The New Season/Architecture


From The New York Times (September 11, 1994)

by Douglas Coupland

In 1967, when I was in the first grade, I was wildly envious of the house of my friend up the street, Steven. Steven's family's house gave the impression of being co-engineered by the editors of Sunset magazine and the Apollo 11 design team: outward swooping walls with daisy-patterned cinder blocks; post-and-beam ceilings with cerulean blue Lucite room dividers. Plastic! Intercoms! Lava rocks! Skylights! Bamboo! It was part "2001," part Benihana.

Steven's house was so modern, in fact, that it contained no 90-degree angles. It made my own family's Cleaveresque number seem like a frumpier version of Anne Hathaway's cottage. It was hard to imagine inviting Sean Connery and Jill St. John over to our house for cocktails, while Steven's house positively exuded an aura of spies and politicians contemplating sex.

Steven's house was the embodiment of newness. Now, a quarter-century later, I ask myself where is newness currently being generated architecturally? Where is Steven's family living these days?

Lille, France, would appear to be the answer, site of the half-billion-dollar E.C.-financed Euralille at the French entrance to the Channel Tunnel. And the master planner of Euralille's newness is the architect Rem Koolhaas (pronounced, almost unbelievably, Cool House), subject of an important show at the Museum of Modern Art beginning Nov. 3.

"Thresholds/O.M.A. at MOMA: Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture," on view through Jan. 15, will present models and other designs for five of his buildings, with pride of place going to the Congrexpo, his building at the Euralille complex, and three urban proposals, Euralille among them. Mr. Koolhaas's 1978 book, "Delirious New York," a celebration of the city's congestion and architectural diversity, will be reissued to coincide with the show.

Visitors to the museum will see the work of a true Eurocitizen: 50, Dutch, tall, thin, austere and Maserati-driving, with offices in Rotterdam, a family in London, and design projects in France, England, Italy and Germany.

To walk within the nearly complete complex at Lille is to taste the mythology of Europe, 1992 -- its sense of optimism and, as Mr. Koolhaas states, its "drastic interventions across the territory" by projects exactly like Euralille or the truck-clogged conveyor-belt freeway system that has turned Europe into a de facto Fordian assembly line.

"Architects, for the first time in several decades, are being solicited for their power to physically articulate new visions," says Mr. Koolhaas, in person charming, unassuming, hyperarticulate. "Once again one feels a belief in the propagandistic nature of architecture."

Euralille looks and feels as if a lunar research station has crash-landed onto a small, respectable French market town. This is meant as a compliment. One gets the feeling that Steven and his family are now prowling the complex, buying protein capsules with cash cards, entering oval rooms using speech- based identification systems; transferring billions of dollars from one country to another in microseconds and boarding high-speed trains to Brussels. Something is happening here. But what?

What is happening is that Mr. Koolhaas is incorporating into his work the structural processes that are informing our society as a whole and is creating architectural metaphors for these new processes. In the 50's and 60's society built socialized housing and United Nations buildings (liberal utopianism). In the 70's it was brutalist universities (liberal paranoia). In the 1980's it built gold-skinned unleaseable S.& L. wedding cakes (late capitalism). And in the 1990's it builds E.C. megaprojects and computer codes (post-nationalism and cyberspace).

But Mr. Koolhaas also explores more subtle and pervasive forces. The future is happening far faster than anybody ever thought it would. Mr. Koolhaas meets this future head on, and not simply through deconstruction, a process he considers "corny at best - an obvious, quickly tiring metaphor for fragmentation." No, Mr. Koolhaas is fascinated by processes that alter our world view so profoundly that they seem almost invisible. He believes that "architecture reveals the deepest and sometimes most shocking secrets of how the values of a society are organized." Herewith a list of 11 such influences and how they might affect my friend Steven:

  1. Transnationalism and diversity: Steven can visit Benetton anywhere on earth; in Slovenia he rents a Daewoo from Hertz; he requires no passport to travel within Europe; he never bothers to buy presents when he jets from place to place any more because the same things are for sale everywhere.
  2. Vectorization: Steven's FedEx parcels must pass through Memphis, even if they're going across the street.
  3. Asynchronicity: Steven uses cash machines and telephone answering machines; he makes several satellite calls a day.
  4. Institutionalized impermanence: Steven and his family work within fabric-covered, partitioned modular work stations for transnational corporations.
  5. Deregionalization: Steven's family has moved many times; he's not sure where his ancestors are from; he's not sure where he's really "from."
  6. The obsolescence of physical space: Steven chats nightly on the Net. During sunny weather he telecommutes. He can ride the Train a Grand Vitesse from Paris to Lille in one hour. Soon he will be able to go all the way from Lille to London in one hour.
  7. Rupture: Steven drives freeways and daydreams that they are modern moats and walls, fencing off various segments of a city from others. In Lille, railroads and subways crisscross throughout the structure.
  8. Discontinuity: Steven's satellite dish captures 564 channels; he plays Nintendo for 90 minutes each day.
  9. Drive thru-ness and fluidity: Steven drives along the conveyor belt hyperfreeways of the new Europe and thinks of Belgium as the world's first drive- thru nation.
  10. Centerless cities: Steven has visited Tokyo, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
  11. De-industrialization: The company to which Steven subcontracts his time has stopped actually making things. The making of things has now become somewhat beside the point - the just-in-time delivery of non-polluting, value-added intellectual properties has become the culture's most desirable socio-industrial goal. What North American city hasn't tried to foster its own little Silicon Valley?

Rem Koolhaas lassoes all these millennial factors, then exploits them for structural and stylistic effect. Walls become doors; doors and walls vanish altogether; geographically distant rooms and places are afforded in-your-face visual intimacy with one another. Top becomes bottom, and vice versa. Roads and railways penetrate and flow through structures. Seats within auditoriums are assigned tribal clusterings of color.

Mr. Koolhaas believes in the idea of social progress. The pace of global change leaves him unfazed and optimistic. His work eagerly reforges the broken link between technology and progress. He revels in the unexpected rather than passively anticipating agony. Perhaps as a Dutchman, imprinted with his country's role as an international trading center, he has fewer problems with global change than might someone of another nationality. The Dutch, a nation of traders, have not surprisingly spawned an architect whose work responds to the silent, nanosecond transnational flows of money and ideas.

Mr. Koolhaas also notes the Dutch pride in the national trait of economy and thrift. He actually likes "the integration of the notion of cheapness to create sublime conditions" and is philosophical about "the client as chaos." "Chaos simply happens. You cannot aspire to chaos; you can only be an instrument of it."

Back to home. Back to where I am from. Steven's parents divorced years ago, and his family dispersed. I have no idea who lives in the house now, but I drove by just today, and its new owners seem to appreciate what they've got and have resisted the temptation to "modernize" a fine period structure. Actually, Steven's house now looks sedate and established. The split-leaf maples, azaleas and dwarf beeches out front have fully matured and soften some of the house's zingy obtuse angles. What was once extreme has become quotidian.

And soon enough Steven's house may well be forgotten. It may be torn down to make way for something newer. Where I come from on the West Coast, when we tear down a building, we have a hard time remembering what used to fill the hole.

There is always an ambiguous equilibrium between sentiment and amnesia. The past is a finite resource conserved by others, but not by us. We still believe that tomorrow is always a better place than today. And when we hear voices crying "New is dead" in return, like Rem Koolhaas we cry, "Long live the New!"