeneous and multi-aesthetic consumer spaces that surround us, have silently taken over the realm and aspirations of architecture, and having conquered public space, are now starting to invade each individual human body as well.
However, the book on shopping suffers from another problem. Its text is mostly provided by acolytes who are clearly besotted with the notion of being Rem Koolhaas, so end up producing second-rate copies of his writing style. It is like finding yourself in a roomful of Elvis impersonators. The tone is phoney, and manages to disguise often interesting information and insights on shopping. There is also a great deal of repetition, with Victor Gruen's and Jon Jerde's roles in creating different generations of US super-malls being discussed ad nauseum.
One stroke of genius is the cod-Darwinian evolutionary diagrams of shopping malls and air-conditioned spaces, presumably from an idea by Koolhaas.
The only real breathing space, apart from Koolhaas' own essay, comes through an interview with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, in which they bemoan the fact that their car-based, 'decoratedsheds-with-billboard-signs' reading of Las Vegas has been lost in favour of a pedestrianised Disneyland of inhabited theme environments. It is funny and touching, but essentially reiterates the fabulous BBC documentary a few years ago that took the pair back to Vegas.
So what we get with the Harvard Guides are brilliant themes that remain unilluminated. We know that Koolhaas could do the job with razor-sharp vision and humour, if he only allowed himself the time. Both books weigh in at more than 700 pages, and while they contain a lot of images, they are clearly over-inflated. If you are pressed for time, my suggestion is that you read pages 431-465 of the book on new Chinese cities, plus the Koolhaas essay on pages 408-421 in the guide to shopping. You will get the gist and, moreover, save a few weeks of your life.
Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University