I have an essay hand-in due in two days and it is going perfectly. That is, if you ignore the fact that I am writing with no real direction, meaning or precision, about a subject that I struggle to even comprehend. You see, in my third year of architecture school, I am still trying to find exactly where I fit into the architecture industry. The main issue being, that the industry itself is so vast, so confused and so hypocritical, that it becomes almost impossible to fit yourself in somewhere without sacrificing some of your values.
Or so it appears to a pessimistic, naive mind struggling with basic design after two and a half years of doing nothing else. But I digress. This entry is not about how utterly fucked I am after I (potentially) graduate in June. This is a transcribed exploration into the foggy depths of my brain, searching for some form of architectural thought. It is about giving articulation to a frustration that, in its containment, seems to be restricting any form of intellectual progression. It is about the most human instinct of them all: it is about finding order in the chaos.
A New Urban
Rem Koolhaas proposes the idea of The Generic City, in which the design of a city is no longer restricted by the preconceived identity attached to it. A city without identity theoretically becomes “future-proof”: it is no longer restricted by what came before, but instead it is allowed to be designed for the current needs of a society.
Interestingly, this idea goes against everything that I have been taught in architecture school to date. “Everything must relate to the context; Where are you? What is around you? Where are the materials coming from? What effect will your design have on the urban fabric?” Naturally then, my initial response to Koolhaas’ writing was to reject it, to mock it even. I was excited. I would criticise the design of every ugly skyscraper polluting the skylines of otherwise great cities, whilst acknowledging the awesome works of my preferred, more context-aware architects.
But as I read more and more writing from Koolhaas, I slowly began to realise that he had likely heard these generic and predictable criticisms from other, more reputable, sources prior to my own ground-breaking research. He had already prepared arguments against pretty much any criticism he could receive, arguing it far better in a second language, than I could in my first. I could feel myself slipping. It was at that moment that I realised my essay was beginning to change shape. That my stance was slipping from the defence of context, to the revolution of the generic city.
But it is now 3am and I find myself reading an interview from Spiegel Online in which Koolhaas has finally shown weakness. I sense a lack of preparation, as Koolhaas is uncharacteristically honest. He does not hide behind satire and pessimism, but instead outlines his arguments transparently. He openly overlooks the integration of sustainability, through a fear of appearing “ironic”, whilst attributing a simplicity in design to the lack of time given in a project to fully research context (amplified by a will to avoid the ‘spectacular’).
And that is it.
Koolhaas claims he wants to “liberate the city from the straitjacket of identity,” but overlooks the fact that our cities will be unable to evolve if we run out of resources in the near future. The generic city is a façade – a purely aesthetic concept. Koolhaas does not want to liberate the city, but simply introduce a scenario where his own structures do not feel so alien.
As an industry, architecture likes to think it can get involved in pretty much every other industry, for who can claim that they do not use buildings? But the freedom we are given as architects seems dangerous to me. We like to dabble in things that interest us, but when it comes to solving very real issues we are free to act as though it is nothing to do with us.
Personally, I cannot provide a solution to A New Urban as Koolhaas can, but I intend to start working on one as of this very moment. I will start by attempting to develop a fully objective view on current affairs and the impact that architecture can have on this. For example, by looking at the connection between architecture and agriculture: two very separate entities at this point in time. With the latest studies suggesting that animal agriculture is responsible for more carbon emissions than the entire transport industry combined, it would make more sense to look at the integration of agriculture into the city, than pedestrianisation and cycling schemes.
I do not believe for one moment that architecture has the ability to solve all of the words problems. As long as the human race exists, we will continue to disagree with one another. I do believe however, that there are certainly more important affairs, that the industry could concern itself with, than the identity of the city. The New Urban will not be a generic city, but a rich and functional city. Koolhaas may be right that the New Urban may disregard history as irrelevant, but it may also disregard his monstrous towers as misguided and unnecessary.