The July 27th post by Jerri Holan was an impassioned plea for preservation advocates to become even more resolved in the face of adversity, an appeal which clearly struck a chord with the author panel. Tucked in her piece was mention of Rem Koolhaas’s allegation of “historical amnesia” for what historic preservationists have wrought. This was only one of his points in his latest salvo, “Cronocaos,” which was first presented at the 2010 Venice Biennale (Video Link at End of this Review) and more recently at the New Museum in New York City where it was on view for five weeks (it closed on June 5th). Its influence and ideas, however, extend beyond the exhibit’s expiration date. Given the interest in the panel on this subject, I would like to describe the exhibit further.
How to explain a show that marshals John Ruskin, the Reichstag and Chinese hutongs to illustrate its point of view? This thought-provoking exposition is bold and wide-ranging if not particularly cohesive. In its ambition, however, it confronts the viewer with much disparate information, contradictory generalizations and “facts” while jostling complacent thinking about an important topic. Its effectiveness can be read in the on-line commentaries and professional reviews. Mr. Koolhaas, wildly popular among the younger generation of architects and students (his lectures are sold-out), is less convincing to established critics and the profession as a whole who challenge his premises. Much data are displayed, however little is referenced or systematically explained.
First, the name. Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know what it means. “Cronocaos” is not officially defined, however, it appears to characterize the concept that future, past and present are no longer separate and that as a result of the proliferation of preservation sites, everything appears to happen at the same time, creating a “short circuit in our concept of chronology.”
Among his chief complaints are that the rise of the preservation movement and its selection of what it values as important limits the scale and philosophy of contemporary architecture. As a result, architecture is no longer part of a social movement but has been reduced to being a hand-maiden to preservationists and private developers rather than the public sector. (Why haven’t there been any architects on the cover of Time Magazine since 1979?) The large-scale public works built by architects as social engineers such as Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, Oscar Niemeyer, and Jose Luis Sert among others during modernism’s heady post-war days have been the first buildings to be destroyed, unloved by the public and preservationists. Buildings and areas that are being preserved, he asserts, reflect present-day tastes not history, in order to make them safe for tourists—comfortable theme parks that distort memory.
The exhibit revolves around an exploration of “how we build, rebuild, and how we remember.” A life-long polemicist, Rem Koolhaas (along with his firm OMA, Office of Metropolitan Architecture, and its palindromic think-tank sibling AMO) leads off with a “Manifesto” which states that “…two tendencies that will have so-far untheorised implications for architecture: 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 postwar period of architecture as a social project. …[W]e show the wrenching simultaneity of preservation and destruction that is destroying any sense of a linear evolution of time.”
To reinforce its concepts, the New York exhibit was mounted not in the museum but in an adjacent building that was, until recently, a restaurant-supply store, and the show’s title was scrawled on the awning over the former name. The space was divided into two—one half “restored” with clean white walls and evened-out floors, typical of today’s converted warehouse galleries, and the other half untouched. On the off-chance that the viewer was unaware of this distinction, the differences were further labeled by two theoretical approaches:
“Authentic” Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.’’ John Ruskin 1849
“Restored” To restore a building is not to repair it, nor to do maintenance or to rebuild, it is to reestablish it in an ultimate state that never existed before.” Eugène Viollet le Duc 1855
According to Koolhaas, 12 percent of the planet is officially “preserved” (a figure not substantiated nor defined but apparently includes ecological no-build zones as well as historic or cultural structures and districts). The exhibit explores the following five issues:
1. increasing territorial claims of preservation
2. arbitrary morality of what is preserved and what is not
3. nostalgia vs. memory
4. preservation of the future
5. “black hole” of preservation
The rise of the role preservation has brought about a conflict between “radical change vs. radical stasis.” What is being preserved and what is restored? Buildings such those on the Harvard University campus appear to have never changed yet they have been gutted and totally redone on the interior—they are completely different from the originals yet present themselves as unaltered. To Koolhaas, this is “farce.” In addition, no longer do buildings have to be “historic” to be “saved.” Nineteenth century Europe only preserved national monuments; now in some places buildings less than 30 years old are eligible for designation. His house in Bordeaux, France, became a national monument three years after it was built.
No manifesto would be complete without its own solutions, and Cronocaos presents several of OMA’s unbuilt projects. Some appear to exist only to goad the complacent. A proposal?for St. Petersburg keeps 50 per cent of the city as it exists now and demolishes the remaining 50 per cent for new buildings in an overlay checkerboard pattern. For Paris, his solution is to have an area where buildings are replaced every 25 years, giving them an “expiration date.”
Although some arguments appear disjointed, a bit hyperbolic and unsubstantiated, Koolhaas has pinpointed the crux of an important issue. In New York, the spirit that embraced the unknown and the innovative, dare we say modern, is a rarity. The new is spurned, the old is elevated. The populace does not want to be challenged. Today, when a building in the historic districts of TriBeCa or SoHo is proposed, it is a clone of its soon-to-be neighbors with respect to scale and materials, but never use. In the name of neighborhood cohesiveness, new apartment buildings now are constructed to look like old warehouses; industrial warehouses haven’t been needed for decades.
Just recently, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a design for a building in SoHo that was the “reverse” clone of the cast iron building across the street—it will be constructed to appear as if the existing building’s façade had been pressed into the new one. The new building will be made from glass-reinforced concrete with “columns” indented into the building rather than projecting out, and windows protruding from the façade rather than recessed—whether as an ironic comment on the status quo or trying its best to get approved is a matter of conjecture.
Cronocaos exhibit-goers sensed first-hand how time affects the built environment with stacked postcards of OMA projects which could be peeled off the wall to visibly reflect use, change and depletion over time. Koolhaas is saying that because of petty bureaucrats, more and more cities and districts around the world are denied that experience.
The architectural provocateur has been a rare sight during the past several decades, a lack that Rem Koolhaas seeks to remedy with this exhibit. Whether you agree with him or not (and for me, sometimes those two opposing thoughts converge over the same topic), it is invigorating to be confronted with an exhibit that dares to think big.
Unfortuneately, I don’t have photos of the New Museum’s exhibit, however, the website, designboom, has an extensive discussion of the Venice Biennale exhibit with great images at http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/9/view/11248/oma-at-venice-architecture-biennale-2010.html.
There’s also an interview of Rem Koolhaas on Youtube discussing the exhibition at Venice Biennale (click link): Architecture Biennale 2010: Rem Koolhaas