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Rem Roars Back

The controversial architect is back on top with a dazzling new library and a biting new book.

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Rem Koolhaas didn't stay dead for long. Just last fall the Dutch architect looked like roadkill. His student center at IIT had opened to (misguidedly) mixed reviews, and one by one a series of high-profile clients had canceled projects--he lost a billion dollars' worth of work for Universal Vivendi, New York hotelman Ian Schrager, the Whitney Museum, and the Los Angeles Museum of Art. In their wake Koolhaas issued a series of sour statements expressing disgust with his American experience.

Now, however, Koolhaas is back. His new public library, just opened in Seattle to rave reviews, is already being treated as one of the most significant buildings of the new century. Next Wednesday, Koolhaas, along with Joshua Ramus, his design partner for the Seattle library, is due to unveil plans for a new theater in Dallas. And his new book Content, a follow-up to 1998's S,M,L,XL, is an irreverent 550-page explosion of ideas and images.

Lincoln once said, "We must disenthrall ourselves," and not many have taken the sentiment more to heart than Rem Koolhaas. As critic and as architect, his hallmark has been to break free from a conventional way of looking at things that too often becomes a way of not seeing. His first book, Delirious New York (1978), celebrated the explosive density of the city Gerald Ford had told to drop dead. The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2002), an anthology produced by Koolhaas and his Harvard design students, stopped treating our obsession with buying things as a sideshow pastime and recognized it as probably the single most powerful force shaping architecture and culture today. Well before the outsourcing of jobs and soaring trade deficits became a subject of daily headlines, 2002's Great Leap Forward--also from Harvard under Koolhaas's direction--provided a cogent, massively detailed overview of how booming industrial expansion in the Pearl River Valley was helping to turn China into a global economic superpower almost overnight.

Don't be misled. They may sit heavy in the hand, but these are not standard scholarly tomes. They're all about the thrill of discovery and an almost pathological drive to communicate the greatest density of information in the most compelling way--even if it means pushing graphics to the point of OD. There are photos of buildings in abundance, a naked male centerfold, irony and parody, graphs in formats PowerPoint users wouldn't dream of. The quality of the writing is very high, sometimes in surprising ways: "Money Dongguan," Stephanie Smith's diary of her encounters with the people and customs of development-crazed Dongguan City in southern China, offers the compelling and evocative observations of a first-rate novel.

In Content, one essay contrasts, on facing pages, reproductions of paintings by Vermeer--and the stories of their subjects--with the photos and backstories of contestants from the Dutch version of Big Brother. Koolhaas's buildings appear as a series of gleefully malicious cartoon caricatures that pop up through the book like "Spy vs. Spy" panels in Mad magazine. "I'm not sure if this is a book or a magazine," says the male half of a conjoined set of cartoons representing his Guangzhou Opera House. "Actually, I find the tension between the two super-interesting," responds his mate.

In a roundabout way Content's essays and speculations--interspersed with ads for Gucci and Volkswagen--catalog what Koolhaas's firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), has been up to the past seven years. For Koolhaas, every new project begins with intensive research. Whether it winds up dead or alive, a story's left behind, and these form the nucleus of Content. The ones about the failures are often the more illuminating.

Although Koolhaas is not known for his environmental sensitivity, when it comes to his books he's not above recycling--often from his older, more specialized, and much more expensive volumes (Content's $14.99, thanks in part to those ads; Great Leap Forward is $49.99). "Miestakes," an essay on his struggles with preservationists over the way his student center at IIT subsumed Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's classic 1951 Commons Building, is reprinted verbatim from the catalog for 2002's "Mies in America" exhibit. It's accompanied by five pages of new photos and a full page of the Michael Rock icons used throughout the center (they're the dots that make up the supersize graphics of the Founders Wall portraits and the picture of Mies in the glass door of the entrance), which includes variations that didn't make the cut at IIT, including the infamous "swirly" icon depicting one student forcing the head of a second, upended student into a toilet. The text of a lecture Koolhaas gave at the school last fall on architect Moisei Ginzburg and the decaying state of 1930s Soviet constructivist architecture in the new market-driven Russia, originally a presentation at the Venice Biennale, is also included.

The book incorporates a lot of the material from the June 2003 issue of Wired magazine edited by Koolhaas, including his farewell essay to New York, originally titled "Delirious No More." His description of Daniel Libeskind's World Trade Center proposal as "a massive representation of hurt that projects only the overbearing self-pity of the powerful" and "captures the stumped fundamentalism of the superpower" seemed like sour grapes when originally published. Today, in the wake of the Bush administration's obtuse and murderous floundering in Iraq and the Middle East, it seems prescient.

Content includes over 70 different essays and sections by Koolhaas and some 40 other contributors. One of the selections, "Black Metropolis: Life and Death in Bronzeville," by architect and UIC professor Ellen Grimes, is a timeline that traces the African-American presence in the city beginning with Jean Baptiste Point DuSable's arrival in 1779. Grimes's piece recounts the rise of the huge, segregated black belt along four miles of South State Street that crested with the Great Migration, when the black population doubled and Chicago became the jazz capital of the nation after Storyville, New Orleans's red-light district, was shut down as part of wartime mobilization. She also explains how the development of IIT contributed to Bronzeville's fall: to build Mies's Crown Hall, the Mecca, a Daniel Burnham building from 1891 that was one of the first examples of low-rise courtyard apartments, was razed as a slum. By the time Koolhaas began building his student center in 1999, its State Street site had long been reduced to a series of parking lots. And although Bronzeville is now undergoing a revival, Grimes indicates that we may still not be home free. Her concluding tale tells how a basketball court along the student center's State Street facade, originally intended as a way to invite Bronzeville residents inside, wound up as a grassy void.

Despite his recent successes in America, Koolhaas's primary focus is on China, where he's designing a $700 million headquarters to centralize the operations of CCTV, the country's television monopoly. In typical Koolhaas fashion, Content's "Kill the Skyscraper" derides the work of American architects who have chased after the Chinese gold rush to build the type of traditional tower that "has not been invested with new thinking or ambition since the World Trade Center's completion in 1972. Having made New York City an unbearable demonstration of architectural mediocrity, they continue their mission on a new continent." Koolhaas's CCTV project is to consist of two sloping 40-story towers placed at opposite corners of a massive site, joined by a low L-shaped base and a cantilevered structure at the top. "The towers press their overhanging heads together, as if each were wearied by the effort to remain upright," writes contributor William B. Millard. All of Koolhaas's buildings--the IIT student center is a good example--are about creating environments that encourage interaction, and the continuous loop of the CCTV building includes a "circulation system" that is horizontal as well as vertical, encouraging workers to interact with one another and with the public.

"Go east!" is Koolhaas's current mantra. He sees the "backward-looking U.S." falling into eclipse, as the "course of human civilization seems to go in the opposite direction. . . . The fall of the wall, the new gravity of Eastern Europe, the emergence of China, the disarray of Japan, all launched an eastward momentum accelerated by 9'11 and America's new preoccupations."

Koolhaas remains fascinated by the dynamism of China. "Statistically," he writes in Content, "the Chinese architect is already the most important in the world; (s)he will build the most. Asia is modernizing at three times the speed of its predecessors--urbanization doubling every 20-30 years, but Europe and America are no longer thinking--not for themselves, not for others."

When Koolhaas speaks of China, it's with the same almost messianic fervor with which Bush talks about Iraq. "It is easy to imagine it going wrong," Content tells us, "but essential to imagine it going right." Last week, however, the London Times reported that Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao has stepped in to block construction of the CCTV complex. "It will not be built," the Times quotes a senior CCTV news reporter as saying. "Wen Jiabao made the decision personally." The Chinese government is looking to get its overheating economy under control and concentrate on the massive building program required in Beijing to support the 2008 summer Olympics.

So what do you do when your promised land threatens to renege on its promise? Koolhaas's architecture and writings are all about states of becoming, of constant change. We'll see what strange mutations this new setback gives rise to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sanne Peper.

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